Live to surf or surf to live?

I just did an interview for 4fm about the love and life of surfing and I was asked how did I get the ‘job’ of a pro surfer. It felt really strange to think of surfing as a job and to talk about the ‘business of surfing’.

For me I’m lucky enough to do both, I live to surf and surf to live. I began to think well, how did it all start for me? When did I think about being a pro surfer? What was the turning point?

It all began with that trip to Tahiti when I was 16, the first time travelling across the world by myself to meet other surfer girls from around the world and take on the scariest wave in the world, Teahupoo. I fell so in love with that place, the experiences I had through surfing – not just the surf but meeting such beautiful people, the friendships I made, the culture. And surfing seemed to be the perfect medium to experience the world and life. I knew there and then that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I just had to find a way to feed this addiction!

I took off on a 3-year solo mission when I finished my Leaving Cert which began on the North Shore of Hawaii when I was 17. I stayed there for a couple of months, rented a room by myself near Sunset. I did a few seasons on Australia on the Pro Junior tour, tavelling with the girls, training and getting coaching. There it’s an elite sport, surfers are athletes, sports stars. In Ireland it’s still at the grass roots level with the majority of coaching focused at beginner-level in surf schools. There is little or no recognition of it’s potential to become an elite, professional sport. But that is beginning to change because of the strong talent and powerful waves coming out of the country…At the time though there were no sponsors, no pro contests, and not much interest…so to have a chance you had to get out – travel, train and push your surfing with the best.

I wrote my travel stories for the mags and surf media, building up contacts with editors and photographers and chasing after any sponsorship contact I could get a hold of. I had the good fortune to be riding for Alder wetsuits since I was 12 and then I entered an Animal event in Newquay when I was 18 and met with the boss. I was an unknown surfer girl from Ireland – most people were still in disbelief we had waves or a surf scene in Ireland. Ireland was still way out there on the edge of the surf industry, still ‘undiscovered.’ So they were unsure what to do with me…after a trip to a remote island chain in French Polynesia, on the boat of a Tahitian friend, Moana David, I was lucky enough to meet a photographer on board and score the ‘Eddie’ swell, the biggest and most epic swell to hit in years – the same one that Bruce Irons rode that massive wave at Waimea to win the Quiksilver Eddie Aikau contest. After Animal saw the shots of the big solid, tropical reef passes they said they were the best they ever had of any girl surfer and wanted to sign me up.

Surfing has always meant so much more to me then contests. Contests are where I go to sharpen my pencil, fine-tune my skills and test myself. As well as a meeting place for all the rest of the travelling surf crew. But growing up in my home it is a way of life, an art form, a spiritual path first and foremost. It is so much bigger than the results. This last year I’ve been doing more photo shoots and working on movie projects, training and preparing for the big wave season.

It’s tough going because at no stage has it really become like a job where I can live of a proper wage – it’s always been just enough to feed the habit, enough to keep living the dream, even if it is on a shoestring. But surfing is becoming more professional, surfers are taking it more seriously and to be successful companies more and more want the full package; the looks, talent, personality…
Sponsorship interest is what is needed to help the sport move forward and give the best, especially the female surfers, a platform to perform. The global market is huge for surfing and yet tour events are being cancelled and girls and guys at the top of their game are loosing their longterm sponsors…That’s why I teamed up with Tri-Line sports solutions, taking the more professional approach. I always found it difficult to treat surfing as a business when I’ve always been so in love it. Tri-line help to the business side of things, trying to find companies willing to create a partnership between surfing and business.

So if I’m a pro surfer why did I go back to univeristy? I think it’s always important to keep sight of the bigger picture. Being a surfer means being an ambassador for the ocean. there is a need for greater awareness of what’s going on in our playground and I realised I didn’t know enough about what was happening in my own back yard, in the sea I love so much. So that’s why I think my studies and surfing go hand in hand. That chance to protect what I love and give back has led me to do my PhD in marine conservation. It helps keep me grounded and not loose sight of what is most important and the reason why I took to the ocean in the first place.