Conor Maguire in Ireland: it literally doesn’t get bigger than this
After a tropical storm sent historic 60ft waves crashing into Mullaghmore, the Irish surfer took his chance to ride the swell of a lifetime.
"I'd been waiting for that swell my whole life..."
Belying his 26 years, Conor Maguire sounds like an athlete well aware that he may just have just achieved a slice of sporting immortality, having just encountered the kind of wave that only comes along once in a career.
When the after-effects of tropical Hurricane Epsilon summoned 60ft [18.29m] waves off the coast of Ireland, Conor decided to take to the waters at Mullaghmore in search of 'the one'. And on October 28, he found it.
A combination of freakish Atlantic currents and travel restrictions ensured Conor was able to enjoy a private audience with Mother Nature that he won't forget in a hurry.
And thanks to the video above, neither will we. Resembling something closer to a wave from Christopher Nolan's Interstellar than Point Break, it's every inch the Hollywood blockbuster.
The wave kept growing and it just felt like I was dropping forever, skateboarding down a hill going 100mph
Abetted by a crack team of friends and fellow surfers – all abiding by social distancing protocols – the Irish surfer took the opportunity with both hands and is still taking stock of everything that transpired.
From the terrifying anxiety of preparing for the wave to the technical demands needed to ride it, Conor talks us through his biggest moment to date in his own words below…
I knew something special was brewing
"It was just this huge, scary black blob that we saw in the Atlantic a few weeks before it hit. The storm looked as though it was about to swallow the whole continent. It was hard to believe it would do what the data was predicting, but the night before the swell started to build, a weather buoy off the coast of Ireland revealed record-breaking figures and we knew we had a shot."
The swell was so big it shook my house
"I'm living just down the road from Mullaghmore, close to a beach where you can see those famous waves in the distance, peaking out in the bay like a looming monster. On the biggest days I can barely hear the waves break, but on the morning of this wave I woke up at 5am and the house was rumbling, it sounded like thunder, so I knew it would be huge."
My nerves were jangling beforehand
"It was super-exciting, but my nerves were rattled beyond belief in the days leading up to it. On the morning of the attempt, the whole crew assembled at the harbour in the dark, around 7.30am, and it was scary. Huge waves were breaking, not only outside the harbour but also inside the harbour, which never happens, not even on the biggest days. Although once I got out on the water I was surprisingly calm, probably because I'd spent countless hours visualising surfing a wave like this since I was a kid."
Nobody had ever seen waves like these in Ireland
"I’d never seen Mullaghmore looking like that, I’ve only ever dreamed of it. Even Dylan Stott and Barry Mottershead, who've surfed here for 15 years, had never seen anything close to it. Those guys were actually the first to take me out here and show me the ropes, so there was nobody better placed to tow me and help pick the wave of my life. Ordinarily, a 30ft [9.14m] wave would be big and scary but we weren’t even looking at those, they weren’t even relevant. We were ‘out the back’, behind where the waves break on the reef, a safe spot. We still felt the swell go underneath of course, because these were 60ft [18.28m] monsters, lifting us up and dropping us down."
I knew it was the wave of my life even before it hit
"Even though it was moving unbelievably fast, you could see the wave for a couple of minutes before it even reached us. Deep down I knew it was the one. I'd been waiting for that swell my whole life, my whole career. Barry later told me we were in full eye contact, no words. That’s how connected we were – I didn’t even need to nod. I saw the wave cresting way out at the back, which I’d never seen before, then turned towards land and began focusing on what came next."
I've never travelled so fast to catch a wave
"When big wave surfing, the 'ski driver will match the speed of the wave while towing you in. The surfer will then use the rope as a pendulum to get even more speed, which is why they call it being ‘whipped' into a wave. And I can safely say that I have never been that fast on a surfboard in my life. Barry travelled at Mach 10 to match this wave! He picked me up, built up speed, I let go of the rope and found myself dropping down this face, which initially felt like a 30ft [9.14m] wave. But the thing just kept growing, and soon I felt like I was dropping forever, skateboarding down a hill going 100mph [161kph]."
It’s the most power I’ve ever felt on the water
"A few years ago I surfed in Nazaré, Portugal, with Carlos Burle, a legend of surfing, who took me under his wing. We had this huge swell, 60ft [18.28m] plus waves, which I thought was as big as it can get. But that wave has no comparison to the one I experienced in Mullaghmore – the power and veracity of this wave was mind-blowing, you can really feel it as you ride the waves and experience the energy it has."
It just seemed to last forever
"I remember angling my board and finding the wave was so incredibly smooth – it’s the most perfect wave I’ve ever seen. Suddenly I was standing in this big emerald-green bowl. I was just calm because I was so happy to be there, which you can see when the wave breaks over me. I’m just standing there, really, thinking that this is the most incredible view I’ve ever seen. You rarely have time to take it all in on a 30ft [9.14m] wave, but it seemed to go on for forever."
Visulisation and yoga helped prepare me for the moment
"It was as if the swell was just feeling out the reef. It was just sucking and sucking and I was dropping without ever going anywhere. Having been so nervous the night before, it felt surprisingly natural to me. I picked a line and went for it, as if I’d surfed that wave 1,000 times. But then I had, sort of, because I’d been doing it all week, standing on my board at home on a yoga mat just thinking about it. I do obsess over waves and often I'll stand on a yoga mat imagining how to surf them, matching the movements of my body to what my mind’s thinking."
One wrong move could have ended my career
"I know this surf spot inside out, but anything could have happened out there. Nazaré is huge, but Mullaghmore gets big, too; it’s heavy, hollow, it barrels, it breaks over shallow reef; there’s a huge volume of water in that actual wave – it’s a really crazy wave. The biggest risk factor is breaking something when the lip's hitting you because it’s so powerful. A friend broke his femur there a few years ago and he only surfed for the first time again recently."
I couldn't have done it without my friends
"It was a true team effort. In the lead-up to it we had a few Zoom meetings about safety protocols led by my mate, Finn Mullen, who runs a windsurfing magazine and is also safety coordinator for a lot of big events and helped us to introduce social distancing guidelines. In all, we had four safety jet skis, organised by the Irish Tow Surf Rescue Club and Peter Conroy, a paramedic, an ambulance and two spotters on the cliff who are long-time friends."
The emptiness made it more surreal
"The current situation meant that other guys weren't able to travel from all over the world, so the biggest ever swell to hit Ireland was relatively untouched by the surf community. It felt surreal. Never in my wildest dreams could I believe that Mullaghmore would have waves that size. My phone's not stopped ringing since I got out of the water and it's been great to see people interested in the story, but my friends buzzing for me means more than anything else."