To the waters and the wild
Renowned lensman Charles McQuillan set out to capture the world of a big wave hunter and in Irish surf legend Alistair Mennie, the challenge he faced was in just staying close, writes FIONOLA MEREDITH
SURF PHOTOGRAPHY: for most people, the words conjure up images of azure oceans, bright white sunlight, the tanned bodies of surfers glinting as they slide through the waves. But when award-winning photographer Charles McQuillan set out to capture Irish big-wave surfer Alistair Mennie in action, he had something very different in mind.
McQuillan wanted to show every aspect of Mennie’s surfing life – and, for Mennie, it really is a way of life, an all-consuming passion – from the solitary pre-dawn starts and gruelling training sessions, to the fear, joy and exhilaration of surfing a giant wave.
Instead of working from the safety of the shore, McQuillan stayed alongside Mennie at all times – even in extreme conditions – following him on a jet-ski, and using special equipment to photograph him on and under the water.
These images were never going to be shot in the jaunty primary colours of a tropical surfing paradise: instead, they are full of the loneliness and remote beauty of the Irish seascape; its mordant, occasionally luminous, greens, blues and greys. And they chart one man’s intense determination to test the limits of his body and mind against the overwhelming power of the sea.
“The first thing that struck me was how incredibly at home Alistair seemed in the water, a man at one with the sea,” says McQuillan. “And the next thing I realised was how it’s all meticulously calculated, planned with almost military precision. It’s certainly not just case of grabbing a board and heading off to the beach.”
Mennie – whose ginger beard and towering height give him the look of a latter-day Fionn Mac Cumhaill – agrees: “There’s so much preparation. I’m always monitoring tides, swell, wind conditions, making calculations about when and where the next big wave will arrive. Finally, there’s a window of opportunity, where you have to use all your years of experience and make the judgement call – is it the right time to go?”
Mennie, and his fellow big-wave surfers, are reluctant to speak out about the exact locations where they seek out these monster waves, which are frequently in excess of 30 or 40ft. “There’s one particular place off the coast of Donegal that has become very well known,” he says. “People are always texting and tweeting about it, so you go down there and the whole headland is packed with spectators, it’s like a football stadium. But this kind of surfing is not a performance, it’s far too risky and dangerous. So we like to keep ourselves to ourselves.”
Training is a vital part of a serious surfer’s regime, but unlike a regular athlete, who is gradually working towards a big race or match, Mennie must be in peak condition at all times, in case a swell arrives.
There’s no such thing as predictability in the world of big-wave surfing, and maintaining fitness means more than taut muscles. “If you’re not fit, your head isn’t there, and neither is your confidence,” says Mennie. “Big-wave surfing is at least 80 per cent to do with your mind, and the physical aspect boosts the mental side. I don’t feel 100 per cent in myself unless I’m training properly.”