Friday, January 6, 2017

Dream Tour Part 6: Sure if everything went well there would be nothing to talk about...

So, I ended the last post with us surfing ourselves silly in Capbreton, building back up the confidence after getting hammered the day before. We probably could have happily surfed that wave for a week but by then we decided that we had spent a couple of days in the area and it was time to keep moving south.

The beautiful city of Biarritz was the next stop on our trip. The tide looked a bit high on the city centre beaches when we arrived and they were still pretty crowded, so we kept moving until we found a sweet looking peak at the south end of the city.

This is what was waiting to greet us at the top of the cliff where we decided to go surfing. We decided the best way to proceed was to cross our fingers that the locals weren't too hardcore and go surfing regardless! We ended up having a great session, with perfect head high waves and a chilled out crowd on the water. 

One of the highlights of Biarritz was seeing the local grom school get on the water, around half an hour after the school bells rang. Just as in Ireland we have hurling/football/rugby/whatever training after school, in Biarritz a big group of ten to fifteen year old kids gets on the water with coaches on the shore recording and critiqueing every move. All of a sudden there were airs being thrown left right and centre, along with all sorts of other crazy turns and high performance surfing. The kids could surf better than anyone I've seen on the water in Ireland and it was definitely an eye opener as to what's possible on a board if you put the time in!

Moving on from Biarritz after a couple of sessions, we headed for Zarautz in the Basque country. This spot was reccommended by a local surf kayaker who turned out to be bang on. It's an awesome old town with great pinxtos and kebabs, and some lovely small, clean surf. 

Lunchtime in between surf sessions in Zarautz, with scrambled eggs cooked at a bus stop providing sustenance for the day. It's quite a classy looking place and the locals definitely aren't used to tourists cooking lunch in the middle of the footpath!

Unfortunately we had a less than ideal end to our time in Zarautz. Mark had a wipeout in the shorebreak which resulted in a chunk of fiberglass from his board entering his mouth below his bottom lip and then lodging in his top teeth. This pinned his mouth closed and stopped him from talking, so it took myself and Adam a while to figure out what was going on!

Despite Mark's pleasant new demeanour and the new-found peace and quiet in the car, as soon as we realised that the reason Mark wasn't talking to us was that there was a piece of surfboard lodged in his mouth myself and Adam agreed that it would be bad form to take advantage and leave him like that for a while and that we had to go and sort it out. We plugged 'hospital' into the GPS and aimed for the nearest result, which was about an hour away in San Sebastian. of the problems of driving on the continent is that the driver's seat is on the wrong side of the car. For this trip the driver's life was complicated by the fact that the entire space behind the passenger seat in the Fiesta was packed from floor to ceiling with camping gear. This meant that the driver was totally reliant on the passenger to be his eyes on the road, keeping an eye on the gaping blind spot and letting the driver know if it was safe to change lane or not. Anyway, we totally forgot about this key duty of the passenger, threw Mark into the passenger seat and took off for San Sebastian. All went well for a while; we drove through beautiful mountain roads at dusk, unfortunately spending more time trying to figure out exactly what was wrong with Mark and how we were going to explain it to a doctor when we found one than admiring the view. 

When we reached San Sebastian, all hell broke loose! By the time we got there darkness had fallen, rush hour had well and truly begun, and I have never seen craziness like it on a road ever before in my life! Layers upon layers of motorways, stacked four high at some of the busier interchanges, roundabouts within roundabouts within entrance ramps, traffic merging and leaving every hundred metres or so, all filled with crazy Basque people in an awful rush home to do whatever Basque people do at night. Add to this a GPS which was just slightly too slow to tell us which lane or exit we should be taking and a total lack of signposts, and you can guess what kind of a job we did of finding the hospital. Around an hour later, after many near death experiences and on our third trip around the city, Mark's grunts were getting urgent enough to be translated to 'I really need to get to a hospital now' and we finally rolled into a hospital car park. We explained to the staff on the desk in attempted Spanish that we needed someone who spoke English, and approximately what the problem was. They said that they would get someone with more English, and also that this was a private hospital and Mark would need to prove that he had insurance before they would do anything for him. So while we were waiting for an English speaker I got onto Mark's parent's on the phone, trying my best to explain that Mark was fine, but couldn't talk and could I please have his health insurance information...

Eventually, a pleasant, English speaking doctor showed up who explained that this was in fact a private day hospital which didn't have an emergency department. So they wouldn't be able to do anything for Mark even if his insurance was underwritten by God himself... While quietly exploding inside, myself and Adam politely asked were we far from an actual A&E department (no, we weren't), could they tell us how to get there (Not a chance, sure we had seen the state of the roads already, they were way too complicated for directions and it obviously wasn't signposted), and could he find it on our GPS (the initial answer was yes, but after ten or fifteen minutes of searching our friendly doctor decided it wasn't on the GPS). So we decided that the best course action would be to put Mark in a taxi and get him to a hospital while myself and Adam aimlessly drove around San Sebastian looking for him. We were reluctant to split up since Mark couldn't talk, none of us spoke Spanish and none of us knew where we were, so thankfully just as our taxi pulled up the driveway I somehow found the emergency department on the GPS. So we said good luck and thanks to the hospital staff and ran out of there before we had to face the taxi driver and explain why we didn't really need him any more!

After another unintentional detour or two around San Sebastian we found ourselves having a heated argument with a talking car park barrier outside a hospital, which it turned out was trying to tell us that the car park we were trying to force our way into was for staff only. At this point Mark gave up on us and took flight out of the car, deciding that he could do a better job of finding A&E on foot. And he was right. I found him a few minutes later at the A&E desk, trying to explain his problem to the unfortunate receptionist using a combination of grunts and hand gestures. In fairness, once we had explained the issue using sign language and sketched pictures things moved incredibly quickly. A cute doctor appeared to try and open Mark's mouth, and when she couldn't sent him away for an x-ray to see what was going on. The x-ray didn't seem to have done much, and the doctor seemed pretty confused as to what the problem was when Mark got back. Myself and Adam did our best to try to explain what was going on and the doctor did a really good job of pretending she understood what we were saying, so when two doctors, three interns and a nurse or two came back to pump Mark full of anasthetic and have a closer look we thought they had a pretty good idea of what they were dealing with. However the look of shock, horror, awe and disgust that appeared on the entire group's faces when they finally managed peel Mark's lip away from the chunk of fiberglass stuck between his teeth revealed that whatever they had been expecting to find it wasn't that!

Cue a high-five from Mark for the doctor, big smiles all around, and that was the hard part of the job finished. They spent a while picking shards of fiberglass out of the hole in Mark's lip and from between his teeth, and then washed everything out and stitched it inside and out. After we had avoided a couple of awkward questions like 'where are you staying tonight?' and where will you be in a week's time when these stitches need to come out?' we were free to continue on our merry way. At this stage we were all starving so we splashed out and found a half decent carbonara at a supermarket food court, while Mark bought himself a bottle of vodka for when the painkillers wore off. Then we went off to try to find a flat patch of ground to try to pitch tents on in what must be one of the hilliest areas in the world! That was quite the struggle and by the time we found something even borderline suitable it was the early hours of the morning and we were all flat out exhausted. I don't think I've ever been as happy to climb into bed as that night at the edge of a field half way up a Basque mountain! 
All's well that ends well, or something like that... he could still breath through the lower lip, and it leaked when he was drinking for a while, but it was an impressively tidy stitching job from the team at San Sebastian A&E! A couple of days off the water and it was as good as new, with plenty of surfing still to be done during the trip.

After the day we just had you would think we were due a run of especially good luck. Unfortunately though that's not exactly how it worked out! Check back in a couple of days time for the next update on the calamity tour, I promise that the next post will be just as excitement-filled as this one!! 

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Dream Tour Part 5: Moving Further Afield!

So, it's been a while since I checked in here! Those who have been following me on Instagram (keyes_92 if you're interested!) will know that's not because I have been sitting around doing nothing for the past month or so! The next couple of posts here will tell the story of an epic road trip down the west coast of Europe with surfboards on the roof, searching out all the legendary waves along the way. As well as waves we found awesome scenery, beautiful towns and villages, great people and lived a rollercoaster couple of weeks as we negotiated hurdles ranging from thieving bastards in the Basque country to storms in the Algarve. If you would like to know more, stay tuned and I'll eventually get around to putting the whole experience into words!

The Irish boys on tour...the sun comes out, the tops come off and locals and camera sensors alike get blinded by the pasty white flesh on show! You wouldn't get that in Ireland in November!

To start off, how did we come up with the idea of a surf trip in the first place? Which is a big question considering that none of us surf all that much! The whole idea started out with us looking for a destination which would have water for kayaking in late autumn and would be reasonably cheap to get to. The Pyrenees were the obvious answer, however the more we looked into that plan the more cumbersome it became. Since the only vehicles we owned were myself and Adam's Fiestas and doing such a long trip in one of those would be a ridiculous idea we talked about getting a van or large estate car for the trip. Bringing kayaks would mean bringing heavy and bulky kayaking gear plus a bike or ideally a mini-moto style bike for shuttles, so we looked into adding a trailer. The trailer would then have allowed us to bring surf boards and possibly even mountain bikes. However although doing a combined surfing, kayaking and biking trip sounds like amazing fun when you first think of it, the practicalities and cost of dragging all of that gear the length of Europe and then constantly driving from the sea up into the mountains and back means that it doesn't really make sense. Since we were going to be camping all the way, the idea of a destination with sunshine and surf was much more appealing than chasing rain for kayaking. So, after months of discussion on the topic it was decided that we would be doing a surf trip down the coast of Europe, essentially driving south until we found sunny weather and warm water!

In the end, after much talk of buying estate cars and vans, we took the cheap and lazy way out and decided to take one of the cars we had to hand. Adam's Fiesta is a 1.4 auto while mine is a 1.2 manual which can barely haul me and my own kit up some of the steeper hills in Kerry! Even with the 1.4 it was well tested on some of the roads we found ourselves driving during the trip.

So we ended up packing up Adam's car with enough camping gear, cooking gear and toys to let us survive out of it pretty much indefinitely. With the roof box, it all just about fitted in. The food and cooking gear took up pretty much the whole boot, the three pop-up tents went behind the passenger seat and all the clothes bags went behind them. Adding a guitar, ukelele and drum filled up the rest of the space we had inside the car! ...because on a surf trip you obviously have to be prepared for the inevitable flat days! The roof box was reserved for the wet or bulky bits like camping chairs, wetsuits, skateboards, snorkeling gear, gas bottle and spear gun. It took a bit of persuasion to get it closed before we figured out a system for fitting everything in there!

Campsite number one in La Sauzaie, France! After we got off the ferry in Cherbourg we decided to give Brittany a skip since the climate is too similar to Ireland's and hit the road south. We made it as far as La Sauzaie before throwing out the tents for the first time, hoping to wake up to perfect waves breaking on the A-frame reef right in front of the tents!

Unfortunately, our holiday didn't start out exactly according to plan. Rather than of pumping surf we woke up to strong onshore winds, no waves and lashing rain. Instead of cooking breakfast in the rain and getting soaked, we threw the tents back into the car as fast as possible and went looking for somewhere more sheltered. We ended up at this carwash outside a Lidl down the road which did the job perfectly! Thankfully it was unattended and we were able to cook up our first pot of porridge in relative shelter, while getting some queer looks off the locals going in and out of Lidl!

Useful information for anyone planning a similar trip: it is virtually impossible to find porridge in France! (by which I mean Lidl don't have it and we weren't prepared to go looking in too many more expensive shops for it) After cooking breakfast we decided that the most productive way to use the rainy weather was to spend it driving south. We spent the day driving, getting used to being on the wrong side of the road and experimenting with drafting behind trucks to save fuel. We got as far as Hossegor before deciding to pull in for the night and set a course for the nearest beach, hoping to find shelter from the rain and wind.

We lucked out big time when we went looking for shelter at Les Estangots beach just north of Hossegor! This three-walled shelter was angled perfectly to shelter us from the weather, and allowed us to spend a couple of days in peace while we waited for the conditions to improve enough for us to sample the renowned beach breaks in the area. The mixture of racist, anarchist and anti-xenophobic graffiti was also pretty interesting!

On the opposite side of of a large sand dune from our luxory accommodation was this world war two bunker, one of many in the area. It was possible to climb in the door in the picture and out onto the roof, giving a great view over the endless beach that the area is famous for. We were here around the time of the 'supermoon', which was indeed incredibly bright given the beautifully clear skies overhead and the bunker provided an awesome platform for stargazing at night!

After one cold, wet day spent fishing and sampling locally made pastries in Hossegor, the next morning dawned bright and clear and we were finally able to go searching for our first waves of the trip. The banks at Les Estangots didn't look great so we moved down the coast before settling on a peak where we saw two surfers in the water, casually tucking into chest high barrels just north of the world famous peak at La Graviere. They got off the water just as we were getting on, which was our first clue that everything might not be hunky dory on the water! We hit the water confident and full of enthusiasm after our couple of days cooped up in the car, jumping into the water and paddling out without a second thought. After all, this was a beach break and what could possibly go wrong?! The next hint that the day might not totally go to plan came when we reached the impact zone and discovered that the waves here had slightly more power to them than your average Irish beach break! After several not-quite-deep-enough duck dives and the associated gentle poundings, we convened out back and went hunting for waves. Which is when we discovered that take-offs on chest high barreling waves are much steeper and trickier than on similarly sized waves at your average Irish beach! After several more poundings following failed take-off attempts, Adam finally took off on a wave and made the drop, surfing all the way to the inside. Around this time, we discovered why the other surfers had got off the water when the mother of all long-shore rips started moving, meaning that non-stop paddling was required to stay in position and that when you finally found yourself in position for a wave, we were too knackered to put a meaningful effort in to catching them. Leading to more poundings. So we headed for the beach to catch our breath and make a new plan. Which ended up being identical to the old plan; ignorantly paddling straight out in the general direction of a channel leading to a good-looking peak. We immediately found ourselves being dragged down the beach faster than we were moving out, leaving us directly in front of the peak we were hoping to surf and getting pounded a few more times! By the time we finally admitted defeat we had drifted a solid couple of hundred metres down the beach, and decided to study the other surfers on the water for a while before starting the long walk back to the car.

It turns out that we are spoiled rotten here in Ireland with our uber-mellow beach breaks and nearly as mellow reefs. Most of which back off into deep water with a dry paddle back rather than closing out. Of course we have higher quality waves on offer if you go looking for them but it's very easy to spend your time surfing easy breaks and fool yourself into thinking that you're a competent surfer! As I certainly did before starting this trip. After watching the vastly more competent surfers on the water at La Graviere a pattern emerged, which seemed blindingly obvious as soon as we saw it. The secret to paddling out here was to be just inside the impact zone, at a channel, at the time a lull started. Which meant wading as far as possible off the beach during the previous set, far enough along the beach that the cross-shore drift would leave you in the right place when the lull came. Which if the rip was strong enough would be well in front of the next peak. Once you get out back and catching waves, make sure to peel off them before they close unless you want some serious duck dive practice and are feeling very fit! Mis-timing this whole routine would leave you with a set wave landing on your head, and these had so much water behind them that they would push you so far down the beach that you might as well head in and start again! It's all simple, basic stuff which makes it easier to paddle out anywhere, but just how critical it was to paddling out in France was certainly an eye-opener for me! 

With our tails firmly between our legs we headed back to the car to cook a pot of scrambled eggs and make a plan for the afternoon. In the guidebook we found a break nicknamed 'Kiddies Corner' just down the road in Capbreton which sounded perfect for us considering what we had just been through! At 'Kiddies Corner' we found a beautiful, small, mellow high tide shore break, which had an easy take-off followed by a short ride before closing out pretty much on the beach. We surfed there until dark, trying to wipe the memories of the morning from the system. The layout of the beach looked like it would have waves at low tide in the morning so we cooked dinner in the carpark, went for a wander around the town and waited until most people would have gone to bed before throwing up our tents directly on the beach, in the hope of not being disturbed at least until we had a good nights sleep! The last screw-up of the day came when we called into a local bar to grab some wi-fi and were charged €21.50 for three beers, which felt like a final punch from a day whose main priority was beating the daylights out of us! 
Waking up in Capbreton the next morning to this view was pretty special! Glorious sunshine, warm water, warm air, and beautiful small, clean, mellow surf. We threw down a quick breakfast and then spent most of the day on the water, just cruising around and chilling out in some of the most relaxed waves imaginable, just what was needed after the utterly demoralising time we had the day before!

That's where I'm going to leave the story for the moment because if I tried to fit this trip into one post it would start to resemble a book, and if I thought people were interested in reading a novel that's what I'd create instead! Check back over the next couple of days for the next portion of the journey, when shit really hits the fan and we're left wondering if some higher power really doesn't want us to go surfing at all! Happy Christmas, happy New Year to you and your family, and if you enjoyed reading this post and are looking forwards to the next update give it a share around the internet so that other people can have a chuckle at our progress!

Friday, November 4, 2016

Dream Tour Part 4: Let's Kick Things Up A Gear!

So, this Dream Tour rubbish, what's the craic? A couple of weeks in north west Ireland, what's the big deal? It is cool and everything, but not exactly exotic? I would argue that the west coast of Ireland is what the best dreams are made of, but that's slightly beside the point! The point is that around the age of twelve, before I ever got involved in kayaking and shortly after joining the Limerick Scout Group which kicked off all this outdoor malarkey for me in the first place, I had the opportunity to try out a friend's surfboard in Lahinch. I had spent years bodyboarding on family holidays to west Cork, loving the waves and the water but always feeling a little bit jealous of the guys out back on the surf boards. So finally getting a go on a board was a big deal! I vividly remember the feeling of flying along in front of the whitewater that first time I stood up, and totally falling in love with a new sport, and indeed a new way of life! Over the next couple of years the hurling, football and rugby that I was playing at the time fell by the wayside, the Sunday Game lost out to surf movies and the walls of my room became plastered in photos of people tucking in to emerald green barrels in remote corners of the world.

Ireland's west coast on fire a few weeks ago. It's definitely the stuff dreams are made of but I feel like travelling slightly further afield and hopefully finding some warmer water to play in! 

 Over the next couple of years I surfed as often as I could get a lift to the beach, built boards for myself in the back garden, and dreamed up various plans for surfing perfect waves in warm water. Eventually I got involved in kayaking which totally took over from surfing when I started building up for my first international surf kayak competitions, but the dreams of surfing perfect waves were still tucked away in a corner of my brain somewhere. Those are the dreams that this 'Dream Tour' is about! One of the more achievable ones is the classic Eurosurf road trip down west coast of France and into Spain and Portugal, surfing on every working peak along the way. Luckily, Mark Scanlon and Adam McEvoy happen to be free at the moment and up for the same kind of antics that I am, so on the 10th of November we're loading up Adam's Fiesta with surfing and camping gear and catching a ferry to France! Fingers crossed we'll score some epic surf as the north Atlantic winter starts churning out swell, and the weather will be a whole lot warmer than Ireland at this time of year! The eventual target of this road trip is somewhere near Lagos in Portugal, where we hope to stay for a short while and catch some consistent surf while minimising the spend on petrol. The whole plan is pretty flexible though, and who really knows where we'll end up! Keep an eye on this blog and follow keyes_92 on Instagram to keep up to date with progress, at the very least I'm sure we'll come home with some funny stories to tell!

The time since Cranafest hasn't exactly been spent relaxing! I've been surfing almost every day, did a club trip to Donegal, climbed Ben Bulben and did a multi-day sea kayaking expedition in Clare, where we saw whales, dolphins, porpoises and seals pretty much simultaneously!

"After Portugal" is a pretty distant thought at the moment. There are a couple of ideas floating around, including kayaking in Morocco in spring, snowboarding in Norway or possibly passing the whole winter in Portugal, picking up a job and relaxing in the sunshine! Only time will tell, if anyone hears of any jobs going that involve working on or around boats, or outdoor brands looking for people to test out kit it would be great to hear of them! Regardless of what happens in the meantime though, next summer will hopefully be spent surf kayaking in Ireland, preparing for the world Championships in Northern Ireland in October. My thinking is that the breaks are quiet, will be relatively consistent and I can surf spots which are similar to the competition sites in Portrush, so after a summer preparing I should be set up to perform pretty well up there! The next post here will contain the secret to fitting three guys, surfing gear, camping gear and a bunch of other toys in to the back of a Ford Fiesta... it should be pretty entertaining; stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Dream Tour Stop 3: Crana Kayak Fest

First of all, check out this great video put together by James O'Donnell of the finals at the Irish Open. There's some seriously impressive surfing in there, particularly by Dessie in the black long boat and Pablo in the green short boat!

Starting from where I left off last week; after the Irish Open finished up and everyone else started on their journey home the weather took a turn for the worse and the swell started to drop. A few brave and hardy souls took to the water at Tra Bui on Sunday morning before hitting the road but most decided to call it a weekend and get the drive over and done with. After a couple of days hiding from the wind and the rain, by Wednesday conditions were starting to look up. I met up with Jordan Collins and we did a bit of exploring, hunting out spots which were likely to be able to handle the 17/18 second swell which was due to arrive for Thursday morning! We got a few great waves at inside left in Bundoran in the afternoon, and then set up camp on a cliff overlooking the ocean for the night. Dragging ourselves out of the cars at first light the next mornning, we found a sight worth getting up for! A series of reef breaks, with maybe head and a half faces on the sets and perfect shape, ranging in temperment from relatively mellow and forgiving to fast, hollow and punishing! We got geared up pretty much as soon as it was bright enough to pick our way down the cliff face and into the water, and warmed up with a couple of waves on the most mellow peak on offer. Which was still pretty special; a fast, head high wall with unpredictible sections and dry reef pretty close to the finish! 

Pablo Arrouays, killing it as always on the outside reef! Photo by Jack Pearson.

After spending a while on the easy stuff, I followed the waveskiiers over to the outside reef 'for a look'. The wave out there was hollow, heavy, fast, shallow and in the sunshine looked like it belonged on a magazine cover! With no immediate intentions of actually catching a wave, I sat out wide on the shoulder watching Dessie in the IC boat and the waveskiiers Marty McCann, Mark Taylor and Pablo Arrouays making some great take offs and taking some horrible looking wipeouts! Pretty soon though a wide set swung through, peaked just where I was sitting and instinct took over, taking me into the wave and safely down the line with no drama. That was the start of an epic session and I slowly got more and more confident on the wave, eventually getting some of the best waves and heaviest wipeouts of my life! We surfed from eight that morning until nearly one in the afternoon, and did another session in the evening just before dusk. By the end of the day everyone was buzzing, swapping stories of their wipeouts and making plans for the next day. Most of the others headed for home or other breaks that night, while I hung around hoping for a similar session the next morning. However Friday turned out to be one of those days where the ocean wins. Rising at first light in the morning, the waves turned out to be significantly bigger than the day before, with guys heading for the outside reef fully kitted up with big wave guns and inflatable buoyancy vests! There was an unmanageable looking crowd on the main peak, and the previous morning's warm-up wave wasn't working at all, so I stuck my tail between my legs and headed for Buncrana!

No Thanks! This is the smaller, mellower of the two peaks on Friday morning. The other was too far away for taking photos with the phone. There are over twenty people on the water there, probably mostly all underwater after being steamrolled by this cleanup set!

For anyone who doesn't know; Crana Fest is a kayaking event in Buncrana, Co. Donegal organised by Adrian Harkin and his team at Inish Adventures. It brings together paddlers from all disciplines for a weekend of coaching, competition and socialising and is one of the few events around which really caters for paddlers of all levels. The 500m or so of river (dam released, for guaranteed water levels!) plays host to different classes of competition and training in freestyle, slalom, whitewater, boaterX and rafting, from absoloute beginner right up to a night time race down the grade IV 'Claw' rapid which will test even the best paddlers! The list of coaches attending always reads like a 'who's who' of Ireland's most well known instructors, and this year I had the honour of being asked to run 2/3 star training sessions for the weekend. Although struggling from time to time with the sheer volume of traffic on the river, I had some incredibly enthusiastic groups and really enjoyed the day, working through the fundamentals of river running with the Skerries sea scouts and anyone else who was looking to progress their skills. I'm hoping to see a lot of the same faces back next year, tearing it up in the intermediate boaterX!

Ground zero for Cranafest; Swan Park in Buncrana, Co. Donegal. The shops are here, most of Ireland's top paddlers and instructors are here; if you're not around then you really need to find out what you're missing next year! Photo by the Great Outdoors.

When the coaching sessions finish up each day, it's the advanced paddler's turn to strut their stuff. The highlight of the weekend is the midnight time trial down the Claw, and this year the organisers stepped things up a level with a series of obstacles on the way down! After sliding down a ramp into the river and avoiding touching the timing system which would mean immediate disqualification, we had to touch a ball hanging over the entrance ramp, duck under a limbo pole at the exit to the rapid, pass our paddles through a hoop in the pool below, round a slalom pole and then sprint back upstream to the finish gate. The standard is high with lots of top level whitewater and slalom paddlers intent on taking the win, and a completely flawless run is always needed to finish high in the results table at these events. I haven't seen any rankings yet but I clipped a rock and lost speed on my way back upstream towards the finish line, which I'm pretty sure will be enough to drop me well down the field! Thankfully, after the coaching sessions finish on Sunday afternoon the boaterX competition on the Claw gives another opportunity to go for some silverware. These races are always chaotic, and the spectators only get to see a fraction of the action as the competitors go over the Claw four or six at a time! The contest starts long before the go command is given as people jostle for their preferred position on the starting line, and continues all the way down the river with barging other boats and taking paddle strokes off other people's boats, bodies or heads all totally part of the game! After lots of tough racing against all the usual suspects and multiple lead changes all the way down the river in the final, I lucked out and took the overall win! Thankfully, after spending an hour or two effectively trying to kill each other, everyone was able to shake hands afterwards and laugh about all the carnage. It'll be all smiles and good times on the river together, until the next head to head when the game faces will go on again!

Nailing the line on the Claw in one of the boaterX races in the Exo Six. It's slightly easier when you can see where you're going! Photo by Sean Lynn.

So where next after Crana? Good question! There are plans in the works, there are other people involved, and there are tickets booked! I'll go into the details soon, stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Dream Tour Part 2 - A Day of Two Halves

As soon as the surf kayak British Open was cancelled last weekend due to the dismal surf forecast, the focus turned to the upcoming Irish Open in Easky. Hoping that the west coast was getting more surf than the north, I headed for Bundoran and set up camp there for a few days to get some solid training done before moving on to Easky. The move paid off and I was treated to a fresh swell in Tullan on Sunday, with waves approaching head and a half high and heavy enough that getting caught in front of them in a boat really wasn't fun! Watching the boardies pulling into closeout cover ups really kicked off the excitement for the next leg of my travels, which I'll go into more detail about sometime soon! The swell slowly dropped over the next few days and I had lots of great sessions; all at Tullan with a chilled out crowd of French and German travelling surfers. By Wednesday it was small enough and I was tired enough that it was time to take some time off, do a bit of a tour around the North West coast and slowly start making my way down to Easky.

The north coast of Donegal is stunning, and the weather on Wednesday showed it off at it's best! 

I arrived in Easky on Thursday evening, with just enough of a wave on the reef make it worth getting in for a quick session. The waves were less than two feet but nice and fast and steep, and myself and Aisling Griffin surfed into the night hoping to get a head start on the crowd that we expected would be on the water in the morning. Unfortunately though, not for the first time on this trip, the waves decided not to play ball. We woke up on Friday to find Easky as flat as a pancake, and were forced to travel to Tullan and fight for 2ft waves with the other 40 people who ended up in the same situation.

Beautiful? Yes. Surfable? Definitely not!

After this we weren't very hopeful that we would have waves at Easky for the competition the next day. Various alternative venues were discussed and a 7.20 meeting time was announced to give us time to move the whole circus if needed. It was pitch black out when we arrived at Easky on Saturday but pretty soon a bit of light started to appear in the sky and it was clear that there were small but contestable waves for us to play with. Unfortunately the wind was strong and blowing the complete wrong direction for Easky, blowing a horrible side chop into the wave and making it incredibly difficult to pick out a decent wave and link a couple of turns on it. I came off the water after the first round IC heat expecting a last place finish after blowing a bunch of take offs and not really putting together any decent rides, but it turned out that everyone else was struggling just as much out there and I had made it through in first place. I also made it through my first round HP heat which meant I could change out of the wet gear and shelter from the weather while waiting for the semis and finals in the afternoon.

These are the waves you spend hours in the office dreaming about. Long, rippable walls with nobody else out! Photo by Paddlesurf Ireland. 

After a couple of hours wearing as much clothes as I possibly could and watching people struggling in fairly big but downright dirty surf, things slowly started to change for the better. As if our prayers were being answered, over the course of an hour or two the rain stopped, the wind dropped and turned southerly, and the sun started to show a face through the clouds that had remained unbroken all morning! The chop that had been destroying any chance  of a good wave slowly disappeared, and the gentle offshore breeze caused the waves to stand up and take on  that classic Easky shape. All of a sudden it was game on for the finals, and I got more and more excited as I watched the juniors, masters and waveskis ripping on picture perfect waves!

Pushing the Paddlesurf Ireland Equinox nice and high into the lip of one of the set waves.

The finals were what all surf kayak competitions should be like. Shredding perfect waves in the sunshine with good friends around you and and an enthusiastic crowd on the shore loudly encouraging all of the competitors to surf harder and harder! In conditions like that it's impossible not to have fun, the competition takes second stage as you get to surf incredible waves with only three other people on the water, getting a front row seat to watch some amazing surfing and using that as motivation to up your own game. After a couple of great heats in the semis and finals, the arms were running out of juice and by the end of the HP final the mind was starting to wander towards the well deserved bottle of beer waiting in car park!

Hitting the lip on the last section, slightly too close for comfort to Johnny McBride! Photo by Paddlesurf Ireland. 

Coming off the water I had no idea what to expect results wise. Everyone had caught some amazing waves and surfed them beautifully, and from what I had seen the judges must have had a tough time picking between them. Special mention has to go to Pablo Airways from France, waveskiier extraordinaire who hopped into a kayak for the first time to see what it was like. He opened my mind as to what's possible in a boat and has really inspired me to try to push my own surfing up to another level. In the end, huge congratulations are due to Andy McClelland and Matthew Lamont for taking first place in IC and HP respectively. I came away with third place in both categories, not quite equal to last year's haul of double firsts but a respectable result none the less! I don't think any competitor is ever totally happy with their own performance but at the same time I definitely surfed better than I could when I left on this road trip a couple of weeks ago, which at the end of the day is what this whole road trip is all about!

Happy out collecting the silverware at the end of the day! 

The next stop on this tour (check out #dreamtour posts by keyes_92 on Instagram if you like landscape and sunset photos!) is Cranafest next weekend. I'm going to be teaching level 2/3 whitewater skills for the weekend so that's you and if you want to hear more of what I have to say then you know what to do! Most of the country's top instructors and competitors will be there so if you haven't got your tickets yet get booking, it's going to be epic! If you're not familiar with the event go and check out the website, there's something for everyone over the course of the weekend, regardless of age or kayaking ability!