Ultimate Renegades | The Tom Lowe Interview
The story of the St Ives ripper who went from local hero to rubbing shoulders with the world's best
We’ve teamed up with Jeep, who are celebrating their 75th anniversary this year, to shine a spotlight on some of the ultimate renegades from the world of action sports – past, present and future. We're looking at people who've done things differently, who've gone their own way and forged their own path. Here Surf Europe editor Paul Evans interviews Cornish surfer Tom Lowe who, with his nomination for a Billabong XXL Award this year, now legitimately sits among big wave surfing's global elite. It wasn't an obvious career path for a lad from sleepy St. Ives however, and the story of how he got there is a fascinating one.
“Mullaghmore is the one I really want," says Tom Lowe from his Cornish summer base, a quiet, tourist-season bolthole between St Ives and Hayle where we find him temporarily laid up with a sprained wrist after skateboarding over-exuberance. “I still feel like the biggest potential for something crazy is at Mully."
The wave he’s referring to, a dark, doom-tinged rocky outcrop near Donegal Bay, Ireland, a spot that reaches out into the full fury of the North Atlantic winter swell window and has seen some of the biggest and heaviest waves ever ridden in Europe over recent years, by surfers towing in to the waves with the help of jetskis. But Lowey’s contemporary focus, just like that of most of surfing’s big wave elite in recent years, is to catch giant waves under paddle power alone, using a huge, buoyant surfboard, dropping down the face of the mountainous water at the last possible moment, and hopefully outrunning the avalanche at the bottom.
"How exactly did a softly-spoken Cornishman earn his stripes alongside riders of giants from traditional big wave epicentres Hawaii, Australia, South Africa?"
“There are so many variables and imperfections, so many reasons why paddling huge Mullaghmore is rarely feasible," he adds, “But I know there is that one magic day to be had, that magic session or even hour when a certain tide, certain swell direction, size and wind will all come together to allow you to take a real big lump. A crazy one. And when and if they do, I’ll be ready to give it a shot."
Lowey’s performances in big waves around the world in recent years have afforded him the self belief to pit himself against such a challenge. Earning the respect of heavy watermen from across the globe has allowed him not only to narrow his focus on keeping up with the best, but to aspire to push the boundaries further, stepping into the unknown, doing the hitherto unseen.
Unsurprisingly, Lowey’s journey hasn’t been without sacrifice, and more than his fair share of physical trauma. Surfing big Teahupoo, Tahiti in 2009, Laird Hamilton’s errant stand up paddleboard, a huge, heavy lump of a craft, hit Lowey underwater after Hamilton had wiped out, dislocating Lowey’s shoulder. Two further dislocations would follow, under the Cliffs of Moher, Europe’s tallest sea cliffs, both in giant, frigid, life-threatening surf with no lifeguard safety net back up, barely even a navigable route back through ferocious swell-chewed boulders for an incapacitated surfer. Add in a broken foot, countless horrific underwater hold downs, even one incident involving having to jump over an abandoned jetski on a huge wave at Mullaghmore, and it’s fair to say Tom Lowe’s put his body on the line in the quest to chase his dreams.
But how exactly did a softly-spoken Cornishman earn his stripes alongside riders of giants from traditional big wave epicentres Hawaii, Australia, South Africa? Places with decades of history of big wave bravado. The surf in Cornwall, whilst accommodating for beginners, tends to shut down when the waves are much over head-high, her shelf seas being too shallow to hold proper open ocean swells.
St Ives itself, Lowey’s hometown, is revered for its mid 20th century art scene - the likes of Patrick Heron, Barbara Hepworth et al. But as for world-class professional waveriders? The young Tom Lowe (whose own unremarkable junior career betrayed little of what was to come) had few established career pathways to follow. But just as the origins of St Ives itself can be traced to an Irish saint from the 5th century, Saint Ia, so too Lowey’s path is strongly intertwined with the Celtic island nation that sits just across the sea.
“I was on a magazine trip to Ireland when I was 21," he remembers. “We had an incredible session at The Cliffs. After the surf I walked up the cliff with Tom Greenaway feeling so alive, we sat and talked until dark watching the waves. Greenaway left for home the next day, and that was the last time I ever saw him. I was in the Canaries a few weeks later when I got a call saying there had been an accident." In what was almost a freak incident, Greenaway had been killed by a bus while crossing a road in London. “Being on that trip with him just before it all happened intensifies my feeling for Ireland even more so," says Lowe. “The Cliffs of Moher are deep for me. I’ll always remember the way he charged so hard on our trip, and the fun times we had."
Following the tragic loss of his friend, Lowey started spending more and more time in Ireland surfing some of the waves they’d discovered together, hooking up with fellow Cornishman photographer Mickey Smith, and up and coming local Irish pro Fergal Smith (no relation).
The Cliffs, aka Aileen’s and other heavy reefs in County Clare are where Lowey, Fergal and Mickey went from local scene standouts to household names in the surf world. At least households which had an internet connection that would allow online viewers to have their minds blown by the beauty and raw power of the surf on Ireland’s west coast. Tube riding and big wave performances by Tom and Fergal, and the artistry in capturing their exploits shown by Mickey made the surf world stand up and realise that Ireland not only had legit world class big wave spots, but also the resident talent to do them justice.
"He dislocated his shoulder under the Cliffs of Moher, Europe’s tallest sea cliffs, in giant, frigid, life-threatening surf with no lifeguard safety net back up."
As big wave A-listers came to Ireland to share waves with Tom and Fergal, so too did reciprocal invitations come for the lads to some of the most revered lineups on the planet. Before long, Lowey would be holding his own at spots like Maverick’s in California, Todos Santos and Puerto Escondido in Mexico, and most notably, the infamous Jaws on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Sharing lineups with the likes of Shane Dorian, Mark Healey, The Long brothers and Twiggy Baker, living legends in big wave riding, allowed Tom the opportunity to hone his board design, training and technique with the very best in the world.
The El Niño winter of 2015/16 saw the north Pacific produce the most consistent run of big wave sessions in memory at Jaws, and Lowey put himself firmly in harm’s way to snag an incredible ride amongst a world-class field. Using a backhand technique (riding with his back to the waves, heelside edge in the wall) honed at The Cliffs, Tom pulled into a giant backhand tube to earn himself a nomination into the Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards.
“It’s funny," Tom recalls of the ride, “There was nothing really going through my head to remember, no real moment to savour. I was just in full survival instinct mode. I do remember thinking it wasn’t going to barrel and would take my head off, but I managed to squeak inside it on the 10’6". They say the safest place to be is inside the barrel."
This coming winter, Europe will be the focus for Lowey, namely Nazaré in Portugal, another mainly tow surfing spot that holds the Guinness World Record for the biggest wave ever ridden. But the focus will again be paddling. “I want to concentrate on paddling some big lumps at Nazaré. I had a pretty good feel for it at Christmas last year, I had one that if I’d have made it, it would have been biggest wave I’ve ever caught. Plus of course, based around Europe, always watching the charts, I’m only ever a short hop away from Ireland should the Mully scenario unfold."
A recent BBC4 documentary on the St Ives school lauded the town’s world class achievements in the art world. "St Ives went on to produce some of the most exhilarating art of the twentieth century" it claimed. “For a few dazzling years this place was as famous as Paris, as exciting as New York and infinitely more progressive than London." The same could arguably be said of the town’s celebrated surfing son. In terms of excitement and progression, Tom Lowe’s big wave riding is up there with the best in the world.
The Jeep Ultimate Renegades
We’ve teamed up with Jeep, who are celebrating their 75th anniversary this year, to shine a spotlight on some of the ultimate renegades from the world of action sports – past, present and future. In this second installment of the series we shift our attention to surfing, asking big wave surf legend Andrew Cotton to pick out his ultimate renegades.