County Donegal on the extreme northwest coast of Ireland offers some of the best sea kayaking and kayak surfing to be found anywhere. The convoluted coastline consists mostly of steep rocky cliffs punctuated by pale sandy beaches and protected harbors. No matter from what direction the wind is blowing there are always waves to surf or when the seas are really kicking up you can usually find a more sane place to play without being pummelled by the big stuff.
We awoke to horizontal rain and 45 degree air temperatures. What a perfect day for curling up by the turf fire or heading down to the pub for a game of darts and perhaps a pint or two of Guinness. No such luck. Since we had come all this way to paddle Ireland then paddle is what we were going to do. We hopped into the car and headed off to Tramore, our favorite surfing beach. As we drove past the harbor and fishing pier at Port-na-Blagh we had our first indication that the surf might be slightly more entertaining than usual. All the fishing boats in the harbor were still at their moorings. Out here where the fishermen live just slightly above the subsistence level, they fish 6 days a week no matter what the weather.
Tra more is a 3/4 mile long gently sloping beach which faces directly out towards the North Atlantic. Ordinarily, you can be assured of consistently long rides on regularly shaped waves so Tra mor was typically our first stop. As we drove along the approach road which parallels the beach, but on the other side of some large dunes, we began to hear a rumbling. We stopped the car thinking we had jarred something loose on the rough dirt road. As we got out to inspect the damage we realized there was nothing wrong with the car but there was something wrong on our beautiful surfing beach. The rain had stopped half an hour ago yet we needed to turn our windshield wipers on to clear away the salt spray blowing in from the waves as they vaporized onto the beach. Joe and I looked at the waves, looked at each other, looked at the waves and got back in the car.
Always have a “Plan B”. We drove to a mellow little beach called Marble Hill Strand. In order for the waves to reach Marble Hill they must bend around three different headlands, making it one of the most protected beaches in the area. We had been surfing 5-8 footers for a couple of hours and been getting really long rides because of the very gently sloping beach. I was paddling back out through the breakers and had almost reached the point where we had been catching the best waves. I was just about to accelerate to catch a wave when out of the corner of my eye, I noticed on the horizon, a pronounced bubble of water moving shoreward. I back paddled so as not to catch the wave building under me. I turned my boat with a quick sweep stroke to get a better view of this wave moving my way. My first thought was “Alright! Here comes the best wave of the day and I’m in the perfect place to catch it.” As it got closer it got bigger, much bigger. Now I’m thinking this is not the best wave of the day; this is the best wave of the day to kill somebody and I would prefer it not be me. The wave got steeper and taller the closer it got to me and I had to decide whether to try and catch it and hope I could somehow surf it to shore without damaging major body parts or to try and climb up the face of the wave before it exploded over me. After pondering the matter for most of a second I drove my blade into the water and sprinted straight towards the oncoming wall of water.
As I hit the base of the wave I realized just how big this monster was and how brilliant I was to not try and surf this one in. I planted my paddle into the base of the wave took four more strokes and just as my bow came even with the crest of the wave it started to break. Right then I wasn’t so sure I’ was going to make it. I have been back endered unintentionally once or twice by much smaller waves and have not particularly enjoyed the experience. The effect is something like sticking a garden hose up each nostril while someone spins you around on a tire swing while pelting you with pugil sticks. I generally try to avoid these situations whenever possible and now here was a wave that would turn those garden hoses into fire hoses and pugil sticks into baseball bats. With a surge of adreneline powered by the single thought “this is gonna hurt” I pulled up and over the frothing crest and for an instant sailed out into mid air. I made it! HA! I beat you, stupid wave, I am alive and sailing through the air. Yes! As I splatted down into the trough on the back face of the wave I expected to see nothing but the mild swells we had been surfing all morning. Instead, what confronted me I was not prepared for. That one rogue wave had a twin brother, a nastier, more evil twin and this wave heard me laughing at its little brother.
Now I’ve got a situation. I know there is absolutely no way I am going to paddle over this wave before it breaks and that whole back surfing scenario really is not very appealing. I could bail out of my boat and try and dive under the wave like I have seen some board surfers do or I could try to ride it out. I hate swimming out of my kayak so much I would rather risk it all and at my funeral have them say “At least he didn’t swim”. I gave a quick sweep stroke to turn the boat parallel to the face of the wave as the wave approached from the side I leaned into it with my body and my boat as I stabbed the paddle into the wave for support. The wave curled over my head, way over my head and as I sat there moderately terrified and presumably about to die I thought Wow! This is really cool, not many kayakers actually get to see inside the tube of a wave”. The side of the wave I was bracing on was incredibly smooth and transluscent on the shoreside was total chaos white foam and a whole lot of noise. Here I am in my itty bitty kayak perched between a boiling cauldron of pain and this beautifully serene wall of calm. I will myself towards the calm and the wave wills me towards the mash zone, the waves will was stronger than my own and as the wave collapsed around me I sucked in my last lungful of air.
I fully expected to be getting spun around and around by the swirling water but I had no sensation of turning over or even being upside down. I opened my eyes a little bit to try and discern which way was up and much to my surprise the light was still coming from over my head. Somehow I was still pointed in the right direction (lungs up). Still inside the waves frothy clutches, my air supply was dwindling rapidly. My body forced me to exhale. I remembered reading somewhere about a paddler who was stuck in a not dissimilar situation and that she was able to breath by gritting her teeth and sucking in the froth, breathing the air trapped in the froth then spitting out the water. I didn’t really believe it when I read it but I didn’t have a better plan so I bent my face forward opened my lips gritted my teeth and sure enough Air! After the third or forth suck I’m beginning to wonder about popping out of this froth and getting a real lung full. No sooner had the thought/wish crossed my mind than like the submarine Nautilus in the opening sequence of “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, I exploded free to the surface.
I was still being flung towards shore by a still huge and powerful wave but at least I was mostly in the air. I knew that if I hung onto my side surfing position that the wave’s energy would begin to dissipate and I could pull through to the back of the wave and be free of its grip. Just as the wave drove me in past my paddling partner I popped off the back face to end my ordeal. With eyes bulging and a look of genuine concern he asked “Are you O.K.?” I said “Well, I believe all my appendages are still attached and I don’t think I’m spurting blood anywhere but I might need to drain the pee from my drysuit. Can we go to the pub now?”
Dragging our boats up the beach I said In my best Elmer Fudd voice “That was verwy verwy scarwy”.