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Portrush surfer Al Mennie helps you wave goodbye to your fears

Globe-trotting Alastair Mennie tells Stephanie Bell how chasing big waves around the world has helped him come to terms with the dangers he faces and now he has written a book which he hopes will assist people to manage their own anxieties or depression

Alastair Mennie knows what it is like to feel real terror over and over again. For Portrush man Al, as he is known to his friends, spends a lot of his life surfing monster waves up to 75ft high in the wildest of weather.

He has earned a reputation around the globe as one of the world's top high-wave surfers and one of the bravest.

Having had to learn the hard way how to control his fear and anxiety, the 37-year-old has now written a book which he hopes will help people who are struggling with anxiety in everyday life.

In his new book, Overcome or Succumb - You Will Turn the Tide, Al, who lives in Portrush with his fiancee Sara O'Neill, an award-winning fashion designer and stylist, has attempted to share his experience of how he has learned to tackle his fear head on.

Anxiety has become a real issue facing millions of people. In fact 40% of disability worldwide is due to depression and anxiety with some six million people in the UK living every day with the disorder.

Al believes his experience as a big wave surfer has led him to understand and manage anxiety, fear and panic and allowed him to handle lots of everyday situations with a similar approach.

He says: "I personally experience fears and anxieties like everyone else. What I have learned over the past 28 years of putting myself in gradually bigger and bigger seas in the pursuit of gigantic waves has led me to understand myself, how fear and anxiety affects me and how to continue forward regardless.

"I don't believe I have the ultimate answer, I don't believe anyone does for that matter and the reason for that is that everyone, every situation, everything is different.

"I don't see fear and anxiety as text book issues that can be dealt with in the same way by everyone. I see it as personal feelings, not universal. I believe that there are some specific principles which can help, and I believe that once something is faced that it becomes easier to face the next thing and so on. Life can become better because facing fears leads to experiences and opportunities.

"I hope something from my experience is of help to someone else."

Al's passion for the sport developed when he was very young.

His childhood was spent largely on the coast as his late dad Des had a boat and a love of fishing and the sea.

He and his young brother Andrew started surfing when Al was nine and Andrew was just seven.

It wasn't long before the sport consumed Al and in his teens he was travelling to Great Britain to compete in competitions.

At 20 he won the British Universities Championships and at 21 was placed fifth in the British Pro Tour. This led to him travelling even further afield to compete, finishing among the best in the world.

It was the sudden death of his dad Des aged 50 from a heart attack when Al was 22 which he believes pushed him to pursue even more extreme challenges in his sport.

He explains: "My last conversation with dad was that I want to push myself on to surf bigger waves around the world and the next day he died and from then on that's what I've done, I've literally been obsessed by it. I love the risk and danger that comes with it."

As he travelled to California and Australia and other to world hot spots for surfers, Al wanted to be able to carry out his passion on his own doorstep.

With our wild winters he knew there had to be some great surfing off the coast of Ireland.

In his 20s he became a pioneer in his determination to find the big waves here and promote them to a global audience.

Now Northern Ireland is a must for many big wave surfers from all over the world, who set up home here for the winter months.

"I knew the big waves existed here, but when I was in my 20s they were an unknown resource," Al explains.

"I started to look at charts of the ocean floor and try to find locations where they would break.

"I borrowed money and bought a boat and went all round the island of Ireland searching for locations.

"In the last 10-15 years our big waves have been put on the map and there have been an explosion of interest.

"People base themselves here for the winter, staying three to four months because we have the biggest and best waves."

While pursuing his passion, Al's parents ensured that he also focused on a career and he decided to follow in his father's footsteps and study construction.

His dad was a house builder and, after his A-levels, Al completed a course in construction management and another in estate management.

It is something he is now grateful for as being a self-employed builder allows him the freedom to chase the big waves when the weather permits.

"My parents always said I had to study and have more strings to my bow and I didn't know what I wanted to do other than surf," he says.

"I am so glad I studied building as when dad died I had to take over his business at the age of 22. It was like it was meant to happen.

"You literally become a man overnight when you lose your father. It has made me grow stronger as a person.

"I still do building work to this day."

Al is constantly watching the weather and tracking storms from as far away as the Caribbean, ready to move as soon as the waves hit.

His ideal he says is when a storm comes past the coast without hitting land. Too close to land and they can be too chaotic to surf.

When conditions are perfect, heading out is like a military operation as every safety precaution is taken.

Al will have a team around him of up to five people including a paramedic which itself illustrates the very real dangers.

His crew is there to rescue him on jet skis if he gets swallowed up by the waves.

"It is life threatening," he explains. "Mother Nature is completely unpredictable so we take a lot of precautions and we have all the safety gear and I have a full team of guys. That's how I operate. It is not reckless, we are well set up and trained.

"We have a plan and if one monstrous wave comes and I catch it that is great and if another comes that's a bonus.

"You feel fear and anxiety, excitement and adrenalin for days in advance. It builds up and builds up and you worry 'what if something happens to me or one of the other guys?'.

"It is a real roller coaster of emotions but you still want to do it and when you do it is totally worth it, it is a complete thrill.

"A lot of things can happen and you roll with the punches. In the winter out in the Atlantic it is freezing and one of the guys did get hypothermia once.

"I once had a glass fibre helmet on and fell 40ft and it cracked and I was concussed.

"A lot of things can happen but you train for it and take precautions."

As for the ladies in his life - mum Jenny (64) and his fiancee Sara - he says they cope because they know he prepares so thoroughly and takes all the necessary safety precautions.

It was while en route to chase a big wave with his team that his paramedic gave the surfer the idea for writing a book on tackling fear.

Al says: "He just said to me that I was handling fear all the time, day in and day out and it had made me an expert and that I could use it to help a lot of people.

"I started writing down what I do and it turned into a book.

"I learned how to handle anxiety and fear through my pursuit of big waves all over the world, but this book explains lots of scenarios where those skills have transferred to ordinary life.

"This is a book for anyone who wants to read about anxiety and fear in extreme situations and how the skills I have for managing them are applicable to my everyday life.

"I think we all find our own way of coping with fear and anxiety.

"I've learned you are only terrified beforehand, you are never terrified in the moment. I am completely focused on doing the thing; I am never scared in the moment.
I've had great feedback from the book which strangely has been bought by more females than males and lots of people have said that it has struck a chord with them.

"That is great, that is what it is there for. If it can help people that will make me feel good."

Overcome or Succumb - Controlling Anxiety, Fear and Panic to Conquer Life, by Al Mennie, available in paperback, Amazon, £20

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