In which Nicky learns to surf. In a manner of speaking.

Evening Echo, 9 August 2013

Attracted by the romance and the sense of freedom that surfers give off like an exotic perfume, I’ve always wanted to surf. But having missed the boat as a child, I’ve long thought it was too late to start. I was also a little intimidated by the popular image of surfers. I’m definitely not that cool. I’ll stick out like a clumsy, un-beautiful sore thumb, and that would be during those rare, happy moments that I’m not half-drowning in the water. On top of that, it looked fiendishly difficult. As Keanu Reeves said in the cult surfer movie Point Break, surely surfing is for “little rubber people who don’t shave yet”.

Almost nobody in Ireland, except perhaps the clinically insane, surfed when I was a kid in the 70s and 80s. It was far too cold. Whole limbs could freeze and drop off, especially during the prime surfing months between October and April. But changes in wetsuit technology mean Ireland’s frigid waters are no longer a deterrent and as a result the Irish surfing scene has exploded in the last decade, mostly among the young but adults are diving in too. It’s time to give it a go.

Surf's up at Barleycove
Surf’s up at Barleycove

With more forgiving waves than Ireland’s pounding west coast, Cork’s beaches are perfect for learning on. Barleycove, with its golden sands and turquoise waters looked promising, and quiet. Fewer people to laugh at me seemed a very good idea and, as I hoped, we shared this neo-tropical paradise with no more than a few families and the birds even though it’s only two hours drive from Cork city.

The only thing that was a bit off was my timing. The problem with glorious heat waves is that they’re a bit of a wave-killer. In fact, lapping at the shore were what really could best be described as lazy ripples. I thought it wise not to reveal my relief to Andrew Jolly, my instructor and the creator of Barleycove Surf Camp. It would definitely not be cool.

Andrew, 32, is a Ballincollig man who also came to surfing relatively late in life, at 23. Since then he hasn’t looked back, unless it’s to check for the next wave. “It’s been good to me”, he says. “I’ve travelled all over the world because of surfing and seen places and cultures I never would have otherwise. It’s great to be able to make a living out of it too”.

This is Andrew. Strange to say, but not once did I look like this
This is Andrew. Strange to say, but not once did I look like this

Andy teaches at Barleycove during the summers and in Australia during the winters, though will be starting teacher training this September. I ask him what he would do if he couldn’t surf again, and he looks horrified at the very idea, too shocked to come up with an answer. The question clearly also conflicts with something that seems to underpin a lot of surfer psychology: the power of positive thinking.

Surfing gets under your skin, that much is clear. I ask a friend and avid surfer (there is no other kind I believe) why he surfs, and his chin drops. He works with me so he’s used to the stupid questions, but it was clear that this one topped the lot. “Why on earth would you want to waste your time doing anything else?” he said. I see.

Sitting on the beach with Andy and his co-instructor Clem McInerney, I wonder if I will ever be able to even stand up on the board, let alone tap in to the vibe that draws surfers in. Andy goes through the different elements that create the waves that surfers look for, and how to spot them. Then it was time to talk about “popping up”. I haven’t been looking forward to this.

But with the board laid flat on the beach, Andy broke down the moves that will theoretically transform me from a prone neoprene coated blob to a soaring, majestic surfer. Interestingly, I seemed to sort of be able to manage it with, slightly, less staggering inelegance than I had anticipated, which meant it was quickly time to hit the water.

“Don’t look at the kids. They’ll only depress you,” warned Andy as we waded in. Two seconds later a girl shot post us standing on her head. “Yeah right”, I thought, and comforted myself with the idea that at least she still has years of having to deal with teenage boys ahead of her. Bad, very unsurferlike thoughts.

Andrew Jolly (centre), me (to the right), Barry Lynch (behind Andrew)_resize
Andrew Jolly (centre), me (to the right), Barry Lynch (behind Andrew)_resize

In between waiting for waves, Andy talks to me not so much about the mechanics of surfing, but about the emotions of it and it becomes clear that this is what it’s all about. As you paddle out, there is nothing there except you, your board and the sea. The physical motions of paddling, then catching and holding the wave provide a near full body work-out, and the process lulls the brain into a meditative state in which patience, dedication and the absence of ego are the chief virtues.

“It meets all the psychological elements”, said Andy. “You have the intellectual challenge of progressing and measuring that progress. There is the emotional side, the fear and euphoria, and then there’s the spiritual side, in that at the very least it lifts your spirits, even if you don’t want to get too deep about it”.

I don’t think I’m quite at that stage yet, but he’s definitely right about the sheer pleasure of just being in the water. As a small ripple starts to slope for shore, Andy gets me to position myself properly on the board, then gives me a helping push as well. The board takes off, and without trying to think too hard about things I somehow manage to get my feet underneath me instead of behind me. Bear in mind that, even on dry ground, this is not always a given.

My stance and positioning are chaotic though and I collapse into a wet, bubbly world of happiness. It’s a wipe-out but who cares? I lasted a whole second and it was a hoot. Imagine what it’ll be like if I can do it for a whole minute. By the fourth go, I managed to stand like a drunk, squatting goose and actually hold it before stepping off the board, almost like I meant to, instead of falling off. On the fifth run, I managed my best falling off yet. There was definite progress and, while it’s challenging, it’s not as impossible as I thought it would be.

I got chatting to Barry Lynch from Douglas who, at 47, is learning alongside his kids. He loved the challenge of trying something new, but mainly it was the opportunity to spend time with his daughters that got him in the water. “I was worried about cramping their style at first, but after a couple of days, my daughter was coming up to see if I wanted to catch a wave with her”, he said, clearly thrilled.

And he wasn’t put off by being surrounded by a gang of kids, some of whom took to surfing like, well, like ducks to water. “The guys are really positive, and they make sure you have a good time, even if there are no waves or you’re not taking to it very quickly”.

That positivity is something that comes up again and again during the day. It’s more than that though, it’s about having the strength to absorb what life throws at you, just like you do when you’re up on the board, and positivity is simply the best way of achieving that. “Surfers are loose,” says Andy. “The sea is a dynamic space and you can’t be rigid or you’ll never be able to do it. But surfing shows you how insignificant you are too, so you also learn to be humble. We’re respectful, we don’t destroy the place and we’re flexible. Those are traits that’ll get you through life”.


For Andy, one of the great aspects of surfing is its individuality too. “When you’re out there, it’s on your terms. No-one’s blowing a whistle at you, telling you to run up and down a hill. It’s recreation, and you’re recreating yourself. So if you’re feeling relaxed, or stylish or aggressive, you can express that in how you take on each wave”.

At the end of the day, with more freckles than I started out with and an incredible sense of achievement, not because I surfed, I barely managed that, but because I conquered my fear of surfing, I received my certificate. It says I am now officially radical. I can feel the beginning of an addiction coming on.

Surfing's up for the day
Surfing’s up for the day

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