It's common knowledge by now that the Irish saved civilization. What we didn't realize, not until Joel Conroy came along to tell us in his award-winning film Waveriders, is that the Irish also gave us surfing.
The Irish invented surfing? Yeah, right, and Jamaicans gave us bobsledding. But wait: the Irish have waves. Big ones. The wall of water known as the North Atlantic slams into the wildly west coast of Ireland and makes waves. Really big ones.
Waveriders argues that Ireland really does have a claim to a central place in the history of surfing. And, based not only the majesty of those west coast waves but the fact that the messiah of the modern surfing revival was Irish as well, we need to take that claim seriously. The messiah's name was George Freeth, and he was born on the island of Oahu in 1883. He had a part-Hawaiian mother and an Irish father. California clams him as one of their own, but so does the Irish city of Ulster. What there's no argument about is Freeth's important role in the popularization of surfing and his modernizing of lifeguarding.
Freeth learned surfing from its true inventors, the Hawaiians. The arguably Irish man brought his talent for surfing to California, surf-crafting the paddleboard and rafting it into service for saving the lives of those imperiled at sea. Freeth died in 1919, a victim of the global flu pandemic. A bronze bust of Freeth was stolen from the Redondo Beach Pier in 2008, probably for its melt value.
Freeth was a medicine man of the surf, a role model conqueror of our collective horror of amphibianism, and he shines on, in one form or another, for all those who cross from terrestrial to aquatic environments. Freeth is the Irish father of the tantric phrase Breathe through it; we celebrate him not only for his unfathomable mastery of oxygenation but his uncanny sense of direction in the storm-toss of disaster.
The digressions into the history of surfing are what make Waveriders different from previous surfing movies: Waveriders isn't just here to catch the wild ride but to explain just how the hell it is that the ride of big-wave seekers came to be found here in the freezing-ass waters slamming the west coast of Ireland.
"Slamming" is the highly operative verb here, and it's the beauty of watching human beings scaling gigantic roaring walls of water while balancing on something akin to popsicle sticks that gob-smacks the viewer with mirror neurons of high-tension sympathy, that glues your eyeballs to the screen with the sheer poetry of vertiginous motion.
Waveriders is a rare treat. It's a film that gives generous slurp to the three essentials, the salt, fat and umami of film: exciting images, engaging detail, and dramatic narrative dynamism. The eyewitness photography of some of the world's most respected surfers is thrilling, to say the least. World champion Kelly Slater gets good face time in this flick, and he and the other wave riders are a pleasure to watch. The Irish surf in Waveriders is for these experts a powerfully cold, gray and merciless character consistently improvising wave-form chaos mathematics in an off-the-cuff aquaphysics that is craftily enabled by immersive photographers focusing on their subjects in artful shot after wave-smacked shot.
In Waveriders' hands, the treated-intelligently viewer is led down a rocky path to unscalable cliffs above the sea and then through the opal tunnel of a wave just before it crashes in breathtaking beauty on a rocky beach defended by those self-same high-brow cliffs. The best waves of Ireland are accessible only by entrepreneurial surfers in boats and jet skis. Through the numinous mist and spray, a new mythology of the Hibernian wilds is revealed, of modern surfing with the west coast of Ireland as its Mecca, the wilderness from where rises the untamed curl in a perfect rage of self obsession, the same place a people of wit and courage, men and women both, come to slip one over on the wildly goddesses of the spitting seas.
Waveriders' award-winning record speaks for itself: the film is a masterpiece, its cameras like otters and nimble whales slicing and dicing the waves searching for the proper angles of expression. Finding its perspectival angels, the film conveys not just the emotions, the quest for new waves, the yearning to roam, but the wisdom of physics, too.
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