Friday, December 14, 2007

Al Mennie Talks Tow In Surfing

Unless you've been off the planet for a spell, most of you will know that Dec 1st saw a group of UK based tow surfers take on some mighty waves off the West Coast Of Ireland. I was super stoked to track down Alastair Mennie to ask him about the session and his surfing career just before he headed off to Mavericks.

When and where did you catch your first wave?

"I caught my first wave on a body board when I was nine. I caught my first wave on a surfboard when I was 11 at Castlerock. My arms weren’t long enough to carry it so my Dad had to carry it for me. I wore a life jacket for about the first six months 'cause my Mum wouldn’t let me go into the sea without one!"

What was your first surfboard like?

"My first board was a 7’2” pop out, covered in stickers and not much wax 'cause I didn’t know you needed it."

What do you get up to when you're not racing down the face of some wild wave monster?

"I spend a lot of time training - in my home gym, on the bike and eating well. I believe training and preparation are the keys to surfing confidently. I used to compete on the UK pro tour and I approached those events very professionally - the same way I do now for big wave surfing. I also do some stuff in the property market."

You're from Portrush in Northern Ireland (NI). It's often described as the "surfing capital" of NI. Given that quite a few people reading this may have never have heard of Portrush or associated NI with surfing, how would you describe the scene up there today?

"It used to be that throughout the summer you’d get a few more people than normal in the water - people came to Portrush for their summer holiday. Come the end of October anyone who was a summer surfer had fled back indoors and only a small number of hard core surfers stuck out the winter. Now in the summer the waves are packed unless it’s early in the morning and in the winter there are still more surf commuters in the water than there are locals. I used to recognise everyone at the beach even only 2 years ago, nowadays I'd say I only recognise about 40% of the faces on any given day."

What got you into tow surfing?

"I got into tow surfing mainly through the desire to surf bigger and bigger waves. I bought a boat first and then some Admiralty charts. I studied the charts for the whole North and North West coastline, ringed a few likely spots along the coast and went out there over the space of a year in search of offshore big wave surf spots. When I realised that I had discovered three or four locations and paddled a couple of them, I knew the potential for bigger than paddleable waves was present and I needed to be prepared for them when they next arrived - so I bought a ski."

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take on waves like we saw a few weekends ago?

"If you're seriously interested in surfing big waves you'll know it in your heart. It’s not something I ever decided to do; it’s just something I do because I have to. I think if you are trying to talk yourself into it then it’s probably not for you. I remember sitting in my bedroom with my wee brother when I was 13 watching the latest Mavs video and actually saying “I’m going to do that someday, I’m gonna ride one of those big waves”. There is a line in a song by a band called Stampin Ground which comes to mind-‘those who restrain desire, do so because their desire is weak enough to be restrained’"

Al living the dream

The British Tow Surf Association is a relatively new body - what and who was the driving force behind its formation?

"My friend Duncan Scott was the main man in the formation of the BTSA. He's an exceptionally talented surfer, speaker and writer - there's really no better man for the job. He has a driving passion for big waves not unlike my own and he set it up mainly to support the tow surfers and to help them with safety training options, advice and a voice."

Reading through the B-TSA's mission statement it struck me just how much kit is needed for a tow in session. What kind of expenditure is needed to cover kit alone?

"Kit is a serious expense - maybe one of the factors that keeps the numbers of skis down. All in all, if you have no discounts or sponsorships and you buy everything new you could be looking at close to 10K. It's easy to get a ski for a couple grand and make do with what you’ve got - but I’ve been there and it can be a nightmare not having the right equipment.

For example the rope I use is very thick and it floats. It's designed so that the Jet Ski intake doesn’t pull it in. I used an ordinary water ski rope when I started and three times we drove over it and it got stuck inside the ski - once it happened a mile off the coast at a reef we had never surfed before. My friend Carl and I had to swim it in for a mile through offshore reefs. I also started without a rescue sled - that's a vital piece of equipment though it's only now that I realise that. It's so
important in so many areas and can literally help save lives if something goes wrong. My point is it is very important to use the right equipment that has been tried and tested regardless of the cost - it may save you or your partner’s life."

Given that your recent exploits at Mullaghmore and Aileens will have turned a few heads and stimulated further interest in Irish surfing, do you think that there's a risk that surfing in Ireland will ever get as "commercialised" or crowded like the way it has in parts of the South West?

"I think surfing in general will get more popular as it becomes more accessible through better technology. Though I don’t think it will get as crowded as it is in England. It is bleak and cold here in winter and most people would rather spend their money and go to the Canaries for a week than go to the wilds of Ireland or Northern Ireland - at least in the winter. Yes I agree that in the summer it will more than likely get more and more crowded."

Take us through the thought process in riding waves of the size we saw recently off the Irish coast? Where's your fear zone in the process - I mean do you get more anxious about preparation, take off - what? (I'm assuming you feel fear!)

"The anticipation of what could happen scares me more than the reality - at least that's the case so far. I get scared when I think my tow partner isn’t concentrating for a split second as I know he has to be on the ball at all times. I think that's the scariest thing about tow surfing in particular. You need to have confidence in your own surfing / driving ability but also that of your partner. In this you are a team and you really are only as good as your partner - that can be very rewarding or very frustrating and scary."

As you describe it, the relationship between the guy on the Jet Ski and the guy and the board must be pretty tight. What do you look for in a partner?

"I've worked with a few of my friends on this and then realised that it can't just be your mate - it has to be someone who has the same desire as you. That may not be a close friend but that person will have the same desire and drive for it. I’ve done a lot with Cotty (Andrew Cotton). Cotty and I have learned a lot together and been through some very testing times (not to say we’re not friends). We've had the highs and the lows but perseverance has paid off so we understand how each other thinks - whether they are on the ski or on the rope.

I've also worked closely with Duncan and spent a fair bit of time with him, sometimes not in the same team but within the same session so we both know what each other is thinking too. It takes time to learn how someone reacts in situations in big surf and know what they are going to do before they do it and also what they're comfortable with. I mean Cotty knows exactly what I’m comfortable with and where I want to be put on a wave and he also knows what I expect him to do and vice versa . It is the same with Duncan. I think the most important part of tow surfing and by far the most difficult to perfect is ski handling in big surf. The surfing part comes more naturally 'cause as a surfer you’ve been doing it for years."

I read somewhere that you and Andrew Cotton are "probably the most experienced tow team in Britain and Ireland." - this something you'd agree with?

"We certainly have had a great deal of experience, especially on our own. We've spent numerous sessions on in perfect and horrendous surf and driving conditions. We've experienced the highs of riding big waves and doing everything right and also the lows of getting washed off the ski or losing faith in each other. We spend about 99% of our tow surfing time in poor conditions because that's what's and we have to make do with it. It is very rarely glassy and big like other parts of the world - so for us to be able to drive in bad conditions sets us in good stead for the rare occasions when it's really good."

There are people out there who will be trying to get their head round how the sort of modern tow board you rode at Mullaghmore differs from a "regular" board. Tell us a bit about the design elements and set up of the board you ride, weight and so forth. How much input do you have into the design process for the board(s) you ride?

"I basically speak to Jeff about what I’m going to need the board for, make a few suggestions and then he throws in his ideas and we meet somewhere in the middle. The design of a tow board is slightly different to a short board for example.

The one I rode on Dec 1st I had only been ridden twice before as it was only designed for really big waves. That’s actually a problem with tow board testing; you can’t tell how its gonna work on a big wave until you are hurtling down the face of one! The board I rode on Dec 1st was a 6’0” x 2” x 16.5”. It weighs about 10kgs and hardly floats (keep in mind I’m 6’5”). It's triple layered in 6 oz glass with epoxy resin and then loaded with steel bars to put extra weight in it. It's sprayed orange so that it can be seen after a wipe-out as we don’t wear leashes. The weight is in there to make the board go faster, kill chop and allows you to let go of the rope earlier and glide on the swell line before it breaks so you can get into position. It's designed to go straight very fast. I have just got a new one with a wider tail template and slightly more rocker. The straps are adjustable in position on the deck and also in their tightness. The straps are needed so that you don’t get bounced off at speed and the board stays with you."

I've read a lot about Duncan Scott and your mates at Mullaghmore but I also heard a rumour that it was you that caught the biggest wave? To what extent do you guys compete with each other and is bigger always better?

"I personally don’t compete for the biggest wave. I can’t speak for anyone else though I know it's always the first question a journalist asks! "How big was it and who rode the biggest?" Also it's not fair to give credit solely to the rider as it was the driver that put you there. I always go out there wanting to surf the biggest wave I can get my hands on but that’s for my own enjoyment - I’m not trying to better someone else. In fact I’m a very conservative tow surfer. I play it very safe. I don’t take silly risks, I try to play it on the safe side, and I owe it to those around me to do so. On Dec 1st I actually wore two impact vests!"

Your wipe-out from hell - where and when?

"Touch wood-I’ve never had anything that’s really scared me enough to think right that’s it, that was way too close for comfort. I’ve been rolled around under water for ages once but I was OK. When I was 16 I paddled out in Tenerife on my own when the whole bay was closing out. I got caught inside and took a fairly big one on the head and my wetsuit got ripped down to my ankles, that was pretty scary."

What's (pun intended) in the pipeline now?

"I’m just about to get ready for a session at Aileens in two days time, swell looks big and winds are good. Then the next day I’m off to Mavericks again. I haven’t been there in two years, it’ll be good to go back now that I’ve surfed a lot more big waves since I was last there. Apart from that I’m going to be waiting for the next big swell to come and hopefully light up one of the offshore reefs we have been looking at."

What's your take on the recent BA ban on carrying surfboards on board flights?

"The whole thing with excess baggage is a joke never mind banning boards. I hate when organisations or people try to ban things. Duncan organised a hefty petition and went to parliament with it on behalf of everyone - he’s the man! It’s like the Jet Ski thing. I know some people hate them and they're often banned from being used at beaches but it is generally down to the people that have them that ruin it for others as they haven’t been educated or trained in the safe use of one. Anyway, I feel it is much better to regulate rather than ban something like surfboards on a plane."

If you didn't surf what other sport would you focus on?

"I’d probably be playing Rugby. I used to play at school and for the local team - I really enjoyed it. I had to make a decision as to whether I was going to focus on surfing or rugby and surfing ran away with it. I don’t even watch rugby now but I enjoyed playing it so it would probably be that."

Surfing heroes - did you have any as a kid?

"As a kid and all through my surfing I don’t remember looking up to any surfer at all. I wasn’t that interested in following any of them. I remember looking at pictures of Mavericks and Waimeia that I'd cut out of a magazine and stuck on my wall though but that’s as far as it went."

You're on Surfari - what’s in the CD / iPod / mp3 changer?

"I listen to Hatebreed, Terror, Throwdown, Stampin Ground, Otep"

Gym, pool or bar?

"I don’t go to any really. I have a home gym that I train on a lot, I do all my swimming in the sea in a wetsuit and I don’t go to bars 'cause I don’t drink and I’d rather be doing something else."

Thanks Al - stickin out!

Al is sponsored by Gecko (headgear) and Circle One.

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