II. The Competitive Champion
The 6X Irish National Champion ANDREW HILL reflects on his unbroken record, his time as a competitive surfer and his passion for shooting waves.
YOU haven’t lived if you haven’t surfed,” declares Andy Hill matter-of-factly. He seems genuinely taken aback when asked why someone should learn, the look on his face suggesting that this is an existence he just cannot consider. It’s not typical surf shop patter - he quite literally means what he says, but then his entire life has been about surfing. He is well known to many as the owner of Troggs Surf Shop in Portrush but what may not be common knowledge outside of surfing circles is the actual extent of his achievements in the sport. He doesn’t self-promote when asked but the plethora of international trophies lining the shelf indicate that there’s quite a bit to tell.
“There’s nothing like being in the water and riding a wave, it’s just the most incredible experience,” he says, now that he realises it’s not a trick question. “Once you’ve done that... well, for me, I just wanted to ride more waves and experience other countries, meet other people, that’s what I like about surfing.”
Andy arrived on his surfer’s path via a childhood spent in the water, competitive swimming in galas from age five up until the age of ten. At nine years old he was Devon County Springboard Under-12 Champion and if he had stayed in England, he says would have probably gone on to compete at diving. The training got to him in the end but when his father took him surfing, that ticked all the boxes, especially when he realised that he could compete.
“That just really opened my eyes to being in the water, how I could actually express myself on the waves and I suppose because I had such a competitive background, it just seemed a natural thing to follow.”
Competitive surfing is typically judged on style, speed, expression, how you ride the wave, power and flow, a variety and combination of major maneuvers, commitment and degree of difficulty. In those earlier days there were a lot of rules - and there still are. If someone causes an interference, then they lose their best scoring wave which is what happened when Andy was up against Australian Grant Frost at the 1992 World Championships in France, with the number 1 seed losing his best scoring wave for that very reason.
“I had just enough to beat him,” he recalls, and his face lights up at the memory. “I mean, I’ll never forget that moment. As I came out of the water, I knew I had surfed as best as I could. Someone said ‘I think you’ve beat him, I think you’re through’. It was just the anticipation of that result, we were just waiting and when it said ‘Andy Hill, Ireland - 2nd’, our team tent just erupted and the whole team went buck daft! And it was brilliant.”
This wasn’t the only highlight of his surfing career. From 1989 through to 1994, he racked up an impressive six consecutive Irish Nationals Titles, a record that remains unbeaten.
“I don’t think anyone will ever do that again because there’s more talent and a lot of really good surfers, I can’t see anyone achieving that now.” he says, with not a trace of conceit. “It’s exciting to win your first one, then it’s exciting to get two, then ‘can I make it three?’, then it was four, five, then six...with each time I’d think, ‘can I really do this again??’. But I always believed I could.”
Obviously each year became more difficult to retain the title as both surfing and the competition was getting more advanced so was it challenging to stay at the top for those six years and how exactly did he manage it?
“Yes. And all of a sudden someone would turn up from South Africa or California with their Irish passport and they’d enter!” he exclaims. “I’d have to beat both them and the attitude that would be ‘oh Andy’s not going to beat these guys’.
"There was a semi-pro from Cali and I beat him; another really good guy, Bobby Renaud from SA, I beat him - that was a tight final! It was just like the more pressure I had, the better I seemed to do. I represented Ireland for the Irish Surfing Association, so I competed on their circuit and all their competitions. Maybe I wasn’t the best surfer in Ireland, but I was the best competition surfer. In that format of 20 minutes, I was pretty much unbeatable because I thought during my heats, I was a bit of a tactician. I knew what the rules were and just played them to my advantage.
"While I was at Swansea University studying oceanography, I lived with a guy called Paul Russell who was European, British and English champion so he was always my surfing mentor and he gave me a lot of contest tactics which I brought home and used. That also gave me a bit of an advantage over the others. I suppose the other thing that gave me a competitive edge was having that opportunity to travel and surf abroad. One of my board sponsors invited me to come over to South Africa, so I spent three months there and, of course, surfing brilliant waves and being surrounded by better surfers lifts your whole surfing game.”
Portugal, France, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, the list of places he’s surfed is endless and impressive. He and his wife Frankie travelled the world before the shop got too busy.
“That was our thing, we’d work for nine months then go away for three months. We went round the world twice and surfed everywhere really, Western Samoa, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia. I love Indonesia, all the islands there but some of the best surf I’ve ever had has been in Ireland, the West Coast and even some of my local breaks here.”
We talk about how it’s becoming more en vogue to surf Ireland with the West getting most of the attention. The North may not have the same size of waves, or the warmth of some of the more obvious destinations like California, France or Portugal, but it certainly has something unique. In his opinion, what might that be?
“It’s relatively uncrowded. We have 11 good beaches and none of them are busy compared to anywhere else in the world. We have prevailing winds which are off shore so we have a lot of clean surf conditions. We do have powerful beach breaks, similar to France, which is good, and although our reef breaks wouldn’t be as good as the west coast, on their day, they are fantastic - they’re just a bit more fickle. But that was an ingredient that made me a better competitive surfer because I wasn’t surfing world class perfect waves every day. I was surfing the local beaches here. In California, it’s incredibly busy. You go to a break there and it’s absolutely packed whereas here, I could drive to Castlerock, Downhill or Whitepark Bay today and I’d still be surfing on my own, so we do have that freedom and choice.”
A lot of the world is focusing on the West Coast of Ireland now and there is the most incredible wave imagery coming out of Mullaghmore, Aileen’s and Riley’s. However, the waves that are getting the maximum of exposure are waves of consequence, waves that could kill you.
“You have to be incredibly talented to surf those, a bit gung-ho and on a mission,” he warns. “Those waves are heavy and not for the average surfer, but they’re the ones getting in the magazines.
"We do have intense waves like that here on the North Coast and they’re actually a bit more volatile because they aren’t as well defined, they don’t break in the same spot. So the likes of Alastair (Mennie) there going out on the really big days, it is actually quite sketchy compared to the West Coast. Down there, you can surf big waves but you’ve got a channel to escape to, but up here there is no channel, just plenty of rocks. Yes, there are lots of good breaks down the West but equally we share such good surf here as well, we just don’t get the same media exposure.”
There are certainly some impressive but dangerous wave spots here around the coastline. There’s one slab in particular along the coast towards Portstewart and one look at it is obvious that if you get it wrong, there is nowhere to go.
“If you get that wrong you’re in Casualty,” Andy laughs.
“There’s a left-hander that breaks near here, if you pick the right spot, you’ll get a good wave. Pick the wrong one, you will be hurt and certainly have no fins left on your board. It has been ridden, I haven’t bothered riding it, maybe one day...” he makes a face, possibly only half-joking that he’d try it.
“We would welcome a lot more people to experience the whole of Ireland if they are coming to surf here. The West Coast, yea it’s brilliant, it’s just a different experience. We have dramatic coastline here with the Giant’s Causeway, Whiterocks and the big sand dune beaches, Fijian blue crystal water in the summer, we’ve got very good water quality here which is basically due to low population density living at the coast and a £45million sewage pumping station. All our beaches just passed blue flags again for the season so it’s a very pleasant place to surf.
"When you paddle out at Whiterocks, you’re looking up at Dunluce Castle and the white chalk cliffs, then out to the Skerries, Islay, Jura and mainland Scotland. It is very scenic, it has its own beauty. Whiterocks though, you need to be surfing quite regularly because the profile does change and where it breaks changes constantly, especially now. Last winter was probably the most energy and the most erosion we’ve seen on the North Coast in a very long time.”
" I still enjoy competitions but in my time, it’s what I lived for. I would have done everything and anything to compete back then. I really, really loved it."
Nowadays, Portrush is often hailed as the surfing capital of Northern Ireland by the rest of the country, a far cry from attitudes back in the day.
“It always was!” he says, slightly exasperated. “It hasn’t changed, I mean people are now aware that there’s surfing in Ireland and that our beaches are good, that’s just taken time.
"When we first opened, everybody used to say, ‘oh there’s no surf here, you’re mad’, whereas now it’s common knowledge through surfing competitions that we’ve had here, online exposure and in some of the magazines. In the 80’s really there was only a handful of people at one or two beaches. Now, I suppose, that at any one time you’ll always see someone in the water so it’s just more visible now and people realise that yea, NI has good waves. I think it’s common knowledge now amongst the local people and it is getting more known further afield and globally.”
Any surfer will tell you that surfing is a selfish but addictive sport. The more people you have in the water, the less waves there are for everybody to ride and in some places there is incredible localism which Andy doesn’t see becoming a problem here.
“I’ve experienced that in many places around the world but thankfully we’ve got a pretty cool crew here and localism hasn’t raised its ugly head. I was down in Cornwall a couple of years ago at Hallowe’en and at one of the beaches there were 400 people in the water! I remember chatting to the lifeguards there, asking did they get many incidents of people drowning or needing rescued, he said the only incidents they got were head injuries with people getting hit by boards! There’s so many people in the water, you fall off your board, the next minute you’ve got one in your face or your head! It’ll never get like that here because we’ve got far too many beaches - that beach from East Strand to Whiterocks could probably hold 2000 surfers anyway, it’s that long, so it’s never going to get too crowded.”
He admits that he is a competitive person anyway, even in business, understandably ingrained by his extensive competition background so how difficult was it to stop competing when he finally did decide to do so?
“I did give up for a while, it’s hard to keep motivated and constantly want to win, but at six times undefeated I just thought I want to stop now. That was OK for a couple of years but then I thought, ‘stuff this, I want to compete again’. So I did. It’s quite controversial, everyone had me winning it for the seventh time, except the judges,” he laughs. “I lost to a Californian pro by 0. something, but everyone had thought I’d won. Anyway, I always joke: six times Irish National Champion but should’ve been seven.”
When the tour came to Portrush in 2014, he said he entered just to support it but ended up making the final of the over 35’s.
“I’m 47. I got to the final of the Open, then competed in another leg down south and made the final of it; I got selected to represent Ireland in the Open for the European championships in the Azores, but I couldn’t go. That was disappointing but it was nice to know that I still had it and I could still beat some of the young pups. If you put me on a good wave now, I can still do a few turns. I can’t do the modern stuff, I’ve only done a couple of airs in the whole of my life. I can’t do trick stuff but I can still slam a good off-the-top occasionally.”
He pauses for a moment, casting an eye over the walls of the shop, the photos of Kelly Slater and himself in action.
“I don’t think I’m going to compete again now, I think I’m done. It was just nice to realise that I could do it but it’s hard to keep that enthusiasm. I still enjoy competitions but in my time, it’s what I lived for. I would have done everything and anything to compete back then. I really, really loved it.”
Troggs The Underground Surf Shop, opened in July 1991 but actually started in 1984 in the garage of the family guesthouse on Mark Street, out of frustration of not being able to get the very fundamentals to go into the water. The basics like wax, leashes, wetsuits or boards couldn’t be bought locally and everything had to come from England. Andy recalls having to travel over with his Gran by train to Newquay’s Swell Surf Shop in order to get his first custom board.
“It had a big exclamation mark on the deck and I wish I still had it! I just wish I’d kept that board,” he says fervently. “I often ask people, when they are changing their board, do they really want to sell their first one because I regret selling mine. I’d sold one of my early custom shapes made in Sligo by Hollow Wave Surfboards and about 15 years later I saw it going past this shop on the roof of a car! I ran after it and if I’d stopped them I’d have offered them any brand new board in the shop if I could’ve just had that board back.” He shakes his head and sighs, “but I didn’t run fast enough.”
The Premier Surf Shop in Ireland lives up to its title, its current location on the Main Street takes over all four levels with the retail, wetsuit hire and skate department. It’s one of the biggest and longest running in the country, plus more importantly, it’s surfer run and surfer owned.
“We’re not the oldest.” Andy points out. “The Lahinch Surf Shop in County Clare opened about two months before we did I think, although we were selling equipment before anyone else really. There were a lot of people who made a lot of money out of surfing when it was very popular, in pop-up shops, water sports departments, places like that, but a lot of these didn’t really have the experience of a surfer to advise people on equipment. They had the basics whereas we were a lot more specialist.”
What set Troggs apart from these competitors was the authenticity of someone living the sport, the surfing life and who could put their experience into every single aspect of that. If someone comes in to the shop, Andy can look at their frame, ask them some questions about their ability and suggest a proper board, the right wetsuit, rather than just sell a secondhand board they’d never be able to stand up on because it’s a cheap option.
“We would never do that. I know there are some shops who have done but I don’t think we’ve ever sold anyone a board that’s beyond their ability. Sometimes people take your advice and sometimes they don’t but they just come back six months later with their tail between their legs and say ‘Andy, I wish I’d listened to you.’ ”
Giving this guidance seems to come from his surfing ethic and his enduring passion for the sport, besides, he has the credentials and knows the waters around here better than anyone.
“Our motto is, that we want people to enjoy surfing, to catch as many waves as they can and to enjoy it because if they’re enjoying it they’re going to carry on for the rest of their days. And I’ve got a good customer base,” he laughs. “It’s not a quick hit, you know. That is the difference between coming into a store and getting our advice as opposed to going online, doing your research and thinking you know best. Even wetsuits, you’re better to come into our shop and try a suit on because you can look at a size chart and think you’re a Medium Tall, then when you try it on you actually discover you’re an XL!! "
It’s not easy in these economic times to maintain a business and Troggs is no exception so Andy is grateful for those who do shop locally. It’s a hub of support, not just for surfers and skaters but in the community and it’s the backbone of surfing here. At any given time you’ll usually find someone who is reminiscing about their early days of surfing or skating and that it was Andy who was there to guide them at the start.
“Yea, well we’re here a long time, that’s what we do” he laughs, a little reticent about accepting any such accolade.
“I suppose we have impacted a lot on people’s lives” he concedes. “They come into the shop when they’re 10 or 11, then come back in now when they’re 35. So yea, that is nice to be a positive influence in some small part.”
" Many times I just stand in awe of some of the waves that break on the North Coast here. Aside from the very scenic backdrop, it’s so moody and changeable."
Troggs Surf School has been running almost as long as the shop. Andy became a surfing instructor initially to fill the demand of people wanting to learn but despite enjoying that, he was simply too busy to do everything so various partners over the years helped to run the school.
“We have high standards, we sell the best equipment, we offer the best advice. Carl Russell, my partner in the surf school, has the best qualification there is, we’re the most qualified surf school on the North Coast and also for SUP. Over the years we’ve taught an incredible amount of people to surf, from maybe age 5 to 80 years! You’re never too old to ride a wave,” he adds pointedly.
“My advice to anyone is to get a board, get a wetsuit and go and try it. It might just change your life. We’ve got individuals here that came and rented a board one weekend and basically never went home, ended up making a new life here. That’s happened to a lot of folk, where surfing has just changed their life for the better.”
With their hostel, the Portrush Townhouse, right opposite the shop and within walking distance of two beaches, there’s the complete package for anyone coming to stay on a surf trip. Andy’s wife Frankie always had a vision to have a surf hostel after they’d travelled so much around the world, although ‘hostel’ is a somewhat misleading label, because it’s beautifully decorated and very boutique.
“We’ve stayed in some really horrible hostels, so she knew exactly what not to do and being an artist she put her own tweak on it. It’s Northern Ireland’s first and only 5 star hostel,” he says proudly.
When Andy isn’t surfing, he’s taking photos of surfing. When he can’t get out on the waves, he’ll be taking photos of the waves. Some can be found in his surf report via the Troggs Facebook page and Twitter, a service that is particularly helpful if anyone’s about to jump in the van and travel up from further afield.
“It’s nice when someone says ‘Thanks, I had a great surf and I didn’t know it was going to be that good’. The conditions do change here, I do get it wrong sometimes, but not often. I mean it is a report, that’s what I tell people, that those are the conditions as they are recorded at 10am that morning: the tide, photo, description of the surf, where I think is best surf. Sometimes it gets better, sometimes it get worse but there are other models out there which can give a forecast, predicting great waves and guys will arrive here thinking it was gonna be 5 stars. No dude - it’s flat. You should follow my report.”
If he’s unable to get out on the waves himself, is this the next best thing, to be taking pictures of someone else, to staying connected to the ocean and interacting with it in some form?
“Well, I’m stoked if I take a picture of a guy on a wave and I can make him look really cool on it, and when he asks if I got a shot of him, I can say ‘yea’. It’s lovely to have a picture of yourself up on the wall - well alright, I’ve got a few - but I enjoy passing that on, paying it forward.
"I love watching the ocean break. I’ve been taking photos for a long time now, I’ve got hard drives full of waves taken over the last 15 years. Doing the surf report every day, the camera’s always on me. It’s just something I like to do. I like riding waves and I like to just watch them break, I like to share that experience from the way I look at waves, that’s what I’m trying to portray, that majestic quality, that raw energy, that power. Many times I just stand in awe of some of the waves that break on the North Coast here. Aside from the very scenic backdrop, it’s so moody and changeable.”
That awe certainly translates to his wave photography, it has a really special vibe to it, particularly when viewed in his exhibition at the end of last summer. His edge in capturing the waves is perhaps from knowing those waves, from a lifetime spent on them and in them and knowing how they are going to behave. It’s probably second nature to him so he perhaps doesn’t have to think quite so technically as most photographers. Forever modest, he simply says that he just enjoys it.
“I was wondering the other day, how many waves I’ve ridden in Portrush over the last 35 years, or how many hours I’ve spent in that ocean, I mean, it’s a long, long time!” he smiles almost in disbelief, as he departs to sort out a board order. “I never tire of it, never tire of being in the water and I never tire of looking at it.”