Adrenaline Junkies: Pro surfer Richie Fitzgerald 9 years ago

Adrenaline Junkies: Pro surfer Richie Fitzgerald

Top Irish surfer Richie Fitzgerald talks to JOE about the thrill of big-wave surfing, the increased popularity of surfing in Ireland and why Barbados is his favourite place to hit the waves. Photo credit: Aaron Pierce

By Conor Heneghan

At the beginning of November, a group of die-hard surfers took to an unknown destination two kilometres off the west coast of Ireland and surfed one of the biggest waves the country has ever seen.

The forty-foot wave, dubbed ‘Prowlers’, was broadcast across the globe and following the examples of waves such as Aileens, at the base of the Cliffs of Moher, and Mullaghmore in Co. Sligo, it helped once more to bring Ireland to the world’s attention as one of the foremost surfing destinations across the globe.

Part of the crew on that day was Richie Fitzgerald from Bundoran, Co. Donegal, for whom surfing has been a major part of his life for nearly thirty years. Ever since his first experience of the sport, when his older brother dragged him into the water and he in his own words, “went home cold and crying to mummy”, he has been hooked. Through the sport, he has represented his country, become a professional, surfed all over the world and even made it his livelihood thanks to the surf shop, Surf World, he runs in Bundoran.

The early years

Contrary to popular stereotypes regarding the formative years of surfers, Richie says it wasn’t seeing surfing on shows like Baywatch that piqued his interest in the sport. Instead, it was something of a family obsession, especially seeing as he lived a stone’s throw from the beach in the south Donegal town.

“I got a bodyboard in 1984 when I was knee high to a grasshopper, only about 10-years-old, then the next year my brother made a surfboard out of a busted piece of wood and me and him shared half a wetsuit, all the usual hardcore stuff.

“It really was a family activity, my sister and brother encouraged me into it and I got into it at a very young age. I was lucky to inherit gear and I grew up surfing the main beach at Tullan Strand and a few years later, in 1988, I made the Irish surf team. I surfed competitively from 1988 to 1997 and then didn’t look back. From around 1999 or 2000 onwards, I’ve been really focussing on big waves, so it’s been a progressive development really.”

Massive growth in Ireland

Although the waves have always been here, surfing in Ireland has exploded in popularity of late, with Fitzgerald estimating that there are approximately 200,000 surfers dotted all over the country. He puts the surge in popularity down to a number of things: for a start, the economic boom of the mid-90s enabled people to buy the necessary gear, while people that had travelled to places like Australia or on student visas to America experienced surfing for themselves while abroad and were keen to keep up the hobby on their return home.

There has also been greater exposure in the media, something Fitzgerald is no stranger to. He has appeared in surfing documentaries such as Eye of the Storm, Step into Liquid and the award-winning and critically acclaimed WaveRiders. Richie has seen surfing’s popularity explode over the years and while he admits that all of the reasons mentioned above are contributing factors, he maintains that the most important reason for its massive appeal here is, and will always be, the quality of waves on offer.

“From 1990 to 2000 Ireland started to become more crowded from the outside in. Magazines like Surfer – which is the surfers’ bible based in California, Zigzag, a South African magazine and a few European magazines were sending professionals over here and doing features on waves and Irish surfing destinations. Zigzag magazine called Ireland ‘A cold water Eden, a surfers’ paradise’.

The reason why Ireland is so popular with Irish people and with foreigners for surfing is because we have a world class natural amenity here.

“So, it was more crowded from the outside in, way more foreign surfers were coming in because it was getting a lot of press in world releases like Litmus and Thicker than Water - these movies and magazines were covering it extensively. I saw a huge increase in foreign surfers coming here and that trend has continued, but it has absolutely 100 per cent been eclipsed by the amount of Irish surfers taking to the water.

“Is the increase in popularity because of Waveriders? No. Is it because of the economic boom in the 90s and the start of last decade? No. Is it a combination of all those things? Yes. But, the underlying thing, the reason why Ireland is so popular with Irish people and with foreigners for surfing is because we have a world class natural amenity here.

“Take away the weather – for surfers it’s all about the waves. Hawaii, Australia, Tahiti, Indonesia, South Africa and Ireland - They are the top six destinations in the world for surf, I’m not talking about the economy or the weather, but in terms of waves. They are the best.”

Beautiful Barbados

Although Fitzgerald has surfed all over the world in exotic places such as Hawaii and Australia, he retains a special fondness for the northwest of Ireland and counts the first time he hit a big wave in nearby Mullaghmore in county Sligo as probably his most memorable experience in the water. His favourite destination to hit the waves, however, is Barbados, which has conditions the polar opposite to those commonly experienced in the Atlantic.

“For me, Barbados is my favourite destination. You couldn’t get a place more opposite to Ireland; white sand beaches, tropical water, palm trees. The surf’s not amazing there by any means, but to surf average waves in board shorts was completely different to the west coast of Ireland. You’d leave Ireland in January in dreary wind and rain and you’d get to Barbados and it was bright and sunny and tropical. It was relatively uncrowded back then; there are a lot more surfers there now.

“I’ve had friendships with guys down there since the early 90s and have always loved it there. You have colourful Rasta guys, the board shorts, the cheap rum, the American lassies on holiday; it's the complete opposite to Donegal in every shape or form.”

Big wave surfing

Surfing average waves in Barbados is a far cry from what has occupied a lot of Fitzgerald’s time in the last decade or so – big wave surfing. He describes it as “a magnificent experience, liberating, fantastic, unbelievable”.

If you imagine yourself on a ladder and someone pouring a bucket of water on you, it’s pretty heavy, but if you imagine four Olympic-sized swimming pools coming down on your head, that’s more like what it’s like to wipe out on a big wave.

“I don’t want to use surfing clichés like awesome or whatever,” says Richie. “But it’s fantastic when you’ve ridden a forty foot wave and you come out alive. It’s euphoric.

“There’s a great team spirit about it, there are always six or eight people involved and we have a close community of big wave surfers up here. It’s very euphoric when you come out of a life or death situation, it’s amazing to ride something as raw, as nature-driven as that. It’s phenomenal.”

For all of the euphoria, however, the water isn’t a nice place to be when things go wrong and Fitzgerald has been on the end of some pretty fierce batterings in the water. When looking at big wave surfers on the television, he says, people tend to focus on the tiny surfer emerging unscathed against a spectacular backdrop. If they focus on the wave crashing afterwards, however, they begin to get an idea of what it’s like to get caught up in such a huge force of nature.

Richie surfing 'Prowlers'. Photo Credit: Aaron Pierce

“It’s absolutely horrifying. Someone asked me to describe it once and I’ve used this analogy before - if you imagine yourself on a ladder and someone pouring a bucket of water on you, it’s pretty heavy, but if you imagine four Olympic-sized swimming pools coming down on your head, that’s more like what it’s like to wipe out on a big wave. The pressure holds you under, it squeezes the air out of you, it’s dark, it’s cold, you’re disorientated and you don’t know which way is up or down.

“You get absolutely hammered, it’s terrifying really. Anyone who tells you it’s not is lying. I’ve feared for my life loads of times but it’s what I do, it’s what I enjoy. Do I get nervous energy and tension? Sure. Can I sleep? No. Do I feel sick beforehand? Absolutely.

“Last year was a very bad year for me, I broke my ribs and I got a succession of punishments on loads of different waves. A friend of mine, Paul O’Kane, pulled me out of it. Neil Britton and a few good mates as well, they told me to come back out and get back on the horse and do it again and that’s what I did. That’s the nature of the game, and there’s no easy way around it.”

Click here to check out the website of Surf World, the surf shop, surf school and surf academy run by Richie in Bundoran.