The Irish big wave surfing adventure of Al Mennie

November 11, 2014 | Surfing
Al Mennie: chased by ever since | Photo: Conn Osborne

Dawn is slowly giving relief to the enormous and wild waves breaking on the slab at Mullaghmore Head. This is the first pulse of the much anticipated Hercules swell during the Atlantic's banner 2013-14 winter.

Al Mennie and his team are the first on the scene, hoping for a session at one of the most challenging and dangerous waves known. Sixty-foot faces, 60-knot offshore gusts, driving rain and freezing temperatures aren't enough to deter Al and tow partner Howard from taking a look.

After helping launch the PWC from the (somewhat) protected harbor nestled further back in the bay photographer Charles McQuillan, and I repair to the headland in time to see Howard's dummy runs from the peak.

The guys follow the waves in, Howard taking the same lines as he would to put Al right in the hook of it.

The PWC is tossed around by the chop and the rock boils, some of the bigger sets even not really holding up as they use the horsepower to escape annihilation.

Howard Robinson and Al Mennie: too cold to be cold | Photo: Charles McQuillan

It's clear that the current conditions are too dangerous even for Mr Mennie's tastes, and reluctantly he and Howard make the bumpy return to safety straight into the howling wind.

As we pull the PWC out of the water activity around the harbor increase as other teams and their tag along media start to assemble and as we drive back to the vantage point above the raging sea it's clear from the number of spectators, PWCs, giant lenses and microphone wielding reporters that Irish big wave surfing has become a sort of unscheduled national event and like any great party a lot of folks want to be there.

As the morning progresses the tide and wind shift and settle allowing Mullaghmore to show it's alluring side, Teahupoo's nastier northern cousin actually looks inviting, locals, transplants and visitors alike riding some beautiful tubes that, whilst now at a more manageable size still snarl across the almost exposed rocks.

Big wave surfing: the Ireland scene is growing | Photo: Conn Osborne

Still in his wetsuit hours after leaving the water Al watches, the tension writ in the lines of his face.

His desire to surf and the possibility that there'll be a wave of true consequence is tempered by the reality of a swell that ultimately didn't deliver and a reticence to join the already maxed out lineup.

Eventually, the call is made, we're off to surf another heavy spot further around the bay away from it all.

But as we pull away, Al points out to sea where the plumes of salt spray and the occasional hint of a huge hollow peak can be caught between the rolling seas, and starts to talk of things beyond the headland below.

The previous night Al had collected me from Belfast Airport. We'd picked up the PWC and tow gear from the rural barn where it's housed and delivered it his home in Portrush on Northern Ireland's Causeway Coast.

The red brick house, in a street of similarly red brick houses, could be that of a middle manager, an accountant, a teacher, typical suburban family home.

From the outside, there's no clue that the occupant is a big wave surfer par excellence, one of Northern Ireland's most recognizable sportsmen.

Once inside neither does the decor give you a clue, until you pass the garage entrance and glimpse racks of surfboards. Big, thick boards built to paddle into the raw, isolated mystery spots that litter this part of the world.

Al Mennie: trimming bumpy giants | Photo: Richy Murphy

Moving into the kitchen the dining table is used to store what I first take as a downwind SUP board but quickly become evident is a huge paddle in gun.

At 14'' nearly 6'' thick and over 20 kilograms this is by far the biggest board I've ever seen, so big it looks like an aeroplane wing.

It's only when Al hefts it under his arm do you see that it's not out of scale with his 6'5'', 250lb frame. What is out of scale is the wave it's going give Al a shot at.

Long before tow-in competitions at Mullaghmore, media frenzies and international pros jetting in to ride waves for a day or two a group of hardcore Irish (and British) surfers were pioneering serious big wave spots.

At a time when such pursuits were still widely regarded as a Pacific Ocean pastime, Al and a small group of like-minded surfers were roving the coasts of Ireland, racking up countless hours of driving, logging tides, swell directions and periods looking for those magic windows amongst countless variables - mostly in atrocious weather conditions, on their own coin and equipped with a sparse toolkit compared to that available in the traditional big wave heartlands.

Importing skills learnt abroad or just through determined hard work in the local surf these frontiersmen laid the foundations of the now flourishing Irish big wave scene, now so much a feature of the Northern Hemisphere winter.

Al Mennie, Curtis Sharpe, Howard Robinson and Hanno Windisch

Al talks laughingly of sleeping in freezing conditions in the back of s---ty vans on the off chance that there'd be a surfable session the following morning.

Of paddling out on massive, out of control days that would be regarded as unsurfable anywhere else. And when he does you can see how these experiences at the edge of the surfing's known world run deep through the man he is today.

Al rode the rise of Gaelic surfing, defining it from within and later making his presence felt at international events and locations.

He and then partner Andrew Cotton competed with the big wave elite from Oregon to Chile and back to the shores of Spain and ultimately Portugal.

Halloween surfing: howling wind and wild waves | Photo: Charles McQuillan

And it was in Portugal, at Nazare, that the circle began to close. Cotton threw his lot in with the Nazare crew and embarked on his quest to ride the biggest wave in the world.

Al - never entirely comfortable dancing to someone else's tune - realized that his path lay back where it all started, pushing big wave surfing forward from the Irish coasts where he'd first embarked on his journey.

Realizing that his home territory held more potential than any other place he'd visited in his travels his focus shifted back to Ireland.

Undaunted by the extreme difficulty of searching out, evaluating and ultimately riding new big waves Al returned to the old challenge. Except this time, he would be prepared to push things much further than before.

Al Mennie: knowledge is power

After the let down of the Hercules day, Al sits in his kitchen whilst the rain spatters on the windows with such force it's as if someone's throwing grit at them.

He explains that he's been surfing a handful of new spots and one wave in particular.

With his affable manner, laconic wit and Causeway burr you could almost be forgiven for believing the man is describing a surfing weekend away until you listen to the details.

And they describe a surfing adventure that's quite extraordinary.

There's a seamount sitting off NW Ireland that with the help and support of his trusted team Al has been quietly surfing and exploring for several years first venturing out there in 2006.

Al Mennie: alone in the dark checking wave buoys | Photo: Charles McQuillan

Think about that. A seamount in some the most notorious seas known, if you want a yardstick think Cortes Bank at 55°N.

It took years just to find the launch location, situated in a Gaeilge speaking region where eyebrows are raised at out-of-town number plates.

Training, equipment failures, safety drills, continuous disappointment with the volatile sea and weather states. Surmounting all this the team have forged on, dealing with their personal fears and limitations.

Aborted missions, sea sickness and exhaustion; endless practice in the pounding beach breaks of Northern Ireland.

And sacrifice after sacrifice after sacrifice. And then there's Al Mennie, riding never seen waves over a submerged mountain out in the storm-tossed Atlantic, impossible without the support of his close-knit team, but also very alone out there on the edge. Exactly where he belongs.

Words by Rob Small.
Pictures by Conn Osborne, Charles McQuillan, and Richy Murphy.