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Donegal: Surf’s up

Bundoran may have a sleepy vibe, but along its shores the pace picks up — with novice-friendly waves, it’s the ideal place to learn the thrill of the chase

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Surfing masterclass, Bundoran. Image: Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi

Surfing masterclass, Bundoran. Image: Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi

I lie flat, body clamped to my board like a barnacle. Stealing glances over my shoulder, I scan the horizon for an approaching breaker. When one hits my feet, it’s time to paddle, frantically, windmill arms smashing at the ocean. It’s now or never so I scramble to my knees, ready to leap up, shimmy sideways and ride the curving whitecap like a pro. It’s a flop. I wobble in suspended slo-mo before my disobedient board surges sideways to catapult me into an inglorious face-plant fiasco. As I slam into the seabed, a realisation hits home: surfing is much trickier than it looks.

Spluttering water, I resurface to find Anthony shaking his wind-tousled beach curls in dismay. “You won’t balance if you don’t look up,” he admonishes. Behind his happy-go-lucky grin and flawless tan, my surf instructor means business, no doubt an attitudinal throwback to his pre-surfing suit-and-tie days. 

I’m in Bundoran, a nostalgic seaside town on Donegal’s southernmost point, for a surfing masterclass. Once the preserve of grey-haired bus-trippers arriving for sea-view cream teas, in recent years the town has upped its cool quotient by luring in an international surfing gaggle with the promise of awesome swell courtesy of a wind-whipped coastline punctuated by reef and point breakers. I’m testing my nerve at Tullan Strand, a dune-backed sweep of golden sand known for its consistent and novice-friendly waves.

An hour earlier, I had wriggled into a clammy wetsuit, followed a set of warm-up stretches and did hilarious dry-run surfing exercises on the beach. Following Anthony’s lead, we practised feet positions, balancing techniques and that all-important straddle-to-standing manoeuvre, impossible to master even when stationary. “It’s like you’re learning to walk all over again,” Anthony consoled before demonstrating the distress signal. His final word was on local marine life: “If you see a fin, it’s just a dolphin,” he assured, before marching us out to sea. 

After my initial wipe out, I line up my board for another bash. This time, Anthony offers a helping hand. As he pushes me forward, I gain enough momentum to veer up onto the face of the breaker. Instructions swirl in and out of focus; I say a silent Hail Mary and clamber clumsily to my feet. For at least three gloriously unsteady seconds I charge shoreward, punching hands out in victory, feeling euphoric. 

Many more attempts and a few salty glugs later, to my chagrin, the session is over. We stagger out of the water, exhausted and elated, to regroup on the beach. It’s late afternoon’s golden hour and a wash of iridescent sunshine is beckoning more surfers down to the shore.

Surfing, I realise, is a fickle passion. There’s the thrill of the chase, the dizzying highs and heart-jolting lows with wipe out an ever-present possibility. I ask Anthony if he ever tires of pursuing the perfect wave. “Sometimes,” he tells me. “But then I close my eyes and think of being on the London tube.” As we climb the cliffs to return for hot chocolate at the surf school, I look back to see tiny figures rising and dropping through cerulean-blue rollers and feel a jolt of envy. bundoransurfco.com

Published in the Donegal 2017 guide, distributed with the September 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)