A couple of German hikers, over a cup of hot chocolate in the Pier Head, ask me if what they just saw over there on the bluff was good surfing? I told them that that was the best surfing that anyone has ever seen. Ever. Anywhere.
There was no way that could possibly register. They were just up for a nice stroll around the head, wondering why all the traffic stopped to watch somebody sitting out in the big waves.
“It’s like watching Franz Beckenbauer play football,” I said. Remembering my future mother-in-law’s chants during the last World Cup. The couple sing with pleasure at the relatable analogy. “Ahhh ya das is good, ya. Like Bobby Fisher playing chess.”
Earlier that morning, wondering why the waves looked so good outside my window. The wind forecast was wrong and nobody was ready for it. There was no wind at all to greeting a 30ft swell coming into Donegal bay, which is very much unlike Irish wind. It was a scramble to get in before the tide, but a small crew including Josh Hughes, Conor Maguire, Barry Mottershead and Paul O’Kane went out and got a couple. Great fun for a few hours while some beautiful and smooth sets came in consistently in the 20ft+ range. Barry whipped Conor Maguire into the best looking and biggest waves I’ve seen since I put Tommy Butler into that giant one last year. It was one of those sets that put the whole ocean into the sky – the Irish Times called me later to ask how big it was. “Hard to put a number on it,” I said. It was “just one of those big ones that make it seem like the whole ocean goes vertical into the sky.”
Back at the harbour for lunch, Lowey was there, belly full of fire, asking when I’m going back out. “But Tom,” I say, the tide is wrong. “I’m seeing these chip shots," He replies. "I think I can get one, but I’m not going out there without you.”
Which is so cool of Tom. We like that, us safety guys, from the hard charging guys. Communication. Mullaghmore is an Everest, paddling it is like summiting without bottled oxygen. It’s taking yourself to a place where man is not meant to survive. There are more and more paddle minded chargers at Mully every year. We want to make sure they all stay safe for many reasons but here is the selfish one. We all love surfing here and if someone dies or gets seriously hurt without our rescue procedures in place, the council will shut down the harbours to surfers.
But as much as I am committed to safety, we had just been out there for hours and it was two degrees and we were ready a rest between sessions, a brief spell of warmth, and some lunch. Paul arrived in the harbour, towing Conor and Barry’s ski, which started to sound like an old Ford kicking on only three cylinders.
Paul, having, just saved Conor and Barry from drifting north across the bay to Killybegs, was feeling pretty good. Like me Paul feels pretty good when he gets the chance to avert disaster. “Tom,” I said. “Go talk to Paul, he might be ready to go out again.” Tom ran down to the water like a school kid looking to get a ride to the beach.
Paul nodded his head and Tom runs back to the van. Tom was ready in about five minutes, vest, wetsuits, booties, gloves, his 9’6 waxed and ready with the fins in it. I’ve never seen anybody get changed as fast. It was like one of those spoof films where the bad guy takes a policeman from around the neck and one second later the bad guy is wearing the policeman’s uniform.
Paul O’Kane was happy to go back out to do the safety for Tom. Paul, like a lot of us here at Mullaghmore, is far happier knowing he is keeping the boys safe – even if he is uncomfortable and cold sitting on a ski hour after hour, than watching from the shore or even surfing. It is guys like Paul that have kept the number of injuries and accidents down here at one of the heaviest waves in the world. It’s guys like me and Paul O’Kane, Peter Conroy , Barry Mottershead and me, that want Mullaghmore to be as safe a dangerous big wave surf spot as possible. It’s communication from guys like Lowey that make that possible. The world of big wave surf riding is a small one – the people who come to surf here talk to us, the safety guys, the guys who live and surf here. The same guys who worked hard for councils on the west coast of Ireland to remain friendly towards jet skis, which with a qualified and experienced operator is the most essential piece of safety kit we have.
So Paul spent the next two hours watching over Lowey. Lowey, for the second time in a week wanted to go paddle waves that nobody else even had an interest in towing into. Parking up on the bluff, slowly eating a sandwich and watching somebody surf Mullaghmore is a luxury I rarely enjoy. For the second time in a week I watched Lowey. I was off-duty, sitting on the headland and cheering like a groupie as Lowey paddled into his first one, a solid-backed monster, the wind let him in against the increasing offshores in time to stall comfortably for the end bowl, where he disappeared behind an oversized curtain.
A half an hour later, Lowey got another one. This wave was different. Bigger. No long casual drop like the first one. Lowey had to come up tight and high straight away to have any hopes of making it, spacelike, defying gravity with all one hundred and fourteen inches of board flying along the top third of the wave.
Too high too high… I say to nobody. Than for a second I though the crazy line Lowey was taking was working. He had made the drop without going near the bottom of the wave and then tucked into a crouch that would have gotten him through… if a step didn’t square out beneath him. As he went off the step on the big board he extended, the wind got under him and cast him off his perch and down Lowey went, backflipping down the face in terrifying proximity to his board and into oblivion.
Paul went in to get him. And even from a half kilometer away I could see Lowey gesturing to Paul, describing the violence with expressive hand gestures. Had it been me with enough courage to paddle the that day, I would have gone in then, gone in for some food and a beer and to relax, knowing that I had tackled the dragon on his own turf and came away ok.
But Lowey, jumps off the ski again and paddles back.
A half an hour later Lowey paddled hard for a big one in the fifteen-foot range. He missed it. And -stuff of worst nightmares- there was a bigger one behind it. He paddled hard again, pumping carbon dioxide into his blood, back out to sea. Lowey’s big board become an outline on the horizon, teetered over the back of a truly scary beast as it breathed its way into Donegal Bay. He made it over, but then disappeared. Sucked back as the momentum of the wave overpowered Lowey.
He was gone, and didn’t come up until right before the last wave of the set – luckily a smaller one- broke in front of him. And that was it for Tom. Paul O’Kane picked him up from the zone and they rode back in. Or was it?
A half an hour later Tom Lowe was at the door of my car up on the bluff, asking if there might not be just one more session left in the day before the sun set. Sets were still a consistent 20ft. Shambles (Seamus McGoldrick) just showed up with an appetite for joining Lowey for one last go, for the day's paddle saga was not done. There was another more to come, and this time Lowey had more company.