Jockey vs Thoroughbred | Cold Perfection in Ireland

Noah Lane

PHOTOS: Toby Butler


I could list any number of emotions that ran through my head that day but, surprisingly, fear wasn’t one of them.

Winter in Ireland is a waiting game. It’s easy to form a picture of cold perfection in your mind, but the reality is there’s a lot of sitting around twiddling your thumbs. Normally it’s waiting for gaps in the wind and giant swells created by the numerous storms that batter the coast. However this year has been quite the opposite in the northwest, a result of the El Niño weather patterns. Strong storms south and far fewer further north seems to be the current trend. A trend that, for anyone hoping to surf Mullaghmore regularly, know by now all too well.

It’s in this downtime between swell windows that you’ve got to keep active, both for your physical health and mental sanity. Besides work, everyone has their own ways of getting through the winter. For me, it’s a combination of a few things topped mostly by quite a bit of reading. Lately I’ve become fascinated with the exploration and adventure stories of old. Names like Shackleton, Hillary, and Messner have kept me captivated, but what I find really interesting are the stories of survival—how these people get into seemingly impossible situations and somehow manage to come out the other side alive. Deep Survival author Laurence Gonzales discusses survival and likens the relationship between reason and emotion in these situations as the delicate balance between jockey and thoroughbred. Emotion is capable of making powerful physical actions, and cognition (reason and conscious thought) is capable of making fine calculations and abstract distinctions. He explains that reason alone is quite like a jockey without a horse and that the horse can easily overpower the jockey but cannot race without him. It got me thinking how this relates to surfing, and more specifically surfing waves of consequence. Waves commonly found here on the west coast. Waves like Mullaghmore.

Mullaghmore is a scary place. Deep water and heavy, open ocean swells unload onto a shallow reef then roll over once again into deep water. In the past, watchers from the headland’s natural amphitheater would have seen tiny men dragged by PWC’s chasing the swells that roll into Donegal Bay. Tow surfing dominated the scene (for good reason) and will always have a place out there. But with the recent resurgence of paddle surfing, many are pushing the limits of what was thought doable and the focus has shifted to arm power. With this comes a new set of challenges. Just paddling into the lineup, let alone actually catching waves puts a surfer in a kind of survival situation, in that relationship of jockey versus thoroughbred.

The first time I watched Mullaghmore doing its thing I was in awe. I could list any number of emotions that ran through my head that day but, surprisingly, fear wasn’t one of them. And not out of some testosterone-fueled, bravado-laden mentality. Probably the complete opposite really; I didn’t even consider the idea of surfing out there. I just thought, “Nope, not for me.” Reason and rationale told me it wasn’t a risk I wanted to take. The jockey well and truly had the thoroughbred in check. But it’s funny how perceptions change over time, and through regular exposure your idea of what’s reasonable and possible is pushed further and further from the two foot Queensland points you grew up surfing. It’s only a matter of time before you’re in the lineup for the first time, shitting yourself. Thoroughbred suddenly twice the size thundering out of the gates, with the jockey barely holding on.

For me, surfing Mullaghmore is a delicate balancing act quite like the one between jockey and thoroughbred. I’m regularly waiting for an incoming set and still holding an internal debate between the rationales of avoiding a dangerous situation versus the potential for the best wave ever. Generally I’m prepared and know what I’m getting myself into well before I paddle out and certainly before paddling for a wave. But there are inevitably those situations when you’re stuck in two minds right until the last second. Teetering on the edge of a mountainous ridge, one side rolling green hills, the other a sheer drop into oblivion. Sometimes reason wins out, and other times emotion forces you to swing late on a wave that, given the chance, reason wouldn’t have allowed you to paddle for in a million years. And then before you know it, you’re at the end of the new best-wave-of-your-life and the perception of what you believe possible just got pushed a bit further. It’s a mad cycle.

I imagine that’s how it is for most people. You’re not born a big-wave surfer, or even a surfer for that matter. It’s only through experience, practice and preparation that a person can become a skilled wave rider and then through more of the same, coupled of course with the desire, can evolve into a big wave surfer. Some guys are obviously more emotionally driven and can push themselves further before something internally tells them otherwise. But it’s still a balancing act between the two directly correlating to your relative perception of what’s personally possible. I find it really interesting watching the big dogs when they come to town for the first time. How they prepare, how they approach the lineup at Mullaghmore. It’s often their fresh take on riding these waves that sets the bar a bit higher and gives guys like myself a level to aim for. Then there’s the local lads that have been here for years and the underground legends you’ve never heard of that turn up and go bonkers. Some guys are full gun-ho, purely running on emotion and others feeling things out before diving in. All continuously placing themselves in potentially life-threatening survival situations. All pushing the limits of what’s perceived possible. It’s a fascinating internal challenge; a big part of what keeps me coming back for more.