What’s the hardest thing about surfing Mullaghmore?
Pulling your vest with 5mm gloves on!
“Because I’m off my tits aren’t I,” says Tom Butler when I start at the obvious question of why? “The big wave thing just happened naturally really. I first ventured down to Nazaré a few years ago with Sebastian Steudtner, we followed Cotty (UK Plumber/Big Wave Surfer Andrew Cotton) and Gmac (Garrett McNamara), and went there two seasons after they had started their Nazaré campaign and snagged some bombs.” Phoning the UK’s premier big wave paddle surfer (ah he’s a friend, fuck it) Tom Butler, was a mix of biz and pleasure. TB and I share a birthday, and first came into contact with each other in Indonesia in 2009. We shared a room in Lakey Peak, surfed, laughed, a lot, ate honey chicken (in that order), and then went back to Bali and did laps around Kuta partially clothed jumping in swimming pools. Much has changed since 2009, I now sit at an office and repeatedly bang my head on a keyboard until something vaguely resembling a story emerges, and TB, well he’s decided that paddling into huge waves in really cold water’s what he likes to do. Even though the UK lacks quality waves, it’s in the proximity of some of the most consistent and high quality big waves in the world. It’ll take you two and a half hours on a plane to get to Portugal, and Ireland’s even closer, so it’s not surprising that there’s a number of hardy gents from the British Isles who’re having a swing in the heavy stuff. Tom spends his winter waiting for the conditions to align on the notoriously rugged west coast of Ireland. We dialled Tom to find out about surfing’s other winter, it’s a far cry from Hawaii, to be sure to be sure.
Tell me of the Irish winter… I hang in Bundoran for the winter and stay with my good friend Shane ‘Maddog’ Mcgrath and his family, it’s the main town close to Mullaghmore. There’s five or six really good waves in the area, and you can surf on most swells and most winds. There’s waves most days, but this winter there hasn’t been many good days. In the past I’ve put in three or four month stints over there. My schedule’s been Nazaré before Xmas, then Ireland after.
You always see footage of the big waves spots Mully and Aileens. Are you guys surfing pumping secret spots in between red blobs? There’s still plenty of secrets. It’s hard to go discovering though, because the local waves in Bundoran are always cooking. But up and down the coast there’s heaps. Even at the known waves there’s hardly anyone there. Mellow points, boulder waves, river mouths, it’s got it all going on. It’s just the lack of hours. In November and December there’s only 6 hours of daylight, so you miss a lot of spots because of the tide.
Will Ireland ever become a legit surfing destination? I think it has, and year after year it’s getting busier. The participation of irish surfers is growing too, lots of weekend warriors from Dublin. But a lot of people come and dip their toes in the water and go, ‘fuck that!’
Are you the OG of paddling Mullaghmore? Me and Cotty had a go paddling years ago, and then Lowey (Tom Lowe) and Ferg (Fergal Smith) did it on a barrelling day. From then on it was a full on paddle fest. Now there’sa hardy bunch of others locals and internationals coming for a look. There hasn’t been a tow in session this year I don’t think. It’s like a Chopes style barrel, at a certain size with a high period then it slabs too hard and you have to tow. But everyone’s really pushing the paddle thing. It hits the slab and then runs away, footage doesn’t show the texture and the boils, it’s intense start to finish. It’s definitely not a perfect wave, but it has its moments. If you’re paddling it’s so hard to position yourself; I think that’s why people get addicted to it.
Talk me through a big paddle day at Mully… I’ll go up early in the morning, because you never know. The local weather’s so fickle and there’s mountains everywhere, so they effect the winds. You’ve got to check the rain forecast too because that throws another spanner in and makes the wind weird. If it looks on then I get the wetsuit on at home and drive back up. The paddle from the rocks isn’t too bad, then you have to loop around the reef and it’s a 2km paddle. Best to leave a nice wide berth. Or the harbour’s where you launch the ski, and that’s only 5-10 mins away, that’s comforting from a safety point of few.
What’s the hardest thing about surfing 30ft waves in the cold? Trying to pull your vest with 5mm gloves on. When you slap hard, your wettie’s gunna flush, it reduces the time underwater that you feel comfortable. You waste energy in the cold, especially if the rain comes in, and you have to wait in the water. It’s hard to sit out there and wait. I pretty much wear a 6/5/4, and then boots and gloves. It does work early and late season. That good one that I gota while back (below) was in September, and I was wearing a 4/3 with no boots. The barefoot factor was why I made it because I could dig my toes into the wax, but a barefoot session is very rare out there.
Who’s the best out there? Everyone has their day and their waves, Ireland’s a proper surfing community though, and there’s not much competition. Everyone’s stoked watching each other pick off the bombs. Peter Conroy, Paul O’Cain have really worked on the safety side. Then there’s true local boys like Conor Maguire, Cian Louge Aaron Reid – They’re in their early 20’s and starting to have a real swing! Then the guys who’ve paddled a fair few good days and live there most of the year like Tom Lowe, Dylan Stott, Barry Mottorshead, Ollie O’flatherty, Fergal Smith, Noah Lane and Ryan Watts.
How did the El Nino season effect the West Coast of Ireland? This season wasn’t actually that good. For me though, it’s a handful of waves each season that fills me up. Picking the times and having one surf a day and then a few gym sessions,then it’s nice getting back into the nice warm house. It’s essential to have a few wetsuits too. The maintenance of your body is also key, you have to be way more on top of your stretching because of the cold, and have a sauna, warm wetsuits each session. Not being silly and staying out too long, making the most of time in the water and keeping busy trying to catch waves. You lock up after a while, now I’ve hit the ripe old age of 26 (laughs).
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