Jockey & Thoroughbred | Noah Lane
Winter in Ireland is a waiting game. It’s easy to form a picture of cold perfection in your mind, but the reality is there’s a lot of sitting around twiddling your thumbs. There’s a lot of down time, waiting for gaps in the wind and giant swells created by the numerous storms that batter the coast. For many west coast surfers, particularly those looking to surf big waves, patience, perseverance and an optimistic outlook are attributes learned through years of surfing here, long before the emergence of unsettling events such as the rise of the far right, the COVID19 pandemic, BLM fight for equality, and general global calamity and pandemonium.
As a surfer here, it’s in the downtime that you learn to keep active, both for your physical health and mental sanity. Besides the 9-5, everyone has their own ways of getting through the winter. For me, it’s a combination of routine and reading. Years ago I became fascinated with the exploration and adventure stories of old. Names like Shackleton, Hillary, and Messner kept me captivated, but what I found really interesting were the stories of survival—how these people experienced seemingly impossible situations and somehow managed to come out the other side alive. Deep Survival author Laurence Gonzales discusses survival and likens the relationship between reason and emotion in these situations as the delicate balance between jockey and thoroughbred. Emotion is capable of making powerful physical actions, and cognition (reason and conscious thought) is capable of making fine calculations and abstract distinctions. He explains that reason alone is quite like a jockey without a horse and that the horse can easily overpower the jockey but cannot race without him. It made me think about how this related to surfing, and more specifically surfing waves of consequence. Waves commonly found here on the west coast. Waves like Mullaghmore.
Mullaghmore is a scary place. Deep water and heavy, open-ocean swells unload onto a shallow reef then roll over once again into deep water. In the past, watchers from the headland’s natural amphitheater would have seen tiny men dragged by jet skis chasing the swells that roll into Donegal Bay. Tow surfing dominated the scene (for good reason) and will always have a place out there. But with the resurgence of paddle surfing, many have been pushing the limits of what was thought doable and the focus has shifted to arm power. With this comes a new set of challenges. Just paddling into the lineup, let alone actually catching waves puts a surfer in a kind of survival situation, in that relationship between jockey and thoroughbred.
The first time I watched Mullaghmore doing its thing I was in awe but I didn’t even consider the idea of surfing out there. Reason and rationale told me it wasn’t a risk I wanted to take. The jockey well and truly had the thoroughbred in check. But it’s funny how perceptions change over time, and through regular exposure your idea of what’s reasonable and possible can be pushed further and further from your initial reaction. It was only a matter of time before I was in the lineup for the first time, shitting myself. Thoroughbred suddenly twice the size thundering out of the gates, with the jockey barely holding on.
For me, surfing bigger waves is a delicate balancing act quite like the one between jockey and thoroughbred. I’m regularly waiting for an incoming set and still holding an internal debate between the rationale of avoiding a dangerous situation versus the potential euphoria from the best wave ever. Generally I’m prepared and know what I’m getting myself into well before I paddle out and certainly before paddling for a wave. But there are inevitably situations when you’re stuck in two minds right until the last second. Teetering on the edge of a mountainous ridge, one side rolling green hills, the other a sheer drop into oblivion. Sometimes reason wins out, and other times emotion forces you to swing late on a wave that, given the chance, reason wouldn’t have allowed you to paddle for in a million years. And then before you know it, you’re at the end of the new best-wave-of-your-life and the perception of what you believed possible gets pushed a bit further. It’s a mad cycle.
I imagine that’s how it is for most people. You’re not born a big-wave surfer, or even a surfer for that matter. It’s only through experience, practice and preparation that a person can become a skilled wave rider and then through more of the same, coupled with desire, can someone evolve into a big wave surfer. Some people are obviously more emotionally driven and can push themselves further before something internally tells them otherwise. But it’s still a balancing act between the two directly correlating to your relative perception of what’s personally possible. I find it really interesting watching the big dogs when they come to town. How they prepare, how they approach the lineup at Mullaghmore. It’s often their fresh take on riding these waves that sets the bar a bit higher and gives people like myself a level to aim for. Then there’s the locals that have been here for years. Some guys are full gung-ho, purely running on emotion, and others feeling things out before diving in. All continuously placing themselves in potentially life-threatening survival situations. All pushing the limits of what’s perceived possible.
Surfing and the ocean are such big parts of me and I always relate my current situation back to past learnings- which brought me back to this theory. And a lot of this can be applied on a macro level to the situations we have been faced with globally over the last few months. For many of us, or at least for myself, navigating the recent turbulence, has largely been a mental battle between reason and emotion; jockey and thoroughbred. It’s a complex but fascinating internal challenge; a big part of what keeps me surfing Mullaghmore and a large part of my connection to the sea.