For a man who travels the globe, in search of adventure and big ocean waves, Al Mennie admits that this past year has been very, very strange. The 40-year-old author and professional surfer has stayed put in Northern Ireland since last March, but surprisingly for a man who has spent his adult life discovering and riding the world’s most challenging waves, he hasn’t minded one bit.
“It’s been really weird,” he says from his home in Castlerock. “I haven’t done any travelling at all. I can’t even remember the last time I crossed the border.
“Of course, due to Covid, a lot of the events and competitions that I would have attended have been cancelled and this year has been written-off as well.
“But I haven’t minded at all. As well as travelling abroad, I would normally spend a lot of time close to home anyway.
“There’s a thing in Northern Ireland where you always assume that everywhere else is better. Everyone has to go on a foreign holiday or whatever.
“But there’s so much here. And during this past year especially, the ‘have to go away’ mindset has changed for a lot of people and they are discovering what’s actually on their own doorstep.”
Al is one of the well-known faces backing Tourism Northern Ireland’s ‘Choose Your Giant Adventure’ campaign and the launch of a new immersive video experience on the Discover Northern Ireland website through which you can find and book a short break and ‘virtually’ preview and enjoy the adventures and activities in that area.
He adds: “Also in the past year, loads of activity providers have popped up, so you can go along and enjoy an adventure or new activity with an expert guiding you.
“It’s actually been amazing because everyone is embracing Northern Ireland and all of the amazing things that we have on offer.”
Born in Belfast, Al moved to Castlerock when he was 17, then moved to Portrush and then back to Castlerock, where he now lives with fiancée, artist and fashion designer Sara O’Neill, and their dog, golden retriever Blyton.
“When I was growing up, my family lived in Belfast and had a caravan in Castlerock,” he recalls. “My dad, Des, was really into fishing, so we were always in the sea or out in a boat water skiing and we came down to Castlerock at every opportunity.
“I first got on a real surfboard when I was nine.
“Back then surfing wasn’t really a big thing, but there was sibling rivalry between me and my little brother Andrew and that pushed me to get better and better.
“Though I don’t know if I ever had a real talent for it,” he laughs. “I’ve had to work really hard. Surfers are traditionally quite carefree, but I found that in order to get better I had to do cross-training and other stuff. I had to really adapt to get better.
“I am very competitive and challenge-driven, but I do think it’s more hard work than it is talent to be honest.
“Whenever I get something in my head I go for it and there’s very little that will stop me. If there was a brick wall or a door, I would go through the brick wall rather than the door,” he laughs.
“Surfing is so professional now that it’s like a completely different sport than when I began. Surfers would never have been considered professional athletes not so long ago, but now they are and everyone has a trainer and diet plans.
“It’s a different world to what it was, but the thing about surfing is that it’s not just a sport, it’s also a lifestyle and there are surfers who are not competitive, but who just love the way of life and travel all over the country at weekends.
“There are different aspects of surfing — not just the competitive side.
“It’s a great way of getting out and doing things — for any age and ability.”
Despite his early passion for the sea, after finishing school, Al did a foundation year at the University of Ulster in Coleraine and then went to Plymouth to study construction management.
“My dad had been in the building industry and whenever I was younger I hadn’t a clue what I wanted to do with my life — apart from surfing,” he explains.
“Mum and Dad were always like ‘Do everything. Do both. Build multiple things that you can do’, so I’ve always had multiple avenues to go down.
“Whenever I did my GCSEs, they were like, ‘What are you going to do now?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know.’
“So, they told me to do A-levels and then go to university and do something that related to the family business so that I would have that to fall back on.
“I did work in the industry for a while, but stopped a long time ago.”
He admits that it’s hard to make a living through surfing alone, so he has to have his fingers in a lot of pies.
“If you were to try and follow the competitive thing, there’s just not enough money in it to be able to make a living, so I diversify as much as I possibly can,” he says.
“I like writing so I write a lot of books and contribute to publications. And I use my image a lot for different things and do a bit of modelling — my mum Jennifer used to be a model,” he laughs.
“My dad worked as a sports photographer for a while and that’s how they met — Mum was modelling.
“Since I was about 14, because of the surfing, I’ve always been used to being around cameras, so I’m well used to it.”
Al’s father passed away at only 50-years-old when Al was only 22. The loss affected him deeply.
“I’ve always written — even as a child,” he says. “All of the books I’ve written touch on Dad’s death in some way because losing a parent at a relatively young age has such a big impact on your life and I hate the thought of others going through it.
“One of the books, Survive & Thrive: Guidance to Help Keep You Afloat After the Death of Your Parent, was written so that if, for example, someone lost someone close to them today, it might be of use to them now or at some point in the future.
“Writing definitely helps because it gets stuff out of your head and it’s a way of processing things.
“It’s a good way of dealing with your feelings and pain if you can’t talk or aren’t ready to talk about something.
“I’ve written five or six books now, but even though Survive & Thrive was the smallest, it was the hardest to write. I’m a good storyteller, but to put something like that together was very difficult.
“I learned a lot from my dad and we were very close. I think that might have possibly been because he lost his own father when he was just 16 and as a result he tried very hard with me.
“The books contain a lot of things that I learned from him and the way he lived his life. I’ve tried to pass those on.”
Another book, Confident Kris: Overcoming Anxieties with Strength and Confidence, was written especially for children aged from seven through to early teens to help them build their confidence and self-belief.
Al wrote the book after he was told about a teenager who was being bullied.
He met with him and tried to help him focus on himself rather than the bullies.
He taught him some situational awareness and escape drills, but was more concerned about helping him create a daily habit of building strength that he could use to his advantage.
Says Al: “What with losing a parent and everything that comes with that, I feel like I’ve had a lot of experience in dealing with various things and I also see in other elements of my life how those experiences have benefited me and how I’ve learned from them. I’m very passionate about getting people outdoors and into the light, doing things because I believe that’s what carried me through it all — the ability to be outside and to be connected to something that was bigger than me — although I didn’t know it at the time.
“I wrote two books last year and I told myself I was going to stop writing in the winter — I always write in the winter because of the dark evenings.
“I made myself to stop for a while and focus on something active instead.”
So, at the end of last year, Al embarked on a unique challenge to raise awareness of mental health issues and the help available from the charity Aware NI.
The aim (which he achieved) of Swim Through Darkness was to swim 100km through the surf, off the north Antrim Coast in the dark. He does admit that this challenge was quite scary.
“Of course it was,” he says. “I was swimming through waves and currents that I couldn’t see, so was basing my movement on what I could feel or hear. It was intimidating, but I found that the more I did it, I soon overcame it and became very comfortable — like, extremely comfortable out there,” he laughs.
“I started to see it as my escape from the world, but also as a way to highlight the importance of mental health.
“It was definitely scary, but that’s the buzz of doing it.”
When it comes to affairs of the heart however, 6ft 5in Al is a big softie and when he proposed to fiancée Sara, he did more than go down on one knee.
He enticed her down to the coast at dawn, carried her across a lagoon and into a candle and flower-filled cave where he asked her to be his wife.
Even the way the couple met could be straight from the pages of a romantic novel.
“I was walking along the West Strand in Portrush in November one year and there was a business card, like a little flyer, frozen in a puddle,” recalls Al.
“I took a picture of it on my phone and thought no more of it.
“And then, three or four months later, I was working on a TV series for Channel 4 with Graham Little.
“Randomly one day, he bumped into Sara, whom he knew, and told her that he was working with me.
“She didn’t know who I was, but sent me a message on social media saying that she had been chatting to Graham,
“We met up and it turned out that it was her business card that I had photographed on the beach and we’ve been together ever since.
“We work in completely different areas, but are so similar.
“I’ve never met anyone with the same sort of outlook as me before.”
Any plans yet for the wedding?
“We’ve had a date set three times, but there’s been so much going on.
“I’ve been busy, or Sara has been busy with a collection.
“The first time we had organised to go to Nazaré in Portugal, where I had surfed the biggest waves ever ridden, but had to change our plans and we’ve had to do that twice since.
“Life just keeps getting in the way,” he laughs.
Embark on a ‘Giant Adventure’
Tourism Northern Ireland has launched a new interactive experience to help you choose a short break and your next ‘Giant Adventure’.
Through an immersive video experience on Discover Northern Ireland’s website, visitors will go through a captivating visual journey, clicking through a decision tree of attractions that will lead them straight to their ultimate short break.
If seaside is your preference — and you will be one of 48% of adults for whom seaside and coasts are the epitome of adventure — the online platform will take you to your ultimate seascape in Northern Ireland.
Using curated videography and stunning drone footage, visitors can visualise themselves paddle boarding along the River Foyle with Far & Wild, riding the waves at Benone Longline surf school or navigating the rugged coastlines and ravines with Causeway Coast Kayaking.
If you prefer more gentle experiences that still give you a unique sense of adventure, you can listen to artist Adam Turkington guiding you through the funky street art on the cobbled streets of the Cathedral Quarter in Belfast, or check out the ‘Derry Girls Afternoon Tea and Tour’ package.
Play the interactive video experience at: discovernorthernireland.com/things-to-do/my-giant-adventure, where you can also enter a competition to win your ultimate stay in Northern Ireland.