With Irish female pioneer surfer Melanie White, founder of Rebelle Surf
“I’m from Northern Ireland and I started surfing late, but I was always a sailor. Managing fear and being exposed to the wildness of the ocean and the Atlantic is something I learned very early. Last year we sailed around Ireland. To see a wild coastline from that perspective was incredible. When you surf in Ireland, you get a sense of that perspective, and the extreme weather is a big part of the experience.
I always think that the weather is the regulator here. It is the weather that keeps the line-ups in check and is what keeps the vibe unique. Because not everybody can handle it. I’ve seen many people run with their tails between their legs. They might be grand for a swell or two, but then the reality of living in it kicks in. For the people that stay and live here, the wildness kind of shapes them a little bit.
Miki Dora’s Van and the haunted Castle
I started surfing in my early twenties. Back then there wasn’t a big surf culture in Ireland. I learned to surf on the West Coast of Ireland in winter, which has huge swells. It’s not unusual to get 25-foot swells. I was always the only woman, so it was a baptism of fire. With crazy winds, I’d be sleeping in a tent or my little VW car.
I remember that Miki Dora’s abandoned van was there, and I and a few other surfers would use it to cook food. We’d sleep in the grounds of this castle which is notoriously haunted. But we were so devoted and surfed three times a day. We had no running water, and no toilet, it was really rough. A pint at the local pub was a massive treat.
So the surfing culture is very young here. I’m in the first generation of female surfers. There are a couple of women who are in their mid-fifties and we get to set a different tone.
We often get 60-mile-an-hour winds, that can blow the ocean flat or whip it into a frenzy. You must learn to kind of go with the storms. It’s those moments of gold in between the madness that is absolutely precious. I say there’s a fine line between the weather that strengthens you and the weather that breaks your soul.
There is this point that all people that live and surf here come across every year and we pretend it doesn’t happen. But you’re pushed to the darkest place because it’s dark at four o’clock. And that’s why I think this part of the world attracts fiercely independent people; people that are quite wild.
Lay of the Land
There are a lot of beaches and beach breaks. In between that, it’s mostly reefs because of the volcanic landscape. Ireland has that fierceness, but it’s just a different feel. It’s more feminine for me. I see it as a very feminine ocean.
I remember coming back to Ireland from surfing Desert Point and G Land and thinking, ‘I got this.’ I remember my first surf back I got smashed off the reef and tumbled at my local break and I was like, ‘What the fuck? The power. It’s different. Cold water is heavier. It has this power and this unpredictability and requires your complete attention.
Warm but Fierce
In general, there is a unique vibe on the West Coast of Ireland, which is just a bit more subtle. The line-ups here are warm but fierce. I think when people come here, they hear like, oh the Irish lineups are really friendly. And that’s good. People are really warm, but they have boundaries. Don’t try to project a surf culture from another place onto Ireland. Because it’s not a good fit.
Ecotourism is a massive thing in Ireland and it’s one thing that all the surfers and surf tourism activity companies like mine agree on; we don’t want to exploit what we have, but we also want to make a living and we also want to create businesses that nourish people. There is this tone of a deep love for nature. It’s becoming popular with people that do want that different experience. It’s a bit more rootsy.
What to Bring and How to Keep Toasty
Two hot water bottles! I wear a 6mm wetsuit. I wear a rash vest underneath it. Sometimes I wear leggings underneath too, and 3mm booties, 6mm gloves, full hood. When I’m going surfing in winter I blast the heat in the car, so my core temperature is up. I drink tea before I get in. In summer I would use a 4/3mm.
If you hide from the weather, you’re screwed; it makes you soft as hell. So a lot of us take dips in the freezing water. I call it a winter jacuzzi; a random spot in an outer reef where I just dive in and allow the ocean to harden me. And then my adrenals fire up and I’m okay.
Other tricks included taking a stone from the fire and bringing it into my sleeping bag and hugging it. A dog too is great; it’s a walking hot water bottle. The pubs are a huge part of our surfing experience too. There’s always a cool pub nearby with open fires. A cold pint of Guinness after a surf in front of an open fire with some trad music is real. It’s my favourite thing.
With surfboards, foam is your friend in Ireland. It depends on what type of waves you’re surfing, but if you want some bigger stuff, definitely add a a bit more volume to your normal board.