Usually I get real nervous. Especially before the first swell of the season. And the longer the season lasts without that first big swell, the worse those nerves usually get. So swell is coming, a big swell. And I’m not sweating it. Maybe it helps to have a kid and loads of work, not sweating and stressing about waves, but still. That big swell is coming and nothing. Nothing. No Nerves.
Usually Peter Conroy would have called me by now. To make plans or to say he’s not coming, but, like me, has a new human to look after. So I call Peter and see what’s the craic and he asks me if I am up for some fun and I smile cos that’s code for he’s free and so am I and that’s amazing as we both have little humans. So Peter starts telling me who’s coming and the gossip and he reads down the list of people who are here and on the way. And I have a full panic attack.
Conroy's saying, Lucas Chumbo, Carlos Burle, Andrew Cotton, Danilo Cuitio, gonna be me, you, Barry, Connor… oh yea Tom Lowe. Ollie the Fla is coming up… Will Skudin, Shambles, a French bodyboard Mesiah named Pierre, Tommy G…
Names kept coming up and my imagination drove straight at me like a train, and I, a deer in the headlights, could not even step off the track. Bam. The nerves had hit me. Memories, images of heavy situations screamed and steam-whistled over me.
The first, from last winter, Lucas, me sitting next to him at Maverick's, the way you can do there and watch somebody take off, him tucking his whole body up into the tail of his board, backside, deep in the bowl, his whole world is vertical and committed and as he freefalls, he slowly untucks himself dropping past mid face.
Danilo, grabbing me by the shoulders on a 50ft day, sideways hail, gale force winds, when we were alone, only one ski and saying, “just put me into one man, I’ll pull as soon as I fall.” Scenes coming at me like a Hollywood movie. Barry, picking me up from the hospital with a foot full of broken bones. Hypothermia. Fingers dislocated. That sound. Connor, blood spurting from a Go-Pro size hole in his face. Vertebrae cracked and twisted.
Lowey, Jesus, nearly every wave he goes on; scares the shit outta me for weeks. Maybe scars me forever. Will Skudin, that 30ft airdrop attempt to doctors picking fibreglass out of his leg bone for four months.
Lowey, Jesus, nearly every wave he flips; scares the shit outta me for weeks
My post-tramatic stress train runs me over and I stop talking. I was thinking of Peter’s broken back. Thinking of my own broken back. Cotty, that broken back bounce. Shambles, getting kicked in the face by his own leg after his femur snapped.
“Hello Dylan? You still there? Hello?” I was scared. And that train kept coming, rolling over me with that kullack kullack. And I could not get a proper word out.
“Yea yea yea. Yup.” I said. “Yea.” Peter Conroy the fireman and E.M.T can tell when he’s lost somebody. The phone call ended, and the rest of the day passed, and the next day. And after I could not sleep that night I was banging on the door of the Pier Head hotel at Mullaghmore harbour, still trying to recover from the panic attack, or whatever it was, muttering through a locked door to the breakfast cook at 5am that he had to let me in to the lounge to do yoga. I got down two hours before light to warm up but it’s only given me more time to psych myself out.
He knows me, but not well and as he let me in and said, “you look nervous.” Maybe it’s because I’m 40. Maybe it’s because I have a son. Maybe this just happens as we get older. Maybe it’s because now that I’ve got a few decent waves under my belt my brain will be over-confident and convince my body to… what, charge? Bow out? Maybe I’m just aware of it now when before I was young and naive enough to ignore it. Maybe I’m going soft. Maybe I always was soft.
And for the next hour, I suited up slowly, stretched and danced to This Is America by Childish Gambino on repeat and then some LCD Soundsystem remixes, playing full blast on my iPhone with no speakers or headphones.
You know the way when you know a song so well your brain compensates for tiny, tinny little phone speakers. About 6am, I was trying out one of those dance moves from This is America but dancing to Dance Yourself Clean by LCD, the move in the video Gambino is doing after he massacres that happy church choir.
I was fully suited up with vests on and everything, so into my shitty attempt at this dance move I nearly forgot my anxiety and the reasons for it, when Lucas Chumbo walked by, right then at this, my most ultimately dorky moment.
Out of breath (from dancing) trying to keep chill to Lucas, who is all wingspan and confidence, something about not being able to sleep, I guess I was looking for vindication. He gave it to me. Lucas is the Cool Hand Luke of big wave surfing. And he told me he could not sleep either. Nerves.
These guys who overcame their fear so many times were all going through it. Will Skudin nearly lost his leg. Lowey nearly drowned. Conor has nearly been broken in half. We’ve all faced that hike back up the hill after a big hit
Carlos Burle came down then, and the harbour started filling up. And so did my sense of self. As I saw all these faces I realised that I was thinking about people by their injuries and their suffering because I could imagine all that happening to me.
But now I saw faces of the people who, just like me, even more than me, have overcome these exact anxieties for years. Time and time and time again. These guys who overcame their fear so many times were all going through it. Will Skudin nearly lost his leg. Lowey nearly drowned. Conor has nearly been broken in half. We’ve all faced that hike back up the hill after a big hit.
Then it was all vans and skis and engines barrels till we lost Will’s tow-board. Those keen on towing got out quick and were in the lineup by the light of the stars. Those bent on paddling waited for the sun and paddled out, and as the sun rose on a dropping, but still very large swell, and the main paddle session started.
Lowey, in true Lowey fashion, catches the first big paddle wave of the day while me and Will drove around not finding his board. It’s out there still. If you are reading this you probably won’t find it. Some farmer will find it and bolt it on a post for a new cow-gate. Or a hotel worker will try to hold it hostage for a reward. We gave up and went to get our paddle boards.
Will jumped off and I sat safety with Peter and some of the other lads from Irish Tow Surf Rescue. The first good wave I saw paddled had me going in for him nearly after he stuck the drop.
Some waves at Mullaghmore have a side wave running through them from where it hits the rocks a little further up the reef. If that little side wave gets ahead of you when you are on the wave, it’s a sure beating. It sucks another couple feet of water off the reef, it adds thickness to the lip, and at the same time causes structure of the wave to collapse. It’s a very strange effect and I’ve never seen it on any other wave anywhere. Its about one out of ten wave out there has one of these things running through it.
I could see by the bottom turn it was Ryan Watts. He has the coolest style. Even his fingers look like they’re having fun. This wave was mean looking with a bent lip that threatened to come down on him. But Ryan happied his way through the thing. He had one eye glued to the ceiling ready to deal with the collapse, but the rest of him just Zoolandered. He magnumed that warpy lip to stay round and it did and he came out and he wasn’t done yet but it was the bravest line I’d ever seen. It was beautiful.
Not the first wave ridden. But in my head it’s the season opener. A pace setter.
Not the first wave ridden. But in my head it’s the season opener. A pace setter. And after watching that wave I talked Danilo onto my ski to do some safety so I could paddle over and join some of the bravest and most talented surfers in the world to dance with the one that will made us and breaks us. Loves us and leaves us, is coy and shy and comes back again meaner than ever to fill us with fear and dread and joy and pain and desire.
As I paddled out I saw Lucas catch his very first wave out there and the prodigal didn’t disappoint. He dropped late and fast and got barrelled the whole way doing a double arm drag on a fifteen footer - a la John John at Backdoor. Really ridiculously casual. Gearoid (McDaid) followed him on the one after, on a similar wave, similar line. Gearoid’s wave spat him out and the mist drifted up off the back of the wave and into the sun and everything all of a sudden was rainbow rainbow rainbow.
All around me. And I Bob Marley’d it out to the line up da da dumming Three Little Birds, knowing that, for the rest of the day anyway, everything was gonna be alright.