© Gary McCall
Andrew Cotton reveals his "unfinished business" on Ireland's west coast
This February, I returned to the spot of my 2016 documentary, Beneath the Surface, once more in search of a legendary wave. Here's what happened...
Between September and April, during the North Atlantic winter, Ireland becomes one of the best big wave surfing spots in the world. Unlike other well-known European locations like Nazare, Portugal, though, it’s not a given.
Unstable conditions mean that you can get every wind direction and weather possible in one day – from sunny and still to a howling onshore snowstorm. When combined with the changeable swell direction, surfing off of the Irish coast becomes really hard to predict and plan for – particularly when setting off from the UK’s southwest.
The session reassured me that this is a legit big wave spot. It's world-class.
Despite this, surfing in Ireland is always worth it. The gamble and difficulty of getting to some of the most iconic (and secret) spots only add to the adventure, and it's exciting to be in a sport where you know you're in unknown territory. When you think about mountain climbing, all the biggest peaks in the world have been climbed; it's 2023 and we're still discovering the potential of some of the surfing spots in Ireland.
That’s what drew me back to the island in February 2023, when I went to settle some unfinished business…
Beneath the Surface: the first attempt to film the wave
Beneath the Surface
Big wave surfer Andrew Cotton rolls the dice on his season by choosing to explore a wave with huge potential.
In 2016, I made a film called Beneath the Surface. The documentary followed my attempt to ride an untapped big wave off of the coast of Ireland and focused on trying to understand what sort of conditions made it break.
I first spotted the wave around 2010. It’s about seven miles out to sea, so it was just a speck in the distance, but it looked like it had potential. The first time I really surfed it was around 2013, but we were ill-prepared.
I got chatting with Matt Knight, a surfer and the owner of a catamaran called Hecate, about the wave. Matt also skippered during Ross Edgley's Great British Swim, where his deep knowledge of the Irish Sea was vital. He told me he'd sailed past the reef the wave breaks on to get to a port in Donegal and confirmed its potential. The idea came about to use his boat as a platform to scope the wave.
The goal as always with these spots is to ride some of the biggest waves of your life. We committed a lot of time to the project but the conditions during the filming period we had for the documentary meant we never really got it. The highest it reached in the three sessions was 30-35 feet, but I knew it could go much higher.
How the wave works
Beneath the Surface: How the wave works
Discover why this unknown wave off the west coast of Ireland has so much potential.
When we were filming Beneath the Surface, the only thing that kept me sane was that I knew that, when the time came or when the weather pattern was right, this place would deliver.
It's one of the places that I always keep an eye on. I track the swell charts and the weather...
It's such a unique spot because of how it magnifies the swell. Putting numbers on it is quite hard but I think it can be absolutely humongous. For example, the swell in that bay gets three times bigger than the day we surfed it, so you have to imagine the reef break three times bigger. That's up there with any big wave spot in the world and it's just another one of the many locations along that part of the Irish coastline that is home to potentially world-class and record-breaking waves.
Even after the project had wrapped, it hadn't finished for me. It's one of the places that I always keep an eye on. I track the swell charts and the weather conditions to see if it’s going to break. The conditions are so unique and rare though; I think there have been a handful of days where everything has aligned since 2016.
Re-visiting the wave in 2023
In early February 2023, it was looking like a good week for surfing conditions in Ireland. There was a lot of activity in the Atlantic, so me, Conor Maguire and a crew and went over. We were surfing a few other regular spots that are far more consistent but there was a particular day when the forecasts were looking good for the Beneath the Surface spot. It wasn’t until the morning though that we decided to go.
The nature of the trip meant that we didn’t have the same tools to hand as during the documentary project. Before, we were able to sail out there, tow the jetskis and decide when was the best time to surf. This time, we rode the jetskis out there, which is a little bit colder, and also took a six-meter rib as a safety boat and a bit of a base.
When we first arrived, the wave wasn't that good, but as the tide got low, it started to pick up and we had about four hours of surfing. There were five of us in total and we all took turns – everyone got some crazy waves and it was definitely one of the best sessions we had out there. The session reassured me that this is a legit big wave spot. It's world-class. We're just seeing the tip of the iceberg.
You need to hit waves 110% committed
Although I hadn’t ridden the spot since 2016, I was familiar with the wave, which I think benefitted me. I had two or three waves that were up there with some of the best runs that I’ve ever had at the spot. It’s annoying though because it’s left me wanting more – I didn’t come away totally satisfied.
In the intervening years, I’ve also suffered and recovered from a broken back. It hasn’t impacted my approach to big wave surfing though. Initially, the monkey is on your shoulder for a little bit, but you can’t have it there or you’ll never get back to where you need to be. You need to hit waves 110% committed – if you have any inkling or worry you're not going to perform and you're not going to surf your best, then that’s when injuries and accidents happen.