Steve Thorp is joined on the next leg of his travels by Sam Burnett and Jony Price, who recounts the tale of another side to the storm chase!
It's always difficult to watch as the UK's who's who of windsurfing fly off to the more appealing climates of Cape Town or Oz to get their winter fix. Unfortunately, it’s not an expenditure a student budget allows for and never really an option anyway as I can't see mum ever letting me escape over Christmas.
Fortunately enough though, some of the world’s best conditions can be right on our doorstep at this time of year! If anything, knowing that people have travelled the world in search of conditions like this just makes it twice as sweet when the home spots do come to life.
“Usually about once a year a proper big swell hits Ireland, I always want to go. Unfortunately the £400 ferry makes it prohibitive unless I can find some friends to share the cost, but perhaps not surprisingly no-ones keen on heading over on a 40ft swell!... So I stay home and then get to see what I've missed a few days later when the videos of Aileens, Rileys, Prowlers, Mullaghmore and all the other spots going off materialise.
This year the mother of all forecasts appeared, enough to grab the attention of both the Red Bull Storm Chase and the Billabong Tow in comp. At one point on an amber alert, they cancelled the Tow in event at Mullaghmore because the wind was going to be too strong, but the Red Bull event further south at Brandon had its force10 and was going to run.. so it really couldn't look much better!
Fortunately I found some keen friends, Jony Price and Sam Burnett stepped up, and we'd finally get to see the Atlantic at it's most ferocious."
Day 1 – Challenge Accepted
I had just travelled back across the Irish sea for the third time this month so the chances of me finding an excuse to go back again were looking slim, but I knew it would be difficult to watch the world’s media reporting that the home spots were going off so I was looking for any excuse to get my ass back there. When I got the call from Sam Burnett on Friday afternoon I didn’t think twice about joining him and Steve Thorpe on their search for waves. Challenge accepted!
It didn't take long for me to explain to my manager in of how it would be “Goin’ off in Ireland!" and that I wouldn’t be coming into work for a few days and I hit the road. Easy! A quick stop off at Puravida HQ to pick up some new toys and I was ready to chase the storm. The forecast was actually very similar to one I had while I was at home for Christmas a couple of weeks back, so I knew Sam was in for a treat on his first trip to Ireland!
“Storms like this are pretty special, I'd never seen a 29ft swell before and with the world’s best coming from places like Maui, I thought it would be pretty lazy not to pop across on the ferry and take a look. I didn't really expect to sail but despite the savage conditions, seeing the better guys tame those huge waves gave me the confidence to give it a crack, and it's the best thing I've ever done."
With the ferry booked from Holyhead at 2.30am, we planned to meet at midnight leaving more than enough time for any delays; or so we thought! If Marcillio Browne could make it to Ireland from the Marshall Islands to catch the storm, surely we could get there from England!
The weather seemed to have other ideas though as we hit snow on the M6 like you couldn’t imagine. It was unreal. News reports claimed up to a foot of snow had fallen in a half hour; not fun! I called the others to get an update on their progress. They too were at a standstill. Things started looking pretty grim. Suddenly the three hours of extra travel time we allowed for seemed trivial. I thought our chances of making the ferry were nil.
There are many times on a trip like this where you begin to question your sanity, but sitting sideways in the third lane of an empty motorway knee deep in snow on your way to the beach is definitely up there with the best! As traffic began to move again, we passed abandoned vehicles and jack-knifed lorries left right and centre. Thorpey’s optimism that we could still get to the ferry in time failed to convince me, but we battled on anyway. The closer we got to Holyhead, the more it seemed like we might just make it! The chase was on again - cue Benny Hill theme!
It was a difficult blow to take when we arrived at the ferry terminal just as they were closing up shop. We must have missed it by two minutes max! The next ferry was due to leave at 8:00am so a few hours sleep in the car made sure we wouldn’t be late it this time. At least we would still make it to the west coast in time for the afternoon session...
Day 2 – The Chase Continues
Sitting in the queue for the ferry it became apparent that it wasn't leaving any time soon. A few hours delay ensured that Saturday would be a write off. Great!
We arrived at the west coast as the sun was setting. Just enough light left for the pumping surf to give us something to talk about over a few of pints of Ireland's finest.
Day 3 – The Timo Effect
We decided to ignore the wise local knowledge of Oisin Van Gelderen who was making his way to Magheroarty, telling us anywhere else would be closing out! Instead, we went for a dawn raid on a well known surf break in the hope of scoring some all time perfection. We arrived at the beach to find a disappointing head high wave but it didn't take long at all for the start of the 28ft @ 21s to begin appearing in the sets! We rigged and watched as local ripper Andreas caught the first wave of the day – seeing that lip peeling over the top of his mast got me pumped!
Just as things started going our way Timo rocked up with JC – timed to perfection really as he pulled up just as a set began closing out across the bay. Never mind.. a quick spin down the coast there’s another reef which could hold the swell but the wind didn't play ball. How could a force 10 storm disappear in an instant?!! I later learned this was down to a natural phenomenon called the “Timo Effect".
It wasn't all bad news though. As we packed up camp again, Timo suggested we have a look at this reef break a couple of miles down the road.. “You'll have the surf of your life if you go there today" he told Steve. We took his word for it and made a move.
We couldn't believe our eyes as we pulled up to this completely empty perfection. We seemed to arrive just as the rain cleared and the sun came out; I swear there was a rainbow behind the glassy clean, empty lines and peeling right handers as far as the headland, completely sheltered from the storm. Things started looking up! As I paddled out I watched Thorpey get some really nice waves!
Day 4 – Riding the Storm
We were now into day three of the trip and the harsh reality was that we still hadn't all sailed! The peak of the swell had yet to hit though, and we had to make a decision. Do we go to one of the well established windsurfing beaches across Ireland, where we would at least be guaranteed a windsurf, (#RBSC!) but at the risk of missing out on some proper world class waves, or do we take another chance and try to find somewhere that could cope with the full brunt of the wind and swell the storm had been cooking. I think our decision was made when I bravely said to the others “We came to Ireland 'cause there's a 30ft swell brewing. What's the point in hiding from it!"
It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that Steve had one wave on his mind from the minute he left the house in England. Any time we took the map out to decide where to aim for, his finger kept pointing towards Mullaghmore Head. Even a few strong words from Timo about the time his bother Finn sailed it weren't enough to dissuade him. So we went for a look.
The drive up to Mullaghmore head is scary enough in itself. The coastal road is lined with headstones of the unlucky few that have lost their life here. At the bottom of the cliff you see a huge explosion of water onto a shallow slab of rock, and behind you is a hill big enough to turn any amount of a gale into a three knot wind shadow. Maybe not today, but I somehow get the feeling that Thorpey will attack this beast some time in the future..
“I've always had in the back of my mind, thoughts of windsurfing Mullaghmore, pretty much THE big wave slab these days. So this was really my main reason for going, at least to have a look and scope it out if nothing else. Just to watch it break first hand and check out the lie of the land. I'd seen the footage of Finn Mullen sailing it, and it was pretty obvious that jet ski cover and a float vest would be a very good idea, especially after my last sail!
What wasn't obvious was that the wind has to blow over the top of the headland and the headland is massive! I took one look and thought you've got to be kidding me! Finn you're a legend, not only one of the gnarliest waves out there but in a huge wind shadow too! So after one look, to be honest, I wrote off the idea of that one! I subsequently heard from Timo that Finns board was 100ltr and the surfers want 300Euro to pull you out with the Jet ski, and that stuff flapping round Finns waist? They're his flippers! Bonkers! Love it."
Back on the road again, we had our eyes set on a location we had heard a few myths about. The problem with travelling on the west coast of Ireland is that there is too much choice. No matter which road you drive down, you are almost guaranteed a perfect wave at the end of it! It's pretty difficult to drive away from a spot that would have any windsurfer around the world falling at his knees and go in search of something even better. But when we pulled up at this next spot, to see lines of huge rolling swell pealing down the coast as far as the horizon, we knew our luck was about to change. This is what we came for!
I have to admit I felt a bit nervous launching here, we seemed to time the tide wrong and the waves were becoming more unpredictable by the minute. Combine that with gale force offshore wind, double mast high lumps of water, bed of sharp ledges and a taste of Mikey's “Go hard or go home attitude" and the result is a pretty fun day on the water.
At least it was windy though, mega windy. At my weight, in these conditions I wish I had a weight jacket and a speed needle to get me down the face of the wave!
When it got to the stage where the wind had swung more cross-shore and picked up enough strength to give two foot chop coming up the face, we decided to call it quits and head for a more ‘sheltered’ beach break.
I think I should explain. What I mean by sheltered, is 70knots, bolt offshore down the line speed sailing with punchy logo high waves rolling in. If I had a 2.0m sail I would have used it. Trying to do anything on the wave resulted in the gale force wind firing you straight out the back door. Izzy, (Steve’s dog) has no fear, I watched her following Thorpey into mast high wave and take a rinsing better than any of us!
When we looked at the photos back at the hostel that night, we couldn't figure it out; the relatively small beach break appeared to be twice the size of the double mast giants we had earlier that day. I guess it must be a perspective thing.
This photo of Steve and Oisin and is one of my favourite. Have you spotted Oisin yet?? If you didn't take the first wave of the set there was no chance of getting a decent shot. The waves in front were generally too big even from the top of the cliff.
I think we were getting a bit fussy now, as we still hadn't got our full fix! Although we caught the full force of the storm, the wave riding wasn't perfect by any means. We figured we had this location sussed out though, and better timing tomorrow, combined with a slightly more favourable forecast would give endless hours of down the line perfection!
Day 5 – Perfection!
Ireland definitely saved the best for last this time! We swapped perfect waves all day, even had some sun for a while which was a bit of a bonus I suppose.
Looking at the photos, I don't think you'd believe me if I told you the camera actually ran out of battery before it got good!! The swell picked up a lot as the tide pushed in, but eventually the wind became up too much and we were all blown off the water on our smallest sails. When we came in to give Rob Jones a call for a lend of some of his child-sized customs, we realised that we had a ferry to catch! Another successful trip under our belts, and we for once we had a few of photos to go with it!
“As it was we still scored some deadly wavesailing and surfing, a top trip which none of us wanted to end. We met some great friends and had some sessions together we'll remember for years.
Can somebody please build us a tunnel!"