You’ve seen the videos: the monstrous Atlantic rollers that lash the Sligo and Donegal coast are some of the biggest in the world, and attract some of the best riders in the world to tame them.
But what if you don’t have a trophy cabinet of little golden surfboards, or have never even stood on a board before? And have the upper-arm strength of an eight-year-old girl?
Is Ireland the place to learn to surf?
We sent Mark Folens to find out.
I am not really the beaches type. I have ethereal pale skin and a natural aversion to sunlight (much like Robert Pattinson, I like to console myself).
Despite my Daz white complexion and suspicious squinting at the big flaming ball in the sky, last July I found myself on a sun-drenched beach in – in shorts – in the name of surf. Well ok, surf lessons. I told you I didn’t do this often.
is not your typical surfing town. There are no palm trees; no stalls of luminous plastic sunglasses. The beach is not teeming with bronzed demigods or dreadlocked men brandishing ukuleles. But that’s part of what makes it so special. That, and some of the best waves in the world.
This patch of coastline is home to The Peak – one of the most famous waves in Europe – and the almost constant swell means the breaks here are consistent. The European Surfing Championships has twice been held in Bundoran (including last year).
The awesome waves “for which Bundoran is renowned,” says Lonely Planet, have Stormrider Surf Guides describing the coastal town as a “true surfer’s paradise.”
We lined up as dawn was breaking to be handed our wetsuits, for modelling “the latest bloated seal look” according to my friend Brian. Not that anyone was looking at us. All eyes were on our majestic setting – lush dunes and hillsides laced with yellow gorse and purple heather.
Our instructor rolled up (straight from the set of Baywatch it appeared) in a typical weather-beaten jeep packed with surfboards. Paul was a local, had been carving waves his whole life, and rocked the beaded-ankles, black-tangled-hair look with the suave of Wolverine meets Russell Brand. I tried not to hate him.
The boards were passed down the line and in a moment of brash arrogance I christened mine the Chariot of Poseidon. (Looking back, I think the board was just trying to punish me for that from then on).
“The key to surfing is balance,” shouted Paul as we practiced the basics on the sand. Each board has a sweet spot and an inch outside this zone “will have you chomping on seaweed”. Even when the elusive area had been identified, there was still the matter of standing.
To stand on a surfboard you must lie on your chest and push yourself up with your arms while tucking your legs in beneath you. This might sound easy but if you have the arms of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and upper-body strength of an eight-year-old girl like me, it’s a bit of a challenge.
All too soon, it was time for the water.
I waded towards the waves (which doubled in size before my eyes) with rapidly depleting optimism. First try, I was swiftly overturned. And the second… And the third.
Each attempt to stand ended with me spluttering saltwater and chasing after my surfboard. My friend Brian was up in no time – even the girl who got stuck in the arm of her wetsuit found her feet.
Paul swam over to give me some pointers, namely don’t be so stiff and that I needed to use my arms to push off the board quicker.
“Just relax,” he said with a wink, “the worst thing you can do is overthink it.”
So I stopped thinking and started paddling. Suddenly, a wave taller than most bungalows (or so it seemed at the time. You’ll have to allow for some poetic license here) was heading for me. The stars aligned, the monster of water closed in and I sprang to my feet!
For at least five seconds.
I know, but as far as I was concerned, Theseus had slain the Minotaur!
For the rest of the afternoon not even a shout of ‘shark!’ could have wiped the grin off my face.
All too soon it was time for dry land, to get out of our wetsuits and into a Dry Martini (Brian’s line – totally stole it).
Back at the pub, I made a silent toast to myself for conquering the ocean, swirling my Tullamore Dew with my newly vindicated Tyrannosaurus arms.
Salt water never tasted so good.
If you want to learn to surf like Mark, check out Bundoran Surf Co. If this doesn’t tickle your fancy, there are many other water-based activities and watersports to be enjoyed in Ireland. Want more? Check out this interview with Surfing Champion, Stevie Burns.