Surfers make a splash
With the curtains drawn on the Rio Olympics, the focus is now on the 2020 Games where surfing will be included for the first time. It's a sport that we already excel at, our reporter discovers as she meets those at the crest of Ireland's surf scene
Published 28/08/2016 | 02:30
For many of us, surfing conjures visions of golden beaches, swaying palm trees and clear, warm seas - not the icy, choppy waters along the Irish coast.
Earlier this summer, it was announced that surfing will be included at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020, but Ireland's long been ahead of the curve. It is believed the sport came to Ireland in the early 1960s after Wicklow man Kevin Cavey spotted a picture of a Hawaiian surfer in a copy of Reader's Digest.
Since then, we have developed a reputation as a surfing hotspot, formed of a growing community of dedicated surfers who say Irish waves are like none other in the world.
The West Coast Surf Club is one of the oldest in the country, established in Lahinch, Co Clare, in 1970. The club works to ensure surfers have access to waves, as well as tackling environmental issues, cleaning local beaches and organising competitions in the area.
Current secretary Dave Flynn has been a member for almost 20 years, and served as chairman on and off for the last eight. "The biggest resurgence really has been in the last 10 to 15 years," he says. "The numbers have grown, but it's also a generational thing - the people who have grown up surfing are now beginning to have their own families, and what began as a selfish pursuit is now becoming more and more of a community thing."
He argues that Ireland has "world-class waves" that rank among the best he has surfed in Australia, California, France, Portugal and Bali. "You keep coming back to the Irish waves," he says. "The variety of waves here is brilliant, the availability and the ease of access to waves is fantastic. In a lot of other countries you have to fight to get access to waves with pollution issues and ownership issues, but in Ireland they're available."
However, he adds: "It is a challenge; it's not like Australia where you can go to the beach for the day and surf 10 times and the weather's good. Here, it's an ordeal. You get there, you're freezing your ass off getting into your wetsuit, but then it's brilliant. It's a different experience from any other place, it goes against the typical surfer images. Irish surfers are a hardier bunch."
Ollie O'Flaherty (29) is a surf instructor and chairperson of the club, and says Irish surfers are lucky that the population of enthusiasts is still relatively small. "There's a lot of camaraderie. A lot of surf destinations have problems with over-crowding and people wouldn't know each other, whereas here there's a crew of us who surf regularly at the breaks all year round," he says.
Former Irish surf champion John McCarthy has been surfing for close to 30 years, and he says Irish surfers are "really spoilt with the quality of the waves". One of the big milestones in John's surfing career came 10 years ago, when he joined a group to surf Aileen's, the legendary wave at the Cliffs of Moher.
"It really is the most spectacular place I've ever surfed - it doesn't matter whether it's the first time or the most recent time, it's a huge, perfect wave. I've surfed in places like Sunset Beach in Hawaii, and there are really big waves, but they're not at all as perfect. It really is one of the most perfect waves in the world."
John competed for Ireland all over the world in his 20s, before settling in Lahinch and opening his own surf school. He describes first visiting the coastal village as a teenager, just after Tom Buckley had set up Lahinch Surf Shop, one of the first of its kind in Ireland: "I wanted to rent a surfboard, but my parents wouldn't let me because they thought it was dangerous - that's how it was seen back then. When I came in 2002, it was the same situation, just Tom in the surf shop, renting a few boards," he recalls.
"The change since then has been massive. The really wonderful thing is that on a summer's day you look out into the water around low tide, and you'll see kids, families, teenagers, stag parties - everybody is out in the water."
Ashleigh Smith (29), from Strandhill, Co Sligo, occupies a rare position in the Irish surfing community as a female body-boarder, and was awarded several Irish and international titles in her teens.
One competition took her to California's Huntington Beach, and she agrees that the Irish climate sets us apart as a surfing destination. "It's hardcore. It's not the sun-kissed beaches you see in magazines, it's changing into a wetsuit at 5am on a hailing, windy Sunday morning. There's not much glamour, and I think that's why it's so magic," she says. "You're really there because you love it, there's no other reason why you'd sacrifice that much. It's a harsh climate, but we have perfect waves."
As well as the climate, Irish surf culture is defined by a sense of community." You have to be a bit mad to do what we do," says Ashleigh. "You think you're the only person getting up early to go and find the right wave, the right tide and the right swell, but there'll be three other people there as well, and it's those chance encounters that are very special."
Ashleigh no longer surfs competitively, and has instead focused on designing her own range of bags, the Atlantic Equipment Project, inspired by the surfing culture in her hometown. "The surf culture here is pretty vibrant. There are a lot of surfers who have grown up and had kids, and their four- or five-year-old kids have started to come in. The surf culture here is what we live and breathe, it's intrinsic to Strandhill - the characters, the waves, the surf schools, the surf cafes, the whole vibe is really chilled out and easy-going. It's really nice to be a part of."
Jane and Myles Lamberth - authors of The Surf Cafe Cook Book - opened the Shells Café on Strandhill beach six years ago, after being drawn to the diverse culture and welcoming atmosphere in the area on weekend trips from Dublin. "You're all there with the same shared goal: to tap into that really good Irish surf, and there's a certain bonding that comes with that," says Jane.
The Irish surfing season is due to kick off in the coming weeks, and she says that for capable surfers, "it's all about the autumn surf."
In the years since they've opened the café, the couple have noticed big changes in the local surf culture - namely, the growing numbers of families with children and women in the water.
"The amount of surfers in the water has definitely doubled, and there are a lot more girls in the water. When I started 15 years ago, there weren't that many, and now there are times when the guys are outnumbered," Jane says.
Irish women's champion Shauna Ward (29) has seen the population of women surfers taking part both recreationally and competitively soar over the years. "Since surf schools began opening, women's surfing has grown so much in Ireland. I rarely surf a beach here now and don't meet another female in the water, which is a huge change to how it was when I was growing up," she says, adding that women are always "super supportive of each other" in the water.
Like many young surfers, Shauna grew up in a surfing family and got her first taste of the waves at an early age in Bundoran, Co Donegal.
"My dad pushed me into my first waves when I was six. He used to take my three brothers and me to the beach at weekends and when I got older I'd go myself," she recalls. "My school was on a hill that overlooked one of the best waves in Europe so I would often go before and after school if conditions were good."
Shauna won the Irish Women's Surf Championships for the first time aged 16. She's since travelled to competitions in France, Azores, South Africa, Australia and Ecuador, and took home a bronze medal from the European Juniors.
"Irish contests are always good fun as they bring together the community who compete from all the different surf breaks in Ireland," she says, adding that the same applies when competing abroad. "Surfing is usually such an individual sport so it's nice to be part of a team and meet and surf with surfers from all over the world representing their own countries."
At the 2020 Olympic Games, Irish surfers will get their chance to compete against the best in the world, and while the selection process has not yet been outlined, a number of young hopefuls already have their eyes on a gold medal.
Gearoid McDaid (19) from Carly, Co Sligo, is one of Ireland's most promising young surfers, and won the Irish Open Men's National Championship when he was just 16. He has spent the summer travelling around Europe to represent Ireland at various surfing competitions. When he's at home in Sligo, he tries to surf every day, and describes it as a great way to keep fit and meet new people.
"It would be so cool to represent my country at the Olympics and I would like to think it's a possibility, but we're not sure how the qualifier will work or how many people are going to be in it, so we'll have to wait and see before I start thinking if I'll be competing at it or not. It is definitely a goal of mine to be at it in 2020," he says.
Eva Martin (19) is another up-and-coming surfer from Strandhill, and has been competing since she was 11 years old.
"I like how it's different - it's not like any other team sport where you have to train intensely every day, it's more enjoyable," she says. "It doesn't feel like, 'Oh I have to go for a run now to train for soccer', you're like, 'yay! I'm going for a surf in the water with friends'. I love the rush of it as well, that feeling."
As well as surfing every day, Eva works as an instructor for beginners, and is heading to DIT next month to study Visual Communications. In the future, she'd like to join her friend Gearoid in trying out for the Olympic team, and hopes that the exposure will draw more attention and funding to the sport.
"The standard is going to be so high and it will be so great to watch," she says. "Surfing isn't really a sport that everyone talks about like Gaelic or hurling, you'll always hear about the county finals rather than a big surfing event. To have it in the Olympics, hopefully little kids will be looking up to the surfers the way they do with boxing and the other sports."
Amidst all the excitement about surfing being added to the Olympics, Dave from the West Coast Surf Club points out that it's unlikely to bear any resemblance to everyday surfing in Ireland.
"It's quite removed from the day-to-day surfing. I think it will be a novelty, because surfing is so dependent on natural elements and reacting to conditions on the day," he says. "To have it at the Olympics, it's likely it will be in a wave pool where every single wave would be different and you'll be down to a handful of people who will excel at a particular condition. Obviously it will be interesting, but it won't be anything like the normal surfing people do in Ireland."