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Big wave surfers in Kilcummin

Hunched down, seeking shelter behind a tall boulder from the bitingly cold wind and rain, I watched the surfers, a few hundred metres off Kilcummin pier, bobbing up and down in a wild sea – their chase for the perfect wave had brought them to North Mayo.

On this bone-chilling February afternoon, surfers waited in their take-off zone for the perfect wave break, clinging to their boards in a wild sea churned up by a 12-foot north-west swell.

Watching the spray blowing back over the wave tops, forming misty tails as the mountainous seas reared and crashed, my efforts at staying dry were coming unstuck. Incessant rain, dripping down the face of my rock- shelter near the pier, was making it difficult to keep my camera dry.

And I was getting wet and cold, but my small discomforts were easily forgotten in the excitement of watching the big wave surfers showing all their skills surfing the powerful 10-foot waves.

Surfing Kilcummin's big wave, February 9th, 2019. Photo: Anthony Hickey
Surfing Kilcummin’s big wave, February 9th, 2019. Photo: Anthony Hickey

Looking east across Killala Bay, the ocean was heaving and shifting as far as the horizon. It was as if some imaginary subterranean hand was shaking the ground beneath the bay from side to side.

Almost like clockwork sets of mountainous waves rolled in, standing tall and barrelling southwards, the kind of wave breaks surfers chase in their dreams.

Towering walls of water rising from the depths, climbing higher and higher as they rush shorewards. Surfers paddling vigorously for their take-off spot, ready to surf the waves’ energy.

Surfing Kilcummin's big wave, February 9th, 2019. Photo: Anthony Hickey
Surfing Kilcummin’s big wave, February 9th, 2019. Photo: Anthony Hickey

It all appears so unpredictable. But not to the surfers who have learned to read the swells, waves, wind and currents. Knowledge of where you surf is vital; serious injury or worse awaits the foolhardy.

William Finnegan, in his wonderful book, Barbarian Days, about a lifetime of surfing, gives an insight into the terror and ecstasy the surfer experiences on big wave days.

“Being out in big surf is dreamlike. Terror and ecstasy ebb and flow around the edges of things, each threatening to overwhelm the dreamer. An unearthly beauty saturates an enormous arena of moving water, latent violence, too-real explosions, and sky.”

Catching the right wave doesn’t always happen as planned, but when it does the surfer will rocket all the way to the shore in a perfect exhilarating wave ride. Others pay for their misjudgement by being tossed furiously like flotsam into the air or swallowed in an explosion of whitewater.

Surfing Kilcummin's big wave, February 9th, 2019. Photo: Anthony Hickey
Surfing Kilcummin’s big wave, February 9th, 2019. Photo: Anthony Hickey

Meanwhile, the racing wall of water is curling and folding into tubes as gravity takes control. Surfing under the folding wave – or tube riding – is only for the most experienced surfers making the spectacle all the more exciting to watch.

Spectators like myself might be entertained by the mishaps as we wait to see the perfect take-off. But for surfers, it’s about speed and momentum in a race to keep ahead of the breaking wave in a burst of speed, control and skill that takes them along the steep, unbroken part of the crest.

Surfing Kilcummin's big wave, February 9th, 2019. Photo: Anthony Hickey
Surfing Kilcummin’s big wave, February 9th, 2019. Photo: Anthony Hickey

For the casual onlooker, surfing can appear repetitive, a sport where nothing much seems to happen for long periods. And that can often be true.

Slowing down at the end of the ride as the surfer reaches whitewater washing up on the rocky shore.

Paddling out again further down the tube; riding over the wave’s shoulder; duck diving beneath the swell, or paddling high over a precipitous crest before dropping out of sight into the trough on the far side of the wave on the way to the lineup. And then it’s a waiting game, staying alert for that perfect wave.

Surfing Kilcummin's big wave, February 9th, 2019. Photo: Anthony Hickey
Surfing Kilcummin’s big wave, February 9th, 2019. Photo: Anthony Hickey

I have been watching surfers for years and in time you get to know what and who to watch. The best surfers display the skill and artistry of a ballet dancer and the agility and strenght of a gymnast.

Finesse and flair are on show, too. Circus-like manoeuvres, translated into surfer parlance as reversing, carving and the kickflip, are all part of the fun and add to the spectacle.

Surfers, swinging up the face of the wave to perform gravity-defying movements on the erupting surf, is a spectacular and exciting skill.

If it looks like skateboarding on water it’s because it is. Californian surfers created the sport of skateboarding in the 1950s to pass idle afternoons when the sea was flat

Surfing Kilcummin's big wave, February 9th, 2019. Photo: Anthony Hickey
Surfing Kilcummin’s big wave, February 9th, 2019. Photo: Anthony Hickey

When the waves are epic, you will meet surfers from all over the world in Kilcummin and Easkey ticking off another conquest on their globe-trotting quest to ride the perfect wave.

Grey clouds sealing off the distant horizon and smothering Nephin heralded more rain. It was time for me to go. Wet and cold now; numbed fingers were useless for focussing my camera on the action out at sea.

Maybe I’ll wear my wet suit under my jacket on these wonderful days in future to stay dry. It would be no more bizarre than the everyday harbour-side sight of a row of neatly stacked lobster pots in readiness for Kilcummin’s fishing season standing alongside colourful surfboards being waxed for wave action.

By Anthony Hickey

Follow writer and photographer, Anthony Hickey, as he travels around his native Co. Mayo, Ireland.