Ed's note: For Lowey's second saga, see HERE.
It’s after they start calling me that I start to feel ‘em. The nerves. They creep up on me now. Different as I get older.
No more of that shocking, sudden onset. Like in ’98 when my boss, a tree-trimming big-wave-surfing macho-specialist, offered me one of his boards to surf Waimea. This after a scary day trimming tall, skinny coconut trees. Nothing like the sudden flush of youthful, yet jangled nerves getting ready for another test.
Forecast: UK + Ireland
Now it is far worse. The creeping what-ifs set in slowly. I get phone calls from Josh Redman in South Africa, Peter Conroy in Clare, from Rafael Tapia in Chile, From Will Skudin in New York, I get a call from Conor Maguire in the neighbourhood, asking me if I have a trickle charger. Thinking that I know everyone who’s coming and judging it relatively quiet, I tell him so.
“Not Really, he says, we have Jerome Sahyoun, from Morocco. Kip Caddy coming in from Australia, Nic Von Rupp, Andrew Cotty and...” Names kept coming.
“Oh.” I say. “OK.”
“Do you think it will be giant paddle?”
“Not for me. You know that you are the Prince of Mullaghmore, right?”
“Oh yea?” he chuckles, “who’s the King?
I didn’t have an answer. “You will be.” I say after thinking and failing to come up with an immediate answer.
I go home. I breath with the belly and deny the jitters. I feel it eat away at me like I’m hungry.
All fine. Go on about life. Big waves are coming, not a big deal. Get some paperwork done. Shaking hands.
Later that evening, I’m sitting on the couch and staring at a painting over the fireplace. My wife asks me if I’m ok but in a voice that is, like, sounds truly concerned. I snap out of whatever disaster scenario daydream I was in and go wash the dishes.
The day before, the swell is windy. Doors wrenched out of hinges windy, branches blown off trees windy, I check the polytunnel on the family farm at Mullaghmore on the way to work.
All looks well from far, but closer up the cover looks oddly loose. The butt of a branch had pierced the plastic. The wind is tearing. Every gust is making the damage worse. I climb the rigging and push the branch back out the way it came. It rolls down the cover.
There is a chimney sized hole right in the centre of the polytunnel. The wind is getting worse, lifting the whole cover and slapping it back down on the frame. I’m frustrated and panicked, but also curious.
I had trimmed all the trees in proximity to the tunnel because I was worried about this exact thing happening. There is a line of trees to the west of the farm, neighbour’s trees. An absolute blessing for our place, providing protection from the westerly gales. But, when the wind gets strong enough, provides ammunition for polytunnel piercing projectiles. I have my rope and harness and an reliable old chainsaw handy for just such reasons.
But I had loafers and chinos on, now both covered in muck and moss. I squish around the side to inspect the branch, expecting that the branch would have one of my cuts on it, a hanging branch I had left, a mistake. But no. It was torn-off oak branch.
The only oak is three fields over.
After I racing to the Agriculture Centre forty kilometres away and back with repair tape. Patching a hole in the wet, flapping tarp with tape while hanging off the rigging, I show up for class late, waterlogged and muddy.
A nervous mess. I don’t know if the big-wave jeebies gets others the way it get me. But by the night before a big swell hits my anxiety levels are knife-cutting thick.
It affects my mood. Of course I can’t sleep.
I just lie there and wait til' it's time to go, listening to solid waves peel down the reef by my house. That battle with the wind and polytunnel earlier in the day got under my skin. After knowing this feeling, all familiar, for more than twenty years or more, it should get easier. But it’s the opposite, it gets harder with age. More uncomfortable with its familiarity.
Greeting the gang in the morning, the locals and the fly-ins, relives a lot of anxiety. Bear hugs all round in the cold.
Lowey turns up all smiles. The society here at Mullaghmore makes me feel good
Lowey turns up all smiles. The society here at Mullaghmore makes me feel good. Peter Conroy and his van full of life-saving kit is relaxing to see. Tony, a friend from Oregon was in town only for the morning, he is a fellow arborist, a real wood-chip spitting climber. His girlfriend was having her birthday that night, in Belgium. Had to run and catch a plane. Because of his time window I took him out early, when the tide was wrong. Still, I found three smoking pocket rides and a nice neat barrel for the first man out. Set him off smiling to the birthday party.
The sun tried and failed to break through the morning clouds and the stiff wind was coming straight down from the snowy mountains. I went for the mitts on my hands, those three fingered surf gloves. Super thick. Perfect for cold days.
A busy tow session. But unlike a lot of days, there were quite a lot of waves. Onno Meinen, from Holland, has invested years into surfing big waves in Ireland, and has become one of the best guys to have out on big days, got the wave of the morning. A huge thing that he lined up perfectly for the ride of his life to the channel.
His next wave sent him to the bottom and burst both his eardrums. This happens while I’m in dropping Tony Perez off to the harbour His next wave sent him to the bottom and burst both his eardrums. This happens while I’m in dropping Tony Perez off to the harbour.
Will Skudin and I are out of rhythm in the morning, we each got some fun waves but nothing very satisfying. Taz Knight paddles out. Lowey paddles out. Shambles too, and they manage to pick off some fun waves, dodging 20ft sets and ski wakes. I ask if everyone is ok with the tow teams whizzing by most sets. Lowey just smiles big, “you guys just keep doing your thing, we’re happy.”
My third or fourth wave, just when all the flutters fade out and desire kicks in. Will drops me off on a real nice looking wave. I pull all my tricks. A little slash back at the top of the first section to make sure I was nice and deep. Extended bottom turn and come up high into the beginning of the end bowl. It's pinching hard, but I been there before. Just hold the nerve and strong leg it through the chandelier and into the pit.
Not this time. The pinch squashed me flat high up on the face. I have plenty of time to think. I have plenty of time to curl into a little hedgehog head-cover. It’s funny how there are no big wave jitters in those moments. Its just calm and cool and slow. Collected.
I think about a conversation with Peter Conroy, just an hour or two before in the harbour. He was describing getting sucked over the falls and watching it get dark. I never can tell. I always squish my eyes shut.
I’m cool enough when I bounce off the bottom. Not hard. But as soon as I touch I take my hands off my head and go for my pull chord. I have filled my vest with four 25oz Co2 cartridges and I have learned over the years that if I set just one of them off then everything is Bob Marley.
But it’s those mitts. My hands (which are very warm) only have three protuberances because of the gloves, and I cant get any of those alien fingers to catch the handles. I try one side and bounce off the bottom. My hand slips off. I try the other side. Another tap off the bottom is enough to take my hand away from the handle.
Very carefully, with precision, I pinch the handle between my forefinger and thumb and give a sharp pull. Most of the turbulence had passed over me and went straight up.
There are few things that look bigger than the next wave of a set when you just come up from a thumping. My grandfather worked at the World Trade Center for 50-years. I used to stand at the bottom and look up when I was little. That’s the only thing I can remember looking bigger. I take a breath but it's foamy and I splutter. The wave behind me is coming down and I can see Rafael drawing a nice line on it. I even see Will, for a second, watching.
I have time for one decent breath before the next one sends me sideways. Not the ol’ up down this time. With a fully inflated vest it sends me on a Boston Sleigh Ride. I’m riding along underwater, moving along in an avalanche of water, propelled forward by a force stronger and more sustained than the gale that tried to destroy the farm.
For a long time I was moving, on the way to the inside double up, sliding and bouncing along. The rocks way in there are scary but I started to think at least if I hit the big scary rocks, I would stop sliding and be able to take a breath.
The slide let up and I come out of the foam for a breath, just in time to see a third, surprisingly large bit of white water nearly on top of me. This one does not pick me up for the slide and I’m back up. It was over. It was the worst I had gone through since getting these fancy vests. But I came through with no more than some uncomfortable moments.
My trusty tow board, however, had died, on that wipeout, somewhere very close to me. My board was shoved down to the rocks, wedged and ripped around in a cave, before finally surfacing right next to me. The back foot-strap was ripped and broken like a bullet went through it. Half the tail was missing. And the rail was torn open as if an explosive device went off inside it. My session was over unless I wanted to paddle.
Meanwhile Shambles, while I was recovering in the channel, asked if I could put him into one. I have yet to say no to Shambles in the 10-years I’ve known him.
My head is spinning a little from the wipeout, and there are quite a few tow teams. I had a lot of trouble finding a wave for Shambles. I get him a wave, a crappy one, after waiting what feels like forever.
I try a couple more times to get Shambles a wave but I’m still off rhythm and manage to find him only another mediocre wave.
Just before me and Will decide to go in for leftover curry and to warm up, and just after I recovered Shambles from his last wave, Lowey spins for a big set wave.
This wave is completely free of tow surfers, skis, wakes, tracks or even any big wind lumps. This wave is big and stretches all the way down to the channel where I am. He slides into it late, but nicely.
Lowey spins for a big set wave. He’s in a 20ft barrel for six or seven seconds and every single moment I expect him to be sucked up and over, get stuck on a rib, get blown up by the foam ball. But as deep as he is, the lip keeps throwing wider and wider No air under his board, no bottom wobbles, and comes up high into the first section. I’m facing out to get out of the way. I have to take my eyes off for a second to turn the ski around. I expect to see a wave with no rider when I spin back round, but there is Tom. His hand is in the face and his eyes are on the channel.
He’s in a 20ft barrel for six or seven seconds and every single moment I expect him to be sucked up and over, get stuck on a rib, get blown up by the foam ball. But as deep as he is, the lip keeps throwing wider and wider all the way through to the deep of the channel.
Of course he comes out. He deserves it too much not to. He goes behind the lip line then pops over the wave with his palms out in a gesture of shock and delight. The half dozen of us in the channel roared and screamed for minutes. It sounded like a packed stadium, the six of us. Everybody started hugging, not just Lowey, but anybody next to them.
Lowey has had a lot of world class waves out there. Superhuman efforts. Big barrels. He’s paid. Beatings. Bruises. Knock-outs and near drownings. His performance stuns me every single time he surfs out here. But this was something else. I’m not sure if Tom Lowe is the king of Mullaghmore, but he sure is the Lord of the Manor and Custodian.
The session is not over. But the story is. Me and Will finally find a rhythm as the wind picks up. It got bigger and we went wave for wave until the sun went down. Peter Conroy and Fionan Cronin did the same. We soaked it in.
We all talked about how much fun we were having. How amazing the winter light is in Ireland. We talked about how, if there is any credibility in WSL’s Big Wave Awards, then Tom Lowe will win the Ride Of The Year category for his wave.
“I sat in the channel through the whole Jaws contest,” Will said, “and that wave was ten times better than any wave ridden that day. Quote me on that.”
“Ok.” I say, as more sets turn the horizon dark.