Schoolgirl to surfer girl: Isla's taking to the waves in Thurso

BY day, Iona McLachlan is diligently preparing for her upcoming exams like thousands of other schoolgirls.

But when the weekend comes the 16-year-old transforms into a championship-winning surfing princess.

When Iona first told her parents she wanted to brave the icy waters of Scotland’s northern coast and go surfing in the middle of winter, they were rightly worried.

With its freezing cold water, icy winds and occasional blizzards, Thurso in February is about as far from a tropical paradise as you can imagine.

It may not have the balmy temperatures of other surfing hotspots like Hawaii, Bali or California but despite its unforgiving climate, it still boasts some of the world’s best waves.

The cruel twist of fate, however, is that these waves are at their best during the winter months.

Despite their concerns, Iona’s parents let her give the sport a go and, within the space of three years, she was crowned Scotland’s junior surfing champion and has represented her country in competitions in Portugal, Morocco and Norway.

“I was hooked right away,” she said. “I’d always loved sports like kayaking and swimming in the ocean so when I tried surfing on holiday I really wanted to give it a go when I got home.

“You get a massive adrenaline rush, it’s so exciting when you’re standing up over the ocean. It almost feels like you’re flying.

“My mum was pretty freaked out when I first tried, keeping a close eye on me.

“But I just dedicated myself to surfing and now she’s got trust in me, I’ve got plenty experience of knowing what to do if I get into trouble out there.”

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At the best of times, surfing is a difficult sport to master. In Scotland, Mother Nature makes it an ever harder challenge but the sport’s popularity is growing against the odds.

Along with Iona, two others from Caithness were included in the first Scotland squad to compete at the World Junior Championship in the Azores last October.

The Scots finished a respectable 27th out of 39 and won praise for adapting to the conditions.

“A lot of people say ‘it must be freezing’ when I talk about surfing in the winter but the water temperature doesn’t change much throughout the year,” said Iona.

“This is the best time for waves and if you’ve got a decent wetsuit, you don’t feel the cold at all.

“The cold bit is when you’re getting changed on the beach!

“The Azores was pretty full on. The waves were so different. No one expected Scotland to be there, so you could tell everyone was really rooting for us.”

That view was repeated at the Eurosurf Junior Games in Morocco when the Scots finished ninth out of 16 but scooped the award for the contest’s “friendliest team”.

A third-place finish in the under-18 event at the Nordic Surf Championships in Norway last year brought Iona to the attention of a film crew from kids’ TV channel CBBC, who produced a documentary about her training for the World Junior Championships.

When she’s not trying to catch a wave around the world, Iona is preparing to sit her Higher exams at Thurso High.

She owes a lot to her mum, Marcelle Lockhart, who is able to drive Iona around from their home in the tiny village of Murkle.

After she’s finished her studies, she hopes to go to university but not before she samples some more waves around the world.

“I would love to try the famous places – Hawaii, California, Australia – they would be amazing,” she said.

“It would be strange to surf in a busy place because at home it’s usually just me out there. I don’t have to worry about running anyone over.

“But I still think I would always end up back home because I love it here.

“Before I started surfing I never really thought about Thurso being anything that special.

“Now I realise how beautiful it is. It’s been the perfect place to grow up.”

Iona’s documentary, My Life: Surf’s Up, is on CBBC today at 2.10pm.

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