When Sheila O’Connor was teaching her three-year-old granddaughter Katie to swim, she instilled in her a deep respect for the Atlantic rolling in over Quilty’s Back Strand, in west Clare. Twenty-three years later her willing pupil would become one of the first women to windsurf the Hawaiian big-wave surfing break known as Jaws.
“Not a big deal here – just another day” is how Katie McAnena, who is now a doctor in Galway, describes the initial local reaction to her achievement, catching a Pacific wave formation considered to be as unpredictable and dangerous as a shark attack.
The wave break, off Pe'ahi, on the north shore of the Hawaiian island of Maui – which appears in the opening sequence of the James Bond film Die Another Day – is formed by seas heaving over an underwater ridge. This particular big kahuna can reach 18 metres.
"It only occurs a few times a year under perfect conditions, and this time it was a result of a powerful storm off the coast of Japan which sent large waves to the Hawaiian coast," says Finn Mullen, the Irish windsurfing champion, who caught it three years ago, and again this year.
Surfers and windsurfers normally use the tow-in method of approaching the wave by jet ski. In McAnena's case, however, the approach was less orthodox, as she decided to jump with all her gear from a cliff base. She had watched four other surfers, all male, take this route.
“It wasn’t adrenaline, or stupidity, because my grandmother and my mum, Eavan, have taught me to have a healthy mix of fear and confidence and respect for the sea,” she says.
“I watched the others go before me, and it felt like the right thing to do: the stars were aligned, if you like, and I just knew afterwards that thousands of hours on the water had taken me to that point.”
The sound and “the feeling of it going through my bones was extraordinary . . . an out of body experience,” she says, adding that she was “very measured and cautious”, staying on the wave’s shoulder during her two hours on the water.
Messages from home
But the four-time Irish windsurfing champion, who has been on a gap year after working as an intern in Galway and Sligo, didn’t sleep for three nights afterwards, and was awake at all hours for calls and messages from home.
One message she was touched to receive was from Bernie Clancy, mother of the professional windsurfer Mikey Clancy, who died earlier this year, at the age of 22. The Raheny man had sustained a serious ankle injury but made a remarkable return to the sport last year. He was found dead in early January.
“I was thinking of Mikey constantly when I was out there, knowing that this was something he could have done,” McAnena says.
McAnena was on Maui, the second-largest of Hawaii’s islands, as part of her training for the professional competitive season, having saved up during her intern year to travel. A bank loan and sponsorship from two gear companies helped to finance the trip.
She took up the watersport at the age of 14, when her mother sent her to a summer camp at Rusheen Bay Windsurfing School, near home. “My parents had windsurfed, and my Uncle Frank was very proficient. But I think that it is because it is such a bitch of a sport to master that this kept me at it.”
She secured two sports scholarships while studying medicine at NUI Galway, and took a year off from studies in 2008-9 to train and compete in Western Australia and Hawaii.
After graduation, in 2011, she participated in the American windsurfing tour, coming second in Mexico, third in Peru and fifth overall in 2012. She arrived home last week and intends to compete in Irish events, starting with Co Clare this weekend. Her next goal is the forthcoming British tour season; then it’s “back to work in medicine in July”.
She says she feels very fortunate to be able to have had the time away, as she has “always been aware of the brevity of life” and the importance of “squeezing every minute out of every day as best as I can”.