As the trip started, I was thinking, “What the ****?! Is there really a market for surf tourism in Ireland?” But my perceptions of surfing here changed with my first look at the beach. It was early morning and a stiff, cold, offshore wind was at our backs, pelting us with occasional raindrops. The coast was empty except for a small sea of beginners in a surf school. There must have been 50 learners whooping it up in the clean little surf. They were clearly stoked and were probably off to get their own equipment soon. Europe, including northwest Ireland, has a huge population of beginner surfers. There are thousands and thousands of them every summer and the tourist communities are tapping into this new phenomenon.
Seeing the learners having so much fun, we grabbed our boards and paddled out. I took the 8-foot Tuna that I made at the Revolver Surf Shop in Newquay, UK, out for its maiden voyage, and – again – I was surprised how much fun a smaller wave can be. I am still learning the Tuna in many ways, and I felt more like one of the learners down the beach than a crusty old shaper.
I love the feel of the Tuna! It’s like an alaia but it paddles very easily and can catch anything. It feels faster than a finned board – as you catch a wave the tail slides a little as the rail grabs the wave; you’re a bit more parallel to the wave, which gives you more speed. I felt the same sensation at the airport on one of those long travelators that take you down the long halls – walking down the hall is like a normal board, then stepping on the travelator and walking is like being on a Tuna. I have been trading my Tunas with other surfers’ regular boards for weeks, going back and forth and really trying to figure out why I like the Tuna so much. It’s that extra speed: it’s addictive.
There’s actually a lot of surf in Ireland. The trade winds are offshore and the water wasn’t as cold as we feared, because it’s heated by the Gulf Stream current. It felt like summer in San Francisco! There are good reef set-ups all around Donegal, which reminded me of the Sunset Cliffs in San Diego.
We were a substantial crew travelling around (most of us are in the photo above. The trip was called a ‘sponsored trip’, but actually in this case, we were our own sponsors – I think Jimbo was the only ‘real’ sponsored surfer.) But, because of the abundance of breaks, we didn’t seem to ruffle any feathers. One night we showed Cyrus Sutton’s new film, ‘Tom’s Creation Plantation’, to the locals and stayed up very late, talking story. (There I am below, in mid-flow in the bar of the Atlantic Apartotel, where we stayed, which is perfectly placed because the best breaks are right across the street.) Everyone we met was very warm and inviting and surfing seems to be still new and exciting.
The surf has been small and clean, which is perfect for the Tunas and the Alaias. One morning we went to a small right-hand point break and the crew had every type of board in the water. The wave was very fast with a sideways offshore wind blowing into your face as you took off. I thought that with the chop these conditions may prove too difficult for the alaia, but Matt got some great waves and, again, the finless equipment was the fastest board on the day.
One really nice thing about travelling around Europe is that it’s meant I have met many of the customers that I have sold surfboards to in the years past. Pictured above is John Beezly, who owns a wood model A and an alaia. He came out for a surf and then showed us around Donegal.
The highlight of the Ireland adventure was watching Sally Parkin get her first tube ride on a wood bellyboard. We were jumping into these tiny little lefts that were going square over a little corner in the reef. She might be 45 years old, but she dug her shoulder into the face and held on for dear life! The wave did its thing and she came sliding out into the deep water. She giggled and laughed for the rest of the day. It was heart-warming to see someone that stoked!
Before coming to Ireland we spent 10 days in Basque Spain and France. In Bilbao I finished the 12-foot Tuna with my good friend and distributor Salvador Arteza. This was a particularly difficult Tuna to make because it required a lot of bending of wood and pressure; I only had six clamps, which made the task more difficult. In the end, I used a large stack of bricks to hold the joins in position, pushing the envelope on the backyard board-builder thing. But it worked!
I had a dream day at Guethary on the 12-foot Tuna. It was a glassy, sunny Sunday and the surf was way overhead. Lots of people were on the right and I wanted to surf that wave as well, but it was a bit too crowded for me to feel comfortable tearing through the line-up on a big, wooden, finless board. So I surfed the left instead. Few people surf the left because you have to paddle up-current to get back to the peak, and I had it to myself. With the paddling power of the Tuna, I hardly noticed the current. Twice, a set wave swept to my side of the reef and I could make the right. I took off on one side of the reef and bombed it all the way across to the other side on a very long wall: that’s when the rockerless tuna kicks into gear! The speed is phenomenal; on each of these waves my heart was in my throat and I felt like I was back at Puerto Escondido. The wave wasn’t actually all that big, and on a shortboard it would have been quite ordinary, but the Tuna gives this wave a whole new sense of challenge and excitement.
I have one major conclusion from my travels this summer: surfing is growing at a very fast rate. There are surf schools everywhere and they are absolutely full of beginners. Some of them will stick with it, and the crowds will swell dramatically in the next few years. Soon, the concept of getting an uncrowded session at a popular break will be lost. Many surfers are angry about this, but I look to Herman Melville’s quote, “The tide of emigration, let it roll as it will, never overwhelms the backwoodsman unto itself; he rides upon the advance, as the Polynesian upon the comb of the surf.” We may as well focus on enjoying surfing and not worry about all the other folk enjoying it too.
I think that looking at different types of boards is the way to out-run the crowds. Big boards open up breaks that are too soft for regular boards. Wood bellyboards make small surf or even reforms super fun. Alaias opens up yet more waves…
There are still an abundance of good waves right under our noses. Surfing is becoming more about adapting our craft to suit the waves rather than finding the right waves for our boards.
Thank you for joining me, my family, and all my friends on my Euro-adventure.