Days at Home: Ireland's Session of the Decade

Seamus Mc Goldrick

by on

Updated 65d ago

It was a freezing January’s day, almost 10-years-ago now in 2013, when the swell of the decade hit the west coast of Ireland.

The pic above? That was one of the best waves I rode that year at a place I’ll call Richie’s Reef names after a local author Fitchie Richgerald (names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty).

I had spent the morning at Mullaghmore Head watching the most mind blowing, psycho waves rolling in. It was the same morning that Peter Conroy caught one of the greatest waves ever ridden at Mullaghmore. Shit, it was one of the greatest waves ever ridden in Europe. A psycho Irish wave ridden by a psycho Irish fireman. Not a hero, a superhero.

Myself and Shane Meehan had been sitting on the headland watching the waves from the comfort of my van. It was freezing, the swell period was huge and the wind was from the southeast. This had the effect of helping Donegal Bay funnelling the swell into huge lines that stretched out from one side of the bay to the other. Southeast wind is a type of devil wind at Mullaghmore.

The south shore of Donegal Bay funnels the wind along the coastline right out to the Atlantic Ocean. South wind is straight offshore, but a southeast wind blows at an angle to the wave straight into the tube. This helps the wave break thicker and stand up more. It also makes the waves harder to catch.

The southeast wind this day was helping produce the most insane tubes. But the wind was sending massive ribs up the face of each wave as it broke causing trouble for the surfers riding these monsters. The effect of the ribs and the southeast wind did not seem too bad from the shore.

Myself and Shane toyed with the idea of paddling out on our bodyboards. We had watched too many amazing rides go down. We had to get out there. That was what we had been saying to each other for the last hour. But neither of us had moved a muscle to actually pull on a wetsuit.

Von Rupp caught so many crazy waves that day. Triple or quadruple what anyone else got. It was freakish.

With the stiff offshore wind, the waves looked like hell to paddle into. Most people were towing in. At least the surfers have their nine-foot guns or weighted tow boards. Bodyboarders use their standard-size boards. The waves were massive. A lot of doubts were swirling around in my mind. I gave myself lots of excuses not to paddle out.

A dark and heavy Irish freight train being navigated by Shambles.

A dark and heavy Irish freight train being navigated by Shambles.

© 2022 - Conor Lee

'You won't be able to catch anything.'

'You'll be too scared to catch anything.'

'You're not good enough. There is too much current. You'll get blown out to sea, run over by a jetski.'

'You'll drown.'

But none of these excuses were good enough. There was no denying it. The waves were perfect. It was all-time. Mully was going crazy. I watched another surfer let go of the rope. They disappeared into a huge end bowl tube, a cartoon-style wave. We thought they were toast but, to our disbelief, they got spat out into the channel. I honked the car horn. Cars parked along the entire headland honked their horns.

In the end, I decided I had to go out. No matter how scared I was. A point came when I finally jumped out of my van and started turning my wetsuit inside out. I ignored the small voice inside my head telling me I was crazy as I prepared to follow through with my decision.

At that fateful moment, a rattled-looking Ollie O'Flaherty walked past my van. He had been one of the madmen out there towing in all morning.

Shambles in an emerald tube.

Shambles in an emerald tube.

© 2022 - Jordan Masters

'How is it out there Ollie. Do you think it is doable on a bodyboard?'

Ollie explained about the huge ribs on the wave face that you could not see from the land. Essentially, each rib was like a four foot wave travelling up the face. The ribs had to be expertly negotiated making for a tricky ride. Most of the tow surfers had lead weights in their boards to deal with extra chop on the wave face. Ollie assured me that a flimsy little bodyboard would have no chance.

This zapped whatever bit of confidence I had mustered. Looking back now from the comfort of my keyboard, of course, I wish I had paddled out. I have not seen a swell like it since. However, hindsight is always 20/20. Sure, maybe I could have gone and got the wave of my life. Equally, I could have went over the falls on a Peter-Conroy-style wave and never surfed again. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

In the end, I decided I had to go out. No matter how scared I was. A point came when I finally jumped out of my van and started turning my wetsuit inside out. I ignored the small voice inside my head telling me I was crazy as I prepared to follow through with my decision.

I slowly put my right-way-round wetsuit back in my van. I ran away and lived to fight another day. But when a door closes, a windows opens. Fast forward a few hours and I am standing on a cliff looking at an iconic left hand slab, Richie's Reef. A genuine cold water Pipeline. It was all-time wind and swell conditions. I remember that the water was full of a host of local surfers as well as international big wave pros.

The surf was huge and the line up was buzzing with fear and excitement in equal measure. Giant twelve foot close outs rolled through at random. It was mid-January and the cold was severe. The crisp winter conditions were exhilarating. I felt a cold fire burning. The weather in many senses was gorgeous, tough and mystical all at the same time.

I had bottled the surf on offer that morning. Nature does not always offer you a second chance. I got suited up and paddled out.

An Irish bodyboard legend. Always informed on the sport, and not bad with a boog himself.

An Irish bodyboard legend. Always informed on the sport, and not bad with a boog himself.

© 2022 - Dylan Tzen

When I had arrived in the lineup, it was fairly jammed with most of the crew who had been surfing Mullaghmore earlier that day. It was a chaotic scene. There was a lot of jostling for waves going on and amid that these massive closeout sets would just sweep in out of nowhere and wash through the line up. So you had to be on your toes. I sat around and waited my turn like everyone else eager to display respect for the unwritten surf rules that govern any line up.

There were a lot of people in the water, a lot of big wave guns and everyone was going for it. Mostly people were getting smashed which made you just want to go for it. I knew I had to get a wave under my belt to calm the nerves. I took off on one, pulled in and got smashed. I popped up afraid a huge set was going to land on my head but the coast was clear and I got straight back out in the line up.

Thirty minutes went by. I was doing a good job of avoiding the close out sets but I was finding it nearly impossible to get a second wave. In any other normal situation, if I had been out at one of these pros' home breaks for example, I would have been at the bottom of the pecking order. But since I had been surfing here since I was fifteen I was right at the top of the food chain. I was pretty much one of the only Irish people in the water. I was certainly the only bodyboarder.

The myth, the man, the legend.

The myth, the man, the legend.

© 2022 - Owen Tozer

So, when this one peach rolled in I felt well within my rights to yell out to the crowd, 'This one is mine' even though I wasn't sitting in priority. In the absence of a friend to do it, it only seemed natural to call myself into that wave. And it worked, no one paddled for the wave. I had to charge through the throng of the aforementioned pros to claim my slice of the pie. I think the assembled pros were a little surprised when the solo bodyboarder in the water just shouted out to everyone to back off. There was a moment of confusion in the line up.

The crisp winter conditions were exhilarating. I felt a cold fire burning. The weather in many senses was gorgeous, tough and mystical all at the same time.

I had my head down and now that I had claimed it I had better bloody catch it. You got to back up talk with action. However, I had half a dozen pros with half a dozen nine foot guns sitting right in front of me. So I had to paddle right through this pack who were doing their best to get out of my way. But they were packed tight. I was committed so what could I do? I remember snaking through all these surfboard and actually grabbing the noses of some of them as I paddled past, pushing myself forward to catch this wave.

The wave was not part of a set. This wave was more of a lone gun man. Not too big, not too small. Like Goldilock's porridge, it was just right and had my name stamped all over it. I remember yelling everyone off the wave. I remember paddling over all the surfers in front of me. Then I remember the wave itself.

A perfect wave. An exciting drop, an easy bottom turn, set your line, watch as the lip starts to pitch over your head, heart in your mouth the whole way. Suddenly you are in. Suddenly things slow down and you start to enjoy the view. There was a moment I thought I might not make it. But she let me out easy in the end. A tiny mist of spit to say farewell.

It was my wave of the session, which was a tricky one given the power of the swell.

The wave that lives rent-free in Shambles' memory.

I paddled back out. It was a crowded line-up but I wasn't pissed off with anyone. On the contrary, since I had got a decent barrel I felt a huge sense of relief. I also felt more connected with the other guys out there who had got decent waves. Ultimately, surfers are all connected by the same experience. It was very much an 'only a surfer knows the feeling' type of a moment.

Most of the session was spent paddling to the horizon as massive close out sets came in. That iconic session was actually dominated by the then virtually unknown Portugese surfer Nic Von Rupp. Nic was not known as a big wave hellman back then. But he would be soon after his premiere visit to Ireland. That morning he had tried tow surfing for the first time at pumping twenty foot Mullaghmore. Furthermore, it was Nic's first time surfing Richie's Reef. And it was the best I had ever seen it. Giant Richie's is never easy.

Make sure you check out Nic's classic film from that swell, here.

Von Rupp caught so many crazy waves that day. Triple or quadruple what anyone else got. It was freakish. It was not like Nic was being a wave hog. Nic had just clicked with the wave in a mysterious and awesome way. I always liked to call Nic the European Tom Curren after watching him surf that day.

Nic was surfing quite a small board that session. I'll never forget seeing Nic hold his position when everyone else headed for the hills as twelve foot sets approached. That took nerve, particularly at this spot, on that day. And especially since it was his first time out there. A semi close out set would march in but Nic did not paddle out to save himself. He sat and held his nerve in position under the ledge.

Then at the last moment, he would spin around and give two swift strokes and just free fall into these things as they were pitching, growing and throwing top to bottom.


A gift from Jeff

I got my wave and headed in soon after. I was chilled to the bone but stoked. I was never much of a photo hound and the thought of chasing images or footage was not in my mind. I wanted to get changed, get warm and bask in the afterglow of an amazing session. Besides, most of the photographers had their lens trained on the pros, or so I thought.

Weeks later, Tom Gillespie told me that Jeff Flindt had been in the water shooting that day and that I should get in touch with him. I knew there were photographers on the land but I was totally unaware that there was a water photographer in the line up. And not just any photographer but Jeff Flindt. The Jeff Flindt: US photographer extraordinaire. I knew of Jeff from his work on a bunch of iconic bodyboarding movies.

I decided to reach out to Jeff on Facebook and ask if he really had been in Ireland for that swell. Jeff told me not only had he been out at Richie's Reef that day but he had managed to be in the perfect spot when I got my wave of the session. Jeff told me he was super stoked when he checked his camera after the session and saw how the sequence of my wave turned out. He wanted to share the stoke and said he would send it to me.

A few weeks later, true to his word, an email landed in my inbox from Jeff with the sequence. And because he knew I was a local bodyboarder and not a pro surfer with contracts, magazine commitments and sponsorship dollars, he never asked me for a penny for the shots. He never even brought it up. What a legend. I think Jeff was genuinely blown away by Ireland and the waves he saw that day. He was a professional photographer but there was still an element to what he did that was pure, that was just for the love.

I had been buzzing for weeks after that all-time session. The adrenaline was just starting to fade. And there, out of the blue, one of the world's best water photographers emails me:

'Hey Shambles, yeah, I caught your wave on camera. The photos are yours man. No worries. Take it easy'.

Uh, thanks!

I knew who Jeff Flindt was. But I wasn't even aware he was in the country for that swell. Never mind in the water for that session. And then, for a busy professional photographer to take the time to email me the shots with a nice note. What a gent.

It was just one of those things. You completely let go of something and the moment you do, there it is. A beautiful sequence of images that offered me an outside, visual perspective of what the wave embedded in your memory appeared like to an outside observer. According to the laws of quantum physics, the observer can effect the thing observed.

So maybe Jeff being their watching, acting as an observed, effected that wave and the outcome. Perhaps. Certainly, our lives became entangled afterwards. Quantum entanglement? Surely not. But then you never know. This article certainly never would have existed.

Photos and footage are often a double-edged sword. It has been the case where I will get a crazy wave and that evening I get to see the footage a friend has taken of the same wave. Fair play to them for standing the freezing cold for three hours to film one lousy wave. But more often than not the original, vague memory of the wave fades and is replaced by the conscious memory of the concrete image or video.

You can remember the footage exactly. And the actual memory gets obliterated. And often, when I see footage of a wave that felt amazing very soon after I caught it, I am slightly disappointed with what I see. Whereas the wave in real time felt amazing and perfect. On video, I tend to see the imperfections over the perfections. That is the nature of the game.

I wanted to get changed, get warm and bask in the afterglow of an amazing session. Besides, most of the photographers had their lens trained on the pros, or so I thought.

But there is the thing. Serendipity is still serendipitous. Jeff's photos arrived just long enough after the fact that the memory of that perfect wave had successfully made it down through my conscious into my subconscious and into the long-term memory banks, where all epic rides live forever.

Footage exists forever too, as long as your hard drive does not crash and a nervous breakdown beckons. But viewing the footage of a wave soon after you ride it can derail the process of memory where you absorb the image of the thing rather than the thing itself.

I still remember everything about that wave. Jostling with the crowd. Yelling at the pros who definitely were not used to being called off a set wave by a bodyboarder. I remember thinking that the wave was the perfect size. Not too big nor too small. There were some absolute beasts coming through that day that I did not want any part of. Total mind melters. And as everyone was scratching towards the horizon, Nic Von Rupp suddenly, instinctively, knew he was in the right spot and turned around at the last second and went.

The hero image from that fateful day, and this article's cover image.

The hero image from that fateful day, and this article's cover image.

© 2022 - Jeff Flindt

I remember as I milled through the surfers in front of me I grabbed the noses of their guns to pull myself forward quicker and catch the lone perfect peach on a day of gnarly close outs. I remember thinking, hey, hold your line, the wave is going to do all the work for you. Then thinking, oh shit, I am too deep. I remember sitting pretty in a perfect green barrel.

Coming out with speed as the wave spit lightly. It is one of those waves that I will never forget. I am not saying it was the best wave ridden that day. I am not saying it is the best wave I have ever had at that spot. I am just saying that it is one of those waves I will never forget.

And I hope someday in the future, if Mr Flindt ever makes it back to Eire, I can buy him a good pint of Guinness (or ten) in Bundoran's Bridge Bar. And swap stories of that session reliving, if we may, two points of view which are separate yet intimately familiar. One passive and one active. Yin yang. Different branch but the same root. Together but apart.