Learning to Surf #3 - Autumn

I took a trip to Carrowniskey, Co. Mayo, on an evening where autumn began to draw in. The sea rocked between storm and sun, and it was a reminder that there's more to autumn than just the cold.

A series in which I document my attempts at learning to surf. All about the psychology and philosophy of learning, practice, flow, enjoyment, mindfulness – and maybe some adrenaline rushes. Also the joys of the extra bits: travelling around Ireland, going to the beach, getting stuck into nature, spending time with friends.

Escape from information overload with some peace of mind, and stuff you can’t google.

Carrowniskey – October First

The waves were big today.

Carrowniskey – Ceathrú an uisce – is Irish for ‘washing machine’. This isn’t true, but it’s what comes to mind any time I think of this beach. It lies out on the far fringes of west Mayo, where an uneven and shallow beach receives a large and unpredictable swell.

The relentless onward nudge of the waves blankets the shore quickly and repeatedly. They carry sizeable rocks with it with surprising force – each time pulling back and the lo, the assortment of hundreds of thousands of large stones has been rearranged, a sneaky magician’s trick, a large white glove diverting attention while the prestige is performed out of sight.

But it’s only when looking out further you get a full idea of their power and ferocity, the sort of thing I’ve only seen navigated in fishing trawlers or boats, and those maybe not even in real life.

Today was a reminder that humility is an essential part of surfing and of being in and around the water. From the car I could see a few torsos and heads bobbing on waves. It looked a mess. Just getting out to the waves required some smart timing, furious paddling, a bit of know-how, and maybe a bit of foolhardiness. Sizeable rocks from the stony shore were being transported into my feet and ankles with the strength of the wash. The sea meant business.

Reminders of things I’d known and learned from a lifetime of swimming in the sea. Knowing that looks can be deceptive. That you’ve to manage your breath. Timing. Learning when to push against it, and when to submit to its power and submerge yourself, play dead so you can rise above the surface when the wave passes. Like when you encounter the Predator from the movie, or a prowling bear. I meet a friendly face from home but I get distracted, caught between catching up and small talk and doing the job I’m there to do – catch a wave. I go too late for a big one and get swept away on it before I’m ready. It catapults me forward and all I can do is hang on as I rush towards the shore.

I ended getting washed up on the shore at one point. Not because of a major calamity, just riding out the end of the wave and coming to an end lying flat on the board. Face down on rocks, at first more concerned for the integrity of my borrowed board, before realising it might be myself I should be worried about. The waves here break on a very shallow beach so you need to be careful – know when to call it quits. I know the beach well enough so knew what to expect, but it’s a different story when you’re riding the waves for the first time, you get a bit carried away with yourself as you ride to shore.   

Carrowniskey has the feel of being on the edge of the world, or our part of it anyway. When standing on Achill or Clare Island or Turk, one’s gaze is naturally drawn back in towards the Mainland, like rock climbers dangling precariously by a rope on the edge of a cliff – they grasp towards safety and the land they can hang onto. Being sea-faring people, the islanders know a thing or two about the ocean and what it holds. God knows what lay out beyond for the inhabitants of forsaken edge of existence. Vikings, pirates or leviathans. The edge of tomorrow. That’s if there were any inhabitants here. There are few signs of life in the immediate environment of the shore.

There is nothing else here other than the rocky beach. If you’re not surfing there isn’t not much else for you. There’s nowhere to get an ice cream, nowhere even to sit in shelter of the wind. There’s no sand for the kids. You couldn’t even swim at it a lot of the time. As Irish people, we somehow still conjure up images of tropical climes when picturing beaches. Some sand dunes, hotel resorts, blue skies.

Here instead it’s rusty barbed wire fences, cattle staring blankly back at you – probably just as surprised to see you here – and some other surfers. The sea is busier than any other I’ve seen in a month, on an ominous Thursday evening with an incoming storm predicted long before it lands. October First. There’s a rocky mountain with a church on top overlooking you, but does it preach protection from nature or judgement for being so foolhardy with your means of recreation?

On the drive home, Clew Bay is a mirror, unusually clear and reflective. By the time I reach Westport the weather has dragged the town to bed early. So it goes at this time of year, shifts of weeks happen in days and hours happen in minutes, following the asymmetric arc of the sun. The world collapses in on itself as I drive home, darkness descending with quickening pace, rain falling in ever greater volumes, the summer dissolving into the black-and-white-negative of an accelerating winter before it instantly halts, frozen on a frosty December morning.

The weather and conditions today showed the thin line between thrilling and dangerous. It’s important to know what you’re doing, but mostly to have respect for the ocean and its ways. Places like Carrowniskey might as well be on the edge of the earth, even the gaze of God down from the top of Croagh Patrick won’t save you when things go wrong.

That’s where the fun is though, trying to ride those waves. That’s where great things happen.  

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