It's possible that this reporter now has a new favorite surfer. He hasn't won anything lately. He doesn't have a segment in a Kai Neville film or signature pair of six-way stretch boardshorts coming out. In fact, he will spend most of the summer with his hands in soil instead of on a rail.
Twenty-six-year-old Fergal Smith, from County Mayo, Ireland, isn't just planting a few seedlings for an Instagram photo op or a socially-conscious project with his sponsor between luxury boat trips and the next surf shop autograph tour. He's actually given up his life as a pro surfer to be a farmer and push the boundaries of surfing in his home country, and he explains it in a very down-to-earth manner. That means occasionally navigating 5-foot-something single-fins down beastly faces or riding whatever he feels like. And that doesn't sound half bad.
XGames.com: You competed when you were younger in international competitions with the Jordy Smith and Julian Wilson generation, correct? You had some success at the Quik ISA World Juniors?
Fergal Smith: Yes, I was an aspiring young comp surfer. I wanted to be the first Irish surfer to give the tour a crack. But I was wise enough to not go down that road. I had a couple of good heats at the World Juniors in Huntington Beach (2005), but I would usually get knocked out in the first round and then watch those guys just tear it up. It was a good learning experience, but competing wasn't really that important to me. It was taking the fun out of surfing. We'd be surfing heats in blown-out conditions around the world, then come home and the surf was pumping.
So how did you manage the professional free-surf route coming from Ireland, where there isn't a huge industry presence?
(Laughs.) Well, it shouldn't have happened. There is really no good reason I should have gotten that support. I grew up on an organic farm an hour from any good surf. But I saw the potential in the waves we have here. I started to hang around with photographer Mickey Smith. He had been coming here for about five years with bodyboarders. I was 16 or 17 and chasing heavy waves around Ireland. He got some images and it was just a natural progression. I always wanted to be a surfer and my philosophy was always, love what you do and it will all work out. We were getting heavy waves and having the time of our lives, so I made a deal and took a loan off my parents that I would pay back in three years. They could see things were happening for me in the first year. By the end of the third year, I was just about breaking even as a surfer and was able to pay them back within the next three years. Back then, I went to Tahiti for the ISA World Games and was just living my dream. Then I went back eight more times. But I couldn't justify being on holiday all the time. I suppose I had the itch to do something more. Getting paid to surf is a privilege. We never had any money in our family. My dad went to work every morning at 6 a.m. and came home at 10 p.m., for 30 years. Health is wealth. And I realized the only way to be truly healthy is to grow your own food. You could be a millionaire and pay for the best organic food, but it's not the same as growing your own. And this has been a new epic venture.
So tell me the whole story about minimizing your own footprint.
Everything you do affects your carbon footprint. As a surfer, you can travel around the world with a petro board and a petro wetsuit, not really giving anything back. I was given an amazing opportunity, but what good was that if I wasn't giving anything back? I hadn't planted enough trees in my life. I didn't need to be making all these flights around the world. At one point, I took 18 flights in two months. Each flight releases an amazing amount of carbon. I felt like I had exceeded my quota and had to change my thinking. Growing food has become a huge priority. It's sustainable.
Have you maintained any kind of sponsorship? Do any of these companies see the value in you as a surfer/role model as much as charging Teahupoo?
I was riding for Analog and they were phasing out of surfing. My wetsuit sponsor wasn't doing too well anyway. Relentless Energy pulled out of surfing altogether. But Nixon totally gets it. They asked me to come to Russia to do a Nixon Surf Challenge in May and I tried to find an overland route, but it would have just taken days to get there. They were cool with it. I'm not really too worried about the paychecks. I have food security. Being able to look after yourself is more important. At the end of the day, growing is the primary income.
I heard you were thinking about sailing when you had to travel overseas?
Well, I have a little sailboat. Last summer we did a little trip up the West Coast of Ireland, 10 days up and five days back. It was the best surf trip of my life. I sailed to the Isle of Wight too, off the south of England. It's totally doable. People used to travel the world this way. And you're actually traveling, not just arriving somewhere.
This winter the North Atlantic just lit up. Were you able to take advantage of that or was it just too much direct swell for Ireland?
It was pretty much just wild and crazy here. It was better for the rest of Europe. But I got waves a few times. I have a certain spot that is a freezing cold, heavy wave that no one surfs. And we worked in the garden a lot.
Tell me about your role in pioneering big-wave spot Aileen's.
I suppose I came on later in the story. I think it's only been in the last two or three years that we've realized Aileen's potential. Now there is a crew of about a half dozen people who really know it. It takes years to learn. We're finally getting there with the right waves and the right boards.
It all sounds very satisfying.
Yes. We're fit and full of energy. What else are we going to do, sit home and watch TV? We have a field that was cleared by hand. I've found that when you stay healthy working outside, you don't need to go to the gym. The Irish have traditionally been hard workers, but our economy grew, we got a little money, and we lost that ability to do hard work. The day you can't use a shovel is a sad day. We're in a great position for change.