Surfer and filmmaker George Karellas goes behind the scenes of Mullaghmore Head’s Billabong Monster Tow In Surf Session, as spectators and surfers alike wait for those incredible 30ft waves.
As the people behind Ireland’s first tow-in surf competition, the Billabong Monster Tow In Surf Session at Mullaghmore Head, the likes of Paul O’Kane and Richie Fitzgerald may have lost their perspective. They’re acutely aware of the size of the waves they ride; they just take disproportionately little credit for their contribution to Irish surfing.
It happens. It’s a human thing and we Irish are infectiously good at it. We underestimate our contributions and play down our good efforts. These competition organisers keep their heads down in a traditional exhibition of that coy Irish modesty.
Developed by surfers who sought to catch the big waves and break the 30-foot barrier, the tow-in surfing technique uses artificial assistance (jetskis etc) to allow the surfer to catch faster moving waves than paddling by hand affords, and the exceptional Mullaghmore competition sees only experienced surfers invited to take part.
The main modesty culprit is Paul O’Kane, president of the Irish Surf Rescue Club. He’s the man who has been credited with making Mullaghmore happen. Firstly, he’s not Irish but we won’t hold that against him. In typical Aussie fashion, Paul hides drive and determination with a fun and easygoing sense of humour. He’s caught the infection though, the Mullaghmore modesty.
Paul set up one hell of a scene as anyone who makes the pilgrimage to the wild Atlantic shores of County Sligo for the competition will attest to. Despite inevitably cold days, the sun does come in and out for the crowds who ditch their cars along the winding road leading to Mullaghmore Head. People excitedly line the edges of the cliffs with tripods and point their long lenses offshore.
Waves 20ft to 30ft high can look small until surfers become mere blips as they are catapulted into them by speeding jetskis. Cue the momentary hush as everyone on land holds their breath in unison. Massive cascading curtains of water engulf the surfer and suspenseful cries go up as everyone wonders if they will re-emerge. Then a missile of a human rocket clears, semi-crouched and bowed forward with intent, cheating the wave of its prey - causing a rush of elation to sweep across the headland.
The A Team
On the day, Paul presides over the scene from the water and in the competition’s inaugural year in 2011, even forfeited his own entry to oversee and ensure everything went smoothly. His investment goes much farther though.
Paul recognised that if we Irish want to be taken seriously as keepers of one of the ultimate surf destinations in the world, then we need to be on top of our game. Enter the jetski, the personal watercraft (PWC) we love to hate. But like any dangerous dog, it’s only as good or bad as its owner. Which is unfortunate because the PWC is at the forefront of modern surf rescue craft. It’s the lack of proper regulation that has allowed it to become much maligned and a key reason why Paul took it upon himself to organise the competition.
Two more proponents of the PWC and folk who are no strangers to the promotion and protection of Irish waves are pro surfer and Mullaghmore Head pioneer Gabe Davies and his tow partner, Richie Fitzgerald.
“It was in 1990 that I decided that what I wanted was to ride the big waves. I spent the next decade paddling into the biggest waves I could find” says Fitzgerald.
That’s the sort of legwork necessary to develop the skills needed to pioneer a wave like Mullaghmore Head. There’s no event without someone to test the waters. A wave has to be scouted, conditions monitored, weather patterns have to be studied so that reasonable predictions about when the wave might fire can be made. Only then can someone attempt to surf the wave.
Between 2000 and 2002 the pair explored the possibilities at Mullaghmore Head, experimenting with every aspect of the tow concept until they got it just right. After quickly honing their technique, they were soon joined by other surfers keen to get a piece of the action.
Grace Under Fire
Long admired as one of Ireland’s top female surfers, Easkey Britton is no stranger to hanging out with these big-wave guys and was the only woman to take part in the competition’s 2011 debut. The fact that Easkey is the only girl in the northwest crew doesn’t seem to faze anyone – not least herself.
“The guys are really laid back and I’m definitely not mothered.” she states.
Her 2011 performance also saw her become the only woman from Europe and the first from the UK and Ireland ever to be nominated for the Oscars of surfing - the Billabong XXL Awards.
At 28, not only is she holding her own in the face of three-story waves but she’s keeping a good grip on her sense of style and representing the ladies too.
“There’s no reason you can’t be a hardcore charger and have a bright pink board,” she quips.
A testament of the organisers' and surfers’ efforts to prove surfing’s economic value, competitions like this make massive strides in protecting the Wild Atlantic Way’s waves as national resources and superb sporting attractions.
There’s no room for modesty here, these wild Atlantic waves are something we should all be shouting from the cliff-tops about.
Get surf savvy with Richie Fitzgerald's Top 10 Tips, or discover more about the Wild Atlantic Way's waves here.