They call it the Cold Paradise.
And, as I stand here shivering on this freezing North Sligo beach that definitely feels true on both counts. Because even as I watch the fearsome North Atlantic waves crash onto the shore of this remote part of Ireland’s rugged west coast, I can’t help but admire the bleak beauty around me.
Under the rain lashed skies the weird shape of Benbulben rears up out of the gloom behind me while the windswept beach we’re on stretches off into the distance. This is Streedagh Strand, famous for its armada wrecks and surfing and even though I’m clad from head to toe in a chest squeezing wetsuit I can still feel the cold through the material. Or it could also be just nerves.
It is early March 2015 and I had arrived the night before in Bundoran, Ireland’s surf capital, to check out for myself what I had been hearing for years about this renowned stretch of the coast that had become a holy grail for surfers around the world.
But truth be told, even though I knew it would be challenging to take to the waves at this time of the year, I wasn’t quite expecting there to be any surfing at all after the winds the night before sounded like they would rip the roof from the Great Northern Hotel where we were staying.
I was convinced my surf lesson the following day would be called off as the windows in our hotel room felt like they were bending inwards with every icy blast. So it was with a mix of excitement and extreme trepidation when I found the team at Surfworld on the main street busy gearing up and getting ready to go when my early afternoon session rolled around.
“It is a bit rough out there today,” my instructor for the day, ‘Punk’ said with some understatement. “But the beauty of this part of the coast is that it is so inundated we can find a spot at almost any time of the year in any conditions.” Punk, or the ‘Awesome Head Surf Instructor’ to give him his full title, is one of your typically laid back surfer dudes.
A local lad, he has been surfing almost all his life. He’s a nice guy and the quiet and happy head on him put me at my ease. But his first task is to instruct us in how to get into a wetsuit. I had worn these before but believe me, there is a right way and a wrong way to get into wetsuit and out here on the wild west coast in March that means the full Monty, with booties, helmet and gloves absolutely vital.
Along the way Punk and the surf school owner, Bundoran legend and Irish big wave Billabong pro surfer Richie Fitzgerald, filled me in on the local area. Richie’s family has been running the shop for 25 years and he knows this part of the coast like the back of his hand. We’re heading for Streedagh Strand, famous in world history as the last resting place of three ships from the massive Spanish Armada that were wrecked here after they had fled the sea battles in the English channel in the autumn of 1588.
While many of the Spanish crews were massacred on these very sands by the locals and the ruling English forces, Richie says that some of them survived and eventually ‘mingled’ with the some of the friendlier inhabitants The joke locally is that some of the town’s population still have a darker look about them.
I glance at Richie to see if he pulling my leg, and maybe it’s just the light but now that he mentions it, there is swarthy look about the guy! With our impressive history lesson out of the way it was time to focus on the job in hand. Ritchie was bringing a couple of experienced Cork lads off to catch some of the bigger waves so he left me and another ‘newbie’ in Punk’s experienced hands.
Punk demonstrated the basic skills of surfing as we lay on our long boards on the sand before we entered the sea. We went through the motions of taking the correct position on the board, how to grasp it with both hands and how to spring up into a crouch with our arms extended like those of a particularly eager archer.
As Punk went through his instruction and I waited for my turn in the water I reflected that for me this was a long time coming. I had first dabbled with a surfboard on a back-packing trip to Morocco many years ago. It was the first taste of an activity I was lucky enough to try again in other surfing hot spots around the world including in Australia and New Zealand but I had never tried it at home.
And whenever I dipped my toes in these foreign waters and told locals where I was from they seemed confused that I had never surfed in my own backyard. ‘But it’s cold there’, I would protest we lay on the hot sands of Byron Bay. ‘Yeah but that’s some of the best surfing in the world man,’ I’d be told by young Aussies and Kiwis who dreamed of making their own surfing pilgrimage to Ireland. And of course, over the years since, I had become aware of how parts of Ireland’s west coast had become famous around the world for its surfing.
But, to be honest, it just never appealed. I had always associated surfing with blue skies, warm water, Bermuda shorts and theme of the original Hawaii Five–0 in my head so the idea of getting suited and booted up in full weather gear in almost gale-like conditions felt like it kind of defeated the purpose. But as the west coast became increasingly well known around the world through the videos of the exploits of surfers both locals and visitors going viral, it was time to see for myself what the fuss was all about.
So here I was and while the sea looked calmer here as we were sheltered somewhat from the wind, I knew the real challenge would be in the water. We walked out past the break pushing our boards ahead of us until we turned to face back to shore.
While Punk patiently held the boards for us and shouted encouragement into the wind, we heard the rush of a wave behind us and then paddled like mad to catch the momentum of the moving water. There was a surge of power as the wave propelled me forward, and with a death like grip on the board as I prepared to spring like a coil onto my feet and a steely-eyed determination I pounced… and went straight under.
The board whipped away from me and the cord that attached it to me almost pulled my leg off. For a few seconds I was in a turmoil of bubbles then I bobbed back up to the surface. Damn, but it was fun. There was a moment to get my breath back then it was time to do it again.
And again. And again. It was not easy and at times the frustration of falling repeatedly into the dark grey waters knocked the wind out of my sails but I had been so focussed on catching a wave and falling, and getting back on again and falling, that I had forgotten all about the cold and the grey skies and the wind and the rain.
And with the patience and encouragement of Punk I eventually managed to catch a few baby waves and by the end of the lesson I was even managing to get on my feet. As we packed up to drive back to Bundoran I realised I have a long way to go before I can safely say I’ve surfed back in my own backyard, but I was happy with my first taste of this Cold Paradise. I immediately vowed to go back though the next time I would like to see it in the sunshine. I still want to see if I can wear those Bermuda’s.
Surfworld run lessons throughout most of the year. http://www.surfworld.ie/