Carla Magee : 'There is now a regular group of girls who have got the surfing bug - but I can't get my boyfriend to join in yet'
Portstewart-based surfing coach Carla Magee tells Lee Henry she wants more women here to grab a board and join in, and why the waves off the North Antrim coast are among the best in the world
Ask the majority of people to take a dip in the icy cold waters off the North Coast of Northern Ireland and they would, presumably, tell you where to go. With average temperatures coming in below zero, harsh northerly winds and stinging spray biting at your cheeks, only the heartiest of swimmers would dare take the plunge.
For surfing instructor Carla Magee, however, spending the day searching out swells in the North Atlantic Ocean is her idea of heaven. The 32-year-old, originally from Downpatrick but now resident in Portstewart, has made it her mission to promote the benefits of surfing to as many people as will listen.
"As one of few female surfers operating in Northern Ireland, I love that I'm in a position to encourage females in particular to get involved in surfing," says Carla, who has travelled the world taking inspiration from some of the finest competitive surfers on the planet since first catching the bug as a volunteer at the Share Centre in Fermanagh.
"There are such a small minority of girls who surf on the North Coast compared to guys, and that's something I hope is starting to change. Last year I ran a number of ladies only weekends, which were a great success, and we now see a regular group of girls who have got the bug and keep coming back to hire boards and get out there.
"I will be running a number of ladies' weekends again this spring, with surfing, stand-up paddle boarding, glamping, yoga and afternoon tea. Hopefully it's enough to encourage more women to give it a go and get hooked."
Carla is one of three qualified coaches employed by the Long Line Surf School - winner of Outdoor NI's Best Coastal Experience in Northern Ireland 2013/14 - along with fellow surfers Dan Lavery and Eunan Brown. The school's main base is located at Benone Beach just outside Limavady, but it also runs lessons at Portstewart during the summer season. "We're like a little family, and it's a great place to work," she beams.
Outdoor sports have always been a part of the Co Down native's life. Both of her parents, Liam and Mary, worked as schoolteachers, and encouraged their daughter and four sons - Fearghal, Duncan, Ross and Darragh - to get out and about as much as possible. It helped that Liam also worked as an outdoor instructor, specialising in white water kayaking, and volunteered as a member of the Mourne Search & Rescue Team.
"I had a great childhood," recalls Carla. "My parents took us on plenty of family adventures along the coasts of Ireland and France, and with them being teachers it meant that we had the whole summer to holiday by the beach. My father was an outdoor instructor and I think I followed in his footsteps, with my love of the sea and the mountains.
"Growing up with four brothers, I was always quite a tomboy, messing around with them outdoors - they certainly helped to toughen me up. We used to spend a lot of our summers at the Share Centre in Fermanagh, where I got my first taste of outdoor activities, and I went on to volunteer and work there as an instructor later in life.
"When I was volunteering there, a few friends were going surfing at Bundoran one day, so I borrowed a huge old board from my boss and just tried my luck. Needless to say, I got tumbled around and didn't stand up on my board, but I was pretty determined and went again the following week and finally stood up. It was amazing. I've been surfing ever since."
Carla attended Assumption Grammar School in Ballynahinch and studied sports development with PE at John Moores University in Liverpool. "What an amazing city to live in," she adds. She subsequently found work as a youth officer for the Cedar Foundation in Londonderry, which delivers a range of services enabling people with disabilities to become active in their communities.
"My job was to encourage inclusion through various programmes and community partnerships," she explains. "I enjoyed it a lot, but ultimately quit my job in order to move to Australia for a year."
She settled in Noosa, north of Brisbane, in 2011, and returned to Australia for another year in 2014 to work in a friend's hostel. "We did get to surf a few times with dolphins and had the pleasure of surfing one day with Longboard World Champ Jen Smith."
Since then, Carla has indulged her love of travel by visiting Indonesia, Spain, Brazil, California, Hawaii and, most recently, Sri Lanka. "There is no better feeling than exploring a new country and surfing in a bikini," she argues, but admits that "no matter how wonderful it is to surf in a hot climate, the most memorable surfs are at home in Northern Ireland with my friends, when conditions are just right and there's a beautiful sunset."
At the Long Line Surf School, Carla teaches students of all ages and abilities, from beginner to advanced level, at kids' camps, teen camps and international exchanges. The school is also very much aimed at those with disabilities, and works in tandem with the Mae Murray Foundation to encourage participation.
She adds: "Recently, we were donated a prototype wheelchair surfboard from Children in Need," she adds, "and have had wheelchair users and people with other disabilities out surfing with us, and they love it. We run a disability surf day every June, providing free surf lessons for young people with disabilities along with their siblings.
"I love to see the joy on people's faces the first time they stand up on their boards. I think everyone remembers their first wave, so I know exactly what they're feeling. I enjoy the range of people we teach, from five to 70-year-olds, and seeing how much each individual gets out of the experience."
Something that Carla is also passionate about is the conservation and protection of the UK and Ireland's coastlines.
She is one of three representatives for the Surfers Against Sewage campaign, delivering educational workshops and promoting community projects across Northern Ireland.
"We want to see the end of pollution in our waters," she points out. "The rubbish that is left on our beaches after a sunny day is disgraceful. Disposable barbecues, face wipes and dirty nappies, the list goes on. It's not pleasant for water users or marine life.
"There are so many simple things that we can all do to help sustain our coastlines. We have a number of projects currently on the go, such as Save Our Seas, Plastic Free Coastlines and Message in Bottle, which is our latest campaign endeavouring to introduce bottle deposit return schemes throughout the UK.
"I am going back to university for a year in September to study a postgrad in coastal and marine resource management, so I can hopefully combine my passion for marine conservation and surfing in the future."
For those keen on lending a hand, the Big Spring Beach Clean invites all comers to help clean beaches across Northern Ireland in March and April, with events taking place from Culmore Point in Derry to Portrush East Stand. More information is available on the SAS website.
The average day in the life of a Northern Irish surfer "is not glamorous", laughs Carla, but the rewards are plentiful for those courageous enough to brave the waters. While she often finishes off a surfing session "with hair that feels like dreadlocks, snot hanging out of my nose and beautiful wetsuit tan lines in the summer", ultimately the physical advantages and emotional wellbeing that such outdoor activities can promote make all the hard work worth it.
"Surfing can be difficult and frustrating," she says, "but it's probably the most fun you could ever have in the sea, and the first time you stand up on your board is the best feeling in the world. It's no Hawaii but it's all part of the fun and always worth it."
Carla cites surfing royalty Kassia Meador, Leah Dawson, Belinda Baggs and Monyca Eleogram as personal heroes, adding: "They are all amazing surfers with unique style, elegance and conservation efforts" - and has herself won surfing competitions, coming first place in the Causeway Coast East Strand Women's Open in 2014 and fourth in the West Coast Surf Club Longboard Competition in 2016.
She is yet to convince her boyfriend, Sean, however, that surfing is for him, though she will continue to attempt to win him over in the years ahead.
"He is not a surfer," adds Carla, "but he has all the patience in the world for me and my surfing.
"He recently tried it and appreciates how difficult but enjoyable surfing is. He's very supportive when I go for a surf, when I work long days in the summer, when I go on road trips with friends or when I clear off for a month to surf tropical climates with my girlfriends.
"All in all, I'm pretty lucky."