I Went Hungover Big Wave Surfing in Ireland During Storm Frank
Charging towards a cliff face with a belly full of old Buckfast is not the most relaxing way to spend a day.
Storm Frank battered Western Europe over the Christmas period. Across Ireland and the UK, towns were evacuated, rivers broke their banks and the media was full of stories of people's homes being washed out. In Ireland, where we tend to get a little hysterical about the weather, the public went into a blind panic when national weather forecaster Evelyn Cusack predicted that Storm Frank would have a "sting in the tail". A second storm – a close cousin of Frank – was set to make land the following day, bringing more water, more wind and more chaos.
There were long lines at the supermarkets, canoes made ready in front gardens and DVDs rented by the shelf-load.
I contacted some big wave surfers I found on Instagram and asked if they were still going out in the storm.
"Hell yeah," they said.
"Can I come out with you?" I asked.
"Can you surf?"
"A bit," I replied.
"Okay, come party with us first and then we'll get you a wave," they said.
The west coast of Ireland is one of the world's premier big wave locations. It's not unheard of for a wave to be 40 or 50-feet tall in these parts. It's also not unheard of for people to surf waves that big.
Instead of waves breaking onto beaches they come crashing down on giant cliff faces that are so steep the boys have had to install safety kits in the crevices in case surfers get stranded. Contained in those kits are a first aid bag, food, a phone and whisky.
It's also freezing, so those who do surf here have a slight touch of madness about them. You have to wear a suit all year round and a hood and boots for three quarters of that. Surfers, exhausted, arms like planks, will hang on in the water an extra 20 minutes, half an hour, in the hope that the rain will stop for just long enough that they can get changed in the carpark without getting their dry clothes wet.
Ollie O Flaherty and Pete Conroy are a toe-in team. Between them they've had their backs broken, hips cracked and knees popped in weather that you wouldn't put a duck out in. Pete is getting married in a couple of months and is stocking up on drink for the wedding, so it's decided that the party will be at his house.
Clem McInerney is a videographer. He picks me up. His car is ankle deep in sand and broken leashes. Clem is just back in the water a week after tearing the ligaments around his shoulder.
How big was the wave that did that?
"It wasn't a wave," he says, "it was the wind."
The party is a lot of fun. About 25 guys and four girls show up. In spite of the blow-dried hair and the little black dresses, which in this weather must be harder to get into than a wetsuit, the girls won't be enough to distract the boys from wrestling, fighting with samurai swords and talking about surfing. The west coast of Ireland is a lonely place for a girl, lonelier still when all the boys are married to the sea.
"Is it ever too big that you don't go out?" I ask the boys.
They come across like Jackass at Sea, but the boys who surf the big shit can take care of themselves. Pete's a part-time fireman, and it's hard to believe when he's got someone topless in a chokehold (that also, impressively, includes a wedgie), but he goes around the big wave spots handing out free life jackets to newcomers. In a way it's the opposite of the localism notorious in the surfing world. That might be because the sport is so young in Ireland, or because the area around here is so dangerous.
Ireland has the heaviest surfing in the world, says Ollie; you surf Pipeline in Hawaii and you ride back into a beach, but you surf Aileen's off the west coast of Ireland and you're charging at a 750-foot cliff, which isn't quite as forgiving as a nice stretch of sand. Fionan Cronin – who's also at the party and is running around with his shirt off, swinging a broken samurai sword – got caught between the rocks and the waves and slammed five times before the jet-ski got to him.
Surfers off the coast of Ireland
Everyone sleeps over. Somehow 20 guys and those few girls find corners to crash in, curled up beside each other, the dog or bottles of Buckfast – a mixture of wine, caffeine and sugar that is commonly popular in places with high winds and persistent rain.
In the morning it's pissing down. It has been since I arrived. The boys keep going round saying how mild it is, which is crazy talk for anyone who doesn't live here. Choosing to live in Ireland, especially the west of the country, is a choice between being "cold" and "not so cold" for the rest of your days.
We get into our wetsuits in a mucky field full of cows. Everyone makes little squeals as the damp suits touch their skin. Then we climb down a cliff face that erodes beneath our feet. We then have to scramble across huge shelves of rock before we can get into the water. Ollie's already been in the water since dawn. He's the only one of us who doesn't stink of booze.
We start paddling out. I can taste Buckfast in my mouth.
The first set starts rolling in and I realise that I'm already caught inside and the lip is going to hit me. I try to dive but the water's too heavy, or I'm just too weak, and I get absolutely mullered. Not once but twice. There's a lull and I paddle like fuck. I can't judge wave heights but it feels as big as a house. Clem will tell me later that it's only two foot. That's a west coast thing; you go up to someone after they've just rode a monster and say, "That was a nice knee-high wave you caught."
I stay out and try to catch some bits and pieces, but it's too big and I'm shitting myself – and you don't do that in a borrowed wetsuit – so after another couple of wipe outs I ride the white wash back into the big rock slabs, scramble to the land, spit a blob of puke out of my mouth and make my way back up the cliff to the muddy field and the carpark.
I sit in the car with the heater on full blast, watching other guys getting changed into damp clothes, using wet towels and car doors to protect them from the gale.
In winter, Clem says, there's a drop of about 80 percent in the number of surfers because of the cold, but that's also when the waves are firing hardest. There are many consistent inconsistencies in the life of the year-round Irish surfer. The North Shore of Hawaii it most certainly is not – cow shit, frost bite, the danger of death-by-cliff-face – so thank god for at least giving them waves.
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