7 Jan 2014

Big wave hunters head to Ireland for the stormy weather

There’s surfing. And there’s big wave surfing. Forget Hawaii. Because in the middle of winter, the Donegal Sligo border is where it’s at.  Over the past few nights the storm may have wreaked havoc on land. But it’s a surfer’s dream.

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Dawn has barely broken and pro surfers Andrew Cotton and Lyndon Wake are scanning the horizon – checking out the swell. Not for the first time we pile back into the van.  It is the eternal search for the perfect wave, which means big. Really big.  And word is to get down the coast quick – and make the most of the tide.

On the slipway At Mullaghmore Head, a motley crew of journeyed surfers alight. Accents from the USA, Sligo and South Africa lilt on the wind.

Someone complains of a cold and soggy wetsuit. Kipping on a mate’s floor didn’t extend to drying out the kit on a radiator – this filling his house with the smell of urine-soaked winter surf gear. The suits stayed locked in the van overnight.

But the surf?  The surf is what makes it all worth it.

At its best here it’s “between 50 and 60 ft range”, says Wake. That’s higher than the roof of the harbourmaster’s office.  Mile upon mile of freezing Atlantic water channelled towards land by the winter storm – upended by a granite reef not far underfoot.

But that is precisely why the conditions on the west coast of Ireland are known by an elite band of big wave hunters as the best in the world.


Wake and Cotton live in Devon.  When the storm over the weekend hit, Cotton checked the surf forecasts and booked the ferry to Dublin.  Filming the trip, Mikey Corker from Cape Town. For Cotton is hunting the biggest wave on the planet.

At the moment that wave is found in Nazarre, Portugal.  And Hawaiian big wave specialist Garret McNamara currently has  the record – safely making it down a 100ft face of heavy, heavy water.

The man who towed him in on a jet ski – Cotton. Cotton has conquered Nazarre too – but when  it was maxing out in the region of 70ft. He wants more and says the scariest thing isn’t doing it – but watching it from shore.

“When surfing them I don’t think about it – the biggest thing that scares me is mind surfing.  That’s when I imagine things going wrong.”

But these last few days, the storm means things are going well.

“It’s fantastic news for us,” says Nick Rees, the operations manager for surfing GB. He’s appeared on the cliff above Mullaghmore to watch the big boys.

“Everyone around Europe is loving it – although it’s tricky for the people affected by the storm. Big swells mean happy surfers.”

Who needs Hawaii indeed..

Local surfer Ollie O’Flaherty is one of the few with the experience to handle these big winter swells. “Why would you go to Hawaii?’ he says, shivering in the winter chill.

At which point clouds peel back and soft Sligo sun dapples down his goose pimpled neck. “You see, here’s the sunshine! I can control the weather!”

He winks and trudges across the rocky shore to head home. Which happens to be one of the towns under several inches of floodwater right now.

But while the waves are good – paddle on. For tomorrow the storm heads off.  The swell – and the surfers follow. Some say northern Scotland. Some will go south.  The Endless winter – come rain or shine.

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