Clare in His Blood

Tom Lowe reps the British Isles on the global big wave stage.

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The closest I’ve been to the Cliffs is the channel, but it was a good day to watch. Early April a few years back. An unusually large and perfect swell had been forecast ten days out. High pressure dominated, warm weather for those inured to winter bleakness. 

A tight little onion low sat on the far side of the Atlantic and spun. Everywhere pumped for a week until the big day dawned. The international hotline was buzzing. Shane Dorian flew in. From the track down to the wave, I entered another realm, a quantum leap in scale and energy. It certainly wasn’t the big-wave point it appeared to be from the pinnacles above—instead a green, mean amphitheatre. 

This is where Tom Lowe cut his teeth. Without giving anything away—and from a layman’s perspective—the wave has two distinct takeoff spots: an outside roll-in that slings you into one of the widest caverns in northern Europe, then an inside ledge where the boogs commit to giant slabs. 

Almost alone among stand-up surfers, Lowe stalked that inside ledge. From a hundred feet away, in the safety of deep water, it was nearly impossible to comprehend the commitment and the punishment. I still think about sitting and watching that session.

Photo by Rusty Long.

“The waves Tom surfs regularly in County Clare are some of the most challenging in the world,” says Greg Long. “I’ve spent quite a bit of time there surfing with him and there were multiple sessions that I wanted nothing to do with, and he just charged like a madman.” 


The town of St. Ives is unremarkable on first inspection. Population 11,000. It’s better-heeled than Newquay decaying to the north, and slightly less awash with heroin than Penzance to the south. I can see it from the beacon above my house, but of everywhere in Cornwall, I know it the least. I’ve always assumed that any wave in town will be busier than the surrounding countryside.

Perhaps it’s the competition born of this density that produces talented surfers. The lobster-faced hordes that descend each July and August might not know it, but St. Ives has birthed some extraordinary surfing sons. Patch Wilson and Jayce Robinson are two that stand out (one for underground commitment in waves of consequence, the other for preternatural ability). None, however, are quite like Tom Lowe. 

He grew up in between St. Andrews Street at his dad’s place, and Draycott Terrace in a small house with his mom, Moira. She worked odd jobs, from cleaning to hairdressing. His dad, a scouser and Jack-of-all-trades, has always been sports crazy. 

When I probed Lowe a bit for evidence of an extreme character in his past, I got the sense his father was a tough man who expected Tom to try his hardest whatever he did, and that his mom gave everything to support him, providing a crucial bedrock of stability. Somewhere in that mix, Lowe developed a burning desire to push the limits of his surfing to an astonishing extent.

With reflexes and crash-survivability instincts honed along County Clare’s Cliffs of Moher, Tom Lowe’s operation as a hellman reflects the raw nature of his habitat. Photo by Mickey Smith.

Cornwall very rarely leads you out of your comfort zone. There are a few wedging-pocket beaches, a small stretch of good reefs on the south coast that hold size, and a few points in the north that show their form each winter in the 6- to 8-foot range. Above that, however, rideable big surf is extremely rare, though it does happen.

If you want to be a big-wave surfer here, you travel. By the time he hit 18, Tom had outgrown everything Cornwall could throw at him. Hunger and fate led him to arrive in Ireland at the exact time small crews of bodyboarders were pioneering seriously heavy waves. On his first trip he found what he’d been searching for.

Clare is an extraordinary collection of reefs, with huge swathes of coast open to everything the Atlantic can summon. On my last trip, resident farmer Matt Smith paddled us out to a bommie I’d driven past a hundred times and overlooked. There we were, out to sea, trying to wrap our heads around a coiling, twisting right. In Cornwall, it would’ve been the best reef in the county. In Clare it doesn’t even have a name. It’s a store of furious energy that will stretch you as much as you want it to. For ten years, Tom based himself there through the winters.

I asked locals Mickey and Fergal Smith (no relation) about him. “One thing me and Ferg used to notice,” Mickey said, “is how he would just light up and seem happiest in the situations when shit was as gnarly as possible at sea. That’s when he always comes into his own and why he’s capable of things not many others are.” 

As Lowe’s ambitions have led him farther afield, he’s turned in impressive—and hair-raising performances at various big-wave haunts around the globe. Between sets at Jaws. Photo by Derek Dunfee.

Fergal echoed Mickey’s take, saying that Tom is “one of the few people that genuinely gets excited when they see a really heavy slab coming at them. He gets so involved in the ocean and feeds off its energy.”

I remember seeing Lowe and crew one winter before the hype, when you could still roam Ireland for a week and hardly see another surfer. I was on the drive south with a long-suffering girlfriend
(I’d diverted us from Sardinia to Ireland, sacrificing the flight cost for a giant southwest swell) and thought I’d check a wave a friend called “the longest right in Ireland.” I passed them on the road near Rileys, tooled up with skis, a band of wide-eyed lunatics. They’d been running between tides, from one level of insanity to the next. I went on south to a lonely bay with a dozen points, wondering if I’d ever see them again. 

Veteran lensman Al Mackinnon has shot Tom many times and pointed to one particular session for evidence for how he works. “There was a day a few years back,” Mackinnon says, “he was scoring beautiful waves and snapped his board, came back, got another and snapped that too, came back, borrowed one.” If you’ve been to the Cliffs and seen the paddle and what happens when a board gets snapped, that’s an absurd amount of swimming in heavy water. “Anyway,” Mackinnon continues, “the final board delaminated as he was exiting a barrel, resulting in Lowey dislocating his shoulder. And he just pushed on.”

In many ways, his closest peer has been Fergal Smith, though Smith’s considered, technically flawless approach is wildly different. “We were both caught inside the takeoff spot, scrambling for the shoulder,” Ferg laughs as he tells me about the first time they paddled the giant left together. “As we’re sprinting up and across the wave he just turns slightly and tries to stand up. It’s howling offshore and 10-foot or more, and he just swings and ends up pencil jumping from the top to the bottom. I have never seen anyone do things like that, and if they do they don’t try it again. I think he actually gets more of a kick off the waves he has no chance of making.”

With characteristic inside positioning at Mavericks. Photo by Bastien Bonnarme.
Doubling down at Nazaré. “I skydived out of the lip earlier in the morning,” he recalls, “so I was tweaked from that. But it was so clean, I had to try again.” Photo by Helio Antonio.

Clearly, Clare’s waves underpin who Lowe has become as a surfer. I asked him about this as we walked north of Lahinch. Two hundred metres below us, an unknown slab was almost breaking, seabirds pinwheeling above the mounds of surging whitewater. Liscannor Bay stretched to the south and a dozen waves rumbled toward the shore. Sizeable surf was coming and a local named Shambles would shatter his femur in front of Tom the next morning. 

“You can tap into a certain energy when you’re alone,” he said. “Living here gives you that. It’s still a lonely place and it’s that loneliness I’m drawn to.” 

Despite this, his friends have been vital at times for support. For three months he lived solely off Fergal Smith’s vegetable garden. Tom is also passionate about spearing and catching his own fish wherever possible. It’s a unique sort of community in County Clare, out on the fringes, bonded by extremity not just in the ocean but also on the land. 

“We’ve had a lot of heavy things happen,” Lowe acknowledges. “There’s been a lot of loss. We’ve knitted together and helped each other through.”


Lowe lost a great friend and surfing companion, Tom Greenaway, early on. Matt Smith, who had known them both, summed up how this affected him: “Lowey changed the moment he heard. The fire was lit.” 

Whereas others would get lost, numbing themselves in various ways, Lowe set about challenging himself. “He’s very reflective,” Mickey Smith said. “He internalizes a lot of the heavy stuff he’s been through in life. He figures things out through pushing himself at sea.” 

Lowe’s goal has never been to win contests. Instead it’s to put everything on the line, growing and learning with each huge barrel or bone-crunching wipeout. The challenge is internal. 

“I have no idea exactly what drives Tom Lowe,” says big-wave surfer and gunsmith Tom Doidge-Harrison. “But I suspect it comes not only from his impressive ability to bounce back from knocks, physical and mental, but also from his self-critical nature. It’s almost like he’s competing with himself.” 

“Puerto is my favorite place in the world, next to Ireland,” says Lowe. “It’s a vast and consistent playing field.” Photo by Edwin Morales.

During the last El Niño season, Lowe turned up on Maui the day before one of the biggest swells of the year. He headed out on a boat with Will Skudin and Kealii Mamala for the peak of it and caught a right, one of the biggest waves he’d ever paddled into. The next morning he was one of the first in the lineup and, despite the morning sickness, got himself in position for a bomb. 

When he came off the bottom, it looked like he might fall over his outside rail. Abruptly, however, running on feeling, he pulled up hard and changed tack, mapping a neat highline through a huge pit. He fell onto his back as he came out and tumbled end over end, his pink Christenson gun high above him in the lip.
The wave netted him a Ride of the Year Entry. When I asked Greg Long about it, he called it “arguably the best backside barrel ever at Jaws.” 

For those that already knew him, the level of commitment was unsurprising. Lowe likes to go when others will not. Overtaking his board at macking Carmelitas won him the Wipeout of the Year a few years back. Tom called it a “full cliff jump.” It wasn’t the first and it wouldn’t be the last. Skipping down the face of a Maverick’s bomb earned him another nomination. His first time surfing Nazaré, he narrowly dodged Jamie Mitchell on a stalled jet ski. 

What people don’t see, however, are the thousands of wipeouts he suffered across a decade of commitment to the nastiest days Ireland has to offer. 

“Man,” he laughs. “I fell a lot.”

Lowe learned the art of falling the hard way—three dislocations, multiple surgeries, broken ribs, broken feet, near-drownings. But over the years, he’s also changed his tactics, employing greater calculation and a burning desire that can’t be beaten out of him. For years, Lowe showed up for swells on his own dime, riding out the rough times, skint and injured but coming back again and again to learn from one, five, ten giant waves a season. 

Success has not come easy. 

He faced long, gruelling spells in the Irish winter, stricken with injury, too broke to hop a flight and no sponsor’s checks rattling the mailbox. 

“I learn hard,” he says. “The more I look back, I realize I’ve been a bit mental. I’ve never been a winner. That’s not my thing. I’m used to getting done over, but I’m determined to keep going. When I go out under the Cliffs and I’m sitting on the inside bowl, and I get a huge set on the head, I expect it to happen. I enjoy that part of it too. I’m used to it not coming easy. But I treat every swell as the most important day in history and I put everything into it. When I get out in the water, it doesn’t usually go to plan. That’s the part I love though. I really enjoy not being in control.”


Lowe has been chasing his dream to ride the biggest waves in the world for more than a decade now. His new home is in Portugal, where he’s focused on paddling canyon sets at Nazaré and chasing swells to Ireland. The gathering momentum behind his career is still drawn from his constant willingness to commit where others will not. 

 “Tom has an incredible drive, to find out what he is capable of,” says Long. 

Mullaghmore, 2009. “We were hoping to paddle but it wasn’t really possible,” says Lowe. “The first section threw a chandelier from hell and I felt pure dread. Then, next thing I knew, it flared out again. That was where towing stopped for me, really. We did it a few more times but the love was gone. Afterward, I wanted to put all my energy into progressing with paddle-in surfing.” Photo by Bastien Bonnarme.

The passion has its shadow when the swell dies, of course. When I ask him about the lows that follow a huge day, he doesn’t put any spin on it. “I come down heavy,” he says, his eyes going still for a second. “Every part of you is just empty, moving differently, the whole system has changed. You’ve got to come back down.” 

Each time he surfs, however, Lowe is honoring memories, carrying a torch, and learning from every session. He runs on feeling, on bare instinct, pushing himself for the sake of something close to his heart. 

“When one comes to you, you don’t really think anything,” he says. “Your mind definitely doesn’t want you to do it. It tells you: this isn’t good. You have to trick your brain and press the overwrite button. Then you’re in instinct mode, just going.”

[Feature image: Photo by Al Mackinnon.]