Interview with kayak surfer Jonny Bingham from Northern Ireland.
This interview was originally produced for the Portuguese web site 'kayaksurf.net' and is published exclusively on Playak in english to make it available to a wider audience. The portuguese version of the interview, with larger versions of some of the photos, is available here.
Name: Jonny Bingham
Home base: Ballybogey, Co.Antrim, Northern Ireland (NI)
- Irish Open HP Champion 2002
- Finished 9 th = in HP World Championships 2003
- Northern Ireland league Champion 2004 (HP and IC)
- Mundaka HP Champion 2005
When did you start kayaking?
I have been kayaking since I was about 8. My dad's house is beside the river Bann which is mainly flat but has a few weirs and rapids (may be class2/3). My dad used to take me kayaking down the river and during the summer holidays (when I was a teenager) we would travel to the French Alps or the Pyrenees and take the kayaks to paddle some of the rivers.
I was lucky to get a job in Bushmills about 5 years ago which is about 2 minutes drive from the North Coast of Northern Ireland. I had just finished college and so had no money to buy a surfboard so I just took my plastic kayak out in the waves. The local surfers used to laugh at me because I hadn't much of a clue about what I was doing and would regularly paddle out in big waves and get a beating. I rented a house that looked straight out onto a little left hand reef break and I discovered that my Necky Gliss was fast enough to get across it. I then turned up at the 2001 Irish Open competition at Easky and was lent a Mega Cyclone by Mike Barton. The surf was big, super clean and I had the surf of my life. From then on I was hooked.
Usually you participate in kayaksurf competitions. Did you ever try the others (freestyle, creeking, etc)?
When at college in Liverpool my friends and I used to travel over to North Wales on a regular basis and practiced a lot of freestyle but I never entered a competition. Once after returning to Northern Ireland I did go to the Inter university kayaking championships in Dublin and had a go in their freestyle contest which was good fun but I found it a bit slow compared to the surf and the water a lot colder than the ocean.
At College in Liverpool we also did a lot of river running and used to spend a lot of time checking the weather for when it was going to rain. I really enjoyed the rivers and travelled all over the UK as well as France, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Corsica and Canada.
How did you become a member of the NI Surf Kayak Squad?
I first went away with the NI squad to the Home Internationals in Scotland in September 2002. I remember that trip as I was late getting to Belfast for the ferry and I literally got on and they closed the doors behind me. The surf was also pretty poor and myself and Ashley Hunter ended up going on a bus trip of the Orkney Islands! The Worlds in Ireland was the next big thing that I really enjoyed as a member of the team. One of our surfers got the first wave of the event so we were temporarily in the lead. Quite a few of us had disappointing surfs in the team event and we struggled with a poor overall result. It was however brilliant to see some of the guys do really well in the individuals and make it to finals day. Our last big competition was the Home Internationals in France, October 2004. We had a really good bunch of guys in the team and the craic was mighty! It was also really exciting as we had the lead right up until heat 30 out of the 32 but I think got beaten by the better team on the day, England. I was a bit disappointed in my own surfing as despite being at three International events for Northern Ireland I still haven't won a heat. Hopefully I can change that in Costa Rica.
In the National Ranking List you are first at IC and second at HP. Which is your favorite class?
Last year I was lucky enough to win both the IC and HP classes over the six league events that we had . High Performance is definitely my favourite class because more often the waves are small and so the small boats are easier to manoeuvre in the small stuff and having the fins gives a lot more grip to go top to bottom. In big clean surf the big IC boats can however be real fun and nothing beats the feeling of running a big wall in an IC boat. Just after Christmas Dessie McGlinchey and myself surfed a left hand point break in Donegal at about 5ft in our IC kayaks and we struggled to get the boats to go slow enough! I think that surfing both regularly can be of real benefit but I guess it has to be down to personal choice.
How many times did you participate in the Mundaka competition?
This year was my first time at Mundaka. I really liked the event with its really laid back and friendly atmosphere as well as the sunshine on Saturday! Unfortunately the surf was a bit poor but there's nothing you can do about that. Some of the local guys pointed out to me where the wave jacks up and how long it runs for which looks incredible and I'd love to see it going off although I'm not sure if I'd be able to surf it too big. Hopefully I'll be back next year but I will have to talk nicely to the Principal of my school as he is giving me two weeks off to go to Costa Rica in October and it might be a bit cheeky to ask for more time!
The Jury at Mundaka consisted of surf boarders?!
I think that having surf board judges is a really good idea, especially if they are local and know the wave. It is important that they know a little bit about the limitations of a kayak compared to a board and on the flip side one or two of the manoeuvres that are difficult to perform compared to a board. As surf kayakers essentially we are there to surf the wave and I think try to emulate what the boardies are doing. It might never be possible to be as radical as them due to the extra leverage gained when standing up but the standard is definitely improving and board judges will recognise this.
And the victory this year on HP… was it a big surprise or an award for long hours of training?
My goal was to reach the last 4 (final) and when I heard that I was there I was delighted. I didn't really care how I finished after that but I knew I'd been in the water as much as possible in recent months and could give it absolutely everything for 15 minutes. Darren Bason and Steve Bowen both beat me in France in October and I knew Oscar Martinez was handy as well so when the names were read out I was expecting a 4 th or may be to sneak a 3 rd . Somebody told me my face went white when I heard I was the winner but all I can remember was that I couldn't stop smiling. Finishing last in the first round of the International Class had annoyed me because I didn't think I'd surfed that badly but may be that's what it took to get me fired up for the High Performance.
Talking about training, do you practise other sports?
I play football (soccer) once or twice a week with my friends, most of whom are surf or body boarders. I really like the fact that in Northern Ireland all wave riders are accepted as long as we abide by the rules of the waves. Occasionally I go to the gym but I find it a bit boring and recently some of the guys have started doing circuits which is a bit more fun but leaves me feelings stiff for about 5 days after. I went skiing in Austria this year with my wife which was great fun.
What do you think about the evolution of our sport?
A friend of mine, Paul Blanchard, who now lives in the North Coast of NI was one of the first to bring in proper surf kayaks as such, although I'm sure people would have had surf shoes before that. Paul started up a league in the late 1990s that has been continued on by a number of people. We have always struggled to keep a high number of people involved in the sport and even in my short time of being involved a lot of people have come and gone. We try very hard to open ourselves up to new members by running beginner coaching days, having social events and running a beginner/plastic class at our competitions. Some young people are coming a long but it takes a big commitment from their parents to get them to competitions, which I suppose is difficult. Its brilliant to see the likes of Chris Hobson getting better and better. He made it to the quarters in Mundaka and is still only 16 years old. The league results have allowed us to select a team and for a small country like Northern Ireland to have now attended 4 major championships is a major success. This year we have attracted a league sponsor of www.coastandcreek.com which is really cool. I do still see the sport slowly growing and have definitely seen a big increase in the number of kayaks in the water.
Worldwide I see a future with more kayakers surfing bigger and better waves. I think the exciting thing about the sport is that the standard is constantly rising and people are doing new and cool things.
What do you think about the rules for the kayak surfing worlds?
At the last worlds there seemed to be a bit of controversy over changing the rules so that spins and tricks could be brought into the IC. To be honest I try to stay out of these things but I do think that IC surfing is a unique skill in its own right and it is very valid to have it as a single identity. Having the skill to hold and carve on the edges of a 3m boat without fins is not something that everybody can do and to start introducing things such as spins would take away from those who practice and have perfected this. Watching somebody like Dessie tearing the arse out of a 6ft monster in a 3.5m Mega Titan makes you realize that it takes more than guts.
By the way if anybody is interested in seeing some Irish waves being surfed we have a DVD for sale at 14 Euros. Check www.nisurfkayak.com for more information.
Do you think "pro surf kayakers" will ever be able to make a living from their sport?
Would be nice but I don't see it for along time. Pro-surfers are supported by big clothing and gear companies who are selling kit to millions of people. It would be brilliant to see an injection of money into the sport but at the minute we struggling to get a sponsor/s to help us go to the World Championships!
Your favorite kayak?
I have recently bought my second Mega Prowler. I really like it because it goes fast on a steep wave and is easy to throw around. It can be a bit sluggish on fat waves but I think this is the case with most boats. I've also a Mega Cyclone which is fast and big (lots of room for my lunch!). Its probably not the best boat for a lighter person.
I've not tried many other makes but would be happy to if anybody was visiting the North Coast.
Which is the world's best spot?
Probably Easky Left when it is going off. I had my first ever go on a surf kayak here when it was about 5ft and it was picking you up way outside and giving you the ride of your life. Once I was surfing here in the summer and there was about 8 Dolphins out surfing the wave. That was amazing! I also like East Strand (Portrush) when it works. It throws out a super barrel and is really wally in places.
Where do you usually surf?
I spend most of my time surfing on the North Coast of Northern Ireland on beaches such as Whiterocks, East Strand or Porballintrae. Its really good in Autumn and Spring because you can get a wave after work and that makes life a bit nicer. The best surf in Ireland is definitely the West coast but we do get our fair share of good waves up here. On the weekends I would drive to the West coast or Donegal and meet up with some of the guys from the NI squad or they might come up to the North coast. We really need to get our hands on a good camera with a big lens and I reckon we could get some awesome shots. We are a little bit spoiled in Ireland with good waves and so I have become a bit lazy about trying to go to other countries to surf. It would certainly be nicer to have warmer water but I'm not a big fan of the crowds that you get in a lot of places. I sometimes surf Portballintrae early on a Saturday morning and I might sharing the wave with only 2 or 3 others. Unfortunately it can be about -2ºC.
Your scariest moment in the sea?
It was during a competition. Earlier in the day we had been using a point break but the surf had started to become too big so we moved about a kilometre up the coast to another break that was more sheltered from the swell. I was out the back in the semi-final of the IC when this set came through. It was a solid 8ft (5m face) and starting to break from both my left and right. I paddled like mad and just made it through under the lip. Unfortunately the wave behind was even bigger and broke before me. I felt like I'd been hit with a truck. It eventually let me go on the rocks on the shore. I was OK but it had completely ripped the cockpit out of my boat. There is some footage of the set on our DVD!
How would you describe the perfect wave?
My perfect wave is about 4ft, has a fast steep wall that is throwing a lip off the top just fast enough for a kayak to be able to travel along. You can then choose to go top to bottom smacking the lip or try to sit back for the barrel. I then normally wake up and have my breakfast!
Your favorite moves?
I really enjoy pulling off a good bottom turn in an HP boat because it tends to be when you are going the fastest. In the IC boats its great going out from the pocket and pulling a cutback high back into the pile. When you get it right you get a real blast of speed. I suppose I just like going fast!
Any suggestions for beginning kayak surfers?
Take your plastic kayak out in small waves and get used to the sea. Try and meet up with some people who have surf kayaks (in NI we have started a surf kayak club) and ask them to have a go in one. If the waves are good you'll be hooked. Try and buy a second hand kayak because if you are anything like me there is a fair chance you might break one or two in your early days. The only other thing I would say is try to learn and stick to the etiquette of the sea. It wouldn't be a good start to piss of local surfers because you keep dropping in on them. Enjoy your waves.
Interview: Luis Pedro Abreu, kayaksurf.net.
Fotos - Jonny Bingham, Sahron Bingham, Dessie McGlinchey, Jill Hunter, Ryan Greer