Cover image: Shambles pre femur snap at Rileys. Photo: George Karbus
On Sunday 13th March 2016 I took my heaviest wipeout ever. I took off on a 6ft nug at Rileys, wiped out and viciously smashed the reef. I sustained a comminuted femoral shaft fracture on my right leg and cracked my head off the ground. If I hadn't been wearing a hooded six mil Billabong wettie I would have probably fractured my skull or have been knocked unconscious.
Now, this came as no surprise to me. I always knew Rileys could kill or seriously maim me. I know the risks I am taking when I get in the water at places like Rileys, Aileens or Mullaghmore. If I was unaware of these obvious risks, well then, I have no right to be in those lineups. If you don't know what you are getting yourself into, don't get in.
But then again, I love Rileys. I still love Rileys. And I love Mickey Smith for discovering Rileys. Of course it is a dangerous wave, which is what I love about it. It wouldn't be fun if it wasn't dangerous. The keyword here is respect. Respect for the ocean and respect for other water users.
I don't take unnecessary risks, but I do take calculated risks. No one forced me to paddle out that morning. Mike Stewart wasn't emailing me the night before saying, 'You have to get the shots Shambles, just go on anything'. No one forced me to paddle into that killer wave.
It was my own fault really, I broke my own golden rule: don't surf Rileys too late into the dropping tide. To be fair, I had just caught a nice wave and was content to ride it to the beach and call it a day. But the whitewater brought me dangerously close to the super sketchy righthander beside the notorious gully adjacent to Rileys so I was forced to paddle back out in order to get in. The wave I chose to take in, however, was a life changing one.
Fergal Smith, the man who first came to my rescue, came to visit me in hospital, so I sat down to chat with him about the wipeout from hell and I also wanted to ask him a couple of questions about his recent political adventures.
Shambles: Thanks for coming to visit Ferg, and thanks for the kale, beetroot and other nutritious bits and bobs, that'll help my recovery more than a big box of Roses. So, how was it for you?
Fergal: Yeah, it was a pretty scary moment. As soon as you came up I could see you were kinda flailing around. I saw you were grabbing your knee so I knew straight away something was up. It is super gnarly out there and you can get swept back out in an instant. Waves come in and they sweep around and there was a lot of rip that day and I was like, 'Oh no, if he gets swept back out you would be in the channel for the next hour waiting for the chopper'.
I scorpioned down the face. I got to the bottom, pulled-in and bailed straight away.
I could see you knew you had injured yourself and you were just scrambling for the shore. You weren't floating around, even though you had a broken femur you were still head down, swimming for the shore. So, I was like, 'Ok, he really needs to get in'. I was getting changed and I had my wetsuit half down, so did I put my wetsuit back on? Will I have to actually get in the water to swim out and get him? But I said feck it, I ran down. You had got so far in, I literally only had to go in to my waist and I could grab you in between a wave, but it was close, you can get close to shore and still easily get swept out again.
S: I just remember chatting to Bad Bad Leroy Brown a.k.a. Leroy Davis in the lineup and spotting a wave that totally wasn't a closeout, there were mostly closeouts that day. I took one look at it and put my head down and went for it. I was like, 'I got it, I got it, I got it, I don't got it'.
It went pretty nuts on takeoff and I scorpioned down the face. I got to the bottom, pulled-in and bailed straight away. I went completely over the falls. It is a pretty bad feeling going over the falls at Rileys, especially at mid-tide, ha ha. Going over the falls, I wrapped both arms around my head and began to pray. As Cliff Skudin says, 'There are no atheists in the impact zone'.
Instead of landing on my head, I somehow cartwheeled fully around and landed feet first straight onto the reef. I think the instant the wave hit me my front leg gave way and my head hit the reef and I saw this blinding white flash. I basically got squashed like an ant. The rest of the wipeout is a blank except for the feeling of getting hit in the back of my head by my foot.
When I came to the surface I didn't really know what was going on. I didn't notice my leg was broken because I was still tripping out at how hard I hit my head. After a few seconds I was like, 'No, I am ok'. The next wave was smaller but when it hit me I lost my bodyboard completely, my leash snapped. I was getting rolled around and something heavy was hitting into my back and ribs and my other leg.
I was under the water bodysurfing to shore when I started hearing this noise inside my head, like someone was playing a xylophone. It was actually the weirdest thing ever. I wasn't hearing the sound coming from somewhere else, I could hear it inside my own head. I looked down and saw my right fin rattling over the surface of the limestone below like a dead weight. The vibrations were traveling through my bones and into my skull where I could hear them.
I realised I had broken my leg and that was what had been hitting me during those wipeouts. I thought it was a seal or something. I surfaced and waved to the boys and I saw Fergal scrambling down the rocks and I thought, 'Sweet, Fergal is on his way'.
I looked down and saw I had actually broken my thighbone. I remembered a first aid and surf survival talk given by Peter Conroy where he mentioned that a femur fracture can be fatal. I looked to shore and saw my bodyboard some way off. Floating around wasn't good because my leg was a dead weight and was dragging me under. So I half swam, half bodysurfed, half crawled to shore. I remember holding on to the reef with the water draining past me wanting to pull me seaward, or over towards the gully – a fate I would not like to contemplate – when Fergal appeared and grabbed me under both arms. I was stoked to see him.
F: Yeah, you know how when you are going to try and save someone's life or whatever you get all your adrenaline going: But Jesus, you are some heavy, hefty, muscley man, because I couldn't lift you! I was like, 'shit, this is not good enough, I can't lift you!'. That moment was really scary.
S: Ha ha, I remember that, but see, once you grabbed me I totally let go.
F: Yeah, you let go and you were like, 'It's my leg. It's my femur'. And I could see the leg moving and I went, 'Ok, this isn't good'. Because I knew you have your big artery there and I wanted to make sure I didn't mess up at that critical time, I wanted to get you out of the water as quickly as possible but not damage the leg. So I was pulling you in with waves and your leg was getting pulled around, and then back around, when the wave went out again. I wanted to rush to get you in, but I didn't want to rush either.
I got you into the the rocks, the were still waves coming around us but it wasn't bad. And then Mickey (Smith) had seen and he'd run back and Leroy (Davies) had come in. But it was so lucky you got straight in, because otherwise it could had been so different.
S: I remember you were holding me up under my arms, Leroy had my good leg and Mickey picked up the other leg, which would have been just dangling, and was like, 'ughhh' trying to hold it walking up the rocks.
F: When we had you out of the waves, then we got the bodyboards and we lifted you twenty yards up the shoreline and made a little nest by getting all our gear on top of you and covered you over.
S: Yeah, you boys did a great job, I am so thankful. You took off my fin (ouch) and tied a surfboard leash around my upper thigh, which put me at ease. Mickey lay down on my right-hand side and Leroy lay down on my left and that gave me warmth, and you put the jackets and wetsuits over me and I was pretty warm.
F: As soon as it happened, there was someone on the cliff, I think it was Clem McInerney, the videographer.
S: Yeah, Clem was actually on the phone to Peter Conroy at the time.
F: We got him straight on to the chopper (Irish Coastguard), which was amazing, and the chopper was there in 20 minutes. The guy who came down was really confident, he came over and said, 'Well done lads. He is stable'.
S: That guy's name was Phil, he was a legend. I owe that guy a pint.
F: Yeah, he didn't rush but he was efficient, he knew what he was doing, he got the basket down, got you on it and off he went.
S: You held on to a rope attached to the basket to stop it spinning around. Still, it was a scary ride up the helicopter but mad to see Rileys from that angle.
F: It was really cool the see the rescue work so efficiently.
S: Yeah, it was a really efficient rescue, I have to say.
F: As dramatic as it was, there was no drama. The most dramatic thing that could ever happen to your body, everyone was cool. You have just snapped your leg and we are having a bit of craic on the rocks.
S: Yeah, me, you, Leroy and Mickey were buzzing, chatting, laughing. And that was super important to me because it got me into a positive frame of mind straight away. And I have basically been able to carry through that positive frame of mind until now. You guys fed me loads of positive vibes and I suppose everything happens in a unique kind of a way but I look back on that morning I am just super grateful you and Mickey were there and how everything went down rescue-wise. I mean, it was a skeleton crew with only four of us in the water.
F: Yeah, and seeing you fly away it was like, wow, we did what we were supposed to do. But yeah, it was a heavy afternoon, I was knackered, it wasn't physical it was definitely more mental, I had just had to deal with a pretty gnarly scenario. I was just wrecked.
S: Yeah, I knew the risks I was taking but I still can't believe I broke my femur. As painful as it was when it happened, on the rocks I was just getting mentally prepared for what would happen next, in the hospital, when the real discomfort would start, getting off the wetsuit, getting moved, putting on a splint etc. I was focused on my breathing.
I was scared on the rocks waiting for the helicopter, no doubt about that, but you guys kept me positive. It was a funny old event, especially having you guys there, two of my closest pals, people who knew exactly how severe the injury was, who knew exactly what to do and it all worked out really well.
F: I think we were all pretty stoked you were ok, we all know it can happen to any one of us at any time. I can't believe how cool you were about it, most people would be screaming their heads off.
S: I wanted to ask you about the swell on Monday, which was the reason I made the trip to Clare.
F: Yeah, it was lovely, sunny with big clean waves. But I had just come out of a whirlwind of low energy from politics and getting sick and all sorts of things. I pretty much had no energy up until a day or two before you came down.
S: So, what lessons did you learn from your amazing election result (1600+ first preference votes). It wasn't a victory, but it was something.
F: Well, we had this community garden and then we bought some land to set up a CSA farm to help feed a group of people: the model is Community Supported Agriculture and it really works. We did a tour in England of CSA farms to see how they work: there are almost 200 there.
S: How many are there in Ireland?
F: Seven, I think?
S: Ha ha, such a joke.
F: Well, CSAs are only just beginning in Ireland so we need to break all the barriers we need to in order to make it happen here. We want the type of CSA that works, the type that has been going for 15 years.
We also need to get people to commit to wanting good food, educate people about the seasonality around food and that the farmer deserves a wage because he or she is on their own and they are feeding our whole diet. We need to be willing to pay for the farmer's service just like we are willing to pay for any other service. Farmers should be the most highly regarded people in society but they don't even get a wage at the moment.
The CSA is great because you create a membership and you have a direct relationship for years with this farmer. A CSA could have a hundred members or whatever and every week you get your veg and there are events and work days and all these different things. The idea is that the people in the community have a direct relationship not just with the farmer but with the land and their food and people will become more educated about nature and the seasons.
Like, this year was a really wet year and we had no tomatoes and now we know why rather than going, 'why are there no tomatoes'. Or this was a really good year for courgettes and we have loads of them. With CSAs, it is all explained to and you and your family get much more in tune and you eat in tune with what is going on. I just think it is the way forward.
S: Was all this well received when you were on the campaign trail?
F: Well, that's it. I am saying things that I really believe in. I talk about them in interviews all the time. Then the offer came to stand in the election and I was like, that is not me, but then I was like, I am saying this stuff anyway, I am saying it to you now.
S: Yeah, so you didn't have to change your stance one bit.
F: I feel the election was a really good platform to get my message out there. Plus, I had lots of ideas and opinions on everything to do with health and transport and building homes for new families. These are all issues I have to think about as well.
S: I think you did absolutely amazing. I have seen so many elections, basically, I never had any hope for politics until I saw your ugly mug up on an election poster in Ennis! My opinions are kind of cynical, but you challenged all my convictions about politics, and not just me but a lot of other people were inspired by you standing for election.
I guess if you don't like any of the people you see on the ballot paper go out and put yourself there instead of sitting around at home complaining to anyone who will listen. It was a small, slightly heroic effort. There was probably more you felt you could have done or whatever but hopefully it has instituted a little bit of a grassroots change in a vital area.
F: I hope so, like, I hate politics, I hate the system, I hate the way it is run, it's totally terrible, but it is the system that's in place.
S: Well, it is only terrible and works so badly because there are all these terrible and bad people running it. If we had a hundred Fergal Smiths in the Dáil (Irish Parliament) I am sure things would be run differently, ha ha.
F: If 18 – 35-year-olds actually started voting and they all voted for 18 – 35-year-olds to be in the Dáil we'd have a whole different country. Because it should be young 20 or 30-year-olds running the country, not 60-year-olds. Because we live in it now, we are having to find the house and live into the future with our kids but 60-year-olds are from an older time and they are not relating totally to what is happening. And I do believe totally that 60 year olds have their place because they have a lot more wisdom and they should be there too. But we should have a dynamic, representative government.
S: There is probably so many 60 – 65-year-olds in government because the 20 – 25-year-olds don't give a shit.
F: If anything comes out of this election, I am hoping to get more young people to even think about voting and to hopefully get a few younger people thinking about becoming candidates.
People see it as a shit system but you can't just stay back from the system and say it is shit because then that doesn't do anything. You go in and get involved and you vote and you talk about it and then you can change the system. You can be the change. But if you are not in there what hope have you got. And that is kinda why I did it.
S: Yeah, it is not out of the bounds of possibility that the system can be changed, especially for a small rural country like Ireland, I am sure the political systems in the UK or the USA would be more of a mission to change, but in Ireland, it is just about crazy enough to work. Man, you have changed my mind so much that, f***k it, I think I will run in the next election. Shambles as El Presidente....? Will the world really be a better place?