Friday 26 December 2014

Katie McAnena: Wind Chaser

Alison O'Riordan talks to the Galway girl who windsurfed the famous 'Jaws' wave in Hawaii and lives to tell the tale

Katie McAnena

'Everything in my life leading up to that point had prepared me for what I was about to do. Whether it was my confidence as a swimmer, or battling freezing-cold, raging Irish storms, or taking numerous beatings and wipe-outs on any kind of wave or weather system imaginable – they all contributed to the head space I was in."

'Everything in my life leading up to that point had prepared me for what I was about to do. Whether it was my confidence as a swimmer, or battling freezing-cold, raging Irish storms, or taking numerous beatings and wipe-outs on any kind of wave or weather system imaginable – they all contributed to the head space I was in."

This was the state of mind Galway native Katie McAnena found herself in minutes before she attempted to become one of the world's first women to windsurf the renowned wave known as 'Jaws' at Pe'ahi off the Hawaiian island of Maui last month.

The 27-year-old doctor, a four-time Irish female windsurfing champion on a gap year from medicine, was on the island to train with new equipment from sponsors and didn't predict in her wildest dreams that she would windsurf a certain deep water wave formation which is "rumoured to reach heights of 120ft (36.6m), moving as fast as 30mph (48.3kmh)".

Known to be "as unpredictable as a shark attack" due to its sheer size and ferocity, comparisons have been drawn between the wave formation and the 1975 blockbuster Jaws, but this didn't scare the NUIG graduate.

"It's not something you just say one day you're going to do. The wave only breaks maybe three times a year, so I definitely didn't have it in my head that on that particular trip to Maui I was going to do it. It was the perfect mix of ideal conditions, years of mental and physical preparation and luck that allowed me to pull the whole thing off," she says.

With most seasoned windsurfers adopting the "tow-in" method by jet ski to catch up with the wave, as one needs to be going faster than the wave itself in order to catch it, the Salthill local took her life into her own hands and instead jumped from a cliff as it was the only way she could reach the wave on the day.

"By standing on the rocks with my gear – and timing the sets very carefully with my friend's help – I managed to find a small gap with just enough time to throw out my gear and swim with it until I was safely away from the pounding shore break. I am very lucky to have launched and landed over the rocks and come away unscathed. I would not do it that way again. No way," she says.

However, it was something the doctor who specialises in orthopaedics knew she had to do there and then because everything that day had aligned itself so perfectly.

"I have never known my head and mind to be so focused on doing anything in my life before. In the days in the lead up to it, I didn't say to anyone that I was planning to try it. Respect and humility are the biggest factors when it comes to the sea.

"You need to know your limits and accept when something is impossible. So it wasn't until just before I went out, and had sized up the day and what I know I am capable of, that I decided to go for it.

"It was only afterwards in the following hours and days that it hit me what I had done and only then did the fear really hit. On the day, I cannot even describe how calm I felt."

Describing the feeling of windsurfing such a massive reef break, Katie uses two words to describe the experience – "insanely fast".

"Once you're on it, it's incredible. It's like you've just slid down a raging flow of volcanic lava or a snowy avalanche. You're constantly looking in front and behind to make sure you're reading it right and that you're not in a position where it could break on you.

"Mum sent us down to do summer camps and from there I was hooked. I started taking part in racing events around the country and then in 2006 I fortuitously ended up on Maui and saw what the pros were doing on the waves and that was it," she adds.

It has taken Katie 11 years of intense training and hard graft on the water to get as far as this in her discipline. "Wave sailing humbles you because you will never be perfect, it is nature who dictates everything I am and am not capable of doing.

"The sea takes as much as it gives and it has taught me humility, respect and has ingrained in me just how mortal and flawed I am," says the doctor who qualified in 2011.

Irish Independent

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