No Luck Required: A Q & A with Irish Big-Wave Surfer Fergal Smith

Fergal Smith, forging ahead to new frontiers in Ireland. Photo: Mickey Smith

Fergal Smith, forging ahead to new frontiers in Ireland. Photo: Mickey Smith

By Casey Butler

On land, Ireland's Fergal Smith doesn't quite project the image of your stereotypical big-wave surfer. He’s skinny, soft-spoken, and Irish. Yet he's also tenacious and is quickly forging a name for himself among his hard-charging brethren. At only 22, Smith is making a case for the way the world views Irish surfers. Recently, we caught up with him to chew the fat on an Irish winter, what a typical day for him is comprised of, and where, exactly, this young Irishmen sees himself going. (Here's a hint: It involves lots of cold water, a video camera, and a mountain of commitment.)

Ireland's been on the surfing map for a while now, but can you explain how someone growing up there becomes a fully fledged sufer?

My family would spend summers down on Achill Island. That's where my dad, Chris, started and my brother Kevin and I followed. The first time I surfed I was 7. I had a go on my dad’s massive board and didn’t want to get off it.

So how did you get from that point to becoming the figurehead for the now burgeoning big-wave scene coming out of Ireland?

It just happened naturally. As I grew up and got to see more and more amazing waves, I wanted to surf them so bad. It was only a matter of time until I got the chance.

Any of them stand out in your mind?

I remember all my waves. Really intense, heavy waves always have a similar feeling. Once you've caught the wave, the hard part is done and it becomes pure joy. It doesn't feel scary, really; it feels amazing. The shapes, colors, and sounds make the most intense experience one of the most calming ones.

How do you think Irish surfers are perceived?

The old stereotype is that we are just a load of drunks, which is half true. I don't drink often at all. I see surfing as my job, and drinking is not part of it.

What does an average day look like for you?

Our lives are dictated by the weather. Today, I was up in the dark, wetsuit iced over. A 40-minute drive to the slipway, then a 20-minute ski drive out to an island, where we surfed for six hours. There are long days at sea when the waves are good. Other days, you might not even leave the house.

How much of your time is spent at home verses on the road?

I base myself in Ireland for a majority of the winter (September through May), then I head to the southern hemisphere. I use western Australia as a base and keep my eye on charts around the world.

Is there place in the world that really stands out to you?

Tahiti is the most perfect, paradise-like place I have been, but I also love West Oz, as it's a lot like home.

In the film Powers of Three, the director, Ross Cairns, says you've "got a calculated head" on you. Do you always think things through before you commit to dropping in or is it more of a visceral type of a thing?

I do try and read the waves as best I can, and make my decisions from there. Surfing heavy waves regularly, it's easy to get injured, so I try and limit the chances as best I can.

So we heard rumors that you're working on a new, yet-to-be-named documentary. Any truth there?

The film is a true insight to the people living and surfing these amazing, rare waves, and what it's like to score heavy waves in this part of the world. We don't have any budget, really, but we have a production company and some good friends in the film industry who are helping us out.

Is there an end to the film in sight?

It'll be finished when it's right. I feel we need something really big and groundbreaking before there is a proper end. A guess is at least another year.

What would you like to accomplish in the next five years?

I really want to keep pushing surfing in heavy waves here in Ireland. I want to surf waves that have never been surfed, and surf them the best I can. I also want to surf more amazing waves around the world. There's so much more I want to do in surfing, I just want to do it all.