The Surfer’s Journal is proudly reader-supported since 1992. We rely on membership rather than advertising to remain commercially quiet. Become a member below and gain access to every article ever published along with many other TSJ member-only benefits.
Words & photos by Al Mackinnon (All captions by Wil Banks)
Light / Dark
The United Kingdom is in a period of flux. A series of divisive votes have left us in a precarious state. Many people I know have had families split by opposing views—arguing over the Scottish independence referendum, the U.K.-wide vote on whether to break away from the European Union, and latterly a general election. The rhetoric, especially on social media, has at times been shocking. It was in this climate that my American friend, Wilem Banks, returned to the United Kingdom. Things were somewhat unsettled in U.S. politics too, and I sensed we both sought solace in the waves and the wilderness.
Wil grew up among the redwoods of Bonny Doon, California, some 20 minutes north of Santa Cruz. With a father who surfed and shaped boards, it was a near-certainty that he would excel at surfing, particularly given his older brother’s ability in the water. By his mid-teens he was already sponsored and it seemed the stage was set for a career. That path hadn’t always been obvious.
From the ages of 7 until 10, Wil was mad for motocross and utterly fearless. He wanted to turn pro one day in that sport, but once he began taking his surfing more seriously he never looked back. Soon enough O’Neill came knocking with a contract that stipulated he enter various contests. His dutiful parents made the drive up and down the coast numerous times, but despite Wil’s obvious talent it never seemed to come together for him.
The joy of surfing just wasn’t to be found in the contest arena. It wasn’t long before his passion waned and, even though Wil carried on for only a year or so, he’d already had enough by the age of 15.
I met him that same year and spent a fair bit of time hanging out with him and his brother, Logan. I was in the U.S. and we surfed all manner of breaks throughout Santa Cruz County. From time to time I’d shoot and a couple of our photos were published. I remember it being clear that Wil didn’t have the mentality for competitive surfing. It was obvious he wanted something different so I had a conversation with his mum about perhaps inviting him to Europe. Getting away from the contest scene, and simultaneously giving him the chance to push himself in waves of consequence, seemed like a good idea.
That first mission occurred in 2013. As a teenager, Wil became the youngest person to surf Aileen’s (and he also had a good go at heavy Riley’s). But the reality was that it was an educational experience. “I wasn’t physically or mentally ready,” Wil admits. “Aileen’s was glorious, but I couldn’t quite figure it out. I wanted to get one of those bombs but at times my whole body was shaking.”
It wasn’t made any easier by the presence of a crew of heavy, international big-wave surfers, who were in Ireland filming a movie. At one point Wil was in position for what turned out to be the wave of the day, and he had momentum, but he was clearly intimidated. “My heart was in my throat,” he recalls, “and when another guy in the water—I don’t even want to say his name—started paddling in front of me, well that was enough for me to not go. If it happened now I would definitely have done something different.”
During the course of that trip, the surf eventually wound down in Ireland and Scotland turned on briefly. We made a mad dash across the Emerald Isle, caught a ferry, and drove through snow-dusted highlands to more slabs in Scotland. This time there was no one around—but the waves were similarly challenging. And Wil was still not quite there yet.
Over a handful of days he rode Bagpipe, a slabby left—so named because on its day it can resemble Pipeline and is, of course, in Scotland. He also sampled the much-feared right-hand slab at Number Tens and managed to get a sweet barrel, producing the best shot of the trip. Unfortunately this was the exception.
Wil returned to the States with enough of a taste that he knew he wanted to focus his efforts on free surfing, particularly charging big waves and heavy barrels. He got a job, surfed when he could, put in stints in Puerto, and more recently has been sending it on the big days at Maverick’s, a handy resource to have up the road.
Throughout that period we kept in touch—occasionally I’d pass through California and his mum kindly gave me the key to their beautiful property in the redwoods, telling me I was welcome. So we’d catch up and talk fondly of his days in Europe. Except there was a nagging sense for both of us that he had unfinished business.
Scotland is blessed with an abundance of flagstone reefs, comprised of various sandstones, mudstones, and siltstones. When I first started searching for waves, I got my hands on as many geological maps as possible, since I knew there was a direct correlation between the type of rock and the quality and shape of the waves. Anywhere that didn’t have stratified rocks of that variety was instantly put to the back of the queue. Of course there’s no substitute for putting in the miles and checking coastlines under a variety of conditions, particularly on foot. Even now, in the era of Google Earth, one can only get the whole story by physically going to these places, often many times.
Unlike Ireland, which has very similar waves and a vibrant surfing community, Scotland has remained relatively quiet. There’s very little surf culture in most parts of the land, and little in the way of appetite for its heaviest setups. Don’t get me wrong—there are some excellent surfers there, who’ll dismantle the more-approachable waves. Yet the slabs remain largely empty. I’m not sure if it’s possible to relate this lack of development to anything in particular, whether it be the cold, the remoteness of many of the best waves, or the mindset of Scots as opposed to Irish.
What I do know is that, despite steadily increasing numbers of surfers, most people in the water are doing it for love, rather than for money, fame, or the desire to compete with one another. It’s one of the reasons I adore those shores almost as much now as I ever have. It’s also why one can still pioneer new waves there in 2017.
Wil knows my position on surf ethics. He intuitively understands that on the whole, the surf industry’s unreasonable demands on sponsored riders, with regard to social media output, and the creation of videos for online dissemination, flies in the face of some of the best parts of the pursuit. And this often leads to a great deal of the magic being taken out of what we do. More importantly, the thrill of searching and discovering can be denied to other travelers, especially when it’s all delivered on a digital platter. As this trend spreads, I seem to see kids wanting some sort of validation, posting shots of semi-secret or even secret spots immediately after sessions, solely for a limited period of attention.
I know the power of social media in my own life as a professional tool. I also know how freeing it can be when the phone runs out of juice or there’s no reception. That’s when I’m reminded to engage with the world, where the colors, textures, smells, and sounds of my environment are unfiltered and uninterrupted by Instagram or Facebook.
On this trip, connective deprivation and total immersion with our surroundings led us to a place of enjoyment. This was a surf foray in the truest sense, where I even had the chance to surf while Wil captured the moment (a rare thing for me to be the other side of the camera). I vividly recall a point where it dawned on me that I was quite literally having the time of my life—looking through the small, oval opening of the cinched hood of my sleeping bag, out at a sky so thick with stars that it didn’t look like space at all, more light than dark, almost a tangible solid. It was as if I could reach out and touch it. Then there was the pièce de résistance: the best aurora borealis display for many months, flickering and pulsing in neon green fingers above a dense purple haar. I haven’t felt such gratitude and inner peace in awhile.
I also witnessed days of exceptional surfing, including perfect Number Tens, with Wil charging to freakish levels. And we pioneered two waves that I’ve had my eye on for years. Hyperbole is so common these days, and surfers get far too much smoke blown up their arses. All I’ll say is the skill and courage shown by Wil, in his surfing on that trip, went beyond anything I’ve witnessed.
To put that in context, I’ve taken some of the best surfers in the world to a few of these places. These aren’t just shallow, powerful, and hollow setups. Some of them have striations, and even unpredictable steps in their faces. And in most cases Wil tackled them alone.
Nobody knew where we were—there were no lifeguards, no backup, and our phone reception was spotty. The scant comfort of a first aid kit waiting in the car, often parked miles away, was his safety net. I pulled my hamstring at one point, jumping off a ledge, so at times I had the terrifying experience of watching Wil out there alone, sending it on almost reckless levels. “It’s okay,” I said to him at one point. “Nobody’s watching. You don’t have to do this…”
He wanted to anyway—that fearless motocross nut still lurks in there somewhere. I’m simply glad that I was in the water for that Number Tens session, and that I was on hand to witness all those wondrous moments. I hope I did my job properly as a photographer, in order that the beauty and gravity of those days comes across in my images.
“There’s been some heroic surfing going on,” I remarked to my friend, Bette, who allows me to stash some of my boards in her shed in the area.