On the road with Xcel Wetsuits in the Highlands

Surfer and Xcel Wetsuits rider Reubyn Ash at Scottish slab Bagpipe
Photo: Sam Howard

Xcel crew journeys north on a Scottish roadtrip, presented by Xcel Wetsuits & Columbia Sportswear

It started, as things generally do these days, on a Zoom call.

A storm was brewing out in the Atlantic, a sprawling blob of red and orange tracking northeast and skirting below Iceland. This blob was set to be followed a few days later by a darker, more concentrated blob (maroons, purples), and then an even darker one (black ringed with grey). Even to the pressure-chart-illiterate, the bruised tones indicated something large and menacing afoot.

Xcel Wetsuits, the impetus behind the trip, would provide winter rubber. Columbia would provide outerwear. Plenty of both would be needed in Scotland’s far north.

Reubyn Ash (noted Cornish aerialist) was up for it, as were his Xcel teammates Patrick Langdon-Dark (keen Welshman) and Kieron Smith (obligatory grom). Sam Breeze had agreed to film and edit whatever happened next and also to pilot the Spaceship, as we would lovingly refer to the 7-man motorhome provided by Spaceships Rentals. He would drive from his home in Penzance up to Plymouth, where the Spaceship was temporarily stationed, and from there to the tip of the Highlands: basically Land’s End to John o’Groats.

Water shots by Sam Howard. All other photos by Sam Breeze.

A virtual meeting was convened. Small talk, connection issues, at least twelve uses of the phrase “pull the trigger”, introductions.

“This feels a bit like Alcoholics Anonymous,” said a melodious voice in a Scottish accent. The face it belonged to was covered in freckles and beard and evidence of a different pathology: complexion sun-dried, eyes watery and heavy-lidded. “Hi, I’m Mike and I’m a saltwater addict.” Lols all round. Mike, surname Guest, aka Guesty, was to be our water filmer and spirit animal.

Sam joined the call from his van, on the set of a low-budget tv drama starring Samantha Bond, aka Miss Moneypenny circa 1995-2002. He had slunk away during a break in filming. Apparently it was dire stuff. His beard was the longest out of everyone’s.

Reubyn, more of a Microsoft Teams man, was upside down. Kieron was still on his way home from school. Pat was sorry he couldn’t make it.

“Can anyone hear me?” asked Reubyn.

Welsh surfer Patrick Langdon-Dark at Scottish slab Bagpipe, on an Xcel Wetsuits surf trip to Scotland, photo by Sam Howard
Photo: Sam Howard

Dan Wakeham from Xcel Europe, a pro snowboarder back in the day and onetime Winter Olympian, was also on the call. He was sporting one of those pencil-thin goatees, Craig David-style. It actually suited him to be fair. 

“It’s not real!” he protested. “It’s just one of those filter things on my webcam – I don’t know how to get rid of it.” It was very realistic, followed him everywhere.

Photo: Sam Howard

Mike loaded up MSW Pro and shared his screen. We watched the procession of angry amoebas as they spawned in the Atlantic and stalked the British Isles, swallowed up the Hebrides, Faroes, Shetlands, Orkneys, spilled into the Norwegian Sea.

It was a Friday, the swell was due to hit Monday. Saltwater of some description (certainly cold, probably that identifiably Scottish shade of blue-green meets slate grey) would soon be consumed, wallowed in, coughed up, involuntarily nose-dribbled, etc.

“Can anyone hear me?” Reubyn asked.

Kieron Smith at Scottish slab Bagpipe, on an Xcel Wetsuits surf trip to Scotland, photo by Sam Howard
Photo: Sam Howard

Our collective trigger-finger was tensed, ready to squeeze. We’d ask questions later. The rest is a matter of historical record – see above – although it seemed at the time to unfold in an alternative dimension where the usual rules of time and space don’t apply.

Maybe it was the Spaceship effect. There was also the scarcity of light, about six hours of it in which to surf, eat, thaw out, and surf again. It was dark shortly after 3 in the afternoon, the days so short it felt like they barely happened. We fell asleep watching the 6 o’clock news.

And then there were the waves. The big scary blobs delivered. Reubyn spent so much time inside the Bagpipe vortex he almost got stuck in there, disappearing through a chink in the space-time continuum.

There are less pleasant places to be stuck at Bagpipe, the fearsome left-hander that Reubyn, Pat, Kieron, and local hero Mark Boyd take on in the above edit. Ben Skinner tells of how he once got sucked into a sinkhole in the reef after a wipeout. Several more waves broke as he struggled to claw his way to the surface, unsure which way the surface even was, and when he finally emerged he was ghostly-white and puking. Yep, it’s full-on out there!

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