Think it's all hype? Nah. Contest winner Benjamin Sanchis and serious Mullaghmore, signaling something special in the Emerald Isle. Photo Gary McCall
It was a week of wonder on the West Coast of Ireland last week, with several days of good-to-epic surf and the kind of international attention not usually associated with the wind-swept Emerald Isle.
It all kicked off with a solid 6m swell on Monday 14th February that offered just the right conditions for the inaugural Mullaghmore Tow-in contest, backed by Billabong and Monster Energy. It was Ireland's first big-wave event and it could have gone off with a windy, mushy whimper, but it didn't, it kicked ass with glassy, photo-friendly, triple to quadruple overhead walls twisting and sucking off the Sligo reef like a cold water Teahupoo. The comparison isn't hype. The wave may not be as neat and predictable as that corner of a far-away Tahitian reef – it's more boily and harder to judge as it warps down the line, sometimes bottoming out, sometimes chandeliering like Niagra Falls – but in terms of volumes of water and pounds per cubic inch, it's in the same category.
And the Irish crew have some experience now, after several years of riding Aileens and other monsters on their home shores, as well as putting in time in Hawaii and similar heavy water spots. Add in a couple of seasoned European big-wave chargers and the skill levels made a worthy match for the heaving wave.
Gabe Davies, tube o' the day. Photo Gary McCall
"Everybody was charging," said Mullaghmore pioneer Ritchie Fitzgerald who teamed up with his old tow and exploration partner Gabe Davies."Gabe got the wave of the day, a super mental barrel, and I got the wipe-out of the day. It was the heaviest beating I've ever taken."
The cliffs were lined with spectators ranging from hardcore surfers to curious inland families and of course the media, all watching in awe as the sets rolled in against a light offshore breeze. It wasn't the biggest Mullaghmore ever, but it was plenty heavy enough to please both the contestants and the general public, with the event garnering attention in most of Ireland's big media outlets.
Winners of the event were Eric Ribiére and Benjamin Sanchis from the Basque Country, while Peter Conroy and Glyn Ovens won the Irish division with Al Mennie and Andrew Cotton coming in second. Best Barrel award went to Gabe Davies, Ritchie Fitz took the Biggest Beating. Easkey Britton won the Women's award by being the only woman competitor. She's a local girl with international experience, and she charges.
Benjamin Sanchis, jammin. Photo Gary McCall
The following day was as almost good and some of the crew hit Prowlers, a heaving slab that's only recently been ridden for he first time. That first attempt, in late 2010, was a tow-in affair but leading Irish big-wave guys Al Mennie and Andrew Cotton were keen to try paddling into Prowler's steep, sucky peak. While some towed, Mennie and others pulled out their big guns and, over the course of two days firmly established Prowlers as not just a giant tow wave, but also a legitimate paddle spot.
Prowlers, first introduced in late 2010 as a new tow-in wave. Now known as a perfectly paddle-able peak, with power. Prowlers pioneer Andrew Cotton tests the slope. Photo Gary McCall
Meanwhile PMPAs, the lefthander made famous in Andrew Kidman's 1995 film Litmus, was turning itself inside out doing a great impression of double-overhead Pipeline, though colder and longer, or a West Australian desert pointbreak. Local barrel hound Fergal Smith was one among a thick crew of chargers who stood tall in the face of the gurgling caverns in what will likely be remembered as one of the epic PMPA sessions of all time.
After that came an Aileens session down in County Clare with clean, cold and beautiful conditions making for yet another treat for the big-wave hungry.
All in all the big winner this week was Irish surfing, which finally put itself firmly on the map as a world class big wave zone. True, all the international attention may have drawn too much focus onto these wild and brutal reefs, but with the Mullaghmore tow event widely approved of by local big-wave riders, the scene looks set for yet another growth spurt in that still-young scene. The Irish crew have balls of steel, but they're not above learning from more experienced outsiders. And the reefs of the West Coast? They're big, cold and ugly enough to look after themselves.
Mickey Smith and Fergal Smith eyeing up Aileens, a diamond in the emerald crown. Photo Gary McCall
Here is a link to the video of the contest. There's too much of the prize-giving, but it's worth jumping ahead to the bombs at the end. Mullaghmore tow-in contest
Here's the epic PMPAs session: