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.”
Mennie works out in the garage of his house, using a rope tied around the top of the door to build strength in his shoulders, arms and upper back. His trainer Richard Robinson, a sports scientist and former Mr UK, also oversees his diet. “For breakfast, I have 10 egg whites, 2 yolks and a bowl of porridge. If I’ve been surfing a lot, I have plenty of greens and protein, to refuel and recover.” Mennie also does underwater training, walking along the sea floor holding a heavy boulder, to improve lung capacity, coming up for air every 15 seconds or so. “I do it repeatedly, until I’m wrecked.The greatest risk, as a surfer, is to be hit by a big wave and not come up. So this is a way of replicating those conditions, and being prepared.”
Toiling away down in the green half-light, while children play on the shore nearby, Mennie cuts a strange, lonely figure. “It’s the noise and violence of it that gets you,” says Mennie. “At first there’s only silence. Then this thing appears and just detonates: boom! It’s like being underneath a 757 while it’s taking off. You’re dealing with nature, and that’s a big, unknown, unpredictable force. You are in an environment you really shouldn’t be in, and your body and mind are telling you to get away, so you’re fighting your natural instincts all the time. You’re almost dicing with the wave, waiting for the gap where you can ride it and get out.”
In the water with Mennie, at times McQuillan felt the same. “Part of you is saying, ‘I don’t want to be here, I want to get away.’ For me, there is a big fear element, because I don’t really swim. I was putting myself under pressure, saying to myself, ‘If I’m going to be this scared, I’d better get a bloody good picture out of it’.” Yet equally, McQuillan was surprised by the sense of well-being he experienced while out at sea. “There is something incredibly life-affirming about stepping out into this giant ocean, leaving civilisation behind. You realise that you are immersed in a living, breathing thing, and you feel the pulse of it, you find you are almost breathing with it.”
“I’ve been surfing since I was nine,” Mennie says, “but the more knowledge I acquire, the more the fear actually increases. I know what could happen. Once I have achieved a big wave, though, it’s like a switch goes off in my head, and I’m done. Afterwards, I’m wrecked for a week.”
So what is it that drives him to continually pit himself against the might of the sea? “Well, it’s not a case of fighting it, it’s about trying to fit into that enormous energy, otherwise there’s no way you could harness it. The closer I come to disaster, the longer the feeling of success and relief lasts. It’s as though I’m chasing something I can never catch. It’s always beyond me.”
With that, Mennie rises to his feet, his thoughts already far away, pursuing imaginary, un-surfed waves in the wild waters off the west coast of Ireland. He’s off on another adventure, and it’s time to pack the van. “There’s no end to this, never will be,” he says, “It’s just who I am.”