Cold-Water Eden: Ireland's first pro surfer tells his story

Cold-Water Eden: Ireland’s first pro surfer tells his story

We present an excerpt from Cold-Water Eden, the new memoir by Richie Fitzgerald.

Born and raised in Bundoran, Richie was Ireland’s first pro surfer and made the country a world-class destination for pros and soul surfers alike. Here he shares his unique perspective as an Irish surfer, from the halcyon days of exploring Ireland in search of pristine waves to being the first European to be invited to the world’s most prestigious big wave event in Hawaii.

After spending most of the summer of 1983 as beach rats with my siblings, it was November before Frances and Joe convinced me to come down and try a surfboard. There’s nothing quite like waiting for the piercing chill of winter as a pick-me-up to try the sport of Hawaiian royalty. Everything was set for the coming weekend. Saturday morning was the time and Tullan Strand was the location for my initiation. Our early surfing was marked by an unbridled innocence and lack of knowledge. We make waves with little fanfare and no self-confidence or awareness of the self-effort and pioneering spirit of it all.

On the day of my first surfing, I, Frances and Joe had two wetsuits to accompany the one surfboard we owned and the use of another surfboard from Bundoran’s first generation of traveling community surfboards. Both of our wetsuits were two-piece contraptions with a pair of dungarees underneath and a neoprene anorak on top. You can’t go two on three, so on that November day my brother wore his wetsuit dungarees with a sweater underneath and a regular cheap zip-up jacket covering his top half. I wore the other half, which was the jacket portion of the wetsuit, which was about two sizes too big for my nine-year-old body. I would have worn an extra small if such a size existed back then. The top of the wetsuit that rolled around me was an adult medium. The jacket had a full-length metal zipper that ran from the chest to the back of the neck. With a texture of thick, dry shipping cardboard, its lack of flexibility has been compounded with skin-tight mini-zips on the cuffs for easy on and off. One of the highlights of the day for me was that although the wetsuit could have fit two of me, its size was such that the tough material still made it a close struggle to get in.

The top was made of restrictive neoprene, which offered little warmth in its construction, made worse by its poor fit. Both pieces of the wetsuit were made from fabrics that were slightly more malleable than Houdini’s buckled straight jacket. The material of the wetsuit gave off an instant and excruciating rash as soon as you moved in it, like it was lined with 60 grit sandpaper. I put on that wetsuit and blurted out some swear words. It was the first time I got away with bold language that wasn’t immediately obliterated by my sister with a well-executed dressing.

With only half a wetsuit, I was doomed. To cover the rest of my body, I used a pair of jeans with tightly tied sweatpants pulled over them. On my feet I wore two sets of fluffy white athletic socks and a pair of vintage blue and white Dunnes Stores Sizzler runners as a homemade wetsuit replacement. For our hands, we all wore thin navy blue wool gloves under a pair of yellow marigold kitchen gloves. We attached the Marigold gloves just behind the wrist bone to make them as waterproof as possible using a couple of layers of gray carpet tape, always being very careful not to get any of the tape on our arms as there was fur and took skin off with it when you needed to remove it from exposed body parts. The taping made the Marigold gloves disposable, so we bought them in packs. When things got tight, Mum always kept a supply under the kitchen sink in addition to the thick Jif scouring cream. The rubbery, chalky smell of these gloves reminds me a lot more of early surfing than washing dishes or peeling vegetables, which I might have retreated from.

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Listen: Richie Fitzgerald talks to Ray D’Arcy

You lose most of your heat through your head, so having a hat is important. The only thing available to us was cheap latex swimming pool caps. We would have used the more expensive and comfortable silicone caps if they were available.

The three of us really made quite an appearance as we walked down the beach in a sad procession of miserable bits of wetsuits and pockmarked surfboards. Everything in our early surfing days, from the waves we surfed to the gear we had or didn’t own, was driven by circumstance rather than design. We kept marching forward, fortunately light on the practical, but strong in the enthusiasm for surfing that day and for many more to come. We didn’t care about aesthetics. Anyway, nobody was watching because almost nobody surfed Tullan Strand in the 1980s, except for the occasional opportunist dodging the sand. The vehicle for my maiden voyage was the infamous but euphemistically named surfboard, known locally as the blue canoe. It was one of the city’s hat-tricks of surfboards that never had direct ownership; Instead, boards were passed from one surfer to another as needed. It was an awful lump of surfboard the size of a canoe, hence the name.

Already shivering from the cold and feeling more than a little uncomfortable with my neoprene restraints, I trudged towards the sea. My brother held my hand in a sticky marigold-on-marigold hug. His grip helped me get past the first whitewater line with the Bismarck list on my left ankle. He traded with my sister to try and get me in a good depth and position for a wave. The cold shock to my body was instantaneous and all consuming, the 10 degree water lapping into my trainers, tracksuit, jeans and baggy top before reaching my waist, forcing me through mine, fast, flat and panicked mouth to breathe.

I had never worn a wetsuit before, even though it was only 50 percent of the original. Being so cooped up and encased in neoprene, latex and soaked clothing made me feel the absurdity of claustrophobia in the vastness of my surroundings. I was good in the water but it was way too restrictive an activity for me. I hated the weight of the surfboard strapped to my ankle and the tonnage of my makeshift baggy wetsuit with its water-filled bulges. Before the first five minutes were up, my surfing tendencies were quickly ebbing away in my pre-mature thinking.

My brother heaved me into my first wave where I immediately staggered uncontrollably forward and down as if the front of the surfboard had just suffered a catastrophic double flat tire at high speed. The next wave offered little more as I was blown off the board on impact, land mine style.

I managed to catch a few successful waves that first day so all was not lost. When I say “catch,” I use that term liberally. It was more likely my brother or sister who maneuvered me on five or six waves. I finally got up on my last in this shortest of first surfing encounters. For just a moment I felt like I was gliding over the surface of a wave. But then my fleeting excitement ended abruptly as I was thrown headfirst off the board again in a combination of loss of balance and frontally overloaded weight distribution. That was it, my 20 minutes in the water was up. So that was my surfing initiation: trying to get a grip on a porous board that, with my ankle attached to the umbilical cord, was intent on sinking itself. That combination of shock, cold, tears, snot, and a small spurt of blood from the surfboard’s impact brought down the curtain on my shameful first surf. I told my brother I hated it and swore to him and to God I would never do it again. My brother carried me most of the way up the beach like a mini castaway in sodden Dunnes Stores finery.

Deep Water Sea Mount in Co. Sligo – Richie’s first wave at Prowlers
(Image: Aaron Pierce)

A few hours later, when I got home, I’d warmed up enough to think clearly. There was something otherworldly about the feeling of sailing on a moving wedge of water. I just couldn’t shake it. I found my sister upstairs and said, ‘Hey Frankie, is it okay if I come surfing with you again next weekend?’ to which she replied, ‘I knew you would like it.’

Within a month, at the end of December, after three or four more surfs, I was completely hooked. All I wanted to do and think about from that point on was ride waves. There’s something about surfing addiction that’s hard to quantify or explain to those who haven’t experienced it. For many, that first taste of walking on water changes their DNA. I’ve tried most sports – especially board sports like snowboarding and water skiing, both of which share the same pen as surfing – but there’s a uniqueness to surfing that sets it apart. If I allow myself to be totally free-spirited, the answer is simple. The playing field changes from moment to moment where you have to decode and learn on the fly. It’s a quality of surfing that can’t be offered in a stadium, racetrack or anything similar like a ski slope or skate bowl. Surfing is just completely unlike anything else, and that’s the catch: The fact that the wave you’re surfing traveled thousands of miles across the ocean from a distant storm system and only broke once. This wave offers you an exclusive experience, be it 5 feet or 50 feet.

Coldwater Eden is published by HarperCollins Ireland

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