There was a time when surfing was considered a sport for warm weather countries, one to be enjoyed in bright blue waters by good looking Australian and American guys and girls. Over the past ten years however, that perception has been altered considerably. Nowadays, images of Irish surfing are being used to promote the country as a tourist destination, advertise mortgage rates and sell mobile phones.
Those marketing ideals, however, couldn’t be further from the core values that are to be found at the heart of the Irish scene.
An intrinsic need to be able to escape to the beach whenever the waves were promising led Little Island man Jason Coniry to set up his own business. Coniry opened Incide surf shop on Bridge Street a decade ago, but became involved in the sport almost ten years before that, “I met a few guys through water safety and as surfing is a full-on lifestyle, I got addicted,” he explained. “There were about ten of us that surfed together in Cork for about five years before anybody started to take it up. I travelled and lifeguarded around the world for a time and I knew then that I wanted to make a living from it. I also wanted a lifestyle that meant I could go surfing anytime the surf was good.
“The surf can be as good as anywhere on its day but we don’t have as many of those days in Cork as they do in Clare or Donegal. It’s reasonably consistent in Inchydoney and Long Strand but what’s really noticeable is the industry as a whole in Cork. Tubes, a high street surf shop and Incide are in the city. There are shops in Kinsale and Clonakilty as well as a number of surf schools and these are all proper legitimate businesses which employ people. We’re actually opening a second shop in Clonakilty ourselves in the coming weeks.”
Surfing has seen a massive growth in popularity across the world in recent years, along with several other board-based sports. This has had a knock-on effect in Ireland, especially with many more thousands of Irish people having travelled more extensively throughout the past decade.
“Surfing and skateboarding are far more sociable than other sports,”
Jason continued. “You go and hang at the beach for a couple of hours with your friends. This isn’t just a sport – it’s a culture and a lifestyle. Fashion goes with it, along with certain genres of music.
Everybody aspires to it, whether they are a solicitor or someone claiming the dole, because once they are in the water there are no social barriers, everyone experiences the same thing and that’s a very powerful bond.
“Just last week I was out surfing and the sun was absolutely incredible. The sky went through all shades of orange, purple and pink and there were only about five or six people at the beach. You’re experiencing something that’s fairly unique on a regular basis. A big part of it is simply being absorbed in nature – as clichéd as that sounds.
“I go to South Africa and a place called Jefferys Bay every second year. The last time I was there, I met guys in the water who were a bit cold at first but when I said I was Irish, there was a certain respect there. They know the waves are good but that the water and conditions are cold and we get a credit for ‘roughing’ it. When we’re surfing in January, we know the people we meet are passionate about what they do. It’s not about how they look when it’s lashing rain and two degrees. Right then, it’s only about the surf.”
Colum McAuley grew up in Bantry and has loved almost everything to do with water sports since he was a young boy. He set up one of the first surf schools in Cork on Inchydoney beach. All his instructors are trained lifeguards and are qualified through the Irish Surfing Association (ISA).
“When I first started West Cork Surfing about 12 years ago, I would have known everybody driving around with a board on their car roof – that’s how small the surfing community was,” he said. “It’s all changed now though. I think a lot of that has to do with how much people have travelled and the ‘cool’ factor that’s there at the moment.
“The school is as busy as ever. We’re open seven days a week during the summer and mainly weekends and for private groups during winter.
The downturn hasn’t really affected us but the weather always has a massive impact. Normally we would tip away over Christmas and the New Year but you couldn’t even drive to the beach for a couple of months this year.
“The problem with surfing here is that conditions are different every day. Perfect days – with good, clean waves – are few and far between and you might need to do a lot of travelling to get to a location where the conditions are what you are looking for. If people are going to stick with it, they have to put up with all these things. It’s important they realise that learning to surf is a slow process.
“The vital thing is regular practice. You’re back to square one even after a month. If I don’t surf myself for a couple of weeks, I feel rusty, like I’ve gone backwards a little. In that sense, it’s an incentive for everybody that surfs regularly to stay fit so that the next time there’s a lull in waves for a few weeks, you’re still strong going back in.”
One man well placed to give an opinion on how Irish standards compare internationally is Australian Wayne Murphy. Born to Irish parents on Rottnest Island – just off Perth – he has been surfing for over 40 years and has also been a judge and commentator on the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) tour.
“It was the surf that attracted me ten years ago, I knew I wouldn’t be competing with mad Aussies for waves!” he revealed. “Ireland has world- class surf and what has made it more palatable is the incredible growth in wetsuit technology. They were like cardboard ten years ago and it was only the tough and hardy people who were out there. Now there are boots, gloves, hoods – everything you need to be comfortable.
“It can still be cold enough but if you’re keen, you can get waves all year around. Ireland, being an island, has loads of different types of waves in a small, small area. We have point breaks, reef breaks, river mouths, sand bars, big waves, small waves, medium waves and because of the twisting, undulating nature of the coastline you only have to drive a couple of miles away to find somewhere more favourable if you don’t like what you see.
“I live in Mayo but I come down every summer and work here with West Cork Surfing for the three months. Every summer when I head back home, people think I’ve been in Spain or Portugal because of my sun tan. I’m always saying ‘No, I’ve been in west Cork’. My family come down with me and have some fun on the beach for a couple of months. If I had my way I’d move down here tomorrow.”
Wayne believes Ireland’s potential as a surfing nation is only in its infancy. He’s positive we’ll have a competitor on the professional circuit and possibly even an Irish world champion some day in the future. However, he’s equally as keen to emphasize that water safety is critical for beginners, intermediates and professionals alike at all times. “Some people only surf for the fun but a couple of hundred more take it up full-time every summer. Ireland is an island and for a long time the sea has been a taboo. In the old days fishermen drowned in the sea but people are now learning how to recreate safely and it’s important surf schools and adventure centres instill that awareness in their courses.
“We had a guy pulled out of the sea by a helicopter at Inchydoney last week simply because he ran out of gas. He thought he knew enough to get out of the situation but despite being a triathlete, he couldn’t make it back. People can jump in too deep, too quickly and think they know it all. After 40 years, the more I surf, the more I respect the sea. You really need to have your wits about you, especially because of the currents created by the coastline in Ireland.
“Surfers like Fergal Smith are making incredible inroads on the international scene right now. We are not world beaters but we are starting to get second generation surfers coming up through the ranks now and they, hopefully, will start to make the breakthrough. The European titles are being held in Bundoran in September and while Ireland are not going to win it, they will do well.
“It might be another five or ten years before we get an Irish cailín or buachaill challenging to get on the world tour but it’s not that far away because we have the training ground and an incredible variety of surf. Put it this way – I hope to see an Irish world champion in my lifetime.”
Colum McAuleySurfing: How to get started…
“We give two-hour lessons in which we give people the very basics – from how to put wetsuits on right through to getting into the water.
We teach in most conditions and if people come back for a couple of more, we can give them an introduction to rip currents and conditions.
People who have their own gear often ask what they’re doing wrong and I know without getting them in the water, just by looking at their board and knowing their experience, that it’s too small for them. By getting a lesson, you can try different size boards and we have all the rest of the gear as well.
All I want to see is a person catching a wave and standing up on the board and if the board isn’t helping them do that, then the equipment is wrong and they need to use a different one. When we first started we used all sorts of boards, some of which were probably too small, and that meant a slow learning curve for us. With the right gear and the right board – along with a few tips and the right instruction – the learning curve is quicker.
People should always observe the beach and the conditions before heading into the water and ask others, who may have local knowledge, about how the waves are. You can come to a beach one day and have waves but there could be a lot more water moving around the next day with currents people mightn’t be aware of. People often don’t like asking questions because they are afraid of showing up their knowledge but that’s the only way to learn.
As I see it, people are going to go surfing anyway so if I can get them doing things properly, I’d prefer to give them that extra knowledge. I have a fair bit of experience in the sea between surfing and sailing and if I can say something to somebody that some day might click back with them and get them out of a situation, I’d consider that job done.”
Jason ConiryGetting set up
“I advise people to get at least one lesson so that they have an idea of what they are getting into before buying any equipment.
If you are getting any of the beginners’ boards, they are priced in the region of €300. A wetsuit that will keep you warm all year round and is from a top international brand with a proper guarantee is available for about €150. Once you have boots, a pair of gloves and a hood for the depths of winter, you’re ready to go.
After that it’s only petrol money. There are no membership fees, there are no pay-as-go fees like golf, you don’t have to replace equipment regularly and you don’t break a lot of gear. It’s actually a relatively inexpensive lifestyle once you get yourself set up.
I would also suggest people go to a shop where people actually participate in the sport when they are buying any equipment – it’s the same for any sport – as the staff will be able to give plenty of good, practical and honest advice.”