I Tried It: Surfing in Ireland

Ireland isn’t the first location that comes to mind when you think about surfing. Melissa Greer learns why it’s a hot spot for beginners.

surfing in irelandphoto credit: james connolly photographyMy left hip slams into the ocean floor and I thrash my arms and legs in an effort to right myself as the tide and undercurrent pull my body in opposite directions. I break the surface of the Atlantic Ocean with the taste of salt on my lips. I’ve just ridden my first wave thanks to some steady encouragement from the instructors at Perfect Day Surfing & SUP School. Contrary to what you’re picturing, I’m not on a tropical beach fighting seasoned surfers for waves. Quite the opposite actually; I’m on the west coast of Ireland in a small town called Strandhill and, as far as my eyes can see, there are just five people on this beach (myself, two fellow journalists and two surf instructors).

For many people, the “perfect day” would involve some sort of sunshine. For Perfect Day Surfing & SUP School, it’s more of a philosophy. If you’ve heard anything about Ireland, you probably know that the country is known for Guinness and its unpredictable weather, so sunshine isn’t guaranteed. That doesn’t deter Ireland’s avid surf crowd though. “The Irish personality and the Irish philosophy is all about friendship and enjoying the surf,” says Tom Hickey, owner of Perfect Day. Hickey has been surfing for 45 years while the surf school has been operating for 15 years. “We get a lot of tourists, mainly by word of mouth, and mainly first-timers,” says Hickey, noting that many come from Ireland, specifically Dublin, which is a 3-hour drive away. Others come from Britain and France, as well as the U.S.

Surf basics for beginners

Before hitting the surf, the group and I meet with Hickey in his shop for a little surf 101. After wiggling and jumping to pull on a full body wetsuit, we head down to the shore for some on-land instructions. Aaron, one of our surf instructors (Hickey is the other), has us lie on our surfboard with the tops of our feet cradling the bottom of the surfboard. We then practice popping up to standing position with one foot angled in front of the other and knees slightly bent. After a few tries, it’s time to try our skills out on the water. But first, Aaron tells us he has two rules – three if we were one of his summer camp groups: 1. Be safe, 2. Have fun, and 3. Don’t throw the sand.

surfing_ireland_4photo credit: james connolly photographyWith my surfboard under my arm, I make my way into the waters. This part of Ireland, known as the Wild Atlantic Way, is a green, pristine portion of natural outdoor beauty that stretches 2,500 km along the west coast of Ireland, from Malin Head in the north to Old Head of Kinsale in the south. As the water seeps through my wetsuit, it’s trapped and warmed by my body. Surprisingly, it doesn’t feel that cold. In fact, I’d say the area we’re surfing in feels roughly the same temperature as Lake Ontario did just one week earlier in early July. Hickey, who has surfed on all major continents except Australia, says the waves off the coast of Ireland are like none other. “When we have good surf, we have world-class surf. It is nowhere [near] as crowded as other parts of the world,” he tells me.

That perfect wave

Once out far enough, I turn my boards to face the shore and climb aboard, with my feet positioned at the end like I was instructed. Aaron keeps watch for the perfect first wave. “Here we go,” he says and gives my board a push. Within seconds, my board has been grabbed by the wave and I grip the sides to pop myself up. I’ve no sooner got one foot planted before I take a dive sideways into the water, my ankle bracelet keeping my board and I from losing each other. I didn’t lose my balance; I just didn’t have it to begin with. But I’m hooked and can’t wait to actually ride that wave. And so, I keep trying. With every attempt, Aaron and Hickey shout encouragement ( “You almost had it!), and advice ( “Straighten your legs before you let go with your arms.” “You’re leaning too far forward, try to straighten yourself up.”).

After a few more tries I no longer wait for Aaron to select a wave and give me a push. Instead I hop on my board and turn my head to look for myself. When I see what I’m looking for I start paddling. “Paddle, paddle, paddle!” yells Hickey as I catch my perfect wave.

surfing in irelandphoto credit: james connolly photography