Extreme surfers' rescue snub sparks row

Hardcore surfers have been swept into a wave of controversy after incurring the wrath of the rescue services.

A small group of extreme surfers took a jet-ski off the west coast in search of a notorious 35-foot barrelling wave nicknamed Aileen.

But despite hitting difficulties the group rejected a rescue bid because the helicopter team refused to save their surfboards. The incident has now sparked an angry reprimand from officials.

The wave is named after the Aill na Searrach headland it breaks under at the foot of the towering Cliffs of Moher, among Europe’s highest coastlines.

Aileen is among a handful of world-renowned monster waves attracting a growing band of thrill-seekers.

But when three surfers reported to be in difficulty at the break on November 24 they refused to be airlifted by a search helicopter because it would not take their surfboards onboard.

A storm has since erupted within the rescue authorities.

The Irish Marine Search and Rescue Committee (IMSARC) called a meeting and took the unusual step of issuing a statement today about its deep concern at the incident.

It stated “in the strongest terms” that the behaviour of the surfers involved was “completely unacceptable” to the rescue agencies and to the maritime community.

Surfers placing themselves “in undue peril in the expectation that the rescue services will respond is totally unacceptable, reprehensible and dangerously irresponsible”, the statement said.

The pilot and crew of the helicopter managed “exceptional airmanship and courage” close to the cliff-face to lower a winch man on a 260-foot cable during the aborted mission.

But when the surfers declined to be rescued unless their boards were coming too, the helicopter had to retreat to its onshore base and allow local lifeboats to continue the dangerous operation.

Michael Kelly, chairman of the Irish Surfing Association (ISA), said it was an incident that was going to reoccur as the sport became increasingly popular in Ireland.

The body estimates that between 20,000 and 50,000 people surf in Ireland, based on a sliding scale of how frequently they are in the sea. Some are year-round surfers. Others may surf in the summer only.

He insisted part of the problem with safety measures lay with the refusal of the Department of the Marine to recognise surfboards as legitimate craft and bring the activity under its remit.

He urged talks among the department, the rescue services and surfers’ groups, including those representing the couple of dozen extreme big-wave surfers living in Ireland.

“It’s a very big subject. What if someone who knows very little about (surfing) calls out rescue services for somebody who is in trouble and they are not in trouble? We’ve had situations like that in the past,” he said.

“I would like a bit more of an investigation because this is a subject that is going to come more and more to the fore in the months and years to come. Perhaps now is the time to highlight the issue and how to deal with it.”

In the meantime, he stressed that the ISA advised all surfers to have the utmost respect for and do exactly as they are told by search-and-rescue authorities.

“Our advice is to unconditionally respect every instruction from the rescue services,” he said.

“We as an organisation have no right to tell anybody to do anything. We are not a licensing organisation. All we can do is advise.”

Most Read in Ireland