The Red Baron – Surfing in Ireland
By Louie Hynd
Coming into December, I assumed I’d be going to Hawaii like every other semi-pro, pro and photo chaser. Boards were ordered and I was looking forward to watching the title showdown from the balcony of Ripcurl’s beachfront team house as I’d done the year previous. But this year it wasn’t meant to be, not enough floor space. Even the cupboard (literally) I slept in the year previous was occupied. I had already had a month of 1ft northerly wind chop on the Gold Coast and I sure didn’t want to sit around twiddling my thumbs waiting for waves.
I saw a bunch of photos of amazing waves and setups in Ireland over Instagram and got chatting to my friend and filmer Darcy Ward about doing a trip there. He was equally excited about the idea. Two weeks later we decided to stop talking about it, drop everything and just go.
Wing it and see what happens.
Flights were booked, 5mm rubber was packed and Darcy and I were off on our first major solo mission.
Things could not have gone any smoother on the journey over to Ireland. Excess baggage costs flagged at check-in, extra legroom seat on a domestic flight and to top it off, a business class upgrade for the long haul flight.
Once we landed in Dublin, we had no accommodation or transport organised. We really were winging it from here the start. I received a few strange looks dragging a massive coffin bag through the cobblestone streets of Dublin. We eventually found a vacant shoebox size room in a dodgy hostel atop a fried takeaway joint.
Pungent fumes of deep fried goodies wafted inside our room every time we opened the door.
We sampled a few pints of Guinness before the jetlag set in and fell asleep at 2pm. The next day we were bound for the west coast of Ireland.
We nearly missed the train due to no taxis wanting to deal with our enormous amount of luggage, but we made it to the station with two minutes to spare. Upon catching the train it really sank in that were on the other side of the world. Going past identical townhouse suburbs like something out of Harry Potter, then through rolling green landscapes with giant leafless trees.
It certainly didn’t look or feel like we were on a surf trip.
A three-hour train ride followed by an hour-long bus ride; we arrived at the coastal surf town of Bundoran. The place was completely dead. It was 4 pm and the sun had set long ago; there wasn’t a soul in sight. It wasn’t exactly what we were expecting. We dragged our luggage down the road to an old-fashioned bed & breakfast. We were greeted by a lovely old lady called Betty. She woke us up at 6:30 am sharp for breakfast and seemed quite offended when we turned down the cereal that looked like it’d been sitting on the shelf since the 60s.
The next day we picked up our vehicle for the trip; The Red Baron. An old red Ford transit that our friend Elliot Marshall and his mates used to road trip through Europe earlier in the year. Darcy took the driving reigns although he only had his learners. The anxiety of being pulled over whilst driving an unregistered and uninsured vehicle without a license quickly set in. A Google search suggested that we would be looking at around 15K in fines and possible jail time if we were caught. I decided it was finally time to learn how to drive manual so if we did get pulled over, at least I had some kind of a licence. Twenty minutes of practice in an empty estate before being thrown straight in the deep end.
It turned out that surfing in Ireland wasn’t as simple as I’d hoped. The first few days were completely flat, followed by freezing 80km/hr cyclonic onshore winds and then rain for a few more days. We needed to be precise when picking a time to surf. With only seven hours of daylight and four-metre tides, you basically need to pick your spot and time to surf the night before. Some spots only break on high tide, whilst others only on low tide.
There’s not a lot of time to spend drive around checking everywhere because before you know it, the tide has turned too much and the only decent wave is now unsurfable.
In between the constant rain squalls, we eventually found a window of daylight that we could film a session. Being covered in 5mm rubber and a hood made every movement restrictive and much more exhausting than usual. Having your face frozen by the 8-degree water temp and the howling arctic winds doesn’t help either. After about a week of struggling to get any decent waves, I was worried that I’d bitten off more than I could chew. I was bummed out and thought I was going to return home with nothing but a royal skunking. Luckily, the swell outlook for the next week was looking promising.
The charts were reading 22ft at 15 seconds and to be honest I was shitting myself. I had borrowed an 8”6’ board and was ready to paddle into the infamous big wave spot at Mullaghmore. All the big wave madmen were in town ready for it, but unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to paddle. We headed back to another spot just as the tide started to turn.
It was firing! Clean 6-10ft heaving left pits with less than 5 guys out.
We had an hour and a half up our sleeve before the winds were predicted to go upwards of 80km/hr.
We reversed The Red Baron into a spot so Darcy could shoot from the boot out and then I was out there. It was surreal to be in such a unique location and surfing perfect uncrowded waves. The gamble had all been worth it. It felt so much more rewarding scoring waves off your own back opposed to just being thrown on a plane towards the nearest purple blob on the map. Chasing a swell in Indo is one thing but going on an adventure outside my own comfort zone, putting the time in and then finally scoring perfect empty waves was one of the most satisfying feelings I’ve experienced surfing. Aussie expat Noah Lane and local legend Fergal Smith were showing me how it’s done. We traded waves until eventually, the forecasted 80km/hr wind rolled through. I was beaming after that session; just dumbstruck that we’d finally scored the waves I’d seen in photos before coming over.
The cyclonic winds made the walk back along the edge of a cliff on a narrow goat track a treacherous and terrifying task.
At one point my board began to flail so dramatically in the wind, I had to throw myself to the ground and crawl through the mud to avoid being blown off the cliff to certain death.
The Irish are some of the friendliest people I have ever come across in my travels. It’s easy to feel alienated when travelling overseas. Locals might speak a different language, participate in odd customs and may not understand Aussie humour or sarcasm. Usually, on a trip I just keep to my own program, but in Ireland it was different. We got along really well with the locals we were surfing and staying with. They’d always be popping in for some banter and discussing where the waves would be good. It made us feel welcome and helped us forget that we were on the other side of the world.
Ireland was the first place I’d been where I felt like I really fit in. Much like Aussies, the Irish love having a good time and enjoying a beer at the pub. One of our first nights, we thought it would be a great idea to have a beer at each pub on the main street. A simple task one would think, but not in Ireland. On the short kilometre long main street we were staying, there were fourteen separate pubs, all serving pints opposed to the smaller schooners we were used to back in Aus. I think we cut it short once we realised we were only halfway through. We still managed to get into the water at first light, which was at an achievable 9 am.
The Irish are also the most trustworthy people I’ve met abroad. One night on the town I lost my wallet. In any other country this would be a reason to panic, but for some reason, I just had the feeling it would turn up.
Two days later, I get a phone call from a friendly local who found it, still with 70 euros inside.
Another instance happened in the early hours of the morning. Our share house front door was always left unlocked and one night we had an intruder. He came into our room and I bewilderedly locked eyes with the man from my bed, expecting him to quickly try an escape after realising I’d noticed him. He mumbled a few words before he suddenly ran to the bathroom and proceeded to boisterously throw up in our toilet. He apologised and then left. He hadn’t come to steal anything, the poor bloke had just accidentally gone inside the wrong door on the stumble home from the pub.
If someone told me in November that I’d be spending Christmas and New Years in Ireland, I would have chuckled in dubiety. For Dacey and I, it was the first time we have been away from our families for the occasion. Aussie expat Noah Lane and his family, who flew over from Australia, happily adopted us into their festive celebrations. It was a pleasant change having Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere. Seeing snow-capped mountains, snuggling up next to the fire and leaving the beers outside to stay icy cold were some welcomed changes. We played a classic game of Aussie backyard cricket with a piece of wood as a bat and a bin for stumps. A bunch of the neighbours joined in and we played until we felt the onset of frostbite.
After a week or so of playful waves over Christmas and New Years, the charts were again showing a massive swell.
Except for this time around the weather was looking in our favour. Light winds and sunshine are a rarity during the winter months in Ireland so there wasn’t any time to waste. It was our last day and we were blessed with the best conditions of the trip. Even the tides lined perfectly, allowing me to have a solo session at one left slab, followed by another at a much more fickle left slab which required no wind to work. By the time of the last session, I was down to my last board. It was a 5’6” and the waves were double overhead. A sunny afternoon, sharing fun barrels and banter with some of the local legends I’d met during our stay. It was the perfect end to the trip. One last dash across an angry farmers property to the car and we were out of there.
Everyone was on such a high after the first perfect day of weather and waves in over a month. We were invited over to one of the local’s house for a celebration and send off. The Irish drank us under the table in a game of kings cup until we ran out of beer.
Luckily, the local bottle-o delivers to your doorstep, genius!
We were so caught up in having a good time that we had forgotten to pack.
You always think travelling when hungover is going to be fine, but it never is. A tactical chunder before the winding bus trip and I was good to go. Thirty-six hours of feeling seedy was certainly not enjoyable, but we had a successful adventure and made it home in one piece.