Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Running Deep

An interview with Fergal Smith, professional surfer.

Fergal chalks down a big one at Mullaghmore. Photo courtesy of Mickey Smith

Riding heavy waves is the realm of the calm and focused, for those who can act with a deliberate precision, sharpened by the cold of the North Atlantic, crafted over sessions with punishing waves. Driven by the glimmer of solid groundswell and offshores, Fergal Smith is continuing to power through the heaviest slabs and thickest lips. This year, Fergal has taken the front cover of Surfer Magazine’s August edition and paddled into the fiercest waves both hemispheres have to offer. Skríobh talked to Fergal about Western Australia, the waiting game and Ireland’s cold water Teahupoo: Mullaghmore.

The front cover photo was taken in March of this year. “We knew it was going to be the last good swell of the winter, so it was going to be a good blast. Probably one of the best runs we’d had all winter. Eight or nine days in, we surfed there in the morning, Aileens in the middle of the day, I got one of the best waves I’d had all year there. This was the 3rd surf of the day, for the eighth or ninth day. Then back down for the last half hour of light. We turned up, me and Tom Lowe. I went first, and it was literally my first wave and that was it. My second wave was almost a bit better, just the sunlight was really good on that first wave.” With the North Atlantic and Ireland’s jagged coast, there are so many variables that it can be beyond rare that everything dials in. When your career relies on swirling low pressure systems for swell and the position of the moon for tides, taking advantage of perfect conditions is for the hardened, patient waterman.

When the Atlantic complies, Ireland is gifted epic peaks and long periods. Last December, Mullaghmore unloaded its raw energy on a plinth of battered limestone on the Sligo coastline. “We had one big, clean groundswell at Mullaghmore, it kinda looked like the day. I’d paddled it a few times before then but it was nothing amazing. Tom (Lowe) came over and we gave it a good stab. Didn’t get loads of waves, but got one wave in particular that was kind of a stand-out for me. Paddled into a 10-12 foot plus wave, pulled into a big barrel at Mullaghmore and for me, it was a milestone, getting over that hump. Riding an 8 foot board suited for putting into barrels was a different realm. That was a big moment, for me anyway.” For the rest of the year, that’s all we’ve seen Fergal do. Later on in the year, in March, Fergal, Andrew Cotton, Richie Fitzgerald, Al Mennie and a determined crew of others chalked down some of the biggest waves ever ridden at Mullaghmore, receiving international coverage.

 Ireland’s northwest carries as much weight as some of the best known waves in the world. The fierceness of Sligo’s monster is comparable to one of the most photographed waves in the world: Teahupoo. I asked Fergal which was a bigger deal for him. “Mullaghmore’s more scary, coz you don’t know it. But if I got as many days to surf Mullaghmore as Tahiti, I reckon I’d get more comfortable on it. Mullaghmore’s a bigger deal for me, hands down, by a million times. It’s so rare. To get really good winds and big, thick period groundswell and low tides, it’s such a combination that if it happens once a year, that’d be great. But then Tahiti’s so gnarly, the wave is so heavy. The intensity of that wave surpasses any other wave for paddling”.

Fergal Smith, Teahupoo. Photo courtesy of Mickey Smith.

When Teahupoo went Code Red last winter during the Billabong Pro, the footage of some of the thickest waves ever surfed went viral. Nathan Fletcher and Bruce Irons got pulled into waves of nightmares, and acted as a reminder of Teahupoo’s status as a mecca of heavy wave surfing. Fergal’s approach is one of calm readiness, patiently waiting for the right wave. “It’s just these perfect, groomed lines coming from New Zealand. It’s really manageable. You can get your head around it…It almost looks like…I don’t know, not “ fun”. When you’re paddling out in the channel and you’re half a mile away, it just looks like a 6 foot perfect wave. Then you get close and you realise it’s more like a 12 foot perfect wave….it feels doable, well, that’s how my head works.” It’s in stark contrast to the turbulent, shifting North Atlantic waves at home.

The limits of Mullaghmore have yet to be tested. As a wave of consequence, its potential is yet to be seen, possibly due to a number of factors: the small contingent of Irish people that are capable of even towing into the wave and the lack of international enthusiasm for hitting to the colder climbs for swell that might not show. “You can only paddle waves in Tahiti up to 10, maybe 12 foot, max. If you’ve the right day, the right board, the right head on, you could paddle a 15+, 18-20 foot wave at Mullaghmore. There’s an entry, y’know, there’s a chance of doing it; the right board and you get a let in. It’s a bigger scale than Tahiti. Tahiti’s more of a slab. Mullaghmore’s kind of a big wave. The idea of paddling into a 15 foot wave at Mullaghmore, that’s the ultimate goal. There’s not many waves on the planet that you can do that.” It’s this work ethic and ambition that has earned Fergal the coverage that he’s now receiving.

One of the most recent videos that Fergal appeared in was ‘Roar Power’, shot on the west coast of Australia. Growing up on the west coast of Ireland, I asked Fergal what were the similarities between the two places. “It’s totally different in loads of ways but then again, it’s kinda out-back, it’s still a bit old-school.” The coastlines of Mayo, Clare and Donegal have that rural, forgotten feel to them. Speaking about Australia, he said: “It’s lovely, it’s real wild coastline and the locals are quite friendly…It gets stormy and windy and rainy, there’s nothin’ really goin’ on…it’s a lot like Ireland’s coastline a lot of the time; one day a year or a couple times a year, the wind’ll be right, and you’ll get the most messed up, crazy slabs in the world…you just have to take the rough with the smooth, be really appreciative of how lucky you are for those days and the rest of the time  just appreciate where you live.” It is a patience only shown by those with a passion most will never experience. The long periods of down time only further intensify the highs and justify the wait.

Roar Power from Darren McCagh on Vimeo.

What are Fergal Smith’s plans for the future? “I’ve got to a stage where I know what I really enjoy doing, and I know what challenges get me most excited so I’m just focusing on them. The days that are paddleable: I’m just keeping them in mind, and as soon as they’re there, that’s what I’m putting all my energy into. Getting lots of new boards, just getting set up for paddling really good waves and really working on that side of things.”

You’ll be able to check out all of Fergal’s surf adventures from the past year at the 2012 Westport Arts Festival, where he’ll be premiering his new video, shot by his brother Kevin Smith, with support from his sponsor Analog Clothing as well as Mickey Smith’s award winning ‘Dark Side of the Lens’ and Relentless Energy’s ‘Powers of Three’. The Smith brothers will also be exhibiting a visual art piece in the centre of town. It’s set to be one of the highlights of the festival, make sure not to miss it.

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