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Alastair Mennie Interview

von Soul-Surfers

Im Rahmen der Recherche für den Europa Extra Large Artikel der 2008er Ausgabe des Blue Surf & Travel Mags haben wir einige der besten europäischen Big Wave Surfer interviewt. Die vollständigen Interviews werden wir nun im Laufe der nächsten Wochen hier auf soul-surfers präsentieren.
Der erste Weckruf aus dem europäischen Winter erfolgte für die Big Wave Szene Anfang Dezember, als an Irlands Mullaghmore Head ein paar sehr respektable Wellen gesurft wurden. Einer derjenigen, die dabei neue Maßstäbe setzten ist der Nordire Alastair Mennie. Er ist auch DER Pionier des Big Wave Surfens in Irland, hat dort unzählige Big Wave Spots erkundet und häufig alleine als erster gesurft.
Darüber hinaus hat er sich auch an Spots wie Mavericks einen hervorragenden Ruf erarbeitet und war daher der erste, den wir ausquetschen wollten.
Da wir denken, dass Ihr alle des englischen mächtig seid, bekommt ihr das Interview auch in original Sprache und ungeschnitten.

Soul-Surfers: First off all: I read that you were pioneering Irish big waves by driving far out on an inflatable and surfing those waves alone. What fascinates you about surfing big waves that much, that you are willing to put your life at those risks?

Alastair: When I first started searching the coast for big wave surf locations, I was driven by the passion I had for being out in huge conditions. I grew up at a beach called Castlerock where the sands are gently sloping meaning that when huge surf hits the coast, I had to paddle way out to sea, sometimes about 3/4 of a mile to get to the line up. I loved the isolation and the fact that I was out there on my own amongst huge swells. It made me feel very confident, vulnerable and alive to be out there. When I bought the boat, I did so because I had explored and surfed all the spots that held big surf that I was aware of and I had gone and bought a range of admirality charts so I could map out potential big wave spots far off the beaten track. I found it very difficult to find anyone else willing to get involved with me mainly because all my friends just didn’t have the same desire to explore the ocean for the chance to ride new undiscovered big waves. I found myself ringing everyone trying to find someone who would go out there with me and check the spots out. You have to remember, I knew very little about boats but I wanted to explore the coast so much, I would do anything to get out there. I eventually got a friend to drive the boat on a couple of occasions and he would hold it out in the channel while I surfed some of the new reefs. I had a few close calls and at one point while I was surfing I saw him launch the boat vertically off the back of a 30 foot face of water which was scary as we were a good two miles from land. Our coast is littered with shipwrecks and I was really concerned that on some of these reefs beneath the breaking waves, a wreck of a trawler, a yacht or even bigger may be lurking waiting for me, so I wore a thin impact vest that I had Circle One make specially for me. Basically it was enough to take a stab from a sharp object or the reef but barely enough to float me. I also wore a helmet. Those are the risks that come with exploration and tying to find somewhere to put all my enthusiasm into surfing. I think the fascinating thing about big waves is the unknown, will I make it, will there be waves, is it going to be surfable, will it be too windy… It’s all unknowns and I think that is what keeps me hooked cos even while you are riding one of these huge waves it is still unknown what is going to happen until you have made it to the channel.

Soul-Surfers: Ireland has such a huge potential for massive waves (and anyone able to read weather charts and maps should have mentioned that since a while). Is there a local big wave surfing history that we outsiders just didn’t recognize until recently, or is riding the big stuff just evolving since a few years?

Alastair: Yes Ireland does have a huge wave potential. In the past two years I have had waves that I have ridden off these coasts make it into contention for the billabong xxl title. That says one thing, we have waves as big as anywhere else in the world! There a few guys here in the whole country who have a desire to surf big waves. Very few of them are actually from this island and even less have the desire to surf really big waves. That was evident on December 1st when the biggest swell to ever hit the Irish coast showed up with favourable winds. Only two surfers, including me, from this island where out there. The main issue I see in this country for big waves is often the wind. We are so close to the low pressure systems that quite often 50ft surf can batter us with 50mph winds! A lot of surfers just head to a sheltered spot when that happens but if you wanna be a big wave rider in this country then you have to take the rough with the smooth, so to speak. The wind is always present when really big waves hit here so if you won’t accept that then you will ride very few legitimate big scary waves in this country. Yes you are right, anyone can get a weather chart, a nautical map etc and realse that big waves exist along our shores but the one thing that separates the true big wave surfers from the in betweeners and the talkers is the desire to do it. The guys who want to surf big waves do it because they truly want to and they will hunt them down until they do. The history of riding big waves in this country depends on what you call big waves. There have constantly been bigger and bigger waves being ridden at a small number of spots but I feel it is only now with the progression of surfing that bigger waves at more locations are being ridden more regularly and more successfully, not mention more safely. I think in the past 12 months the world has begun to see what we have here and are now taking notice. The December 1st session blew the doors open for the world to see what we have here. I was doing interviews for international television, national papers, radio, mags, etc for weeks about that swell as it completely surprised the world yet in fact I have been surfing waves maybe not as big but not far off it with my tow partner Andrew Cotton for quite some time now. The significance of that storm in the media showcased the Irish big waves as all sorts of weather warnings were in place and people were told to stay inside. In the medias eyes I was portrayed as a mad man but what they failed to realise is that this is what I do, it’s what I love, what I train for and everything else in my life revolves around, riding big waves!

Soul-Surfers: Yeah, the mainstream media likes to jump on that mad man cliché. What about locals like fishermen, coast guard or anyone else with a professional relation to the sea? How do they react when they see you going out for some personal pleasure in conditions that for them means threatening their life whilst doing their job? Do they understand your passion and give you respect or do they call you a lunatic?

Alastair: I have had a very mixed reaction to what I do. I know a couple of coast guards and they have praised me and been genuinely interested but that may be because I have known them for years. Others would rather ignore it and pretend I don’t do it. Local people around the coast who know me or recognise me are usually amazed that these waves exist and maybe don’t understand just how big these waves are but they seem to enjoy seeing photos. I don’t really know how other surfers react to what I do, I try to keep my head down and stay focused on what I do without getting involved in too many surf talk beach car park discussions about it. When Cotty drove the ski over the falls at Mullaghmore we got a lot of grief from people and we were called inexperienced and reckless. A bystander called the coastguard helicopter when we didn’t need it and people said we were in difficulty when we weren’t. I think to sum up the answer to your question I would say Big wave surfers, like anyone else who is pushing limits that others don’t want to, are heroes whilst things are going well and they are successfully riding giant waves but the minute something goes wrong, as it inevitably does, we are reckless and inexperienced in the eyes of onlookers. When Cotty drove the ski over the falls, no one commented on how dedicated we are, how we were pushing the sport in these waters, how we are trained and fit for what we do, they just jumped straight on the negative! It’s all relative. We are trained and capable in these conditions or we wouldn’t be going out there. Obviously some other sea users and professions don’t have to deal with the same seas on as regular a basis so don’t experience what we do and therefore maybe don’t feel as comfortable. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very scary but I think you learn to deal with the fear and understand how the ocean works and know what to expect from it, usually the unexpected! The craziest and most hardcore sea users are definitely the fishermen. Have you seen some of the conditions they go out in to make a living? They don’t think twice and they are out there getting rocked by giant waves all year long-absolutely terrifying and hero like. There is nothing heroic in big wave surfing but as far as those guys on the trawlers go I’ve nothing but praise, admiration and awe!

Soul-Surfers: On the other hand, the use of jet skis makes tow in surfing often look like a fairly easy task and may open big waves to people who are not experienced and fit enough. What’s your opinion on tow in surfing? As an experienced paddle in big wave surfer, do you appreciate the motor assisted extra opportunities without any regrets?

Alastair: I find that the people who put tow in surfing down either can’t afford a jet ski or don’t have the desire to surf bigger waves than they can catch themselves. Yes, I agree there are quite a few teams popping up who I have never seen out paddling on a big day. It’s funny, my friend and I were paddling Aileens the other day and two very well known professional English surfers were there tow surfing. They couldn’t believe how big our boards were and yet they have a jet ski and tow boards for conditions too big to paddle. The fact that they had never seen boards that big tells me one thing they haven’t paddled big waves and now they are using a jet ski to tow in. It’s like learning to run before you can walk! There are guys who actually just have a ski and tow boards because they need the photographs to further their surfing career, nothing else. Some of these guys (no names mentioned) literally come here surf one wave and go and tell the world in press releases and stuff and lead the world into thinking that they do this regularly. They then end up with sponsorship deals and free skis for telling a story and not actually doing very much and being lucky enough to get away unscathed. I am all for tow in, in the right conditions. There are so many waves here that are inaccessible by land and sometimes a ski is a necessary tool to get to them and in some cases surf them safely. Aileens for example can be paddled at a fair size but sometimes you get stuck in at the foot of the cliff and a ski can help get you out in a situation like that. I have put a lot of time into tow surfing with Cotty over the past few years and we have definitely towed some sessions when we could have been paddling but that was purely from a training point of view. It is necessary to train in all kinds of conditions so that when it gets really big, we know how our equipment and most of all each other, works and reacts to various situations. I love paddling in and it really is scary taking big drops but putting yourself underneath an approaching wave and making yourself turn around and paddling into it is the scariest moment in paddling big waves. I’ve just come back from my third trip to Mavericks in California and it is awesome to see some of those guys doing it out there, it’s like a whole different level of courage! Towing into waves too big or too gnarly and shallow to paddle is scary too and often the scariest part is knowing that this wave I’m letting go off the rope to catch is bigger than human power can surf and I think sometimes should I really be surfing these waves if they are too big too catch. I do a lot of weight training and when I was about 16 I was starting to get a sore back from lifting too much weight. I said to my Dad that I think I should get a weight belt for supporting my back and he said maybe if you can’t lift the weight without support you shouldn’t be lifting it at all! The hardest part of tow surfing is driving the ski. The surfing comes naturally but all of a sudden you go from having yourself and your board to look after to a jet ski, two tow boards and two people. Learning how to drive and operate a ski safely and knowing its limits are the key to tow surfing successfully and safely.

Soul-Surfers: Talking about the wind that so often blows in Ireland. Do you have tow boards specifically designed for windy conditions?

Alastair: I have a lot of boards in my quiver specially designed for the wind here. Four of my paddle boards from 7’6″ to 10’0″ are doubled glassed to add weight and keep the nose down when paddling in. Circle One and I designed them so that the extra weight would be enough to weigh them down but not allow them to under perform. My tow in boards are much like a lot of boards around the world -heavy! I have learned that the bigger the waves get, the heavier the board needs to be, not so much for wind because the wind doesn’t really affect a 6’0″ board the same way as it does a 10’0″ gun. The weight in a tow board is to allow you to let go of the rope and glide into position before the wave picks you up and also to make you go as fast as possible and kill any face bumps. The boards I use in tow surfing range from 8kg to 12kgs in weight. I thought the 12kg one was too heavy as I struggled with it in a lot of sessions but when I rode it on December 1st, it went amazingly! Circle One have recently made me another one with a slightly wider tail template and a quad fin set up. The idea is that it will allow me more manoeuvrability and not just point and run for your life type board.

Soul-Surfers: Did you ever consider using other methods than motor assistance, like windsurfing ore kite boarding to get the speed necessary for the drop into those behemoths?

Alastair: I haven’t ever been interested in wind or kite surfing. I don’t know why. I have however considered stand up paddling into big waves and I think Circle One are going to make me a board so I can do it. I watched Mark Alfaro and Haley Fiske doing it at Mavericks a few weeks ago in solid 35foot faced waves and it looked amazing but pretty difficult! I’ve tried it on my friend’s one and could barely stand up but I wanna work on it a bit more and eventually get out in some big surf on one.

Soul-Surfers: I don’t have any experience with surfing really big waves and therefore have difficulties to judge how much power these behemoths really have. For me waves like the one you rode in Mullaghmore Head look absolutely deadly. I mean, with all that water moving and these giant masses of white water, is there a fair chance to survive a wipeout? Is surfing these waves still within a limit and one can regularly survive a wipeout, as long as he’s prepared physically and mentally? Or is this more a thing like free solo climbing meaning that you mustn’t make any mistake? Like, once you dropped into a wave you HAVE to finish the ride or you’ll have a huge chance to die?

Alastair: These size of waves are like cartoons. Huge plumes of water exploding into the air, massive barrels that you could park a bus in, they’re like the waves you used to draw in your school book with a wee match stick man on them. I’m 6’5″ and I’ve never felt as insignificant in my life as when I’m going over the ledge into a monster wave. These waves dwarf us, make us feel like rag dolls and generally have our lives in their hands if something goes wrong. We take all necessary precautions and I think it is very important that anyone reading this is aware of how highly trained and experienced we are. This is our lives. We train, eat, sleep and do everything with one focus in mind, riding huge waves successfully. I personally think I’ve been lucky and never had anything happen to me that has ever made me think – wow that’s enough, that was too close. Yes, I’ve been bumped on the bottom and rag dolled around for a long time under water but I keep surfacing wanting to ride another wave. Both Cotty and I are very experienced surfers. Before we got into tow in we had paddled big waves at Waimea, Mavericks, Madeira, Shark Island and numerous spots in Ireland. We are highly trained in the use of jet skis in high surf scenarios through K38 training and more importantly we are experienced in the use of jet skis in high surf. I wear a Gecko helmet and two Circle One impact vests over my wetsuit when it’s really big. So basically yes, these waves are highly life threatening and most surfers would not be able to deal with what can happen out there but if you are trained and experienced then you know what you can and cannot get away with and learn about your own personal limits instead of the ones you create in your head through fear. I’m not saying we are invincible because the ocean will always win but training and experience help us a lot.

Alastair: Did you know about the film DRIVEN a documentary about myself and Cotty as a tow team?

Soul-Surfers: Yeah, I’ve seen driven. Loved it! And the part when Doolin was closing out and you couldn’t get out despite the perfect conditions gave me a flash back, ‚cause I’ve been around at that day and couldn’t believe how massive and at the same time clean the waves were.

Alastair: That’s funny how you where there too that day! So frustrating, that was the day of all days!!!! Maybe was a good thing that we didn’t get out because the inside at Aileens looked completely treacherous for ski driving and therefore rescuing a downed surfer. I really think some monsters could have been ridden that day but if anything went wrong we coulda been stuck at the bottom of the cliff until the swell died away, the safe zone was no longer there at that size!

Soul-Surfers: Which brings me to the next question: How do you see the potential of the North Atlantic and especially Ireland compared to the Pacific in terms of riding the biggest waves? Will the „old continent“ one day win the XXL Awards?
How much importance do you give events like the XXL at all? Does size – they „only“ value the sheer height of the wave – really matter?

Alastair: It’s obvious with Ireland how much potential we have here for huge surf. You only have to watch the charts to see just how frequently the swell at sea is above 25ft and you’ll be surprised to find it’s about once a week! The biggest issue we have here is that when we get big surf it is usually accompanied by wind. This is because we lie so close to low pressure systems that when they deepen up near Iceland we get brushed by the edge of them making it very windy. Also it is rare that we get wave periods of over 16 seconds mainly due to the wind blowing so hard so close to us breaking up the swell. Our continental shelf is also a fair distance offshore meaning our waves probably lack the power of those in Hawaii for example, where the shelf just disappears into the ocean close to shore. I think Ireland has the potential to be hit by waves as big as the pacific, for the most part, but the pacific islands and coasts seem to have more favourable conditions more regularly and the abrupt continental shelf is obviously a big factor which I don’t think Ireland can really contend with. Big wave surfing in Ireland is a waiting game, not for waves but for the wind to back off. Combine that with 6 hour tides and we quite often only have a very small window of a couple of hours at a time to ride some big waves before getting chased home by the storm front. I’m currently working with a friend of mine who maps sea beds around this coast. He has shown me some very interesting sea bed formations and Cotty and I are constantly scoping out potential giant surf locations with his knowledge. So hopefully when the conditions are right we will score some truly monstrous waves.
The Billabong XXl contest is an amazing brain wave by Bill Sharpe. It is great to see what the rest of the world is doing as it gives me confidence to go out and try to do the same here. It is good because you can measure yourself against these other guys at other spots around the world and then go out surfing knowing in the back of your head that someone somewhere has fallen and got beaten or held down for longer and on a bigger wave than I’ve ever seen. That is a great thing because fear in surfing is very relative. You can see guys at Belharra or Cortez riding waves that quite honestly have astonished most big wave surfers let alone the general public. Then to top it all off the best rides and waves get awarded for doing something I love! It is, I’m sure, very easy for onlookers to say that the big wave surfers included in the xxl nominations are only doing it for the chance of winning 50k and that anyone can get on a ski and let go off a rope. I’ve seen people like that go out on big days hoping to do it with little surfing experience or knowledge and realise once they get out there just how huge and intimidating the sea is and go home.

Soul-Surfers: Talking about that day in February 2007, when you couldn’t get out to Aileens, was that swell bigger than the one at Mullaghmore in December? With the perfect wind conditions at least during the morning, would there have been some outer reefs that could have been surfable?
You were mentioning Cortez Bank as THE state of the art wave. To get out there and surf it, you need a real boat (as far as I know). Would a decent boat and a bigger crew expand your possibilities in Ireland too? Would it help to open new waves that are up to now out of reach and could match with Waves like Cortez Bank?

Alastair: The waves that day at Aileens were truly massive. I was seriously estimating them at 70ft and maybe bigger. It was truly something else. The thing was that the swell size was only around 24 ft at 21 seconds compared to 49ft at 16 seconds on December 1st at Mullaghmore. This shows how big the swell needed to be to make Mullaghmore have 60ft waves whereas with Aileens it only needed to be half the size of swell because it comes out of such deep water. Yeah that morning was something else, the wind conditions were just unbelievable! A boat could have taken us to an outer reef for sure if it could get out of the harbour cos it was so glassy! As you probably saw though, the wind picked up to a raging gale pretty quickly. The thing is, this is all a learning curve. Understanding which locations do what in various surf and weather conditions is the key to scoring monsters. We now know the limitations of the harbours and the spots we are trying to surf and we also know what it takes to make other less surfed locations to break so some day, no doubt, someone, if not us will score waves as big as they have ridden at Cortez and Belharra this year.

Soul-Surfers: Concerning your personal game plan: I suppose that you’d like to visit waves like Cortez Bank too. Do you think there is a chance to get the financial support necessary for doing trips like that (I have the impression that for Irish surfers it’s extra difficult to find decent sponsorship)?

Alastair: Funding from sponsors is extremely difficult to achieve. Even if you do get funding it generally isn’t very much and certainly not enough to live comfortably unless you are Kelly Slater or something. The main stumbling block I come across with companies is that unless the surfer is a competitor then they’re not interested. For some reason, the companies I’ve spoken with think they gain more from sponsoring competitions or competitive surfers than they do from big wave surfers. The thing which I always try to explain to them is that big wave surfing appeals to such a broad range of people and that is why there is constantly images of it in national press and not just in industry specific magazines, but no one seems to see it like that. At the end of the day, I just wanna surf big waves and I don’t need a brand to allow me to do that although my sponsors Circle One, Gecko and Extreme nutrition have been good in helping me with product and exposure. Especially Circle One, they came on board when I was 14 and have helped me out throughout the years with good equipment. If I was approached by a big company wishing to add support to what Cotty and I are trying to achieve then I’m sure we would be stoked but it is not the end of the world and won’t dictate whether we surf big waves anymore or not. Cortez would be interesting but I think it would take a fair bit of time to plan and wait for the right conditions. If someone wants to help us achieve that goal by coming onboard with us then we would be very interested in talking to them. I think we would need to speak with other teams that had been out there and use their knowledge to make it as safe as possible.

Soul-Surfers: Is competition on big waves an option for you? I mean with internet coverage one could do it within a larger waiting period. Or is competition a thing that does not fit into big wave surfing?
What about formats like the one we had in windsurfing two years ago with the Red Bull Stormchase, where riders from different countries were selected to sail one single monster storm on different places in Europe like Ireland, Scotland, Holland, Germany, Denmark, Norway and Sweden and the whole action was put together into a DVD. Could blogg formats be an option to raise more income out of what you do? I’m thinking about sort of an online diary of your winter season, with all those little stories to tell, spiced up with photos or videos.

Alastair: Competition big wave surfing. I am on UK team for the Big session at Tenerife tow in demonstration this season but also Cotty and I have been selected as alternates in APT pro tow tour event in Chile -first time Europeans have ever been included so that is a huge achievement in our eyes considering we have got this far through surfing mainly on our own off the west coast of Ireland. We are very stoked and hope that we get called up to take part in the event. It has a waiting period from April to July. The XXL contest format is cool ‚cos it is people doing what they do in their own back yards. There used to be a similar event run by Mananan, an Irish clothing company that I won one year. Same idea as XXL where biggest wave photographed wins. I won it the first year and got second the next year then they stopped doing it. I was also nominated for selection into the Eddie contest at Waimea this year but didn’t make it. I know how difficult it is to get a lot of waves on a big day in this country and I’m sure in a heat situation the pressure must really be on. I thought bout including a blog type thing on my site but who would want to read that rubbish? I try to keep it updated and I actually have a load of press stuff I need to get up there and some shots from Mavs pretty soon.
Howling northerlies here, messy seas, windsurfers would be loving it! Saw one guy out yesterday. It’s been crappy here for a long time. Really bad winds, big swells, no sand. Weather systems just can’t seem to break the cycle.

Soul-Surfers: so maybe we should install a European Big Wave / Tow in tour. What about a Playa Gris – Aileens – Punta Brava set up, plus a stop in Scotland or Iceland?
Talking about the two invents you are selected for. I guess you have never surfed Punta Brava and Punta Lobos before? Both contests leave very little time for getting comfortable with the waves as you get called very shortly before the events start. How do you prepare for events like that? Wave knowledge should be a very important thing when surfing in these serious waves, especially when you have to push it in order to succeed in a contest. Crossing my fingers for the winds to become favourable in Ireland…

Alastair: Its funny I’ve been speaking to the guys at the apt tour about holding something here in the future at Mullaghmore maybe.
Yeah, I know what you mean bout Chile and Canaries. Very difficult to know how we are gonna get on when we don’t know the waves and what they could do to us if we fall! We would usually have paddles somewhere before going out at tow size but that probably wont be an option as we are likely to arrive at these spots when it is gonna be out of paddle in range. I’m sure it will have an effect on our confidence and ability to surf really well when we don’t know the spots in advance.

Soul-Surfers: So, to be successful in these contests you have to travel a lot more and when I’m thinking only at the costs of transporting all the equipment…
I guess to have a fair chance, European big wave surfers need their own events and / or contest series at home. Maybe you can sort something out with the other guys at the SantaBigSession event.
Al, we’re almost done with the interview. Last question: what’s your plans and projects for the near future?

Alastair: My plans for the future are really to keep riding big waves. I really want to get some of the new spots we have found over the past couple of years big. We have had so many sessions at Mullaghmore and Aileens now, way more than any of the other spots and we want to put a bit more time into them now. We have a lot of potential in this country for really big waves, it is just a matter of getting the conditions at the right spots and being ready to drop everything to be there.

Soul-Surfers: I’m looking forward to see you ride some more Irish liquid mountains. Good luck for all and thanks a lot for the interview. I really enjoyed it!
Take care.

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