I. THE BIG WAVE RIDER
AL MENNIE is Northern Ireland’s big wave surfer. In this feature, he discusses his passion for surfing giant waves.
PROGRESSION. The process of developing gradually towards a more advanced state. That idea of starting small and getting bigger, gathering momentum, going higher or further than ever before. It doesn’t get much more progressive than trading the waves of the North Coast of Northern Ireland for the big wave hotspots around the globe yet this is what Al Mennie has done. Mavericks, Nazaré, Mullaghmore, Aileen’s, he’s surfed them all, several times over but this winter he’s preparing to tussle with a big wave monster that he found far out in the North Atlantic, dubbed Area 70.
“I don’t ever remember there being a time going: ‘Now I’m gonna be a big wave surfer’” he recalls. “I just always surfed bigger and bigger waves and to me that was normal. We do have giant waves here, we just don’t have the bathymetry that lends itself to making it amazing. So that has led me to borrow money, buy a boat, go looking off the coast at different things on the bottom and trying to locate waves and that’s sort of what happened. I found, and surfed bigger and bigger waves - that’s really where my passion lies.”
Let’s start with Mavericks, the iconic big wave hotspot of California, and for someone who grew up surfing in his native Castlerock, you wouldn’t exactly call this a natural progression, more like being catapulted straight into the jaws of a giant. Mavericks is the stuff of legends, so that’s huge both in terms of achievement and scale. Big wave surfing wasn’t something that was done here, especially on the North Coast, at the time there was no one from here that had ever even attempted that before. What sort of reception did this garner for him in the USA and did he encounter any judgmental attitude or derision when he arrived there?
“No, I got more judgmental attitude when I left here!!” he laughs. “Yea the attitude obviously was in Northern Ireland that this was not something someone from here would go and do. One thing that sticks in my head was this boogie boarder paddling past me before I left and he said ‘Oh, I heard you’re gonna go to Mavericks, you’re gonna come back in a box’. And I remember thinking that that just fuels my fire! When I got over there they were loving their lives and they loved that I was Irish. They were helping me, they were telling me where to be, where to sit, where not to sit, they were really very supportive.
“I remember the first time I paddled out there, I didn’t catch a wave - that still happens to this day at some spots - I was too scared! I was just sussing it out.
“I sat there for eight hours and just couldn’t get in position and then next time, I decided, “I’m doing this” and I did it. I’ve been back loads of times since. That’s an iconic place in the world to go surfing and it was something I could relate to. I didn’t have any interest in Hawaii because it was board shorts and a crowded place to go, it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I could relate to these guys in California. I was sitting there at 13 watching their films on my TV. They’re in cold(ish) water, in wetsuits, on big boards. So I found I took a lot from that which I used when I came home. I went and found other locations based on what they had on their seabed and developed that side over here.”
While we may not have that big wave setup, it’s well known that ours are particularly volatile waters and you’ll often find visiting surfers discussing that a 10ft wave here is the equivalent of a 20ft wave elsewhere in the world, in terms of its power. So was there anything from here that could prepare him for that Mav’s experience?
“It’s funny, that was in 2003 the first time I went there. At that time I’d surfed a lot of big waves along this coastline as big as you can get, and further north west but I specifically set myself a six month training period to be ready for going. I didn’t get any big waves!! I didn’t get anything!! So I couldn’t prepare in any way. All I had was what I had at that point. I remember going out on big howling onshore days and big stormy days when you shouldn’t really be near the coast, just to get a beating to prepare myself in some sort of way but that’s all I had for six months. So when I went there it was pretty much like just jumping in at the deep end, yea.”
Some big wave surfers choose to paddle out, many jack straight into the action via jet-ski tow-in which leads to a bit of debate among purists. Where does Al sit with that argument?
“That’s the thing, you can sit there and be arrogant and say ‘I’m just paddling’. That’s fine, you can sit there and you can paddle but I’ll tell you right now, you can go out to some of these spots and sit there for two hours and catch no waves. They’ll be big, they’ll be lurchy, the conditions won’t be right, especially here. You might catch one, you might catch the wave of your life but chances are slimmer. In saying that, in this country in particular, we don’t have these big glassy perfect conditions where you can go and do that. If you tow on some of the appropriate days, you can catch loads of waves and have the best time of your life. Most of the time we have these horrific winds and horrific conditions compared to the rest of the world and that lends itself really well to tow surfing. I know no other surfers in this country that have got the equivalent boards that I’ve got for paddling big waves. I’ve got boards from 7ft up to 14ft and lots of them, so I am prepared to paddle. I also tow. I’m not stupid, I’ll do both, I’ll do whatever’s most appropriate. There’s no point being stupid or arrogant about it. If you want to surf big waves in this country, you do both. Simple as that.”
Although the focus just now is firmly on his find at Area 70, it’s not the first time he’s found a wave of such repute. Prowlers is another big wave off the coast of Ireland reportedly akin to its California cousin, a secret spot ridden only by a select squad of big wave names, among them Devon’s Andrew Cotton. This time, however, this wave is largely under wraps. This one is his alone.
“There are loads of these big waves," he tells me. "Area 70 is literally just one of them, but it is very specific to me, yea. I’ve done loads of research there.”
I wonder what drove him to seek it out? Was it intuition, a feeling? Something calling him from far out on the ocean that he essentially calls home?
“It’s a combination of things,” he says after a thoughtful pause. “I always saw that wave breaking, for years in the distance - we’re talking way out. I’d always look out and see these massive big plumes of white water going up into the sky. I mean if you’re looking at waves on the coast at 40-50ft and this thing’s miles out to sea and you can see it, it’s gotta be ginormous! So obviously I’m going to go out and look at it, but being out there, you’re so far out at sea and there’s currents and...” his voice trails off momentarily as he glances out at the horizon, “it’s like nothing else. It really is. It’s so dangerous.”
This is the North Atlantic after all. There is no margin for error and it doesn’t need spelling out just how serious a situation can become if you misjudge it.
“The thing is you can’t predict it. The ideal conditions for most people are very light wind and big, glassy, green swell from far out at sea. This place is in the middle of nowhere so it’s exposed to everything, so even when you read a weather forecast and it tells you it’s 3mph wind and you think ‘brilliant!’, when you get out there it’s not, it’s howling 20mph - you can’t predict that, it changes like that!” he snaps his fingers. “It takes a full team of us, jet-skis, boats, all the boys have been seasick and it’s a full adventure. That’s far more than your average surfer who wants to go down to the beach to East Strand on a Sunday afternoon and surf. That’s one of the most stressful things about it all but the reward is obviously that this thing is out there.”
It’s also been the subject of the Channel 4 Shorts Series Man v Wave, the title of which suggests that he is on the attack, pitting himself against it in some kind of proverbial David and Goliath battle, something which he says is just not the case.
“Actually I had an issue with that title. No, it’s not like that at all. It sounds really stupid but you become part of it, you have to become part of it, because if you don’t, you’re trying to fit into something that you’re not supposed to fit into. Your board has to be right, it has to fit the shape of the wave, you have to fit it, you’ve gotta be calm and relaxed, you’ve got to be able to read the wave, what’s happening, where it’s coming from, even when you’re paddling for it at the last minute, watching the current come up, the wind, you’re judging everything. You’re trying to fit into it, you’re not trying to fight it. It’s not a battle but sometimes it feels like a bloody battle!”
"I think that’s just my personality, I’m just like that, I’m driven to go and see what I can do."
Extreme waves obviously demand extreme fitness and it seems that the amount of mental and psychological preparation required is equally as important.
“It’s more! It’s more.” he stresses. “The guy I’m working with at the minute, Hanno, I’ve been training a lot with him and he’s going to be my tow partner going forward with the big stuff. He’s very level headed. At the minute he’s been spending months doing breath holding and that’s his biggest concern. I used to do that when I was seventeen, that doesn’t really interest me anymore, I’m not concerned about it.
"I’ve learned over the years that my mental preparation comes through being physically fit and strong. If I go out and I feel like I’ve got a weak knee or feel weak in the shoulder, it affects my head whereas to him, he needs to be holding his breath or he gets hammered. That doesn’t interest me in the same way. I need to feel strong and I need to feel like I can deal with this. That prepares me mentally over everything else. If I’m running around holding rocks underwater and holding my breath - which I do do,” he chuckles, “it really doesn’t prepare me in the same way. In my head I’m beyond that now. I need to think about survival but also the performance and my physical fitness, and my mind strength is because of that. But you learn loads as you go along about yourself and that’s the most important bit.”
He refers to all his big wave surfing ventures as missions but when he explains just how much preparation is entailed, it becomes clear why. He started organising this one back in August, prepping Hanno for what needed to be done in terms of on the skis and choosing the right boards.
“Yea it’s totally missions!!” he giggles, visibly animated now. “It’s a full-on preparation for literally 20 seconds, if that, on a big wave. I’ve years of expertise now looking at weather charts and bathymetry all that sort of stuff. It’s all full preparation right up until the last minute so it is a mission. And the team is so important to all that stuff.
“They have to be committed. That’s the thing, I’ve worked with loads of people in this industry, they can be the most amazing surfer but you can’t trust them if their head isn’t in it, if they’ve got something going on, if they’re watching someone else or they’re not paying attention. And then you get somebody like Hanno, who hasn’t got any experience really in the big wave background and isn’t an accomplished surfer but he’s got the head for it, and that’s the difference.”
His team is a pretty elite squad. It’s evident just how appreciative he is of all of them, and indeed those involved behind the scenes, who enable him to achieve his ambitions. Alongside Hanno, there are his close friends, the Robinson brothers - Howard’s military background ensuring both missions and training days are precision planned, his older brother Ricky - just recently crowned World Championship Natural Body Builder in Miami, works with Al to devise very specific diet and training programs for him to undertake at various stages of the year. On hand to capture the events is Northern Ireland’s Award Winning Press Photographer and Getty shooter, Charles McQuillan.
“It is always about trust,” he says. “I have known Howard since I was a kid and he has been working with me for years. He has a very logical, practical mind and has been my tow partner in some horrific conditions, particularly at Area 70. He is the one person in life who I know is coming to get me if I’m in trouble, be it on land or in the water. Ricky is a large part of the reason I made it paddling to Scotland as he trained me into shape for that very quickly. Charles has become a great friend too. For those handful of hours of the year, that’s just something that we all share a passion in but it is that bond and connection to each other and to the water that keeps us all close.”
“I’m sitting out there knowing no one’s done this before, yet here I am.”
This leads us to the question of why. Why does he do this? Why does he feel he needs to keep doing this, is there something that he is trying to prove to himself or is it just that he’s addicted to this elemental challenge?
“I don’t have anything to prove to myself or to anybody, I’ve just got this niggling thing all the time. I’m always thinking about big days I’ve been out on that I didn’t get waves, why didn’t I get them? What was wrong with my board? What was wrong with me? And looking at other boards - I’ve just ordered another one there, I don’t need another one but I do need another one, y’know? There’s something missing here. There’s something missing in me, just trying to perfect that thing to get to there - it’s very strange.”
But the ocean is always going to keep moving the goalposts.
“That’s it!” he agrees and seems perfectly content about the fact.
When he did go out to surf Area 70 for the very first time, how did that feel? That no one has surfed this wave. Ever. And in knowing this, is there a vibe to the turbulent water who has now found itself a new plaything?
“That’s happened quite a few times now but it doesn’t really enter my head about me having done it first. It’s the unknown aspect of it. You go out there and you don’t have any knowledge. Someone could paddle out to Mavs tomorrow and they’d have watched a hundred movies of it, they’ll have looked at all the pictures, they’ll have heard all the horror stories, they can build a full encyclopedia of knowledge and can go forward with that information. You go out to some of these spots here: they have not been surfed. No one’s hit the bottom. No one knows if there’s a shipwreck there. No one knows what’s happened out there. When you’re out there and you just don’t know, is there a cave in there? Is there a hole? That’s the sort of thing that really interests me about it.
“I’ve surfed the Giants Causeway quite a few times now. I remember the very first time out there as well. It doesn’t look like it looks from land, it’s so dangerous. The reef top’s off, it’s so full of currents and I’m sitting out there knowing no one’s done this before, yet here I am. At Finns, I was thinking to myself, a big boat went aground here and it killed over one thousand men. That sort of stuff gets into your head. It’s hard to explain but I think more of history and stuff. It’s weird.”
Even with all this intense preparation, he is still at the mercy of the sea, the currents, the elements and even though some surf photography today captures amazing moments, there is nothing romantic about the reality.
“That’s a very important thing because no matter what you do, you are at the mercy of it.” he says earnestly.
“It’s funny, I can tell you now, I feel more comfortable out there on huge seas than I do on land with people. I’m not safe out there - not at all, but for some reason in my mind I think I am and I think I’m in control, and I’m not.”
Big wave riders are often dismissed as being a bunch of gung-ho adrenaline junkies solely living from one precarious thrill to the next. Crazy, mad, stupid and so forth. Tentatively, I’m about to mention this.
“Oh of course! My mum hears that all the time, ‘oh your son’s crazy, Al’s crazy.’ Oh, am I?? Am I?” he laughs defiantly, more amused than offended. From talking to him it’s evident just how deeply he thinks about every aspect of what he does and I wonder how many put in the same amount of preparation?
“None, or very few. In fairness, most people will look at surfers and go, ‘he’s slightly crazier than him because he’s riding a slightly bigger wave’ and there’s very few that do take all that preparation seriously. I do! I want to come back, you know what I mean? I want to go and do my thing and come back safely. I’m not being stupid and there’s a lot of guys out there who are. There are two types of big wave surfers, there’s calculated risk-takers and there’s ‘screw loose’ and to be honest, you need to be a bit of both but you’re usually more one than the other. At moments in time, you will be totally ‘screw loose’ because you have to be do those things in life, but at the same time, I’m very, very calculated, there’s a few other guys who are too and we run safety teams, we do take safety very seriously, but at the same time you can’t do that without being slightly unhinged.”
What is the biggest misconception that he has come across about the North Coast waves, apart from that we have none, especially with all the attention on the West of Ireland these days?
“Yea I hear that all the time. In the winter we do have good waves. We don’t have amazing world class waves all the time but we do have them. The way that we face, we probably have the best wind conditions in the whole country, we have clean water and it’s warmer up here.
"That’s another thing, up here people look at the coastline and think it’s so rugged, it’s rough and it’s raw. It’s not! Not in comparison to the West coast and some other parts of the world. We’re tucked in here, quite a bit behind the Causeway and between Malin Head, we don’t get the pure rawness of it and that’s one of the reasons we don’t have the big, well-shaped waves. If you look at the weather charts at these big swells that we get, they get bounced off Scotland and off the North Coast off Malin Head; we lose all that energy and power whereas the West Coast gets it really big. You know it’s real, the waves are the waves, they are what they are, no one’s claiming everything to be amazing and perfect and if you are, you’re wrong. It’s surfing at the end of the day. It’s the sea, it’s not the same all the time.”
We discuss the rising popularity of surfing as an activity, many who consider themselves to be surfers because they have had a few lessons. Incidentally, Al never had a lesson in his life. There are people who are happily capable in and around the sea but then there are those who are of the sea and I very much feel that Mennie is the latter.
“I like that term, people of the sea, because it’s true. The sea is a being.” he nods. “You see, that comes back to that thing you said earlier about paddle versus tow. That’s just somebody choosing to do one thing over another. I do so many things in and around the sea be it walking my dog, be it driving round in my boat, be it paddle boarding and so forth. It’s just what I do. It’s part of me and I think sometimes I forget how important it is because it’s just become so normal to me. My dad used to be on the boats fishing on the trawlers when he was younger, it’s just something that’s always been there, y’know? I can’t see myself ever being too far away from it for too long.”
Of all the big wave spots on the globe that he could be effectively be living by, it’s fascinating that he chooses to remain here. What is it then, that keeps him North?
“I think it’s just family and friends and the real things in life. Surfing isn’t a real thing in life really, it’s just something that I do. If I had to choose it would be family and friends over everything. I’m here because my mum’s here, my family and friends. I surf a lot. I find that I don’t surf serious waves here very often - I surf serious waves in other parts of the world or down the West coast, Portugal, Spain wherever more often than not, but here is where I’ll prepare a lot for that.”
It seems that this is as important a part of his preparation as if he were living by those things 24/7?
“Yea, I think so but at the same time if we had a crazy big wave spot all the time I think my fear threshold would certainly rise a lot and I’d be more prepared as well. It’s one of those things.”
With no one else out trying to find big waves in the middle of the North Atlantic and undoubtedly more yet to explore, it doesn’t seem that this Northern pioneer will ever be done and who knows what mysteries he might discover while on his many missions.
“I think that’s just my personality, I’m just like that, I’m driven to go and see what I can do and I find myself in places that when I look back on them months or years afterwards, I go ‘How on earth did I do that? What on earth drove me to do that? I paddled to Scotland one time for charity. When my dad died, I took on the family business and didn’t know anything about building. I take on things that are maybe beyond me at times but I get there in the end.”
Is this by sheer will or simply by being stubborn, I wonder?
“Oh I’m renowned for it,” he beams good naturedly. “Oh aye. Yip. You have to be. But one thing I’ve had to learn is acceptance, that there will be days that you will still get beat down and just have to accept it.”