"Morning Mrs Muir!" The soaked surfer, wetsuit unzipped to the waist, roars a greeting into the hail pummelling the deserted car park of East Strand beach at Portrush, Northern Ireland. The old woman, pulled along against the gale by a single-minded terrier, sticks out a hand in acknowledgement: "You been out in this, Andy? How was it?" she asks.
"Oh, refreshing!" he smiles, throwing a longboard into the back of his van. Early summer in Northern Ireland. It's not exactly California.
Andy Hill would know. One of the finest boarders that Ireland has ever produced, he has surfed the world's testiest offshore breaks, from the Mentawis, Sumatra, to Pipeline in Oahu, Hawaii. But as he would later tell me, looking out over the north Atlantic from the bay window of his house in Portrush, one of the joys of surfing in your own backyard is that you never know what you're going to get.
I certainly didn't know what I was going to get. The next morning, as I waded out into the frothy bay, the half-risen sun threw a tangerine glow on to the rollers. A surfing novice (I once zipped myself into a wetsuit back to front), I had twice before taken a board out in Cornwall, and my I'll-try-anything-me bravado didn't last long. I "pancaked into the soup" on both occasions, getting a lungful of brine that nearly put me off beach holidays. This time I would start from the beginning.
I couldn't have wished for a better tutor than Andy. Born to a surfing dynasty (his English father, Ian, had brought his board across to the Province in the Seventies when he came with his wife and young family back to her homeland), he was persuaded by friends from Belfast to enter competitions. Andy promptly won the all-Ireland championship, which he defended for five years. He competed around the world for his country and as an individual. In 1992, he was ranked as high as 39th in the world, once shocking the Australian champion, Grant Frost, by defeating him in an early heat.
Today, though, he is teaching me the basics of the sport that has bred a lifestyle. His shop, Troggs a pioneer surfing outfit in Northern Ireland runs a surf school throughout the summer, providing wetsuits, boards, and two hours of his expert tuition. Beginners start with a lesson on dry land. The board provided is a 10ft beast (the kind that graced Beach Boys album covers); with greater width and stability, they give first-timers a better chance of standing up during their first lesson.
With the board flat on the beach, Andy demonstrates the paddle and the "snap", the swift single movement that propels the body from the horizontal to the classic surfing profile: a crouched side-on position. On land, it takes reasonable fitness, strength and balance; in the water, you need timing as well.
Once in the ocean you wait. Broken waves crash into you as you stand chest- deep, clinging to the board. Andy scans the horizon until he spots a clean "set".
"Jump on. Your first wave's coming."
I labour at turning the board around and scramble on, while Andy holds it steady. I feel the swell rise, hear the rush of water and repeat the mantra: "Head up, hands under chest..." As the back of the board lifts and speeds up, I flip up my body, get to my knees... and fall into the sea. "Nearly!" the champion laughs as I eventually return to him. Yeah, right. A few more waves and I still can't get farther up than my haunches before spilling into the drink. At least the sun is shining. "Maybe you're being a wee bit tentative," proffers Andy. "Really force yourself against the wave."
Six or seven waves later, I suddenly catch one. Paddling with the flow, I push off, get my feet on the board and rise up. With the odd wobble, I glide into shore it's exhilarating. I catch and ride a few more before we call it day, and we walk in just as the hail arrives. The buzz of adrenalin takes a while to subside, leaving a brief taste of what drives men and women to postpone their lives in pursuit of the perfect wave. "You're a player now, a real surfer," says Andy, slapping me on the back. For a moment, I allow myself to believe him.
Portrush and the surrounding area are all the surfer could wish for. There are 11 beaches along a 20-mile stretch of coastline facing both north and west. It is a dramatic landscape, encompassing the famous Causeway Coast. Pressure systems in the north Atlantic and a prevailing south-westerly offshore wind create huge swells from September to March and gentle ones in the summer, ideal for the tourists.
"I would argue this coast offers the best surfing in Europe," says Andy. "This convoluted coastline has reef breaks, beach breaks, good point breaks, and river-mouth breaks. The different swell and wind directions give optimum conditions for offshore surf."
Not only do Belfastians form a regular weekend convoy on the one- hour trip, they have been buying up property in the area on the back of the surfing bug. Scottish surfers prefer the trip here to the traditional British surf spots in Devon and Cornwall. And Londoners are encouraged to come by Ryanair's competitively priced flights into Derry, little more than half an hour away.
The onset of summer provides seasonal employment for a growing number of expat Aussies and Kiwis, which has helped create a burgeoning surf scene. At night that scene shifts to Kelly's, the huge nightclub on the edge of the town which regularly plays host to DJs of the calibre of Boy George and Sash.
Andy persuades me to take the coast drive back to Belfast. It's a gem of a road trip on a stunning afternoon. From the Giant's Causeway through Ballintoy past Rathlin Island, it curves south down into Cushendall, with the glens of Antrim on the right and a view of Scotland out to sea, through Glenarm and on to Larne. The Independent's travel guru, Simon Calder, has compared this spectacular drive to Australia's Great Ocean Road and Highway One in California.
I pull in at a cove and go down to the water's edge to contemplate my surfing credentials. Andy had taken me out again that morning, bringing his own board this time. After struggling on my own for a while, I sat on the beach and watched him surf. It was a lesson in grace. Effortlessly he rose above the waves, switching direction, walking up and down the board, before sinking slowly into the water as the wave died.
He had told me earlier: "I just don't think I could work day in, day out, in an office. Do you know what I mean?"
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