IV. The LONG BOARD CHAMPION
The 4X Irish Long board champion JOHN McCURRY offers an honest insight into the pressures of competitive surfing.
JOHN McCURRY is antsy. The swell has been big on the North Coast all week, down the West even bigger. There has been no shortage of waves with the latest spate of storms hurtling across the Atlantic but still he is debating whether to surf. With one thing and another, he hasn’t been in the water for several days. He might get in later. He might not. While he is more than content to chat about surfing, there’s a tangible restlessness underneath the banter.
“Yea. I feel a wee bit sorta out of sync, that’s probably the best way to say it,” he finally admits when I ask him if there’s a marked difference to him having been out on the water and not. He and other surfers will generally say that they are addicts to their sport so this is an interesting glimpse into their psyche.
‘Long’ John’s surf addiction began at age 13 and he was hooked from the word go, spending weekends and summers surfing, pestering his dad to drive him to the coast until enough pestering eventually got his dad surfing too. He moved to the North Coast to study Travel, Tourism & Management at university, but really because it allowed him to be by the sea. The nickname came from his preference of riding the longboard and also that he is some six feet two tall.
“I didn’t pick the name,” he’s quick to point out. “There’s a million ones that could’ve come out of the pile but that seemed to be the people’s choice, yes, because I prefer to ride the 9ft longboard.”
Longboarding is not for everyone and not usually a first choice with the majority of surfers although the longboard is the original board used for surfing in the traditional way and is still the easiest for beginners to learn on. It provides more advanced surfers with the ability to feel the wave beneath their feet and its technique is magical to watch as the surfer can walk up and down, cross stepping on the board whilst riding the wave. Some manage to look like dancers with their graceful movement yet the moves are more intricate to execute than the fast tricks on shorter boards. So what was it that made him stay with it and make it his speciality?
“I had a cheap short board at first, then I snapped it. My dad had actually bought a longboard at the time. I got the lend of one when my other board broke, I used it and absolutely loved it, pretty much from there on I wanted to keep on with it. You catch more waves as well which was the appealing thing but that’s not the reason why I still surf it today. A lot of people are put off by the size of the board, how much more difficult it is to maneuver, or even carrying it around puts them off surfing it for that reason. The longboards I use nowadays are 9ft, one fin tail so they’re very maneuverable. You can surf them like a short board which brings the traditional side and progressive side of surfing together.”
The most notable aspect of longboarding is the ‘noseride’ where the rider stands on the front third of the board, literally on its edge. To a non-surfer watching, it looks incredible albeit incomprehensible to even try to figure out how it’s done.
“For me that’s the best feeling of surfing,” he says, relaxing a bit now. “It’s difficult to explain. Basically to hang five or hang ten, it’s all about timing in your walking, when you’re waiting for the back of the wave to cover the tail of the board so it’s holding all your weight and you’re suspended in mid air, still gliding with the face. But, yea, when you’re standing on the end looking right down and there’s just water and nothing but you, it is surreal. It does feel like you’re actually gliding, you are walking on water as they say.”
Obviously mastering this technique isn’t something that’s arrived at overnight. “It’s like anything, it takes time. It just doesn’t happen straight away. There are cheater fives and there are real high-fives but I could talk all day about that,” he laughs, “but as a man said before of longboarding, it’s - ‘there’s the canvas, take your brush and just draw your line’, so unlike short board surfing it is a lot more variable.”
I ask him if it’s that freedom he likes most, the fact that there are no rigid rules as such and he breaks into a knowing grin.
“Yea, I like the freedom of it. You can surf it as progressively or as traditionally as you want. Sometimes you just want to go off the back of the tail and gain speed but then on smaller days you have to approach the wave differently. If it’s small, it’s a weak wave so your technique has to apply to that. There’s no point wasting a lot of energy trying to be progressive at the tail when you should really be walking it more. On smaller waves you should probably be getting on the nose more to gain speed. You have to let the wave do the talking. Don’t surf the wave how you want to surf it, let the wave guide you.”
There weren’t too many surfers perfecting longboarding on the North Coast for John to aspire to when he was growing up and yet he is the one who is most known for it here.
“It’s the original form for surfing, the traditional way,” he explains. “There have been guys ahead of me but I’ve sort of been the first up around here because of my titles and credentials.”
He says his inspiration came from watching the main lineup of the top guys worldwide who he followed online, citing a list of SoCal heavyweights - Taylor Jensen, Kevin Connelly, Joel Tudor and Hawaii’s Bonga Perkins among others.
“Everyone’s got their own style so I just looked at that, watched loads of videos, read magazines, just basically watched their technique, how they were doing it. Every day I go out I just basically practice, focusing on certain maneuvers and then it all just falls into place. Some days I come in absolutely buzzing because I’ve just done something out on the water and, of course, no one actually saw it so they don’t believe it, but I know in myself I’m going ‘holy shit! I just hit a milestone!’”
Retaining that self belief is essential, particularly to a competitive surfer, who, in longboarding, is judged on power, control and commitment, and competition is something which John says has helped him. He makes an interesting point about the judging of it.
“It’s not like Joe Bloggs can go and judge this,” he says passionately. “Surfers have to judge these competitions, it’s gained through years of know how. It’s a surfer thing and that’s why I’ll say, it stands out on its own from any other sport on the planet, simple as that. Again, I could talk all day about that, you’d have to watch a few to gain understanding but it’s exciting.”
Currently he has four Irish National Longboard Champion titles. What was it that set him apart from the competition?
“Good question,” he replies, seeming a little reluctant to own his strengths. “Well, hunger, at the time - I still have it but I’ve found the last couple of years the levels haven’t been what they were because I haven’t competed at the National Championships for various reasons. I just didn’t have as much time with the business being set up. When I wasn’t surfing as much, I didn’t feel mentally that I was ready to do it anymore so for me, it’s a very big mind thing and I learned that through competition over the year. It’s not just about going out and doing it, being capable. I’ve had competitions where I’ve had a mild freakout in my head which just goes to putty, my legs go to jelly and then suddenly the shit hits the fan.
“The previous ones that I have won, I’ve been able to maintain calm, controlled posture. If I get a couple of good first heats under my belt then it’s about confidence from there on in. If you can keep that confidence throughout the whole event you can go from strength to strength. If the conditions are really good that always adds to it because sometimes they’re not and you have to adapt to that as well.”
If you’re a North Coast surfer, adaptability is a given. The 2015 Causeway Coast Surf Competition, at which John claimed the longboarding title, had originally been postponed due to a lack of waves. On the new date for the competition, storm Clodagh rocked into town creating super tough conditions, so literally one extreme to the other.
“A lot of people have this idea that longboarding is only gliding,” he says. “I like all conditions whether it’s 2ft or 8ft waves, it’s just all in the approach. Yes, it was definitely difficult and challenging that week, there was a powerful swell coming through. That’s why every wave I got, local knowledge helped because I didn’t waste my time trying to paddle out through it all. I had three solid waves in that final and I ran around and jumped off the Arcadia as that’s what we’d normally do in that size of swell. It helped, but god I was exhausted. Like I say, surfing is all about mental confidence too. Over the years what I thought of as being big maybe wasn’t actually. I’ve never reached any size of wave that I thought, no way am I ever going out on that again.”
Surfing has taken him to a number of places around the globe including France, Spain, Portugal, South Africa, Peru, Ecuador, Indonesia, Costa Rica and the USA.
One of his favourite memories is from the 2006 ISA World Surfing Games, a nine day event that brought together 33 countries and over 300 surfers, held at Huntington Beach, California in which John found himself competing against some of the guys he had followed online when he first started, Bonga Perkins being one of them.
“I’ll still never forget it,” he smiles. “South Pier, just off Rudy’s diner where you’ve 10000 people staring at you from the beach and there’s four people out on the water. The surreal thing was the commentator announced ‘John McCurry, Ireland - your dad is watching you online.’ That blew me away, that my dad had just left a message saying good luck and all, to shout that out over the tannoy! That was really inspiring.
“The fact that my idol was actually in that heat - I wasn’t nervous because basically I was preparing in my head that I was there to win but at the same time it was an experience. It was challenging because these guys were doing this on a week-in, week-out basis in those waters so I had to be realistic but then I thought there are two of us that can go through and it would be class if I could get through with him. I just missed out narrowly in the third spot, a Venezuelan guy got a wave in the last five minutes.”
Are there are any competitions that he would still like to do, any he has his eye on now that he’s had a break from competing for a time?
“I would definitely. I did want to get further afield and do the bigger events but financially it just wasn’t feasible. The Portrush contest is the first one I’ve surfed in two years. I just didn’t feel it before that but I always said when I do, you’ll see me down there. So this year I will still be planning to do a couple of events then we’ll see after that. I’m not saying I’ll give up, I’ll never give up but it just might be time to do something differently.
"I haven’t competed on the Irish team for a good number of years now but I’m not saying I never will compete with them again. I’ve been offered a place there last year and previous years but I declined. There is a National Team but the funding has never been great so a lot of us have always had to fork out money ourselves and the result is that they’ve lost a lot of the good surfers from it.”
Some of the best surfers in the world are still competing into their early 40’s, John is only 31 so has plenty of time to do some more. We chat about one of those, a favourite of mine, Rob Machado, “Aw he’s just an all round great surfer,” he enthuses. “His style is fantastic, he makes everything look so cool.”
Even as we talk, he still seems quite detached from his own achievements, to the extent I wonder if attitudes on land have perhaps contributed to eroding his motivation. Has this guy forgotten just how good he is?
I ask him about some of the other places he’s surfed, he seems to like South America, in particular Peru. “The land of the lefts. The waves are incredible. I only surfed a couple of spots but it was just littered with lefthanders, perfect for longboarding, nice smooth pointbreak type waves.”
Peru is home to Chicama, he tells me, a 4km endlessly long left, one of the longest on the planet. “Unfortunately I didn’t get to surf it but there’s a couple of others there, just in the north, but Peru’s a massive country. You could explore there for years and still not find all the spots. Ecuador, was very warm, clear water, real variation, there are heavy beach breaks which aren’t maybe as good and are board-snapping material but there are good breaks and reefs. But yea Peru, I’d highly recommend it - just not the bus trip from Ecuador to there,” he groans. “Never again. 11 hours felt like 11 days.”
" It does help clear your head, it is a cleanser in a lot of ways.The sea, it’s healthy, it’s good for the soul."
We talk about how the attention of Northern Ireland has usually been taken away to other places, California being the stereotypical benchmark by which our own are usually measured at home. Yet there’s nothing inferior about what they’re doing up here just because the North is not getting the same global media attention that other places in Ireland are.
“Well we kinda like it that way,” he says of the latter. “While technology’s great, people aren’t coming from those warm climates to surf when they know rightly what it’s like here. You might get a smaller percentage of people who do. There’s a guy I read about in Surfer’s Path a while back who had come purposely from Ecuador to surf cold water - that was the selling point for him, which was great.
“Ireland sits out on its own. We’ve got a lot of beaches, a lot of reefs, a lot of point breaks. We’ve got very good variation so if anyone ever asks me where my favourite place to surf is, I would have to say home. I know everywhere else in the world, people are looking enviously at how good Ireland is, apart from the cold factor. I can think of just so many spots where I’ve seen pictures and even some of the amazing backdrops.”
The fact remains that most of the media attention is now placed firmly on the West.
“The West - big respect. It has just went off with the whole bigwave scene. If you’re someone in New York, say, who knows nothing about surfing, but suddenly these images go worldwide with a surfer as a speck on that size of a wave there, it’s a talking point.
People always ask me ‘do you surf those big ones you know, that one that’s just off...’ yea, Mullaghmore. I know it, I can tell that’s the one they’re talking about. And that’s why.”
Long John's Surf Academy caters for just about anyone who wants to learn. While he says that some of his best waves are here, what is his reaction to the attitude that there are none?
“Quite funny still. Because I run the school, people come down in the summer time and say there are no waves, but there are. You can teach them in up to an 18 inch wave. It’s small, but it’s still enough power to get you standing up.
Summer’s our quiet time for waves but most of the tourists are up here, generally it can be flat or nothing. As someone who has to try and make money, trust me it’s hard work. You might get enough lessons for a week. You might get people who have done it before who will still come down.
“You can promote it as much as you want but it’s out of season in winter. In winter time, we’re against the daylight hours as well, that’s the problem. There are a lot of factors against us but the cold is one of the main things. I’ve seen people I’ve taken out in the colder waters and they’re not really enjoying it. For the average person it is quite a shock to the system if it’s December or January.”
Among the rise in surfing popularity, does he meet those who take it seriously or is it mostly the mindset that it is purely an activity?
“I do get people who come back who I’ve taken up to intermediate standard but it is like you say, seen as an activity, e.g a hen party - these people just do it once for a bit of banter for a couple of hours. Theirs is a two hour experience so you have to look at them slightly differently for a lesson as you might never see them in the water again.”
Although he’s obviously happy to oblige all who come for a lesson, does he find that frustrating when it’s his passion and he’s trying teach that to someone who doesn’t share it?
“Well, I like to think that it is my passion that rubs off on them. I know from previous customers the feedback has been fantastic because most people, that’s what they are getting from me when they are getting a two hour lesson. That’s why I almost prefer taking one or two people out for a proper lesson where I can actually engage with them. Taking away the whole money side of things, the reason why I started doing it was because I know I am good with people. I like teaching them and passing my experience onto them and I find it easier to do that in fewer numbers than in a larger group.”
When he’s not teaching surfing, what does he get from it when he’s out by himself doing his thing? “Just enjoying it. It’s my time,” he says.
“I want to go out and hear all the elements and breathe in the air, not have to make conversation. It does help clear your head, it is a cleanser in a lot of ways and I would advise that to anyone. Have you read that the French Medical Association have now prescribed surfing for depression and anxiety? I do think that is actually spot on. It does work as it releases endorphins. The sea, it’s healthy, it’s good for the soul.”
So this brings us back to the subject of motivation, or lack of it. I notice that when he’s talking about surfing, his passion for it is evident making the duality of his conflict even more puzzling. In any case, the sea is a formidable mistress ruthlessly feeding the addiction. He needs to surf because it’s part of who he is; if he doesn’t then he will perhaps continue to feel the effects of withdrawal.
“It’s weird, I’m not going to lie, over the years it’s been hard to keep the motivation at times, you get fussier about conditions. I don’t like that either because I like going in for fitness as well. If you don’t go in for a week, then you feel all stiff and rusty, so you should be going in as much as possible. I used to go out in shit conditions but now if I roll up at the beach I’ll go,‘nah’.”
At this admission, the restlessness returns. “It’s not just a sport. It’s a lifestyle,” he says a little defensively. “I mean I’ve had it for quite a while and I’m fortunate to have it, I never take that for granted but sometimes you need a change. We are individuals. It is a selfish sport and it can be a selfish existence.
“Andy (Hill) is the backbone behind the surfing scene up here and he’s been doing it for a lot of years. Even he is always putting up images of good waves down at East Strand with the surf report, going ‘where is everyone?’ He’s asking this question a lot. He’s right. Maybe some of us have got lazy. Maybe we’ve got too fussy but he is right. There are times I’ve seen it a lot busier but then people do have other commitments. A lot of it’s just become more of a social thing now.
"For me, it’s just keeping the hunger for it and as I say I’ve struggled at times. It’s not that it’s gone. I did so much of the competition scenario over a period of time and focused so much and then got myself to a point in my head where I would get myself frustrated because I didn’t feel I was pushing myself as much as I wanted to.”
One week later and John has been back in the water. Ironically the temperature has dropped even lower than before clocking up a mere 5C on shore with a positively bitter 1C windchill. The difference in him is noticeable although still subtle. He’s more animated, clear and in good spirits, happily explaining what he’s looking for in the surf that’s thundering in at Whiterocks. He’s casting a critical eye over what’s going on in the water and I suspect he’s being picky again but following a discussion on waves, it’s interesting to learn that we both appreciate them but view them in a very different way.
The sea might not be giving him the conditions he wants all the time but she still has him hooked and yet in spite of all the challenges perhaps that is what keeps him north.
“I do have that affinity with here. It’s my home and I like it. It is very changeable here, well it can be the same everywhere but we don’t maybe get it as consistently good as we’d like and it’s cold, but we do have it. We’ve just got to be patient. We’re actually quite fortunate where we’re at. But, I’m still progressing in a lot of ways, I never stop learning, so yea, I’ll keep charging.”