Passenger ambassador Barry Mottershead lives a life dedicated to salt water escapism. No stranger to larger than life swell, his days are spent carving a name into Mullaghmore folklore.
We caught up with Barry after a session that won’t soon be forgotten. Boards lost and found, waves of a lifetime ridden and appreciation for the journey grows deeper. In Barry’s own words, here’s a tale of when it all comes together:
“we all knew it was a special day and we were just beaming with gratitude and happiness.”
“I'd been watching the swell develop on the forecast models for 180 hours before the day. The tech to predict these storms is so good now, you can see a virtual map of the storm well before its even formed. Starting out just off Nova Scotia and tracking across the Atlantic to the north of Ireland, swell was coming.
I monitored it’s progress everyday and cross checked with other forecasting sites. I wanted to be sure I wasn’t getting butterflies in my stomach for nothing.
It's a strange pursuit, visualising the line you'll draw across the face of a wave that’s currently on the other side of the Atlantic. I’ve spent a lot of time mastering the mind, being able to compartmentalise fears and insecurities lets me focus fully on the moment, without the fear box opening and clouding my mind, judgement and ability.
We knew it was going to be the best day of the season so far. The waves were going to be huge and clean. We decided to have tow surf equipment ready as well as our rhino chaser 9ft surfboards. Just in case we felt like trying to paddle in to a few of the biggest waves of our lives.
On the morning of the swell I woke up at 5am and lit the log fire. I ate my breakfast in silence, running through some final checks on the wind and buoy readings. Overnight, the virtual information I had been watching had turned into reality. The buoys outside Donegal Bay were being smashed by gigantic waves. Waves big enough to wake up Mullaghmore headland.
Arriving on the hill I met Conor, my tow partner and surf buddy. We both operate on a simple mantra; “the waves you see are the ones you don't surf”. It's easy to sit in a warm van and watch massive waves roll by imagining yourself riding them. But you might be watching the best and biggest wave of your life go by.
It's a dangerous thing, no doubt about it, but we train hard and have become a solid unit. To the passing observer, seeing us out there in the massive waves we must look like cowboys or adrenaline junkies. The truth is, its very much the opposite. We all take each others safety very seriously.
Everything we do; our boards, jetskis, inflatable vests; it's all checked and rechecked leading up to a swell event. We leave the harbour with a game plan every time. With no stone left unturned, we head out in search of escapism at its purest.
Arriving out to the lineup on our jetski was something I’ll never forget, it was everything I had visualised. After ten years of chasing these swells, I have experienced almost every possible water texture and wind variation at that surf spot. Seeing conditions line up just as I had imagined brought me a sense of confidence in my abilities. And an overwhelming desire to ride one of these dream waves.
“I was about to feel the waters texture through my board, and to draw the lines I'd been imagining. It had all come together.”
Our plan for the day was ‘bombs only’. We’d only pick the biggest waves that swung around the headland. A bold move on a day when wave heights were that of an average office block.
We let the medium sized ones go underneath us, lifting and dropping the ski as they passed.
It's a mental battle when you are floating behind the jetski holding onto the tow rope. Waiting for potentially the biggest wave of your life. Your mind runs wild with adrenaline and your thoughts dart between excitement and fear.
Photo: Gary McCall
The key is to slow it down, quiet your mind and just be present in the moment. Things happen quickly when a set of waves stack up on the horizon and march towards the headland. If your mind is elsewhere you’ll be playing catch up as you let go and drop down the face.
Photo: Gary McCall
The vibe between the community out there was really good, we all knew it was a special day and we were just beaming with gratitude and happiness.
Conor and I have a game plan; three waves each before swapping over. I drive him into three waves using the jetski and then he drives me into three. This ensures the rider gets his fill, but more importantly, he doesn't get too tired to deal with a long hold down. It's a given at Mully, one day you will go down hard. When it happens, you need to make sure you’re not puffing and panting beforehand.
I whipped Conor into three huge tubes, one after the other. I was electric with stoke after every wave. Afterwards we’d meet in the channel, hugging and hooting together.
As the driver you don't get to see the ride you pick for your partner. You peel out over the back with the jetski right at the beginning and follow behind the wave as it growls down the line of the reef ledge. You get to see some pretty crazy aquatic contortions as the air trapped in the barrel blasts out the back in huge, geyser like explosions.
Photo: Gary McCall
The first people that come into view as you’re following along dodging these explosions are the camera guys that sit right at the end of the wave. They signal to the driver if the surfer has successfully made it or has fallen along the way. The latter scenario is a scary situation. The beatings at Mullaghmore are world renowned for ferocity and the length of time spent underwater.
I've come in to pick fellow surfers up and seen some pretty scary stuff. It makes you really concentrate when it's your turn to ride three more.
We went out the back and swapped over, I grabbed my board and dived over the gunwale of the ski. As I was getting the tow rope ready I shouted to Conor to get me the biggest one that he could find. I don't normally do that, I'm usually happy with whatever comes my way. This season I've been training hard and I wanted something memorable.
I wanted a huge one that would put a bolt of electricity into my core, something that I could think about for months and relive in my mind. I got exactly that...
We floated over swells for a long while, every ten minutes or so Conor would shout to get ready, my adrenaline would rush and then he'd shout 'naaaah'. He knew what he was looking for.
Photo: Gary McCall
Eventually it came, a thick black line, way bigger than the rest. The third wave of a three wave set, perfectly groomed and standing up tall way outside the reef. Conor gunned the engine and I let go of the rope, squashing my stance down into my board and feeling for that sweet spot.
I angled deeper into the bowl, putting myself in a position that pretty much left me no option but to get tubed. Dropping down into the bottom of the wave I set my rail and drove hard off the bottom, accelerating up the face to set a beautiful high line.
I could then feel the mass of the wave and the sheer height, it was big and about to get really round; I readied myself for the barrel to throw. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw three little wobbles of water coming up the face straight at me. They were either caused by a jetski on a previous wave, or shock waves coming back off the reef.
Either way, it was not an ideal situation and I hit them going full tilt. Skipping and landing, skipping and landing, skipping and disconnecting. On the final one my board went off axis in the air and I caught an edge of it in the face. The board tore out from underneath me and sent me into a slow backflip down into the depths of one of the biggest waves I've ever ridden.
Photo: Gary McCall
The crazy thing is, I remember every split second of it. I slid on my back, head first down the face which was so steep I was almost upside down. I was going so fast that I couldn't penetrate the surface and sink. Like a stone skipping across a pond, I kept going until I saw the lip way above me throw out and over me.
I thought the lip and I were going to meet, so I grabbed my inflatable vest pull cord.
We didn't, thankfully I ran out of speed and almost stopped. I then did the whole journey in reverse, getting sucked back up the face again. As I was thrown out of the roof I took one huge breath and pulled my cord. I reached for my legs in classic bomb drop position and got smashed to smithereens on impact.
A flailing limb in a fall like this could be very bad news. The rest of the journey was pretty standard for Mullaghmore. I got rag dolled underwater for a good while and then the water dropped down off the edge of the ledge. I was left really deep down, but in a semi calm place.
Photo: Gary McCall
I heard the wave roll away and felt its energy dissipate. I decided to start swimming for the surface even though I felt like I had lots of air left. I didn't want another wave to roll over me whilst I was down there so off I went, breast-stroking for the surface.
After around ten frog kicks and arm pulls I still felt like the surface was far off so I felt for the inflated air vest. I could feel the huge bladder of air adding hundreds of Newtons of buoyancy.
Bewildered, I kept swimming and eventually broke the surface. Conor, hammering it through the foam to come get me was the first thing I saw. I smiled as I signalled the 'all ok' head tap to him.
“It was memorable for sure. I've thought about that wave every day since.”
It was memorable for sure. I've thought about that wave every day since. I've watched the video angles from land and water and seen countless photos. Even though I never completed the ride and in doing so put myself in danger, I am proud of my mindfulness in a situation as hectic as that.
This is the stuff I train for. Without daily visualisations and near obsessive behavior about that ledge of rock in the sea it could have been a lot worse for me. I might not be the fittest guy out there or the best surfer, but to have a strong mind and healthy respect for the wilderness goes a long way.
I lost my trusty tow board on that wave, it was shaped by Luke Young featuring a classic Passenger ‘A’ on the nose. We shared many good times and it had huge sentimental value to me.
I put the word out to the local community and on social media channels. I held out some small hope that the west winds had taken it down to Bundoran or Murvagh and it could be found.
Against all odds, she turned up 5km from Mullaghmore and was kindly dropped into Bundoran Surf Co. by a stranger who happened to see it wedged into the rocks along the barren shoreline. It looked like it had been in a fight with a bear. Some proper repairs and TLC needed but I’m stoked to know that we will ride again...
Mullaghmore is so much more than a surf spot to me, it's a place that teaches me life lessons and hard truths and I am thankful everyday to have that in my life. It's been a wild ride since we met all those years ago. A beautiful time in my life.”
~ Barry Mottershead