Windsurfers buy thicker wetsuits as Tiree Wave Classic moves to March

Shifting the much-loved event from its usual week-long holding period in October will be a blow to Tiree's economy, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t thrive in March as long as everyone remembers to wrap up warm, writes Roger Cox

Friday, 9th October 2020, 8:20 pm
Updated Friday, 9th October 2020, 8:50 pm
Regular Tiree Wave Classic competitor Ben Proffit hanging out at the island's Balephuil Bay PIC: Roger Cox / JPI Media
Regular Tiree Wave Classic competitor Ben Proffit hanging out at the island's Balephuil Bay PIC: Roger Cox / JPI Media

Tomorrow should have been the first day of the 2020 Tiree Wave Classic – a windsurfing contest so reliably spectacular that even sail-less surfers keep an eye on it. However, on 24 September the decision was taken to postpone the event until March, due to the worsening coronavirus pandemic. “With regret and after lengthy discussion with the Department of Environmental Health at Argyll & Bute Council,” read a statement on the event’s website, “we have concluded that it would not be in the best interest of the event or the community of Tiree to proceed with the Tiree Wave Classic at this time.”

Estimates of how much events like this inject into fragile rural economies are always to be taken with a pinch of salt, but there’s no denying that, since it began back in 1986, the week-long Wave Classic has become a major source of revenue for the island. The ferries are rammed, accommodation is usually booked solid, and at peak times the Co-op at Scarinish can be like Oxford Street on Black Friday. And, of course, the whole circus is a fantastic marketing opportunity. Every October, images of world-class windsurfers soaring high above aquamarine Atlantic rollers make their way around the world via newspapers, magazines and social media, and people who had never previously heard of Tiree suddenly start considering it as a possible holiday destination for the following summer.

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Little wonder, then, that last month’s talks between Wave Classic head honcho Willie Angus MacLean, the Department of Environmental Health and Argyll and Bute Council were “lengthy”; for an island with a population of just 700, cancelling an event like the Wave Classic is no small matter. In per capita terms, it’s worth approximately as much to Tiree as the Edinburgh Festivals are worth to Edinburgh.

Still, given the current direction of coronavirus travel, it’s hard to fault the decision. Despite Tiree’s youthful reputation as a surfing and windsurfing hub, a quarter of its population is aged 65 or over, significantly higher than the national average of 16.8 per cent. The island has only one GP surgery, and in March the tiny Baugh Church was hastily pressed into service as a temporary coronavirus ward. Running the Classic this year might have prevented some short-term financial pain, but the consequences if one or two of the many competitors travelling to the island from elsewhere had brought the virus with them don’t bear thinking about.

Anyway, if the current pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that sometimes the only sensible thing to do is to try to look on the bright side, and while the long-range forecast suggests that – had it gone ahead this week as planned – this year’s Classic would have been greeted with waves in the 3-5 foot range and a handy 28mph north-westerly breeze, there’s no reason it shouldn’t enjoy even better conditions come March, assuming it’s possible to run the event by then.

A quick glance at the historical averages suggests the two months are much-of-a-muchness in terms of wind and waves – both have a 15mph daily average windspeed and an average swell height of 10-feet. In terms of consistency, though, March looks the better option for surf, with a rideable wave 85 per cent of the time vs 73 per cent in October.

Those numbers don’t really tell the whole story though, because a Tiree Wave Classic in March will feel very different to a Tiree Wave Classic in October. Although it’s technically autumn, October in Tiree often feels like late summer, and several Wave Classics have enjoyed real sunbathing conditions. The water temperature is only just starting to drop following its August high, too, so the sea, at a little over 12C, is as warm as it is in July.

In March, by contrast, nobody will be sunbathing: the average air temperature at this time of year is just 8.1C (equivalent to 4C if you factor in 15mph of wind chill) and the water will be a finger-numbing 8.1C, just starting to crawl back from its February low.If waveriders from milder climes can sometimes find Tiree an intimidating contest venue in October, then, that effect will only be intensified in March.

Still, there will no doubt be the usual atmosphere of all-in-this-together camaraderie that has made the Classic such a success over the years, with all competitors and spectators united by the same primary concern: trying to stay warm.

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