Over the summer of 2019 Milo and I caught up with legendary big wave surfer Al Mennie. Milo, being a salty dog, is obviously a big fan so was keen to accompany myself and our Media Content Producer, Peter as we carried out an oral history interview with him.
As we made our way along the M2 up to the North coast where Al Mennie hails from, all sorts of questions were popping into my head. I wondered what drives someone to put themselves in such danger, does he get scared, would Milo know not to pee on a surfboard (he did thank goodness!). I think what struck me the most about this upcoming interview was that Al may be one of the world’s leading big wave surfers but he has grown up surfing and paddleboarding the coastlines we are all familiar with, from Portrush to Donegal, Sligo to the Giants Causeway. As someone who has attempted surfing several times over the years, unsuccessfully I might add, I realised that for the first time in a while, I was a little anxious going into an interview.
We were all to meet at an agreed point and then Al would lead us to his lock-up nearby. As we stepped inside it was a literal gallery of boards. Like an evolutionary timeline of Al’s life manifesting itself into various shapes and sizes of surfboards and paddleboards with the odd jet-ski thrown in for good measure.
First things first though, Milo had to sniff the place out….thoroughly.
While Milo went about his business, Peter and I had a chat with Al and worked out camera placement and a rough idea of what we were going to talk about. All my anxiety disappeared as Al couldn’t have been more friendly and welcoming and it was clear that he was well used to being on camera and talking about his passion for the water.
The main reason for the interview was a chance to record the thoughts and memories of a local man of the sea, someone who had achieved so much in one of the world’s most dangerous activities. But oral histories have always been a big part of museum collecting.
National Museums NI have been collecting oral history recordings since the inception of the Ulster Folk Museum where it was recognised that recording and preserving memories was essential to gaining an insight into the experiences of local people. Although the Folk Museum didn’t open to the public until 1964, the first recording completed by staff took place in 1962. We have a huge sound archive in our collection with the earliest one dating back to 1908. This was a recording of ‘Hey Donal’ by Harry Lauder on a wax cylinder.
National Museums NI also participated in the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, a UK-wide National Lottery Heritage Fund funded project. Led by the British Library, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage aimed to digitally preserve almost half a million endangered sound recordings from across the UK and make 100,000 of these available online. These recordings are at risk because they are held on formats that are physically degrading and the equipment required to play them is no longer produced. National Museums NI was one of ten hubs working across the UK to preserve these unique sound recordings.
Back to the interview at hand and we began by filming Al talking us through his collection of boards, starting with his very first one. He relived his experiences competing in surfing contests, his move towards big wave surfing and how he developed his own boards to withstand the huge forces of the waves he was contending with.
I asked Al to explain the link between these boards and the jet skis sitting on trailers in the corner.
Al was one of the first in Ireland to introduce tow-in surfing, a technique which uses a jet ski to tow the surfer into faster moving waves enabling them to surf waves over 30 feet high. He told us a few stories where jet-skis were destroyed or lost through wiping out in a wave. One was so badly damaged on the nearby rocks that the top half had been ripped off and it washed up on a beach a few miles along the coast the next day. As well as supporting the surfer in catching these massive waves, the jet skis also act as a rescue team if the worst should happen and a surfer wipes out in a wave and needs to be quickly hauled out before another wave hits as this image from Al’s website demonstrates.
Nowhere is this more important than in Nazaré, Portugal where waves regularly reach heights of over 50ft due to the underwater canyon that lies off the coast. Al was in the water in Nazaré on a November day back in 2011 when Hawaiian surfer Garrett McNamara surfed a record breaking wave at 78ft. Al had been the second person to surf on that day but at the time of Garrett’s record wave he was on the jet-ski behind the wave in case anything went wrong.
In recognition of Al’s involvement in raising awareness of Nazaré, the local community invited him to have one of his boards hung inside the famous lighthouse that overlooks the beaches below, something Al admits is probably his most significant achievement in the world of big wave surfing.
What really comes across is his passion for what he does and never more so than when he describes what it’s like being out in the ocean waiting for one of these monster waves, the fear, the focus and the exhilaration when you’ve survived the ride. Al is one of the people responsible for putting Ireland on the map when it comes to big wave surfing and continues to promote the sport that he loves through talks, writing and chasing the waves.
Interview complete and Milo was delighted to pose for a photo with Al. That is until he realised that Al had a more impressive beard. The face says it all…
To find out more about big wave surfing and see a replica of Al’s board, visit the new exhibition Celtic Wave at the Ulster Transport Museum.