Pictures by Kelly Allen and Tony Plant. Video by Justin Avery
Excerpt from Surfing Mennie Waves
I had been monitoring the formation of a new swell out in the Atlantic for a couple of days. I had also been speaking to Cotty about it, as it was looking like the biggest we had ever seen and early forecasts were in the 13-metre range. Some of you might not understand how we can predict the size of the waves, almost to the hour, so let me explain.
There are some very intelligent people who have studied the weather systems and translated their findings into models for ocean users. It used to be that surfers only had the weather report on the radio or television to go by, but in the last few years things have really changed with forecasting conditions at sea. We use various websites which show detailed data received from wave buoys, satellites and weather stations all across the globe. The predictions come from models created and based on previous patterns and are a good guide as to what is coming our way.
Cotty was considering going on a trip to Madeira again, only this time with Wavelength magazine and his sponsors. He wasn’t sure if it was worth the gamble at Mullaghmore, as the wind looked to be severe for when the swell was due to hit the coast. It is rare for a swell that appears on forecasts a week out to hold its size and, generally, we would get swell that is less than was predicted. However, this swell continued to grow. It was Tuesday, 27 November and Cotty phoned to say he was heading to Madeira.
This wasn’t the first time I had been the only one thinking that conditions would hold. I suppose I’m a little more optimistic than most people and I will take a gamble just in case, rather than miss out. I had a feeling this was going to be the biggest one we had ever seen and I was willing to take the gamble of being at Mullaghmore in case there was a window in the wind to let me have a go at riding a few.
The swell was definitely a Mullaghmore swell. There was no chance of anywhere else being able to handle the hurricane force winds with swell that size. Mullaghmore has a bump on the headland which deflects some of the wind so, even on the wildest days, it can sometimes be possible to sneak on to a few big ones out there. The thing is, if you aren’t there then you can’t have a go if the opportunity arises.
I was now partner-less. I hate that feeling, where I’m so excited and so driven to do something yet I’m held back because I need someone to play with me! As soon as Cotty told me he wasn’t coming I got straight on the phone to Duncan Scott. At this stage, I had towed with Duncan a number of times when Cotty couldn’t make it, or if Duncan didn’t have a partner we would let him hitchhike with us.
At that time, he was the only other surfer I felt safe with in huge seas, other than Cotty. Duncan doesn’t have a permanent partner. Although he has committed to tow surfing by purchasing a ski, he mainly hitches rides with other teams wherever he may be but has never committed to one person outright. That might be so that he is never let down and can always fit into the mix with whatever is going on. He rarely misses a good swell unless there is a major holdup in his life. I knew that Duncan was my only chance at riding this swell, and if he wasn’t able to make it then I would have to let this one go.
I called him and told him the scenario. He was actually watching the same swell, but everyone he spoke to thought it was going to be unrideable, due to the wind. He was obviously keen to surf, so I told him I wanted to tow it and that I was sure that the small three-hour window on Saturday morning, where the wind forecast appeared to be holding true at 18 knots from the south west, was going to materialise before the storm would go nuts. I knew there was a lot of risk in making this call, but we both knew this was a giant swell. It was agreed that Duncan should take the risk and fly over, so he boarded a flight that night.
We spent the next two days watching the swell on the net, monitoring its movements through the Atlantic. It was still holding its size: in fact, it had risen to a massive 14.4 metres at 16-second intervals on the predictions! This was a massive swell! Mullaghmore usually starts to be big enough to break at around five metres and you will get wave faces of 20 feet plus from a swell that big with a decent interval between the waves of approximately 14 seconds.
You might be wondering how a 5-metre swell can create a wave face so much bigger. Well, although the swell is five metres it will decrease in size as it gets closer to the coast but, when it actually hits the reef and begins to break, the wave draws water off the reef increasing the size of its face to twice the size of the swell and sometimes more, depending on the spot. So it didn’t take a rocket scientist to do the maths on this one. There was no doubt that this was going to be a significant day in Irish surfing if we actually got to ride a few.
We got the equipment ready on Friday morning and headed off to Mullaghmore. We knew it wasn’t going to be possible to paddle into any of these waves, as the swell was going to be so big and the wind so strong, so we didn’t load the big wave guns this time but only the tow surf kit.
Let me explain what I mean about kit. This isn’t like getting a board from your garage, throwing it in the car and heading to the beach. Tow surfing is a mission from the word GO!
I have a long wheel base van. It gets loaded with so much crap it’s unbelievable. It’s a bit like when you go on holiday for the weekend and you bring a bag that is packed with enough clothes for a month, knowing full well that you will never change your underpants more than once let alone wear a dinner jacket, shorts, three pairs of jeans, two pairs of shoes and two coats. But, if you didn’t have two spare t-shirts, you can be sure you will spill your dinner down the front of the only one you have! That’s like tow surfing!
I’ve learned to bring absolutely everything so that, in any eventuality, I have a spare. That involves wetsuits, spare boards, spare foot straps, screws and fins for the boards, resin repair kits in case I damage boards. It involves extra straps for tying down the seats of the ski. (We modify the basic jet ski so that it has straps across the seats to hold them on in case it gets rolled, as skis are designed for fair weather use not for worst weather use! So we adapt them a little.) I bring spare light boards for the trailer, spare wheel bearings, grease for the wheels, spare tyres, spare life jackets, spare ski batteries, spare ropes, anchor, spare tools – really I could list so much stuff that rarely gets used, but every now and again something is needed.
I remember one time my brother and I had changed the wheel bearings on the ski trailer but over-tightened the nuts on them. I got about 300 yards down the country lane where I keep my ski when the right hand wheel overtook me on the road! Both wheel bearings had broken; the ski and trailer ended up on the road and then it got lifted by a forklift back into the yard where I was lucky enough to have enough spare parts to have them fixed properly! Seriously, you would never dream of both bearings going at once but, with tow surfing, anything is possible!
Duncan and I went for a warm up session on Friday afternoon as the swell was starting to show. This allowed us to make sure our hand signals and pickups were the same and it blew the jitters out of us.
There was a definite buzz about this swell. I had a phone call that evening from Owen Conlan, a journalist from The Sun Newspaper. Owen had printed some photos of me in the past and, as the forecast storm was all over the news, he wanted to know if I was going to attempt to ride it. The swell was drawing the attention of not only surfers but the public itself. My phone was ringing off the hook with friends and family wishing me luck, telling me to be safe and sending texts as they were concerned for me and wanting to know that I come back safely. You have to remember big wave surfing in Ireland was still fairly under the radar at this point and not really recognised by the general public…yet!
I started to think this was going to be supersized, and all the hype around it before it had even happened was unusual, to say the least. I don’t say to anyone if I’m going out in big surf; it happens so quickly that I don’t really have a chance to call people anyway.
This was different, as this storm had shown on the charts a long time out and had actually deepened in strength. I was shocked at how many people were calling me. There were weather warnings all over the country and the coastguard had warnings all along the coast. One radio article even had a man warning people to stay indoors and not to consider surfing on Saturday. I had heard these warnings before, but this was different: there was a real fear in the air of what was about to smash into the west coast in the morning.
As it turned out, Ritchie Fitzgerald and Gabe Davies were filming their big budget film, Waveriders and, although they had already wrapped it up, this swell came on the last day of filming so they wanted to have it as the finale to their film. They had with them a massive film crew who were hiring out boats to sit in the channel and film from.
I didn’t sleep that night. I was lying still in bed, listening for the wind. Do you know when you’re in bed and you hear a noise downstairs, you lie there silently and still, moving only your eyeballs so as to ascertain what the noise was? Well, that’s what I was doing. I was trying to hear if the storm had arrived.
I got up early. I remember standing in the foyer of the hotel at 6.00 am in the dark, looking at the harbour. The wind was already picking up. Usually at Mullaghmore, if the harbour is choppy with the wind blowing on it then it is a good sign, as the surf spot is on the other side of the headland and will, therefore, be in a wind shadow to some degree. Duncan and I drove round to take a look from the road.
We peered out into the inky darkness and could see mountains of white water all over the headland. There was no doubt about it. Even in the dark it was obvious that the swell was huge and the wind was holding a good direction.
We watched for about 15 minutes before Gabe and Ritchie rolled up in their van. It was getting brighter all the time. They pulled up beside the passenger side window, blocking the empty road, and began watching.
There was silence for about 30 seconds before they rolled the window down and said, ‘It looks too big’.
The reason we have jet skis is because we want to ride as big as it gets. I was confused as to how they thought it looked too big.
Then they asked us, ‘How big do you think it is out there?’
We all ‘ummed’ and ‘ahhed’ for a couple of seconds, as no one really wanted to commit to saying what all four of us were really thinking.
‘I reckon it’s about 60 feet on the face out there on the sets,’ I said.
Everyone looked at me as I said that and then looked away without saying anything. I think we all already knew that, to be honest, they just wanted to see if we thought the same!
Duncan and I were ready to go. We knew we didn’t have long to do this. The conditions were barely holding and we reckoned that by 11.00 am it would be so violent out there that we would be forced back on shore.
We dropped the ski down the slip, set up, and launched before it was even fully bright. Gabe and Ritchie’s camera crew were buzzing around in a panic, as Gabe and Ritchie were still up on the headland as we drove out the harbour mouth.
As we rounded the harbour wall, I saw a wave break completely over it. I had never seen this happen before. You can get a wee bit of white water blowing over it from time to time but this was a full on wave. It washed over the 25-foot wall like it was a kerb on the road. I remember thinking, ‘F$&k, maybe those guys were right, it is too big!’ I also remember thinking that size is relative and what seems ‘too big’ to me, might seem normal to someone in Hawaii or Mavericks … we kept heading out to sea.
When you turn around the harbour wall you begin to take the swell on the bow of the ski. This is the time that I usually begin imagining what is actually out there. My mind runs wild and I envisage the most horrific-sized waves and begin to doubt my ability and question myself. It’s the same as when I surfed Mavericks the first time. The fear still comes up every time, to varying degrees. It’s just something I’ve learned to deal with and accept. I think that if you go out there and don’t expect to be scared, then you are in for a shock.
As we made our way out to the peak of the wave, right out the back, it was clear to me that these were the biggest waves I had ever been in. Huge, flawless peaks were stacking on the reef, drawing tonnes of water from it and then pouring out into massive, dark cavernous tubes of death! We watched a few sets breaking and we were hooting like we had just won the lottery! It was amazing to watch those perfect, beautiful waves detonating one after another.
Even as I write this, I can still picture one of them stacked up on the reef as we perched on top of its shoulder and looking down and into the massive pit. It was incredible! I couldn’t believe Cotty wasn’t there!
I heard the engine of another ski, and when I turned round it was Ritchie and Gabe arriving out to the channel with their crew coming behind in a rib. The very first thing I noticed as they arrived out was that the wetsuit Ritchie was wearing was identical to Duncan’s. They were both sponsored by O’Neill Wetsuits, a Californian brand, at the time. O’Neill had made a few white suits for some of its riders. It made them look like the storm troopers from Star Wars and this was quite fitting for this occasion!
Gabe and Ritchie began towing on a few smaller insiders to warm up. I knew we didn’t have time to warm up and this swell wasn’t going to tolerate us taking our time. We had a window of a few hours before it sent us home, and Duncan and I were only interested in riding as big as we could.
We headed out to the peak of the reef, where the waves first break on the ledge. It is the same spot on the reef where Cotty and I lost the ski. No one had ridden a proper wave yet and, until someone did, we weren’t going to be able to put a size on how big these waves really were on that day.
Duncan said he would tow me first. He ended up mistiming a few waves, probably because the swell was so big and moving so quickly that we couldn’t get on to them. I asked Duncan to swap with me and I’d have a go at putting him on to one. Duncan is a good surfer, anyone will tell you that, but in big waves he excels and surfs with style and grace. I threw him the rope and pulled him up to his feet.
A set appeared on the horizon. These sets were massive; they were coming out of a black sky and sea. They marched in from the Atlantic and filled the whole of Donegal Bay, making it appear more like a bath tub than part of the ocean. As the first big set approached, I drove the ski at speed towards the second one in the set.
We always try not to go on the first wave in a set in case one of us falls and then has to deal with the whole set on the head. It is safer to choose the last one, if possible, but we also want to ride the biggest. Sometimes, therefore, we have to take the risk of maybe falling early in a set and facing another four or five waves on the head.
I drove in, parallel to the wave. I glanced back at Duncan on the rope and gave him a nod. He lifted one thumb from the rope handle and that was enough for me to know he was OK to go. I banked the ski around on its left side and began whipping Duncan round behind me on the rope so as to position him on to the peak of the wave.
It was a frighteningly big wave. At this point, I was standing on the ski, driving at about 16 mph towards shore, about half a mile out and lined up with my marker point on land. Duncan was on the rope, strapped into his board. Behind, was a huge stacking wall of water which was lined up for about 400 yards to our left and to our right. It hadn’t broken yet.
At this point, I could see that Duncan was looking extremely small in front of this stacking, charcoal coloured liquid mountain. I slowed the ski a little to let the wave get closer to us and begin to pick us up. I then gave the ski one last squirt of gas and flung him into the peak as it stood vertical on the reef. Duncan disappeared down the face of it as I pulled the ski up over the unbroken shoulder. The section he was on detonated, sending plumes of water up into the air. All I could see was the back of the wave, which looked to be 25-30 feet in height. I was pretty sure Duncan was riding a 55-60-foot wave just in front of me.
I drove at speed behind the wave, looking and searching for him in the aftermath in case he fell. This is one of the worrying things out there. You don’t know if your partner has fallen, and you have to be vigilant at all times until you see him kick out clear into the channel. He did just that.
I drove in to get him at the end of his ride and he was stoked. He looked a little shocked, to be honest, but as he climbed on to the sled he reached up and gave me 5! As we drove back out to the peak, he shouted to me over the sound of the engine, full of excitement about the wave. He was gagging to tell me about what he had just ridden and seemed to be in disbelief as to the sheer size and volume of the waves.
We switched and I took the rope again. We felt like we were in sync with each other and the swell! We had found our flow and Duncan was now ready to put me on to one.
I slid off the ski and let him take the helm. As I slipped my feet into my straps and took the end of the rope, I remember not feeling any nerves. I didn’t feel that fear that I normally get just before my first wave of a session.
I shouted to Duncan the same thing I say every session to Cotty, ‘Just put me on a bomb! Wait it out and just put me on a F$&kin bomb!’
I am only interested in the big ones and, believe it or not, I think it is safer to ride a huge one out there than go chasing after mediocre waves. It is best to wait for the monsters to come through, watch one as it approaches and then put the surfer on to it. I think it’s best, as you can see it coming, you can watch it move around as it approaches the reef and you can safely – well relatively – place the surfer where he needs to be.
This is much safer than getting the surfer on the rope and driving round like a headless chicken, hunting down anything that wants to break. I have learned that it’s best to leave the small ones and let them go. Even if I am scared of the big ones, it doesn’t pay to go on a small one and risk falling and getting cleaned up by a bigger one that follows. I completely believe it’s safer to go on a big one. Some of you reading this might think I’m F$&kin nuts but, believe me, it makes sense.
Being out in that environment becomes more possible through learning little pieces of knowledge that may seem completely crazy to onlookers but makes us feel more comfortable. (I have just laughed out loud as I read what I have just written – yeah, that does sound crazy actually. I’ve just told you that it’s safer to ride a huge wave than a small one!) I completely understand if you have no idea what I’m talking about and if you think I’m crazy – I’m really not. Most of us aren’t! Craziness is only relative anyway!
Duncan was standing on the ski with his legs astride the seat to get the best view over the lines of swell towards the horizon.
‘Al, we’re on! There’s a f$&kin monster coming!’ he yelled.
He was kind of looking at the wave approaching with one eye whilst looking over his shoulder with the other so I could hear his voice in the wind.
‘I’ll get you up,’ he said. ‘Clear?’ he asked.
We use the word ‘clear’ instead of ‘go’, ‘no’ or ‘yes’ so that there is no confusion in what is being said. If everything is OK, then the partner responds with the same word.
I shouted back, ‘Clear!’
He fired up the ski, took up the slack in the rope and then accelerated, pulling me up out of the water and on to my feet. Now I could see what he was talking about! There was no doubt that the wave coming was a monster. It was coming out of the black ocean beneath a lightening forked angry sky. It had my name on it. I remember tilting my head back and closing my eyes momentarily and thinking of my Dad before focusing on the wave. I don’t know why I did that.
Duncan shouted over the engine noise, ‘You want it?’
I replied with one word which I shouted back to him, ‘Yeah’.
That one word or a nod between us communicates so much. It tells Duncan or whoever might be driving that I trust them to put me in safely to the wave, I trust that they will be there if I fall and that they will do whatever it takes to get me out of trouble should something go wrong.
The sun came out momentarily, just as Duncan began his approach on the ski. He accelerated towards the wave in a parallel direction and then banked around to his left and lined us up with the mark-up on land. The wave was massive! I remember thinking, ‘Holy F$%k, this is huge!’ I felt small and insignificant. I didn’t feel scared for some reason, just amping to get on it. I faded out to the right hand side of the wake as Duncan gave the ski its last squirt of gas to propel me into the towering peak.
I dropped the rope and began to glide into position, as Duncan pulled away at speed and the wave stood like a 6-storey office block. As I got to about half way down it, it just lurched on the reef and grew massively above me. I thought I was a goner. It tried to suck me up the face with it and I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to make the rest of the drop.
For a split second, I envisaged myself landing on my back on the face of the wave and getting sucked up over the falls. I snapped out of it! I tightened down into a low crouch and took the rock boils at high speed. My board chattered off the surface of the wave and the boils. I made it out to the channel without falling!
I was so f$&kin stoked! I was going nuts! I couldn’t calm down I was so excited! I mean ecstatic, I was squealing like a girl! Sometimes the ride is so intense that it is difficult to absorb all the action whilst on it and it isn’t until afterwards that the full feeling kicks in and I can relive the ride in my head. It is a mix of excitement and relief, and I suppose it comes from being so close to disaster but riding out of it and into safety that keeps me hooked.
Duncan came in and got me on the ski.
Ritchie drove up and said, ‘Sham, that was nuts. I was scared for you, big man!’
He looked shocked and said, ‘I’ve never seen you look so small!’
Duncan and I were high fiving and hugging, completely loving the moment! It was a great feeling.
We all rode more waves that day. Gabe went on the end section of one that was frightening, as it stood really tall behind him as he bottom turned around the section before covering him in spray. Ritchie went on a big thick one that shut down behind him, driving him deep into the only wipe out of the session. He later told me that he could see the rock ledge under water! He got hit really hard and he must have been pretty deep, even with two impact vests on!
There was a definite threatening feel to the surf that day and we all knew that one mistake could have had horrific consequences. We were forced ashore by raging winds and hailstones at 11.00 am. I didn’t realise until we were heading back to the harbour that the headland was packed with people and cars, all watching us out there. Normally, we might see one or two people drive round the isolated headland but it turned out that people had actually driven from all over the place to see us surf that day.
To my amazement, we met a guy called Justin Avery, an Australian living in London. He heard from his friend in Ireland that some surfers were going to have a go at riding this swell. He boarded a plane and drove through the night, slept in his car, and then filmed the session!
Duncan and I were buzzing! I knew it was a big session, but I didn’t realise how big until we saw the photographs! Even we were in shock as to what had just gone down. All our phones were ringing hot with friends and family checking to see if we were back in and, more importantly, to find out how big it was. Journalists were ringing us from all over the world for interviews and photos.
The next day, photos and quotes from us were printed in newspapers all over the country. International websites were also running coverage. We were getting emails from other tow surfers in Hawaii and California congratulating us. It was crazy! We made BBC World News, BBC Radio One, The Times, The Sun; the list goes on and on. It was unreal.
We spent the next week doing multiple interviews daily for radio stations, websites, magazines and newspapers. It was as if, all of a sudden, not only did the surfing world know that big waves existed in Ireland and that a handful of people were riding them but also the general public were seeing it in their homes and in their newspapers.
Cotty was getting texts and calls from his mates saying, ‘Al is all over the news for riding 60-footers!’ He couldn’t believe it and phoned me from Madeira to hear if it was true. He was stoked for us but also gutted that he had missed it. However, I’m sure he was having a fun trip in Madeira as the same swell was travelling through the Atlantic en route to him.
The Coleraine Chronicle and the Coleraine Times ran a story and some photos later in the week. A local man from Castlerock came and spoke to me about the article. I remember when he first saw photos of me riding waves at Mavericks that he commented, ‘You don’t get waves like that in this country!’ I replied at the time with, ‘You do, I’ll prove it some day!’ At the time, he obviously thought I didn’t know what I was talking about, but now he knows differently!
Shortly after the swell, we heard on the news that the swell was the biggest ever recorded swell on Irish Wave Buoys!
The waves we had ridden were recognised by The Billabong XXL competition again, only this year we stood more of a chance of doing well as some of the rides appeared to be contenders in The Biggest Wave Category. We were invited over to Anaheim, California, by Bill Sharp and Sam George for the awards ceremony in April.