How the perfect surfer's wave was conquered

Leonard Doyle tells the remarkable story of how a surfer's dream wave was discovered off the south-west coast of Ireland, and of the bitter feud that followed
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The Independent Online

On the heart-stopping edge of the Cliffs of Moher in south-western Ireland, John McCarthy's enthusiasm is infectious as elfin-like he skips over a dry-stone wall and points down into the surf 800 feet below. Ignoring warning signs that say "Danger Cliff Edge!" combined with a pictogram of a person falling backwards off a cliff, he takes me towards a slab of sandstone that overhangs the churning sea. We are inches from our doom and the buffeting wind racing up the cliff-face threatens to suck us over the edge.

"There she is! That's Aileen's!" McCarthy says over the noise of the gale. I make out that he is pointing towards a singular ocean swell that's making its way in towards the bottom of the cliff. As it passes over a submerged reef, the wave suddenly jacks up, its leading edge curling into a perfectly rounded C - as though pushed upwards by a giant hand.

"That's our wave; the most perfect wave you will find in Europe," says McCarthy. Moving towards the cliff face, the lip of breaking water is suspended some 20-30 feet above the surface of the sea as it races forward. Aileen's, as the local surfers affectionately call this monster, is a new discovery and until last October had never been surfed. A similar, but larger barrel-shaped wave occurs off Tahiti called Teahupoo - the holy grail of big-wave surfers. Now Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, enthusiastically lists Aill Na Searrach (or Aileen's) as one of the world's famous tow-in surf spots, along with Jaws in Maui, Teahupoo and the giant Belharra off the Basque Country.

Within half an hour of showing me the wave, McCarthy, and his boyhood friend Dave Blount, will be charging out across the ocean on a jet ski with their special Hawaiian surfboards. These are designed to be towed into enormous breakers at high speed - the surfer takes off just as the wave is cresting. In certain conditions - usually a deep depression far out in the Atlantic and an offshore south-easterly, the perfect wave will come in regular sets of seven for hours at a time. When Aileen's arrives it is a most elusive phenomenon, beautiful to behold but with the capacity to kill or maim the unwary surfer.

Big-wave surfers dream of catching giant waves, but it is only in the past six months that any have dared to attempt to surf Aileen's. And it has only been surfed about 10 times since.

Bloggers and podcasts have done a lot to get the word out and now the west of Ireland is suddenly centre stage in the world of big-wave surfing. The weather is a bit different from Hawaii's; the wind-chill factor in winter makes the sea unbelievably cold. Big-wave surfers who head out in sub-zero conditions cover themselves up in 6mm wetsuits, hoods and gloves, and have to combine the endurance of a mountaineer and the athleticism of a ballet dancer to survive the conditions.

The setting for the Cliffs of Moher could not be more dramatic. Paddling in is like entering a scene from The Lord of the Rings, says McCarthy. Off in the middle distance the three Aran islands lie low and black in the water like great basking sharks. Closer to hand a great sea stack juts up beneath the cliffs and humpback whales frequently break the surface within sight of the cliffs.

Like a viewing platform for primordial giants who wish to peer over the edge of Europe, the Cliffs of Moher provide an unrivalled view across the vast boiling wildness of the Atlantic Ocean, a world unchanged since the pre-Celtic masters of magic, the Tuatha Dé Danann ruled Ireland. In protest at the arrival of Christianity and the loss of the magical rituals, the Tuatha turned themselves into horses and hid in caves for centuries. One day seven foals emerged from the caves and, frightened by the bright sunlight, they bolted. Galloping along the edge of the cliffs they met their awful fate at a spot known as Aill Na Searrach, or the "Leap of the Foals" in English. Today the surfers call it Aileen's.

"Maybe the spirit of the mythological horses has been harnessed by the waves," says Katherine Webster, director of the soon-to-be-completed Cliffs of Moher Interpretive Centre. The Cliffs, one of Ireland's most visited places, attract more than a million visitors a year. On any given day, conga lines of tourists in bright raincoats pour out of buses to puff their way up the hill and look out into the abyss.

Each cliff along the five-mile stretch has a name, usually anglicised from the Gaelic: hence Aill Na Searrach becomes Aillenasharragh in English. Year round, the sea cliffs are a place of howling winds and horizontal driving rain. Here thousands of fulmars, kittiwakes, puffins and guillemots screech through the air and the Peregrine falcon soars above in search of prey.

A hundred and fifty years ago, larger-than-life Cornelius "Corney" O'Brien was the local landlord and Westminster MP. The landscape of West Clare is still dotted with his monuments and follies, notably O'Brien's Tower on top of the cliffs. Right on the sandstone edge are the remains of a great stone table where Corney hosted dinner parties for his guests at a time when Clare was wracked with famine. The story is told that a uillean piper he employed to entertain the guests imbibed too much and ended up piping himself over the edge.

Most visitors stay for a quick half-an-hour trip, others hike in across the dramatic cliff-top Clare Way and very occasionally a sad soul will make a last desperate journey to this most desolate suicide spot imaginable. There are also tragic accidents and not long ago a tourist toppled to his death, pulled over by a sudden squall. "The weather can be extreme here," says Katherine Webster, "and there is not much we can do about it when visitors insist on climbing over the retaining walls." Soon a discreet viewing platform will provide a hawk's eye viewing platform of the surging seas and the surfers below.

The west coast of Ireland has some of the finest, if intermittent, surfing conditions anywhere. Aileen's was a well-kept local secret until 15 months ago when the acclaimed English surf photographer Mickey Smith brought some Australian body boarders to peer over the Cliffs of Moher. They decided on an immediate attempt. It is all but impossible to descend the sheer cliff face, so the Australians began an insane attempt to paddle from two miles away after jumping off a lower cliff face. There seas were treacherous and it was getting dark and dangerous as they reached the wave. Exhausted they turned back, guided by the flame from Mickey's Zippo lighter on the headland above.

In a nearby village, where McCarthy - Ireland's foremost surfer - was taking a break from coaching the next generation of surfers at his Lahinch Surf School, the idea took hold for a proper attempt on Aileen's. "For a year I watched the wave and could not get it out of my head," he recalls. "So many surfers told me they had watched it. There is even a girl from Maui who lives around here who goes up to look at Aileen's because it reminds her of Peahi [Jaws]."

Last autumn, as the surfing season began in earnest, Mickey Smith showed up again in County Clare with Robin Kent, one of Britain's top big-wave surfers. By chance a world-renowned Californian surfer called Rusty Long (returning from a failed mission to the Hebrides) was also in the area and they teamed up with McCarthy and Blount. McCarthy had just splashed out €10, 000 (around £7,000) on a jet ski - finally making an attempt possible.

Without the back-up of a rescue vessel and with no real knowledge of the conditions they were about to encounter, they set out. And like many a world first, whether bagging a mountain peak or crossing an ocean single-handed, this little expedition to conquer Europe's most terrifying wave would soon degenerate into controversy. It is one that still echoes through the world of big-wave surfing.

First, a little background. Behind surfing's gentle "Aloha" image, there is a ferocious commercial struggle being waged between the global brands like Quiksilver, Rip Curl, Billabong and Salt Rock, the upstart British surfing company. These are the names behind the profitable surf-wear industry which sells itself through the heroic images of virile young men and women charging down waves. From humble roots making wetsuits and surfboards, these companies now reach a global market. Beijing shopping galleries are decked out with surfboards and wetsuits; the products they really sell are baggy shorts, T-shirts and sandals. It's the wholesome image of the surfer battling the elements that drives the brand.

On the fateful first attempt McCarthy launched his new jet ski into high winds and pitching seas off Doolin, some two miles north of the cliffs. Battered by waves he was leading an expedition of surfers, body boarders and Mickey Smith. When they arrived under the line of tall cliffs the group was awestruck. "It sounds clichéd," recalls Smith, "but it truly was like stepping through a portal into another world. Beneath the massive rock faces we were completely sheltered from the wind."

McCarthy remembers "an elemental feeling, we were like Lilliputians in a land of giants. Giant cliffs, giant rollers and the thundering roar of water as the waves crashed against the caves under the cliffs - an unearthly boom."

Rusty Long was the most experienced big-wave surfer among them and he, McCarthy, Blount and Kent spent their time trying to stay alive - avoiding more than riding the first tube-shaped monsters.

"You are not thinking about it at the time, but you realise that if this huge weight of water lands on your head, it can kill you," McCarthy remarks. "It's one of the biggest waves anywhere, but what makes it unique is its shape. It throws off this enormous oval-shaped tube and that is where the surfer needs to place himself."

The trouble would come later when the first article about surfing Aileen's appeared in the British surf magazine Carve. The two Irish surfers found themselves relegated to the role of willing assistants beside the heroics of the American and British surfers. Reduced to the status of blathering Paddys (or "ghillies to the quality" as their forebears would have said), they are bit players attributed with such expressions as: "Aye, fellas, d'ya know what? I've only gone and forgot to put some fuel in the bloomin' jet ski!"

The bad feelings increased when Rip Curl, the company sponsoring Smith and Kent, suggested that the two Irish surfers would never have attempted Aileen's without the expertise of the Californian wave-surfer, Rusty Long.

"The Irish guys are great surfers, but without our backing and Rusty Long's experience, they would never have tackled the wave that day," Rip Curl's team manager in the UK, James Hendy, told me. He says this despite the fact that they bought the jet ski for the express purpose of attempting Aileen's.

The Irish side agree that if it wasn't for Rusty they wouldn't have gone out that day. But they felt shunted aside. It was, someone commented, as if Sir Edmund Hillary hadn't bothered to mention that Sherpa Tensing Norgay was with him all the way to the top of Everest.

"We were speechless. We are great friends with these surfers and the photographer," McCarthy says. "We provided the jet ski without which the wave could not have been attempted, but the commercial imperatives of Rip Curl meant we were air-brushed out of the picture - literally so in Carve magazine."

Since that October day last year, McCarthy and Blount have been out in bigger seas catching enormous tubes. Towed in by the jet ski, the surfer would smoothly swing behind the peak of the wave, and then stand tall in the pulsing chamber barreling headlong for the cliff. "It is an unearthly feeling, being inside a swirling tube of green water, moving at about 30 miles an hour with the terrifying sound of the collapsing wave behind," says McCarthy.

For the million visitors who puff their way to the highest point of the cliffs there is now another extraordinary spectacle to be seen where the foals leapt to their doom at Aill Na Searrach all those millennia ago.

To see the surfers in action visit www.dreamcatcherproductions.ie/film1.html. John McCarthy teaches at www.lahinchsurfschool.com

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