Lifestyle Health

Saturday 17 March 2018

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
Katie McAnena

Alison O'Riordan

'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.

"But looking back over your shoulder and seeing a wall of water the size of a three-storey building is fairly exhilarating. I was smiling the whole time."

Having started windsurfing at the age of 14, Katie considers herself very lucky to have grown up across the road from Rusheen Bay Windsurfing centre in Galway.

"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.

During her six years' studying, Katie would devote three months of her summer holidays each year learning to windsurfing in well as availing of an additional gap year.

"As a medical student, I was incredibly busy and loved what I was doing, but there was always a conflict between trying to train and improve at windsurfing and achieve the best results I could in university.

"So my gap year afforded me the time I needed to devote weeks to non-stop windsurfing and finally break through to a level where I could begin tackling the waves and start competition."

It was only then that she was at a level where she could win Irish ladies' titles and rank in the top 10 of the male pro fleet.

"I then spent the next three years finishing my degree and working last year as an intern doctor at home in Galway and Sligo. All during this time it was, as usual, a matter of time management and prioritising study over windsurfing. However, I still managed to squeeze every second out of my holidays and compete in UK and Irish contests. It is a shame that the nature of my career doesn't afford me the ability to windsurf and compete whilst still being successful in my career."

That is why she has taken this year off work to travel and train and has competed in Tenerife, Mexico, Peru and Maui. Now, the avid windsurfer has only two months left before she returns to work on a surgical training scheme with orthopaedics in her home town.

"Hopefully someday I will be able to work and windsurf in equal measures. . . but for now it's one or the other, sadly."

One thing Katie is hopeful of is to see more Irish women adopting the sport.

"The reality is there are just are no women at all in the sport. It's so sad, I really would kill to see more women taking to the water and pushing their level. It's the perfect sport for Ireland because sure, what else can you do when its howling windy and pouring rain. . . which is basically every day."

This article orginally appeared in Fit Magazine

Irish Independent

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