With just a day to go before the O’Neill Highland Open presented by Swatch gets underway, things are hotting up in the remote Scottish town of Thurso.

Thurso, the home of some of the best waves in Europe, is hosting the O’Neill Highland Open for the third consecutive year. The previous two events have raised the bar of cold-water performance surfing on the World Qualifying Series, putting the icy barrels and clean, walling right-handers of Caithness firmly in the minds of the surfing cognoscenti.

Local surfing legend, Andy Bain, says that conditions will be good for the 2008 Highland Open. “There is a swell coming in for Thursday or Friday," says Bain, one of the fixtures in the small but dedicated local surfing community. “The wind should be offshore with nice weather and a five foot swell from the west. I think the contest will probably be held at Brims over the next few days. Thurso is obviously the first choice wave, but Brims picks up the swell."

Bain is alluding to mobile status of the O’Neill Highland Open. The event is free to move around the north shore of Scotland depending on where the combination of wind and swell creates the best waves for the surfers. If necessary, the contest will re-locate from its base at Thurso – the scene of one of the best waves in Europe - to other top quality breaks such as Brims Ness, Murkle West, Nothing Left, Point of Ness and Strathy.

Come what may, Brims almost always has a top quality wave, as Bain explains: “Brims Bowl works on a mid to high tide, but to the right of it is the The Point, a left-hander which works at low tide so it offers a bit more. The Bowl is a short wave but has a good barrel section when it’s offshore. The Point can have a barrel but it’s a longer wave and can handle more size so it can get a bit more interesting."

Last year’s winner, Nathan Hedge, was in the water early this morning acclimatizing to the water chill of the world’s northernmost professional surfing contest. For Hedge and many of the 144 competitors arriving in Thurso from all around the world, cold water surfing at 59 degrees north is a radical departure from the norm. But for one man, the frigid water holds no fear.

The Scottish Championship winner of 2008, Mark Cameron, has been granted a wildcard for the contest. “Having a wetsuit on is a normality for me," he said.

Hailing from Fraserbrough, Cameron, better known as Scratch, will be driving five hours to get to Thurso this week. “I’m a bit nervous," he admitted. “Scottish surfing is some way behind international contest class. But I’ll be chuffed if I can get a few waves and surf them well, to my standard. I’ve seen a lot of these guys in videos so it will be great to see them. I’m excited that one of Hawaii’s legendary surfers, Sunny Garcia, is coming. I just hope I can get a few waves against the best in the world."

Chris Noble, last year’s wildcard entry and this years assistant contest director, sums up Cameron’s chances: “He has the ability. All he needs to do is get a couple of good waves.

Last year I surfed against Tiago Pires and Dane Reynolds, now both on the World Championship Tour. I was happy enough with how I did. I’m sure Scratch will enjoy it - he’s one of the best surfers in Scotland."

Perhaps more important than his result, says Noble, are the learning opportunities for the likes of Cameron. “He will get to understand the difference in the level of competition. He’ll see a few challenges and he will learn a lot. There are a lot of good learning opportunities in this. For me it was great to realize the difference in level. We all have our day jobs and do this as something extra. But you realize that for the guys competing here, this is their day job. They need to make their heats and stuff. Their desire to win is at such a different level to ours. They want to win. And they have to win. We can sit back and enjoy it a lot more."

Bain says that Thurso has enjoyed a good winter of surfing. “We’ve had two quite big days, and quite a few where the surf has been well overhead. Thurso East has certainly delivered the goods."

There is, though, no getting away from the cold. “The water temperature is 5 or 6 degrees but the wind chill adds a real edge. It’s a testing environment for surfing, for sure."

But the testing environment is precisely what brings O’Neill to Thurso for the Highland Open, rapidly being perceived as its signature event. So, too, top British surfers such as Russell Winter and Sam Lamiroy. They, and Cameron, are can’t wait to do battle against the best in the world at the world class surf breaks of Caithness. The spoils include vital WQS points, a prize pool of US$135,000 and the coveted Chieftain, a double-handed, limited edition Medieval Scottish war sword given to the winner.

There’s more. In keeping with the O’Neill spirit of progression and originality, Amph will be rewarding the most progressive trick during the 6 star WQS event, The O’Neill Highland Open presented by Swatch, with the first ever Progressive Trick Award.

During the event up in the north of Scotland from 23 April until 30 April 2008, you can vote on The O’Neill Highland Open website where an Amph judge will post their top five tricks of the day for you to choose the most inspiring one.

The surfer who makes the most progressive trick will win the Amph Progression Award and €2000.  

The O’Neill Highland Open, presented by Swatch, starts tomorrow, 23 April, and runs until 30 April.