WELCOME TO THE BEATING HEART OF YOUR ADDICTION
WE ARE THE SPIT
THE TRADE WINDS
THE HOWLING GALE
WE ARE BACKWASH
His excitement is to be expected, a sort of studied nervous energy well buried under exterior calm. The forerunners of the swell are just starting to arrive, with 8’ @ 16 seconds due 36 hours ahead. This is the apex of the game. This is what Tom lives for.
Holding one of Tom's guns under your arm is to weigh up something with absolute purpose, designed to do a very clear job in extremely critical circumstances. Heavy water, in other words. Tom is a gunsmith who surfs his own boards, a rare breed of surfer.
He does all of these things from a point of articulation - the approach is intellectual, methodical and highly calculated. On the front porch of Tom’s beautiful wooden hut, on a south-facing hill a few miles inland from the wave he has dedicated his life to, we asked him a few questions about his particular obsession.
Do you build boards from start to finish?
I don’t make the blanks, although there is a guy locally who makes them. He gets big blocks of eps and glues them up himself. I do everything else up to the finished board, even make the fins, although that is a labour of love, particularly if they are insertable fins. But shaping, laminating, fins, sanding.
How long have you been shaping?
About ten years, since I moved in here. Although I was repairing boards before that and working with a local guy in Ennistimon who made me amazing boards, guns mostly. He showed me how to glass and how to sand. I had to learn how to shape though. He was very meticulous about how he did things, I think I took that from him. Lots of measuring, constantly looking and checking. Since then, I’ve been doing it on my own.
Why did you start doing it?
Right from the first time I ever picked up a surfboard, I wanted to make one. It goes all the way back to that, being fascinated by the thing itself and wanting to create them. And just gradually working towards doing it, and being scared to do it. I spent years just fixing them, it all adds up to an end result of being happy doing it.
Did you shape smaller boards before you started making guns?
The first board I made was a tow board. We had a ski then and were starting to tow, me and Steve Thomas, having paddled Aileen’s for a year or two. That was in 2007, 2008. Tow boards were ridiculously expensive. They are a good thing to make because they are small - it’s easier to make small boards. You intentionally want to make them heavy. I’d probably only glassed five or six boards before that one. We went on to surf some enormous surf on those boards, which probably wasn’t wise, but they seemed to work. Not a very good business model though, because they don’t break and people don’t buy them very often. If you’re interested in any tow blanks, I’ve got a half dozen in the loft. Plus, no one wants to tow surf anymore.
That’s been a big transition here too?
The paddling never stopped.
Nora (Tom’s daughter): I want to have a cuddle, what are you doing?
We’re doing grown up talking, probably your least favourite thing.
Nora: I don’t like adult talking.
You mostly ride thruster guns?
Three fins are good for bleeding speed off. You are often in a position to outrun the wave at Aileen’s, even though it’s heaving and you go so fast, you want to slow down when you’re on your feet. Three fins seems to work the best there for maneuverability and parking yourself in a good spot. But there’s times when you want to go really fast - four fins works best for some people. But three fins, some people call them trusters, you know what’s going to happen, there’s no surprises, there’s no dead spot. It’s predictable. There’s nothing worse than that moment of sudden doubt when you put in on rail.
Those early days sparked a strong association with the place itself?
It’s just amazing, isn’t it? Just an incredible place. I used to go up there a lot and watch the sunset, it just draws you in. That there are those waves there is just… it’s far beyond anything I would have thought I could ever surf, way beyond. There’s some kind of connection. Surfing-wise it’s purely emotional for me. I don’t have a clue what’s going on, it just happens, and if it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Occasionally it clicks. As a result I’ve ended up getting waves that look and feel more spectacular than I could have hoped for. I don’t think I could ever paddle into Riley’s. I’d go there and it just wouldn’t happen.
How does it feel to surf it on your own boards?
What’s really good is when something works, when it’s right on the edge of not working. That’s quite satisfying. But it’d be satisfying on anyone’s board to survive a situation.
Are you constantly learning about design?
There’s a lot of stuff I don’t understand, the concepts I have in my head conflict. I find if it looks like it’ll work, it does. Fins are the things I’ve been playing with the most recently, and it’s the most confusing part of the design. It’s hard to know if it’s you making things better or worse. There’s so much of it that isn’t fully understood but the fact that it’s confusing makes it constantly interesting.
Does the wave out there have a lot of moods?
Out there, it’s actually pretty straightforward. You just have to put your head down and do it. Other places - crab for instance is always different, it’s always changing. Aileen’s is more of a challenge. It can be extremely frustrating. So many times out there you are looking into or at the top of a wave, and you know that’s the wave of your life right there. If you could get that wave, you’d be barreled on a ten foot wave for ten seconds. It’s a difficult situation to deal with. Fascinating, but difficult.
The conflict of it… whether you progress or don’t. It doesn’t get easier, at some point it starts getting harder, that’s difficult. Is it getting harder because you’re getting slower? Because you’re not as carefree as you were? How do you deal with that? I think the trick is to be selective. To not make bad mistakes, if that makes sense. To not fall badly. There’s fear involved, you know. When you are at the top of one of those waves looking down it, thinking about going, you’re a long way up and it’s all moving very fast. The joy can be just in surviving. The last time I surfed there I caught three waves and I didn’t wipe out. I did get caught inside. That felt really good, I was buzzing after that.
How many waves do you get in a normal session out there?
I’d be happy with three waves. There are times I’m out there I’d be happy to get one. I used to try and keep it even wipeout to success, if I’d had two waves and three wipeouts I’d try and get a third to make it evens. I’m far keener on keeping a clean sheet now. I’ve got this inflatable vest now and tried it for the first time last surf. That takes the sting out of the hold-down for sure.
Is there a particular wave out there that stands out?
One of the first really good waves I got there, one of the first years I surfed it, it felt like a watershed. On the inside, on the ledge. I was having a good day. I remember going for it and being a bit late, but just going. Almost a free-fall, just getting down it felt so good. I remember the bad instances more.
There was one where I got caught in the rip. I’d almost had a two-wave hold-down and it sapped my energy. Snapped my leash, lost the board. I was tired, there was no one else out. All I wanted to do was get to the rocks, whatever happened. I just wanted to get round the headland and be done with it. I got caught, it had never happened to me before, and I was going backwards out to sea and realised I was going into the next peak over, which was horrendous looking. I was so tired, and I realised that if I didn’t swim my heart out I would have to swim to Doolin, it would have been a horrible situation. I felt the panic rising in my throat. That was the worst, I was conscious of the fact that I was panicking. Luckily, a little set missed the proper peak and washed me out of the rip and into the rocks. I crawled back to the top of the cliffs, tail between my legs. That was a horrible, horrible day.
That stuff follows you around. I don’t know how people build on that experience. They wear on you, they are always on your shoulder. That could happen again, maybe I won’t get washed in, maybe I’ll just get done by the next peak and drown, or get beaten into the rocks. That’s just part of dealing with it, if you can improve things. It’s always being caught inside on the peak that the trouble starts, that’s when I’ve had the worst times. It’s a mixed bag of emotions. It’s not a fun thing to do particularly, but it’s so captivating.The swell hits. Amongst a lineup of global surfing talent (not to mention a display of absolutely mind-bending, world-class bodyboarding) I studied Tom's waves closely. He has a particular approach - in early as the wave gathers, low-slung through the drop, the rocker of the gun obvious as he drives straight from a bottom turn into the weight of the barrel, reading the contours two stories up, anticipating the wicked heft of the lip, standing in a pit that defies description. It's impossible to describe that power, but all of Tom's emotional connection to the wave shines through, matched to the livid energy of the place.
Backwash Issue Two is a surf anthology featuring Japan, the photography of Chris Burkard and Sergio Villalba, Hamish Laing and Woody Gooch. Kalani Lattanzi swims at Nazare, whilst Amy Kotch surfs barrels whilst pregnant and John Peck knee paddles out as he has done since 1958.Purchase