Think of tandem surfing and you immediately envisage something out of the opening credits of Hawaii Five-0, girls held aloft by guys performing daring acrobatics out on the surf.
The ancient Hawaiian sport seems to have undergone a bit of a rebirth in recent years, usually it’s two people surfing one board combining partner lifts with traditional longboarding. But this is Portrush, Northern Ireland, not the North Shore.
For one thing, there aren’t the same waves or weather but this hasn’t stopped two of its local surfers trying it out and quite possibly starting a new craze in these parts of tandem surfing on a SUP.
Carl Russell and his younger brother Jamie are pretty much stalwarts of the surf scene here. They’re not averse to trying out a few creative moves themselves, quite the opposite, but it seems that what began as a bit of fun together doing the odd handstand on the SUP is now evolving into a more singular aim: to get barrelled.
Drawing ideas and inspiration from watching Oahu’s infamous pro-surfer and RedBull athlete Jamie O’Brien online (whose antics, amongst others, include surfing a soft surfboard at Jaws) Carl says that it was initially something for them to do here on the North Coast when the surf was small.
“It would have been about five years ago that we started doing it, we just picked it up ourselves and kinda experimented with it. You can still have fun going out with two of you on the same board plus the bigger board actually allows you to catch more waves when the surf’s weaker.
Then you can just do different things, use the other person as well, do different maneuvers. Sometimes beforehand we’ll decide what we’ll try but it depends on what the wave’s doing. If the wave’s breaking the right way, we’ll give it a go but then halfway through if it’s not the right type of wave for what we’re trying to do, we just adapt – improvise, adapt and overcome,” he laughs.
“I like it because it’s so funny,” says Jamie. “There’s been a few times when the surf’s been pretty good and I’ve said why don’t we go out and SUP, just for that reason, the fun.
We’re still trying to get good waves on it and focus on that but whenever it’s small we do mess around and do wheelbarrows and stuff.”
We want to see if we can properly push it a bit more and actually get barrelled, move it up a level
The brothers are very close, share the same sense of humour, finish each others sentences and at more than one point this conversation will just descend into fits of laughter while they recall some of their own exploits. They seem to live off the permanent stoke but fun is their main objective. Fun is what this is all about. For the moment.
Much as they claim they just mess around, both are actually very advanced shortboard surfers. Carl is a partner and manager of the Quiksilver approved Troggs Surf School (one of the top three in the UK) and is the most qualified ASI surf/SUP instructor and assessor on the North Coast with over 20 years of surfing experience under his belt.
Jamie’s reputation as one of the hottest young surfers in the Irish Surf scene has been accrued through years of competitive surfing from the age of 12 and he now focuses on his progressive free surfing.
Their weapon of choice? Global Surf Industries’ Gnaraloo 10’2 Soft Sup, ideally suited to paddling on flat water but it can still be used in the surf. The board’s high amount of volume, combined with its generous width make it incredibly buoyant, stable and easy to ride.
Carl uses them in the surf school so there is that advantage of having the option to hand for a quick switch if the surf is small because let’s face it, it can go from one extreme to the other up here and in a matter of hours.
“Standup paddling would normally be for when there’s no waves, we’re using those SUPs to actually surf,” he explains.
“Longboards can also be 10ft but they’d be narrower and thinner, not as thick along the rails either so they’ve got a lot less volume. Those SUP’s have 210L of volume in them, my shortboard has about 28L of volume so there’s a massive difference. They’re just such big boards and the performance is slower but it’s not about trying to surf high performance on them, it’s just having fun, doing silly stuff, entertaining ourselves and maybe other people who are watching.”
Take two guys who essentially do different things at their own expert level and put them on the same board, how tricky does that actually get?
“Well, we gotta be thinking along the same lines. We work well because we’re brothers and we surf so much together and ‘cos we also know how to read the waves. When we take off on a wave we both know what we’re trying to achieve and what we need to do.”
“It’s a bit more awkward,” concedes Jamie. “We communicate a bit but we kinda just know what we’re doing, what’s going on. I mean, if you’re with someone else that you didn’t really know, or who wasn’t competent surfing, it would be more difficult but it works with us because we’re brothers who surf, we know the score.”
We’ve done quite a few things that we didn’t expect to be able to do like actual proper turns
“But yea, pretty much the difference is you have to deal with someone else on the board and what that other person is doing. Even just reading waves and knowing where to be, we’d both be on the same page. Instinctively we know if we’re going to nosedive, we can just tell. We don’t even need to say. We both know in our head what’s coming. We joke about it.”
What has proved to be slightly awkward is the combination of a goofy footer and a regular stance surfer on the same board.
“I’m goofy foot and Jamie’s regular, so on bottom turns he’ll be facing the opposite way to me which can be a bit tricky at times. It would be a lot easier if I was with someone who was the same stance. It works though, we’ve done quite a few things that we didn’t expect to be able to do like actual proper turns, bottom turn into a top turn on the tandem. The board’s massive so it just all happens really slowly,” Carl laughs mimicking a slow turn.
“That probably is a bit of a disadvantage actually, I was thinking about that earlier,” says Jamie.
“I mean we’ve done it and we haven’t even really mentioned it until now. We haven’t really sat down and analysed that we need to lean this way and that, we just go out and do it but I think it does probably make a difference. Maybe that’s why I keep flying off the front on right handers if we’re gonna do a cutty. I’ve done that twice now.”
You’ve gotta time your wipeouts as well. If I fall off with the leash and Jamie’s still on the board then I’ll get dragged along underneath
“I think we’ve sort of adapted and adjusted to it already,” replies Carl. “You just naturally feel what’s happening when you’re on the board anyway. If it’s not right, you know pretty quickly.”
“If you’ve never done it before, perfect conditions are nice small crumbling waves around waist high but we’ve taken it in when the surf’s been quite good just to see what it was like. Head high, it was really good ‘cos you get into the waves really early, bottom turning, cutting back on the waves and can get more surf maneuvers.”
“That’s pretty good fun. We want to see if we can properly push it a bit more and actually get barrelled, move it up a level,” he says eyeing up the powerful swell that’s now starting to build.
While this sounds like proverbial car crash material it’s water that they know well and both are also fully qualified beach lifeguards so they can probably push it more than most. Fun doesn’t come without its own element of risk.
“Yea, you gotta be careful,” he warns. “If you’ve never surfed before it’s not something you want to be doing really. It’s just ‘cos we’ve practiced it over a few years. As long as you can get into the waves nice and early and get out of the wave before it closes out and hits you, so you don’t get drilled, then you’re ok.”
“You’ve gotta time your wipeouts as well. If I fall off with the leash and Jamie’s still on the board then I’ll get dragged along underneath the water so we’ve got to make sure that we fall off at the same time. If we can see it coming we can both get off the board and make sure we’re ok.”
“If you’re out in proper surf you could definitely wreck yourself doing it,” agrees Jamie. “It’s more so the board. I have actually been hit on the head by that, pretty hard – you could knock yourself out with that but we’re not really out in any big conditions as of yet.”
The boards are big but they are soft boards so it’s not like they’re getting hit with a hard board that’s 10ft long but as it’s tricky just maneuvering it into the right position at the right time, have they had any disasters so far?
“Nothing that major – a few good nosedives though. When the surf was quite good, head and a half high, nice steep walls, three of us tried it. We paddled for it quite late even though we maybe shouldn’t have gone for it. The white water hit me from the back we all got a bit of a beating but came back up laughing. It was funny though,” laughs Carl.
“The board does restrict you too ‘cos it’s so big,” says Jamie.
“It’s not like the boards we normally surf but I think that’s what we’re trying to get at, to see if we can do the same things we can do on a shortboard on a bigger board with both of us. It is pretty easy to catch waves on it too. It might be more awkward but I think we’ve got more paddle power but if you’re paddling out the back and you get caught out, you’re gonna get a beating and it’ll be pretty bad.”
“Another thing, with our normal shortboards you can duck dive waves and get out fairly quickly but with this you can’t do it, you have to punch waves and try and wait until there’s a lull. So definitely pretty tiring when there’s loads of waves but still worth it.”
Carl agrees. “It can be exhausting when there’s a lot of surf plus I think you exert more energy paddling out to get in position to catch the waves as well, if you fall off when you’ve caught a wave you have to get back over to get on the board.”
Much as they clearly love the camaraderie of surfing as a duo, do tandem sessions like these make them want to get out on their own afterwards?
“That does make me want to go out by myself,” says Jamie. “It’s a nice contrast. If you go out normal surfing after it, you feel free, the board’s smaller and it’s just you again. There’s always been a bit of a difference going from big boards to small boards.”
“The whole point of a shortboard is so that you can get into places on a wave that you couldn’t on a longboard. I used to go out on longboard in between heats, before a shortboard contest. It does actually help you, makes you surf properly.”
“You can get into bad habits if you just surf on small boards all the time. You can cheat because it’s so small, probably not put the board on its rail. It can be quite like a skateboard whereas if you’ve got a big longboard you have to do it properly to get it to turn right so technically it helps you to surf better. It’s nice to have a variety.”
“Some coaches would do that, take a bigger board out and then get on your smaller board so that it feels more snappy and more maneuverable,” adds Carl.
“I do it sometimes in our surf lessons in our kids camp. We’ll take some of the kids on the front of the board just to let them experience it and you can help them with their turning and different techniques that we cover in the lesson.”
“They really like it. If you’re doing that and you bring the SUP board in they’re all queuing up to have a go at it!” he laughs. “But then, you get people who bypass the basics and get a shortboard too soon. Maybe they think they’d look stupid or just aren’t being openminded to try different stuff.”
Although a SUP is designed for using on flat days it does seem harder when there are two of them on it in small surf, particularly for trying out any gymnastic tricks.
“Yea, it is actually because it affects the stability of the board when the wave’s not pushing you as fast. You need a little bit more speed to stabilise it and also because the water’s quite shallow, you ideally want to have more water to fall into if you do come off. If the surf’s bigger, you’ve got a bit more room on the face of the wave if you want to try and do some turns and you’ve got more time because the wave’s pushing you for longer.”
“If the surf’s good, I prefer to do more surf maneuvers combined with a few creative freestyles. I didn’t actually compete when I was younger like Jamie, I kept surfing as pure fun. I took the route of athletics competing at pole vaulting for 10 years.”
Just getting barrelled it’d be class. I’d say that would nearly be harder than some of those lifts or static maneuvers we were doing
“There is a gymnastic base to what I used to do so there’s also that creative outlet to it for me only without the pressure. But I think the ultimate aim is to get barrelled. It would be really cool but it would take quite a big barrel to fit the board into because the board’s 32” wide, you’d need a very hollow wave.”
“I’d be more inclined to do the stuff we normally do just together on a surfboard, like getting barrelled, doing turns and things. I don’t even care about anything else,” says Jamie. “Just getting barrelled it’d be class. I’d say that would nearly be harder than some of those lifts or static maneuvers we were doing.”
Surfing and running the business are a big part of Carl’s life so this is another way to mix things up, giving him a bit of a change from his surf school routine although I don’t get the impression surfing ever gets boring for him.
“No, no it doesn’t! ” he grins. “It’s easier for me as well because my office is here at the beach at East Strand but if the surf’s good we’ll just get in as much as we can anyway. It’s good to change it up and do different things. I just love it.”
Troggs Surf School ran the first ever tandem surf event in NI back in March. It was primarily a fun competition for mental health charity Aware NI, chosen specifically by Carl, linking surfing’s ability to help with depression and bipolar disorders.
He plans to run it again at the end of the season late September when there’s a good chance that the surf will be consistently good and get even more people involved. Fun aspect aside, both guys are pretty competitive. Would they consider a serious tandem surfing competition?
“Yea… I would,” Carl reflects for a moment.
“I don’t know if anyone has actually surfed a wave properly though and I wouldn’t go in with a super serious attitude, I’d still keep it fun. I think if you’re competitive, you normally just want to do well at anything, it doesn’t really matter what it is but obviously I can still see that this isn’t the Olympics or anything.”
“If it’s pretty important, then I’d be more competitive but I don’t consider this to be super important to me, not like when I was pole vaulting.”
Jamie’s response is more immediate. “Yea, I’d be keen if there were good waves and if there were other competent surfers that were going to be doing it. Definitely. That’d be fun. It’s not like there’s anyone else in Portrush doing it – in Ireland even, although I’m sure there’s probably some that have tried it.”
“But yea, it’s a different story when you’re in a contest trying to beat someone else on your own. To me this is just fun but that’s not to say that if a real contest somewhere did present itself to us, I think we would both get like, ‘c’mon let’s do this, we could do well at this.’”
Seconds later he’s already thinking out loud. “Doing it at a reef would be class…” “Mullaghmore,” jokes Carl.
Now they’re off on one, imagining scenarios at a number of spots around the country that could be potential contenders.
The surf report promised it’d be pumping, East is currently 3-4ft and building as they head out with the board much to the curiosity of onlookers on the beach who nonetheless stick around to see what they’re going to do.
When it’s a tandem SUP that’s bearing down on you it’s a bit like the equivalent of giving right-of-way to a bus
It is comical watching them as the massive board lumbers into a turn although given what we’ve just discussed it does look punishing at times. There’s much hilarity out on the lineup too and the laughter carries all the way back to the shore.
Accidentally dropping-in on a surfer’s wave (especially if they’re local and old school) would ordinarily get you a blistering lecture at the least but when it’s a tandem SUP that’s bearing down on you it’s a bit like the equivalent of giving right-of-way to a bus. What are you going to do? Well, one option is to simply surf alongside and hop on board which is what Graham Stinson aka ‘Winder’ promptly does.
It’s all ridiculously in sync and they manage to pull it off smoothly much to the amazement of everyone watching, Winder demonstrating that it’s not just the young guns that can pull a few tricks out of the bag and clearly enjoying every minute.
When they come back in the brothers are buzzing from their latest session. There will be a good bit of mileage out of this later for them and anyone who was involved today which is what they also both enjoy.
“It’s just something you wouldn’t get surfing on your own, I mean you can laugh with people whenever you see them doing something surfing by themselves but whenever we’re both involved in it…” Jamie goes into another fit of giggling.
“Maybe we’ll start wearing helmets,” says Carl. “… and body armour.”
“I’m gonna wear shin guards the next time…”
Looks like getting barrelled just got one step closer.
Words and images Jude Gordon