For three days last week Mullaghmore Head showed its most harrowing of faces, providing a feast of windswept caverns for the fearless few. Dylan Stott was present to surf and witness this swell event. His story depicts three days which further pushed the boundaries of European big-wave surfing.
Words by Dylan Stott.
When I first stood on the bluff at Mullaghmore thirteen years ago and watched the reef bend a 30ft open ocean swell into giant, warping mutants I was not scared. Like generations of surfers before me I thought the place was only for looking at. Now I live only several miles away. Now I have a rule for myself never to look from that bluff anymore. Now I just go straight out from the harbour. Because now that view scares the absolute hell out of me. Because surfing there, even at its biggest and meanest, is now solid concrete reality. And if it's not at its biggest and meanest – we paddle it, which scares me even more.
The Mully Crew is not a fixed size. But there are constants. When surfing Mullaghmore you can count one thing. Paul O’Kane. I won’t be the first to say this – Paul O’Kane is the Godfather of Mullaghmore. And like Mario Puzo’s Sicilian Godfather, Paul sets the example, and I’m not talking about where to sit and what lines to take, that stuff does not matter really. What matters is that everybody makes it back. Paul is far and away the most accomplished rescue driver on a ski. He has his equipment sussed down to every screw and thread of rope, he has more credentials and more experience than the rest of us – but that’s not what makes him so special.
First there was the paddle day. It was the first time I had ever paddled Mullaghmore with more than a handful of people. Usually I’m so scared sitting out in the lineup there that I become physically weak.
Paul is there for us. Like a good Godfather he falls into the protective roll of paternity. If the crew is going out, Paul is there first, waiting patiently in the harbour, ready to help get everybody else’s shit together. If we need advice, or to borrow a tool, we don’t waste time asking anybody else – straight to Paul. He is an essential part of all the fun we have. He gets plenty of waves, but surfing is not his priority. He wants everybody else to get waves – and he wants everybody to make it back to celebrate with hugs and high-fives.
Paul has been busy lately. This December the storm patterns clicked into a rhythm that kept the surfing population in the north west of Ireland tired, sore and rashed up. Band after band of swell poured off of the North Atlantic as if from a giant machine, rinsed clean by consistent and hard offshore winds.
These images are from three very different days during Saint Nick’s season. First there was the paddle day. It was the first time I had ever paddled Mullaghmore with more than a handful of people. Usually I’m so scared sitting out in the lineup there that I become physically weak. The sight of a lump coming in while sitting on a surfboard turns my muscles into jelly and dizzies my courage. My normal long paddles become rushed and panicked. Sometimes I have to sit there and give myself a little pep talk, aloud, just to paddle deep enough to find the takeoff bubble. Sometimes I’ll just repeat one thing over and over to myself, "Paul is looking after me, Paul is looking after me."
I’m not the only one. I think all of us out that day had similar problems in dealing with the fear barrier, save one. Fergal sits in the lineup at Mullagh’s like a monk sits on a mountain. He is happy. Calm. Contented. Sometimes he whistles a light little tune as he looks around, soaking in the beauty of Donegal Bay. He gave advice to the younger guys out there having a dig at the beast. Guys like Conor Maguire, who at a tender age has graduated from many slabby, smaller waves around Ireland to slabby giant ones.
It was a pretty special session where everybody pushed themselves beyond their comfort zone. And there was about an hour where every good wave that came in had riders, all paddling into their own waves. The small bodyboarding crew of Tom Gillespie, Conor Flanagan, and Shane Meehan also picked off proper set waves under the watchful eyes of the Godfather.
Cain took a beating – Olli caught a rail at high speed which slapped him flat, giving him a small concussion and making him very grumpy – Conor (Flanagan) got his board and leash wedged around his testicles, which hurt him so badly he puked before he even surfaced. All of those were session ending wipeouts, but Paul was there every time.
Which was a good thing because Mullaghmore was in fighting form. Cain took a beating – Olli caught a rail at high speed which slapped him flat, giving him a small concussion and making him very grumpy – Conor (Flanagan) got his board and leash wedged around his testicles, which hurt him so badly he puked before he even surfaced. All of those were session ending wipeouts, but Paul was there every time.
Two days later we were back out there. Too windy and big this time to paddle so we left the big boards at home. We lost Fergal, but Peter Conroy joined us, driving up between his fire fighting night shifts in the Dublin Fire Brigade. Cousins Neil and Easky Britton came along with fresh-faced Conor Maguire. Conor had borrowed a tow board from Ritchie Fitzgerald that was only several years younger than he was. Everybody got great waves, but Conor stole the show, surfing with the poise and style of a man with far more years and experience, a great debut into the Crew.
The finale almost never happened. We were tired. Beat up. Cold to the inner-bone. But the next day was even bigger again. The horrible storm winds going good and light in the afternoon. I sat there all morning at the high tide watching it and decided that it was too good to miss. I called on the crew to tell them. Nobody really thought the winds would back off between the storms, but they did. Nobody was ready for this one. But the crew came, and ninety minutes later we were out there, small in numbers but still a crew, watching the biggest swell of the year pour in over a near dry reef. It was massive and all I could think about was a sad, empty chair at a Christmas dinner table. But I knew Paul was there looking after things, so I tried my best to breathe and got a very special first wave of another epic session.