In The Celtic Front, Kimball Taylor’s feature in our Big Issue, a crew of reckless men don thick wetsuits and throw themselves into heaving slabs in the ice-cold waters of Ireland. The photos from the coast that they call home, with picturesque cliffs, lush green fields, and glowing emerald barrels could fool the casual observer into thinking these waves are inviting. But they’re wrong. You’ve got to be bat-shit crazy to think that riding these waves is something a normal person does for fun. When Tom Lowe puts his head down and goes, he often gets shacked out of his mind. On other occasions he gets thrown over the falls and surfaces with broken bones. We caught up with Tom and asked him about tackling Ireland’s heaviest waves and the price of admission to this emerald-slab freak show.
How did you get into this hell-bent hobby?
There are so many factors that go into my answer for that. My upbringing played a huge part of it. I didn’t like school, I was splitting time between my mom and dad at home, I had the usual spin-out of being an angry teenager…surfing was my outlet. Surfing was the place to be alone, with nobody to tell me what to do. I’d run from school to surf, from home to surf, whatever it took to be there when the waves were good.
As soon as I left school I felt freed, a huge weight lifted from me, like it was time to finally start to grow as an individual. At 16, I left home to travel and work with a few mates, and never looked back. Mexico, Indo, Hawaii, Australia, we didn’t track swells or even care about big waves, it was all about life experiences gained while on the road. Each year I’d come home to St. Ives and lifeguard to save money—enough to set off again on my next trip. One year I traveled to Ireland in the winter, and arrived there on a solid swell. I fell in love with the place and its raw power. I had never seen waves like these.
That’s when I met the boys. Meeting Fergal Smith and his uncle Mickey was a crucial part in the big-wave thing. Actually, I should say “heavy” wave thing. Fergal hates the word “big.” We surf heavy slabs that are sometimes big, but there is a different mentality for each. The three of us are best mates who purely love heavy waves. It was a godsend meeting them. Ferg pushes my level more than anyone, and we’re constantly improving. But we pay our dues every session.
What’s the dynamic like on this tow-team-trio?
Fergal is all about paddling. He’d rather get a 4-foot paddle-bomb than an 8-foot tow. Me, I’m caught in the middle. Usually Mickey wants us to tow, so that we actually ride the set waves. We towed three or four times this winter, and the vibe in the lineup is focused and quiet when it’s heavy. Mickey usually quips a few words in the lineup, something like “next level boys!” Small things that stay in my head through the session, always running through my mind.
Cold water, concrete reefs, unforgiving lips. What convinces you it’s a good idea to tackle these slabs?
It sounds cheesy, but the pure buzz and adrenaline you get from heavy slabs is like nothing else. It’s addictive. It feels so good to keep charging, going deeper and deeper until the wave gives you a reality check. The energy in the water is insane. I’ll do it for as long as my body lasts.
Talk me through that wave you broke your foot on.
We’d been doing three sessions a day for two weeks straight, which didn’t help my cause. I injured myself just before sunset—we’d paddled 4- to 6-foot slabs at 6 a.m., 8- to 10-foot slabs at noon, then down to the left slab again in the evening for a 6- to 10-foot tow session. So I was f—ked.
The one I fell on was a solid 6-footer, but ledgey and drawing so hard off the reef. I felt the board pulling me up the face, trying to pitch me over with the lip. Then I felt the rail catch, and I was thrown over the falls backward, and did a backflip in the lip at what seemed like 100mph. I hit the reef, all the impact on my toes and foot. I knew straight away I was done. It felt like all my toes were snapped in different directions. Hitting the reef at that speed was like being in a car crash.
When I floated to the surface, I strangely gave the thumbs up to Fergal to say I was OK. I paddled into the channel, and that’s when the pain really kicked in. An hour-long ski ride followed, and it was an unreal experience. The sun was setting, and my adrenaline was pumping at full flow—I was as high as I’ve ever been. I was telling Fergal how lucky we are to be able to surf out here alone in such great waves, how much I loved him like a brother—awkward shit like that. I’ll never forget that day.
Do these wipeouts affect you mentally? Do they slow you down at all?
In reality, it’s the price you have to pay if you want to put it on the line in heavy waves. I’ve come to realize this over the years. Right now, I’m in Sumbawa. My foot is nearly 100 percent, so it’s a good place to hang. Fergal is in Tahiti, so I’m keen to go over when there’s a swell there.
We’ll see how it all pans out. I hope you got the answers you need. I’m going surfing.Watch Tom Lowe and crew charge Ireland’s heaviest tubes in The Distant Shores Movie.