Tom Doidge-Harrison is an engineer and surfboard shaper from Lahinch. Having moved to Tipperary in 2001 to work in the mining industry, weekend trips to the West Coast exposed him to waves he couldn’t be lured away from. Ditching the nine to five to chase waves around the world, he eventually settled back in Ireland, a stone's throw from the Atlantic Ocean, where he lives with his wife Raquel and their kids.
Tom is renovating their traditional Irish cottage,set into a hillside in rugged County Clare. Part of an old farming set-up, the views are miraculous, the landscape below sweeping down through woodland to the ocean. The lure of the water here is palpable, and the ocean whispers across the headland. From the lane, you can make out the town of Lahinch, hunched close, dependent on the ocean.
The renovation has taken Tom the best part of a decade and still isn’t finished, but it’s clear he isn’t worried about rushing the process. Tom is waiting for us in the lane to the cottage when we arrive and shows us through to the makeshift office that he has set up in his to-be kitchen. This part of the house is nearly finished, with a brand new wooden roof. Although quick to point out that he has had help, Tom has done much of the work himself.
The rest of the property has also seen renovation. Adjoining buildings that previously housed cows and pigs now serve as converted workshops for the shaping, sanding and glassing of surfboards. The floor is splattered with paint, the walls lined with news cuttings of surfing exploits. Briefs of previous orders serve as references to inspire new boards. Constantly working on improving his process, this is the third iteration of the cowshed, and Tom is keen to move it around again. A long surfboard, a Hawaiian gun, rests on a plinth as Tom draws on it as inspiration for a new board.
“When I moved here there was a South African named Ian Johnson that was shaping surfboards, and he showed me how to repair boards properly. I went to work with him for about six months and learnt from him how to laminate and sand them. When we stopped working together, I went and bought some blanks for myself and just had a go at it. I learnt from my mistakes and developed my techniques. There is a lot of cross-pollination in the way surfboards are made, and the process for each really starts with shaping the blanks based on other boards, looking at what other people have done and recreating it. I’ll then test it and make incremental changes based on that to try and improve it.”
Many of the boards that Tom crafts in these sheds are guns, unique tools for skilled surfers with big wave ambitions, or chargers. Surfers from all over Ireland come to Tom to draw on his experience and get the right board for the right wave.
“It works in two ways really. Some people have a really clear vision of what they want, they’ll give you a surfboard and ask for you to effectively make the same one again. The other end of the scale is when someone walks in and gives you one dimension, like that they want a 6’0. Then you have to try and work out what's going to work for them based on their aims. Fundamentally, I try to build up a picture of what kind of surfer they are, what kind of waves they want to surf and in what style. Then I use my experience to offer them something to fulfill those needs. It’s a very interactive process, and the more you put in the more you are going to get out.”
“In some ways making surfboards is fairly straightforward, and as I’ve surfed on a lot of surfboards over a lot of years I know what I’m looking for. It is very easy to see when something is right, as it just looks and feels right. You can pick up a surfboard and you can see the curve and feel the rail and know immediately that it is the right board. What’s hard is translating the vision of what you want a board to look like into a finished product when running a thousand-watt planer over it. There’s a disconnect between what you do and what you want to see. But it’s rewarding too, as clearly the boards work and people are happy."
Tom qualified as a Mining Engineer in Leeds before moving to Ireland, where he got a job in a mine in Tipperary. Although initially a full-time occupation, he now manages to balance working several months a year as an engineer with his passion for shaping surfboards.
“I got really lucky with the mining thing. It came up as a career choice on a psychometric test I did, and it turned out to be one of the easiest university courses to get onto in the country. It was a very vocational course which just allowed me to start working, and that first job gave me access to some fantastic waves. But I was young, and after a while of working the nine to five, I got tired of missing out on waves and went travelling with my savings.”
“I had been coming to Lahinch on most of my surfing trips before I left the mine, so it felt like the right place to come back to. Very fortuitously a guy from the mine I worked in before called me to let me know he needed some sporadic help with some planning work. As a result, I was able to hop between doing jobs for him and shaping, and that has continued ever since. I enjoy the stimulation of working as a professional, though sometimes there can be quite a lot of time between mining jobs so I can get quite rusty. When I get back into it, using all the keyboard shortcuts again, it feels good to be back operating at a higher level. It's the kind of work that tires your mind out and depletes it, whereas I find shaping boards replenishes it. It’s cathartic.”
“Mining is cyclical, and when commodities go down in value there is no planning work done as the companies try and save cost. At those times I just try to make more surfboards, and I’m delighted with the balance in my life. It’s good for me to have to do things I don’t necessarily want to do sometimes. You shouldn’t always just get what you want, and I think working for the good stuff makes it all the more sweet and is an important part of living, really. You could make a living out of making surfboards if you wanted to, but I enjoy it and don’t want to threaten that. If I worked really hard I reckon I could make three boards a week, but It’s hard physical work, tough on the joints, and you would be exhausted. I would rather make one or two boards a week, get them right and enjoy the process rather than make it a chore.”
Tom’s experiences surfing some of the West Coast’s most famous waves, such as Aileen’s, attract surfers from all over to come to him for their perfect surfboard. Riding huge slabs below the cliffs with his friends, he knows how it feels to ride those waves, and what it takes to maneuver them.
“I got lucky with Aileen’s because when I arrived here it didn’t exist. For young people now, I imagine it must keep them awake at night thinking about having to surf it. I was lucky that I was at a level where I could surf it when it was discovered. I didn’t start surfing regularly until I was eighteen, but there were several key introductions to it that I had throughout my life. When I was younger, I had lots of surfing pictures on my walls. We used to go on lots of holidays as a family when I was younger where there were bodyboards in the house, and it was just one of those things that stuck, luckily. When I was in control of my own destiny I started going surfing myself, and I had a key friend that was also interested which was the catalyst. I was never shown or taught about how to surf, and for the longest time, it was just total flapping around like a scoundrel really. It took me forever to get any good.”
“I’m still not a special surfer but I’ve been lucky to have had some very special waves, and I’ve been dealt an incredible hand of cards. Despite there being fewer people around taking pictures then than there are now, I was very fortunate that the right people were there to document those moments. For example, there was a set of Aileen’s a few years ago where Matt Smith was on the first wave the day. Mitch Corbett was swimming about taking photos, but all the shots he took of Matt were out of focus. I came in a few waves later and the pictures he took came out - the kind of photos that could elevate your status, and open doors if you wanted them to. So it does come down to luck sometimes, and I’m grateful for that.”
"I’ve had some amazing waves, but I’ve also had some horror stories, bad situations I’ve been involved in. Those things sort of sit on your shoulder, looking over everything that can happen. I’m just more experienced now and know what can go wrong. You just have to put all of those things out of your mind when you’re trying to surf it, not to be afraid of what can go wrong. I’m not as fit or as powerful as I was and so I’ll have to work at that and get back on the horse. The whole thing with surfing is that it's a mind game. Once you know how to surf, you are really able to surf any wave, you just need to put your head down and go for it. If you believe you can do it, then you can do it.”