Tom Lowe, who lives in Lahinch, has just become the first European to surf one of the world’s most notorious swells, the powerful ‘Killers’ waves off the coast of Mexico. The dangerous waves, near the islands of Todos Santos, can reach heights of 60 feet.
“It’s up there in the top five waves in the world,” says Lowe. “And, naturally enough, as a surfer, I’ve always wanted to do it. I can’t believe it happened really.”
The native of St Ives, in Cornwall, England, started surfing at the age of 14 and says the sport was a “kind of way out. I didn’t enjoy school. Growing up, I didn’t have it that easy. We were moving around a bit.
“Neither of my parents surfed, so that kind of made me want to do it even more; it was my release. A lot of the older boys, like in any small town, were getting into the wrong sort of thing and surfing always kept me on the pure path; that’s another reason I loved it. I went against what everyone else thought was cool, like partying, and whatever else. I just wanted to travel and surf. In the end, it was the best thing that happened me, because the more I travelled, the better I got at surfing.”
Tom spent summers earning money as a lifeguard in Cornwall, to save for the next trip to some far-flung destination in the southern hemisphere. On trips to Australia and Indonesia, he grew in confidence as a surfer, as he experienced more challenging waves. But a trip to Ireland set him on his path.
“My first trip over was 10 years ago,” says Tom. “We drove over in an Opel Kadett. There were three of us. We just went over for a month-long trip in the autumn. Everyone talked about ‘Up North’, like Donegal and Sligo, but I had heard about heavy waves and uncrowded beaches in and around Lahinch, so we hooked up with a friend of mine, who was living there, a great photographer called Mickey Smith from Cornwall. We didn’t expect the waves we got in Clare. They were the biggest, heaviest waves I’d ever seen. At that point, I’d been to Mexico, I’d been to Hawaii, Australia; I just didn’t expect Ireland to be up to that level. At the start, I couldn’t even surf the waves there. I was breaking boards. I was breaking myself.”
That first trip was the start of a love affair with Lahinch and the 30-year-old has spent most of the last 10 winters perfecting his art on the waves of the coastal town. During his second season here, Tom was contacted by shoe company, Vans, who offered him a sponsorship deal. They have since been joined by Ripcurl and Relentless Energy Drinks. The sponsorship means he can spend all day surfing the whitecaps of the Clare town. But there are other reasons he keeps coming back.
“I’ve got loads of friends who live near me in Lahinch,” says Tom. “We have a cool community, all having dinners round each other’s houses, trading things, like veggies for eggs, or whatever. It’s old school over here and one of the reasons I love it so much.”
The Englishman has a small apartment in the town. Luckily, it was not badly damaged during the recent storm, and he was away, practising in the Canaries — nice work, if you can get it. “It’s up the hill and tucked away nicely,” he says. “Away from the wind and waves, thank goodness. It sounds like it was scary stuff. I know one of the guys who owns one of the pubs. I haven’t seen him yet, as I’ve been on the road for the past month, so I don’t really know how bad it was. I did speak to some local surf mates, though, and they said waves weren’t even hitting the piers, just smashing straight into the shops and pubs.
“Some people I know went surfing up north on the same day, but down in Lahinch it was just too wild. The combo of swell with the full moon was always going to cause some damage.”
Now that he has surfed one of the world’s biggest waves, you’d think Tom was due a nice break, sitting on a sunny beach.
“My off-season is when I’m injured,” he says. “I’m go, go, go all year round. The way I see it, I want to get as much as I can out of everything and go all around the world. “That’s all I do. I’m not making much money off it, but I’m living the dream and that’s enough for me.”