Al Mennie is best known for his big wave surfing exploits. He was a pioneer of big wave surfing in Ireland and of the now infamous big wave location of Nazare, Portugal – home to the biggest waves in the world. In the winter of 2012, Al was the first person to use a paddle board to cross the treacherous waters of the North Channel where the Irish Sea clashes with the Atlantic Ocean.
In December 2020 he began a different challenge: swimming 100km through complete darkness on his local beach. Here, two thirds of the way into the challenge, he talks to The OSS about the practicalities and philosophy of night swimming.
I am swimming parallel to the shore, about 100 yards out in the raging north Atlantic. Frantic surf is all around me. I am trying to make my way along the coast.
It’s January, 10:45 pm, the sky is black, the beach deserted, the ocean is on fire. Swells that have travelled across the cold Atlantic are marching out of the darkness, folding in two and exploding yards beyond me off the Northern Irish coast. They send me spiralling into the black peat-stained depths of the undertow. My impact vest helps me surface, but I am careful to do so with my face toward shore. Once I have listened to check the coast is clear, I open my eyes then my mouth for a breath and continue swimming. The froth from the aftermath of the break temporarily lights the gloomy waters. I momentarily check my position using a church spire and a distinctive sand dune top that disrupt the glow of a distant skyline. The swell lines stand above the horizon just before they break, it is enough to give me a second or two before impact. It is not my sight I rely on though – I abandoned that idea a few weeks ago. Panicked squinting into the darkness, trying desperately to spot the next wave before it got me was not worth the energy. In accepting that I cannot see everything out here I have become very at ease. I feel a wave pull me towards it before it breaks. I hear the crack of the crest as it breaks its silent stealth like approach right before it detonates. I am still swimming. I am using decades of experience in the surf to get me from one end of the beach to the other. This minefield of explosions and sniper like waves and currents is assisted by the cover of darkness in trying to hold me back.
My experience of surfing at isolated big wave spots has taught me that anything to do with the sea involves control and acceptance. It is best to control as many elements as possible before entering the sea. Some elements are uncontrollable, and I must accept them. People, I find, are usually one of the most uncontrollable and unpredictable elements in any endeavour, I try to minimise involving any people that are not necessary to what I am doing.
Swells that have travelled across the cold Atlantic are marching out of the darkness, folding in two and exploding yards beyond me off the Northern Irish coast. They send me spiralling into the black peat-stained depths
I find the sea more predictable than humans, despite all its dangers. I like the wild unpredictable nature it has in its wildest of tantrums. Contrary to common belief, the calm tranquil moonlit nights fill me with concern. What lies below the water? Where will this current take me? What is next? On those calm nights, the ocean hides its hand until its often too late, I prefer the passionate and tumultuous character that rages wild with its heart on its sleeve.
It is not my sight I rely on… Panicked squinting into the darkness, trying desperately to spot the next wave before it got me was not worth the energy. In accepting that I cannot see everything out here I have become very at ease.
I realised recently that the escapism I have, swimming in this dark ‘no man’s land’ between land and sea is like nothing else I have experienced. The world cannot see me, and I cannot see the world. How beautiful is that? Total escapism in the elements. I have become at ease out here even in the wildest of storms.
Tonight, I have swam another 1.2km of my 100km Dark Surf Swim challenge to raise awareness of depression. The elements in which I am immersed, like lots of elements in our lives have come at me from the dark. We are experiencing a time when everyone is struggling. The leaders of nations and the person on the street are equally blindsided. It is causing unprecedented distress and health issues. I wanted to draw attention to it in the hope that no one gets lost in the tide of overwhelming thoughts. I wanted to help keep people’s heads above water by promoting the outdoors, promoting exercise in the hope that none of us lose another person to depression. We can persevere through the darkness, and we must but sometimes we need help. We must look after ourselves and keep a close eye on those around us. It may be your words or actions that save someone.
Tonight, the old stone and concrete pier at the east of the beach stands defiantly in the darkness, glaring back at the roaring sea. That roar interspersed with deep gut-wrenching thuds as waves are pulverised as they crash against the old pier. The old pier stands strong. It takes no prisoners. It destroys everything that attempts to overcome it.
The world cannot see me, and I cannot see the world. How beautiful is that? Total escapism in the elements.
I always stop short of the pier. A deep fast moving rip current sweeps the rocks there. I turn to catch a wave and I take off bodysurfing in its surging whitewater as it races towards shore. Suddenly my outstretched bare hands strike something hard. My body shudders and I immediately stand up. The night is black, and the surf is raging around my legs. There is no rock here, I know that. I have been playing here on this beach since I was born. I began to feel in the black water for what this thing may be. It was hard and it felt slimy as it stuck up from the sand below the water. I could hardly see anything. The darkness was relentless. A surge pulled back to expose what I can only describe as ridges along its back making it appear like a crocodile lying among the froth of the surf. The Castlerock Crocodile appeared to have attempted to beach itself and I happen, by chance, to swim directly into the end of it on this night. I assumed it to be a tree and so I arranged with my friend Leigh to go back in a few nights time on the spring low and remove it before the rip by the pier would take it away into the surf where it may hit me in future swims.
At first, we thought we had lost it, gone back to sea but between surges of chaotic waves on a bitter cold night I spotted its head poking out. We went in to wrestle it from the shoreline when we suddenly realised it was not wood or rock, but metal! The ridges were razor sharp! I managed to body surf into what we think is the remains of the hull of a boat! Lots of boats have been wrecked here. The sand is so low this year that it has become exposed above the sand level below the water. We left the Castlerock Crocodile in place and instead went on the hunt for other logs and debris forced ashore in the strong northerlies.
I’m currently 60 odd kilometres into my 100km Dark Surf Swim. The impact and reach has been incredible. I love it so much I think when I reach 100km I probably won’t stop.