Conor Maguire knew before dawn that Wednesday, October 28th had the potential to be one of the most exhilarating days of his life.
“I could hear the deep bass from the ocean rolling through my house, the sound was echoing through the walls,” the 26-year-old elite surfer said. “I knew we were in for something special.”
The short 15km drive from his Bundoran home to Mullaghmore in Sligo confirmed expectations. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing out in the ocean. It was so white.
“When I got to Mullaghmore the waves were breaking inside the harbour which never happens and there were surges up the hotel. It was surreal. It was the biggest swell I have ever seen in Ireland. When I heard the waves, I knew it was going to be crazy.”
That Maguire found himself here was no accident. Surfing since the age of 11, he has forged an incredible career in the high octane sport of big wave surfing. In 2017 he became the youngest European to be shortlisted for the World Surf League Big Wave Awards.
And the next season he received an invite to the world-renowned Punta de Galiea XXL which pitted him against the best talents on the planet.
But even big wave surfing wasn’t immune to coronavirus and the professional sporting calendar has been shredded by postponements and cancellations.
It meant that Maguire, a Red Bull athlete, has been based at home for much of the season. But thanks to a rare weather occurrence which saw Hurricane Epsilon merge with a mid-latitude depression, causing a giant low, Maguire was handed the opportunity to tackle one of the biggest waves in Ireland on his own doorstep.
With improved weather forecasting techniques, Maguire knew something special was going to hit the coast on Wednesday morning.
It’s not often you get to take on waves hitting 60 FEET off Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way!— Red Bull Ireland (@redbullIRE) October 28, 2020
Our elite athlete Conor Maguire did just that at Mullaghmore today 🌊 🏄🇮🇪
🎥 : Clem McInerney pic.twitter.com/b63t09ht2b
With the assistance of his support team at Red Bull, a plan was put in place to get him in the water and try to conquer one of the expected monsters that would roll him from the deep Atlantic.
Maguire explained: “Red Bull’s support was amazing. I had a huge support crew to make this happen today. A lot of the guys who were looking after me were good friends which made all of this even more special. Finn Mullen who is a legendary windsurfer was our safety supervisor, we had four jet skis, a paramedic, we informed the coastguard, the county council, we had safety briefings while wearing our masks and maintaining social distancing. And I can’t stress that enough - especially given everything that is going on at the moment.
“I am a professional athlete. I risk assess before I do something like this. This is not something that is done on a whim.”
Maguire hit the water shortly after 7.30 am. Due to the size of the waves and the conditions, surfers at this elite level require a jet ski to tow them in and out of each attempt.
He had a steady hand guiding him and literally steering him out of harm’s way.
“Barry Mottershead has basically shown me everything I know around Mullaghmore and I picked him as my driver to help to select the best waves. Barry deserves huge credit as he decides when and where to go.”
Maguire had a number of runs but the big one that he wanted was remaining elusive.
But then all good things come to those who wait. Nirvana arrived after nearly an hour. The second he let his fingers slip off the tow line from the jet ski Maguire knew had found what he was looking for.
Days later, the adrenaline seeps from his words as he recounts surfing a wall of water estimated to have been close to 60 feet at its peak.
The entire experience lasted no more than 20 seconds but what a 20 seconds.
“It was very surreal, says Maguire. “Very intense. Mullaghmore is one of the best spots in the world for big wave surfing. I grew up 10 minutes from here and now to come here today and achieve something like this … what more can I say.”
Surfing a big wave is one thing, photographing it is another. Gary McCall, who has years of experience in the field, or more specifically in the water, was one of the photographers - along with Conor Flanagan - tasked with capturing today’s action for Red Bull.
McCall outlined the huge planning, preparation and prioritization of safety before they ever left the shore. He explained: “This surf had been forecast three or four days in advance so we had quite a lot of work put in before today. Peter Conroy and the Irish Tow Surf Rescue Club were also crucial in ensuring that something like this could actually take place.
“Safety is absolutely paramount given that you are dealing with the Atlantic ocean in October. So we had safety jet skis, VHF radios, spotters on the beach, insulation vests and so on. I cannot give them enough praise and credit.”
McCall himself was on a jet ski for the morning shoot.
“Surfing is very much dependent on conditions in terms of the swell and the wind strength. And the same applies to photography. The weather today was extremely challenging from my perspective as there was a huge amount of spray. My camera is encased in a special plastic casing so it is completely waterproof but you are still trying to shoot from a jet ski bobbing in the ocean at a target which is still quite a distance away from me.”
The images both photographers produced are stunning pieces of work that capture the athleticism of Maguire and the raw anger of Mother Nature as it slams against the Sligo coast.
McCall admitted he was thrilled with the end result after a tough morning.
“I’d estimate that I took about 2000 photos out there. Because of the amount of spray generated I’d say that maybe 10 percent of those were usable. All in all, I am very happy with what I came away with. This was a pretty special day. You could go the entire winter without seeing waves like that again.”