When Santa Cruz native Wilem Banks was 16 years old, he visited Scotland for the first time and scored a breathtakingly beautiful slab. Five years later, Banks returned the same below-sea-level break he surfed as a teenager and scored once again. “It’s pretty much the most glorious slab you could ever find,” says Banks about the Scottish drainer featured in the image above. “The swell comes from such deep water before hitting the shelf, so the waves will start at one foot and grow to 15 feet as they hit the reef. On this trip, we lucked into the best Scotland we’ve ever seen.” To find out more about the session that followed this photo, we called up Banks for a quick breakdown:
Tell us about the day you scored this slab.
We woke up at dark. You could tell the way the stars were out still, there were no clouds out, it was just going to be another bluebird day. We drove out to the more rural areas outside of Thurso, where we were staying. The first really exciting thing we saw that the wind turbines weren’t moving, which was a good indicator that there was no wind. We knew it was going to be on. When we pulled up we saw lines marching from the Atlantic. When we walked down to the flagstone rocks, the sun just started peaking over the horizon and we saw this heroic, death-defying, beautiful slab.
Do you have to work up the courage to paddle out at a place like that?
We were battling a short tide window so we had to get on it. There wasn’t really hesitation-I just suited up and made the horrific jump out there and gave it a good paddle. Even though there was a lot of swell in the water, you couldn’t really see which wave was going to work on the reef.
I mustered up the courage to get a couple waves. My first wave I didn’t make it and I buckled my board. It was the only board I had that would work in that wave. My next wave I barely chipped into it and it sucked out and I nearly pearled but was able to ride a wave and fell right before it went into dry reef.
Photographer Al Mackinnon is the man to know if you’re going to score Scotland. Have you known him for a while?
I met Al about 8 years ago in Santa Cruz. He took me to Scotland in 2013 for my first time. I definitely fell in love with the place. It’s so vast and raw and untouched. Everyone that lives there is hardened. I have Scottish blood so I like it.
I’ve heard Scotland can be quite a difficult place to go on a surf trip, just due to the constantly changing winds and conditions.
Usually, the weather is very unpredictable. To really get good waves there you have to put in some time, because most days are just filled with torrential downpours and crazy winds that are switching winds every hour. It’s really hard to judge. But if you put in a little time you can be rewarded. A couple days before, the charts were lining up for that day but we still couldn’t get our hopes up there. Every hour the conditions are changing. You have to be on it. You have to have everything really prepared the night before and get there before the tide gets good because there are such short windows. For anywhere in the North Atlantic, putting in the time is definitely going to enhance your scoring potential.
Was this photo taken before or after your session?
Before. You can kind of see I’m like, ‘What the hell?? Is this really happening?’ We were the only ones there and it was the best that wave can get. I almost wanted another human around to go surf-just so I could be feeding off that energy.
On a scale from 1 to 10, how did this wave stack up?
It’s probably a 10. It’s pound-for-pound as heavy as any wave gets. It detonates on the reef that is right off the land. It’s not like a deep water slab where it breaks on the shelf of the reef that’s out in the ocean and then goes into a deep channel. This one just washes up onto huge flagstone rock. If you want a heavy, nearly unmakable drop then that’s the one for sure. But its also a 10 for being the most fickle and being cold. It’s a 10 all-around for sure.
[This photo originally appeared as the “Perfect Day” feature in SURFER Volume 59, Issue 2, now available on newsstands or wherever you subscribe to SURFER magazine.]