Friday 19 January 2018

Into the wild... with extreme adventure seekers

Skydiver Tommy Healy. Photo: Alf Harvey
Skydiver Tommy Healy. Photo: Alf Harvey
Kitesurfer Ronan Murphy. Photograph: Damien Eagers

Orla Neligan

Dangling by a rope over the Atlantic, free-falling at 13,000ft or running in the wilderness for three days may seem extreme to us average Joes, but these four extreme adventure seekers are taking it in their stride

We may be a small country but we play a big role when it comes to adventure. When we think of adrenaline sports, bungee jumping in New Zealand or white-water rafting down the Zambezi in Africa spring to mind, but Ireland is fast becoming a hot ticket for those seeking an adrenaline fix.

For an island, we have a vast natural playground that plays host to a huge range of extreme sports and adventure: an epic coastline that's never far away, hills for biking and climbing, huge waves for surfing and plenty of weird and wonderful sports from zorbing to coasteering. According to Fáilte Ireland, overseas visitors engaging in activity tourism in Ireland were worth €1.2bn in 2011.

"The extreme sports scene is thriving here," says Roisin Finlay, editor of Outsider magazine. "It's not so much focused on base jumping or swimming with man-eating sharks, as on extreme challenges and activities that get people out into the wild."

Depending on your stamina, you can now enter any number of multi-sport races from night kayaking in Cork, jumping cliffs on Clare Island, climbing remote sea stacks in the Burren or SUP (stand-up-paddling) at dawn on Lough Gill.

Right now, there is a host of brave - some may say crazy - sports enthusiasts taking it to extremes. Marathon runner Richard Donovan is trekking across America. In February 2012, he set a world record for running seven marathons on seven different continents in fewer than seven days. Emmet Hennegan recently stand-up-paddled from Malin to Mizen and Clare O'Leary and Mike O'Shea just returned from completing the first Irish crossing with dogs of the Greenland ice cap.

Owner of Pure Magic kitesurfing school on Dollymount Strand, Francois Colussi, came to Ireland 15 years ago on the Erasmus scheme and never left.

"Ireland is one of the best places in the world to kitesurf. I didn't intend to live here but Ireland is a strange mix of laid-back and venturesome, I love that about it and sometimes the place simply chooses you."

Skydiver, Tommy Healy

Dublin born and raised, father-of-three Tommy Healy (72) skydives every weekend at the Irish Parachute Club in Dublin. His first jump was with the British military in 1963, making him the oldest 'jumper' in Ireland. He spent 39 years with the Dublin Fire Brigade and is now retired and lives in Wicklow.

Anyone who has thrown themselves out of a plane at 13,000ft will probably recall (or not, by choice) the terror-stricken feeling when the plane door opens, and you try to drag your lump-like legs after you. Now imagine one lump-like leg getting stuck while you dangle precariously under the fuselage.

"That was my one-and-only 'hang up'," admits Tommy Healy, who is Ireland's oldest skydiver. "My leg strap got caught in the door frame and I was hanging parallel to the runway. I remember thinking if the pilot tries to land the plane, I'm going to get severe runway rash."

You'd think you would retire after that. Instead, Tommy went around again and on the second turn jumped successfully. A stretch of 39 years with the fire brigade and military training prepared him for those death-defying moments, but he admits to getting 'wobbly' up there. "I think if you weren't a bit anxious before jumping it wouldn't be worth it. That's the exciting bit," he says.

The challenge for him is finding something new in every jump. "I love not knowing if this is going to be the day when you have to remember your reserve drill." According to Tommy, the riskier the sport, the better the safety systems. A lot of time is spent on rituals: checking packs, making sure nothing is dislodged, going over exiting procedures, and for Tommy, kissing his parachute. "When we're all in the hangar getting ready, I usually give my pack a quick kiss. I'm not religious but if ever there was a time to pray, that's it!"

There will come a time when Tommy has to retire from the skies but right now he's still planning on adding to his 640-jump record. "I've never seen my age as a disadvantage. That's the beauty about skydiving, as long as you're articulate and able, you can jump."

His parting advice for anyone taking the plunge for the first time? "Don't get on a plane hungover and for God's sake, don't close your eyes, enjoy the panorama and, don't forget to enjoy the ride."

Rock Climber, Vicky Cleary

As a graphic designer, Vicky Cleary (37) from Cork spent plenty of frustrated years at an office desk until she caught the 'climbing bug'. She now teaches the sport at Awesome Walls in Cork.

What scares someone who abseils down sheer rock faces and climbs 100-metre cliffs over the sea? Cycling in Dublin city (yes, you read that correctly). "Don't get me wrong, I do get scared, especially when your equipment is in a dubious position and you wonder, will it hold you, but the key is to treat it tactically and not to panic."

With 14 years of climbing behind her, Vicky has had her share of near-death brushes. Getting caught in an electrical storm in the Gorge du Verdon, France was one to remember. "Once you abseil in, you're committed, there's no getting back out. I remember seeing huge vultures circling overhead and thinking I'd make a nice dinner and then this electrical storm blew in, the rocks were slippery and I was worried about my equipment holding, but we had to keep climbing."

Good teamwork is essential, since one person stays on the ground and feeds the slack rope, then collects the equipment on their way up. "If you don't trust your partner, you won't climb well." For most of us, the idea of hanging off a remote limestone cliff, seagulls flying around your head, the Atlantic crashing below you, would be terrifying. For Vicky it's spiritual.

"You definitely have a closer connection to God when you think you're going to plunge into the sea," laughs Vicky. "But there's a real sense of being alive, being part of nature that you don't get anywhere else. When I'm having a bad day, it's definitely my happy place."

Photos: Jeff Harvey

Adventure Racer, Heather Irvine

Growing up in Dún Laoghaire afforded 30-year-old former model Heather Irvine a chance to sail from a young age. It wasn't until she worked as deputy editor of Outsider magazine that she discovered her love of adventure racing. She now lives in London with her South African boyfriend Patrick Snelgar, also a fellow racer, and is editor-in-chief of Total Woman Cycling, Cooler and Outside Times.

"Sometimes I wonder how I ever finish a race," laughs Heather Irvine, who is confessing to being a bad map-reader and a bit disorganised. Just last year she, and her racing partner Gavin Lyons, got lost while competing in a race in Canada.

This year she's feeling a lot more confident as she prepares, with her three fellow teammates, for the Beast of Ballyhoura, a gruelling 72-hour adventure race that will involve very little sleep, long hours canoeing, trekking, mountain biking and abseiling. But Heather "can't wait to spend three days in the middle of nowhere, having a laugh and getting into hairy situations". The low-point is the sheer endurance.

Two years ago Heather nearly lost her heel while competing in a 250km-running race in Iceland. "The blister was so bad my entire ankle swelled up, the medical team were taking pictures of it and threatening to make it into a book. It became known as the 'shark bite'."

But she finished the race; in fact her team won their event. She admits that it's the team element and pure escapism that draws her back. "It's akin to that sense of adventure you get as a kid, the ones you read in Enid Blyton novels, a whole world out there to explore and you'll be surprised by what your body can do."

But, she admits, adventure racing can be cruel, especially to your skin. "The lads were all laughing at me in Iceland when I took out my Elizabeth Arden eight-hour cream, but by day two they were all borrowing it."

Photo: Valerie O'Sullivan

KiteSurfer , Ronan Murphy

46-year-old Ronan Murphy admits his wife Celene is probably a bigger adrenaline junkie than him, and only stopped throwing herself out of planes to have their two kids, Harriet (3.5) and Archie (1). They now live in Kilternan, Dublin and Ronan spends his days between managing his successful juice company Pure Green, which he co-owns with partner Karl Mulvey, and catching airtime at Poolbeg beach.

As part-owner of Pure Green, the successful cold-pressed juice company that now supplies over 26 SuperValus around the country, Ronan Murphy admits to needing a good 'stress reliever'.

Kitesurfing happens to tick all those boxes. "Wives, family and work are the biggest day-to-day challenges," he laughs. "Nothing beats the freedom and speed of being out on the water, it's exhilarating."

Kitesurfing is now the fastest growing watersport in the world, but comes with a certain set of risks. "It's like when people go skiing and say they didn't fall, well then, they weren't having fun. Kiting is the same - if you don't fall in the water, there's no point. You have to take risks, you have to push yourself. You might hit the water and get a wallop but it's only water."

A keen rugby player, Ronan retired from the field in his thirties and tried filling the sporting gap with golf but realised whacking a ball up a fairway wasn't quite on par ('scuse the pun) with adrenaline sports. Eight years ago he watched some guys kitesurfing on Dollymount Strand and decided to get some lessons.

He now kites three times a week at Poolbeg beach where it's shallow, tidal and empty, but admits to being spoilt for choice in Ireland where prevailing and westerly winds bring speed and waves. Ronan's children are still a bit young to ride the boards, but that hasn't stopped him planning holidays around kitesurfing. Spain and Indonesia are on his surfing map, but, for now, he's got a 1.30pm date with a wave at Poolbeg. "My wife says to me 'Are you going kiting again?' and my answer is always 'Where would you rather me be, the bookies or the pub?'. Plus, she knows, I'm a lot less grumpy after a surf."

Photos: Damien Eagers

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