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EMERALD ERUPTION: Irish big wave surfing ignites on a record breaking North Atlantic swell

| posted on July 22, 2010

After years of fleeting glimpses of the Emerald Isles’ heavy water potential, on December 1, 2007, the Irish Marine Institute’s West Galway buoys topped 48 feet and finally showcased Mullaghmore’s hard-hitting form.

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Despite the record-sized chart being evident a week in advance, only four other surfers showed up to tackle the challenge. I towed with Portrush, and then there was North Ireland’s Alistair Mennie, who joined Bundoran’s favourite son Ritchie Fitzgerald and Novocastrian Gabe Davies.

Friday afternoon saw unusually pleasant conditions in Donegal Bay and the swell teased in steadily from 3 feet at noon, to 6 feet at 2 p.m. with a couple of 15 foott forerunners slipping in ahead of the brunt of the swell.

Nearshore models forecasted 38 feet significant wave height at an 18 second period for noon Saturday. However, by 2 a.m., the Galway M1 buoys were already showing 48 foot readings—it was destined to be gargantuan.

At 5 a.m., Mennie, Scott and water photographer Tony Plant shivered on the cliffs overlooking the break, peering westwards into the pressing darkness of the North Atlantic. The inky murk revealed enough to confirm both the swell’s grandiose arrival and its unquestionable magnitude.

That ever-confounding Irish variable—the fickle and relentless winds, were momentarily holding favourably at a south westerly direction, allowing just enough wind-shadowing by the headland to make the high-speed jetski approach tenable.

Often at Mullaghmore, waist-high ribs and cross-chops confound even the most experienced jetski driver’s approach. The submarine bathymetry of Mullaghmore is equally complex and formidable, focussing open ocean swells onto a series of step-laddering shelves submerged off the headland.

Its’ final plateau wedges rapidly from 33 meters, to 13 metres onto the underwater ledge, with the wave apexing top to bottom into 4.6 metres over the takeoff boils. In bathymetry or hydrology, that’s an imposing equation. In reality, with the biggest swell ever recorded running, it is simply terrifying.

Even under these conditions, Mullaghmore showed no signs of overload. If anything, the wave seemed to shape up better the bigger it got.

As the crew headed out and got settled in, a turbulent storefront, lashed with forked lightning, gradually massed on the horizon. There would be a short window of rideable opportunity for this swell, and the boys would not waste it.

The session kicked into overdrive on with a bomb ridden by Alistair Mennie. At 6’5” tall, it takes a hefty wave to make Al appear Lilliputlian, and the subsequent consensus amongst the surfers identified it as the biggest wave ridden on the record-breaking day. It was a fitting gift bestowed on Ireland’s most dedicated big-wave rider, who is an Eddie Aikau-list nominee.

Shortly thereafter, it was Ritchie Fitzgerald’s turn to cause heart palpitations for all observers. Coming in from too deep behind the peak, a 50-yard section dump-trucked over him, thrusting him deep downwards.

“I was pushed down over a ledge and so deep, even with the impact vest on, that when I swam for the light, it still took six breaststrokes to break the surface. Thankfully, Gabe was only a few feet away from me with the jetski,” exclaimed the affable Fitzgerald.

The surfers rotated through the thundering sets over the next two hours, challenging both their personal abilities, and any preconceived notions of wave height limits of the Irish and British coastlines. By all accounts, the teams rode many of the biggest, most memorable waves of their well-travelled surfing careers.