Most of the time, Ollie O'Flaherty can check the surf from his home in Lahinch, and know what Ireland's hollow, lefthand slab at Riley's is going to look like, even though it's 30kms down the road. But something about Monday felt different.
“It wasn't because it was 6am and we couldn't see the surf," he said. "I could hear them, and it sounded crazy."
Travel Guide: UK + Ireland
Maybe that feeling was in the the air; the temperature had plummeted that morning. Just the week before, during Ireland's opening XL swell of the season, it was a balmy Irish 14.5C, Monday, it was lucky to be half that.
Or maybe it was the fact Ollie was in a Lahinch car park, waiting to scoop up Hawaiian charger, Nathan Florence along with young Irish gun, Callum Curtin. “I'd been texting Nate saying, you need to come back, I think Riley's is going to be on. This wave, it's like military precision, there's small windows with tide, light, wind, you have to be on it just right."
About 30 minutes later, they were stood on a cliffside overlooking the spot, meanwhile a bunch of other surfers and safety crew including Russell Bierke, Conor Maguire, James Monaghan, Steve Thomas and Fionan Cronin were prepping the skis in a nearby village harbour.
“It just kind of organically came together, everyone there. I'd been talking to Conor and a few others but all us there at the time... sometimes it works out like that," says Ollie. Along with Tom Lowe and Fergal Smith, Ollie's one of the original pioneers at Riley's; a remote mutant wave that breaks over shallow reef in County Clare.
As the group stood watching the sun come up, swell lines were marching into this little secluded corner of the earth. “We're talking, 10-12 foot slabs and spitting,” Ollie said. “But something still looked off, the swell direction wasn't perfect, which usually means, bigger, wider barrels but way less makeable.”
Part of the crew drove down to meet the ski teams in the harbour, while Nathan and Callum paddled out. Russ Bierke was the first to swing in on one, a tall, open barrel that bubbled off the reef on the end section.
“Honestly, this was as good a day as I've ever seen it,” said photographer Johnny Casey.
After everyone had a couple of waves, Ollie picked up the rope for the fourth time this session. “I had four in my head as the magic number.” After being whipped in, Ollie knew he was too deep. “I could see the double up and then there was nothing below me. I knew I had to cover my head because... here comes the reef.”
Reef, meet elbow – elbow, reef. “I thought I'd blown my arm apart. Front-flipped, felt like I stood up at one point, and then it was fine. Got back to the ski and yeah, wetsuit was torn and was bleeding. But the adrenaline, I sat on the ski and watched everyone get waves. Went to hospital afterwards, six stitches and the doctor picked bits of reef out of the cut. All good though, I'll live.”
And then, Conor Maguire pulled into the tallest, meanest Riley's wave of the session. "It was the biggest wave I have personally ever seen surfed there," said Casey.
For the onlookers, this was pure spectacle. Local school kids, having got wind of Nathan Florence and Russ in town, bunked off school to watch the action. "These kids got to see a few of us and these great surfers, next morning they were saying to me, 'hey, I want to learn to tow,' which is really cool," added Ollie.
“I've seen plenty of Riley's sessions over the years but what happened on Monday was just insane,” said Casey. “The limits were really pushed out there. Because of its location set amongst the cliffs and farmland Riley's is always a special place, but on days like this it's one of the best waves in the world."
In Ireland, the rawness of the land goes together with heavy waves. There's an energy in the air, the spirit of céad míle fáilte, which means a hundred thousand welcomes, bonds formed over time in the water and then time in the pub.
“We're proud of what we have here in Ireland,” Ollie told MSW on Thursday morning, after reflecting on the session. “We're welcoming, there's organisation in the lineup. World-renowned slabs on our door-step, and world-renowned surfers who come over and go 'holy s*** you're all crazy', which means something coming from them [laughs] maybe they're right and we are, we've just not realised it yet.”