On a surfing and paddleboarding trip in Derry, our writer finds adventure and camaraderie as she braves bracing temperatures
I couldn’t feel my hands, and my feet were flopping around in soaked wetsuit boots as I walked from the sea to a small changing shack on the beach at Benone Strand in County Derry. The walk marked the end of my introduction to cold-water surfing at a location with seven miles of sand and lovely views of Donegal but a far cry from the temperatures I’d been used to while surfing in Morocco and Madagascar.
I had Gutsy Girls to thank for this invigorating experience. This new company runs women-only day events, weekend retreats and holidays that encourage female travellers to try out activities together in a fun way.
Prior to the first surfing lesson, our group had enjoyed a brisk warm-up jog across the sands. The instructors, Ciara and Dan, had sensed our nervous energy about the chilly conditions and attempted to put us at ease by making jokes: “It’s forecast to snow tomorrow, so this is actually lovely,” Dan quipped.
My cold-defeating tactic was the full-submersion approach, hoping it would make the chill easier to bear. It didn’t. I tried to draw strength from Finn, a more-experienced surfer, who had already stood up on her board and carved lines through the water. Persistence paid off and soon I was catching waves and letting them carry me to shore. This spot, on the Causeway Coast, is great for novice surfers as, for the most part, it offers gentle rideable waves.
Ciara and Dan let us get on with it most of the time. Occasionally, Ciara would appear from behind me, line up my board and shout instructions, or inspiration: “You can get this one.” I looked back to see a rumbling wave approaching, my body flat on the board before I was whipped up and carried back towards the shore. I tried to stand but crashed down. “Great timing, just make sure your body is more central next time,” Ciara said, when I finally re-emerged.
The beach stands beneath a jagged, grassy cliff line that reminded me of summer holidays visiting my grandparents in rural Ireland. Small mounds of sand, topped with spiky grass line the shore and the ruggedness of the environment connected me to a wildness I don’t get to experience living in a city. On that first day of surfing the beach was almost deserted, just a few dog walkers dotted around the beautiful expanse.
A hot shower had never felt so good as it did that evening. While Dan made us tacos, I joined the other women by the fire at Ballymultimber, the thatched cottage we were staying in. We were a varied group: a nurse who worked in a prison, someone who had home-schooled her children and now did tutoring. We talked about why we’d come. One woman, whose husband had died a few years ago, said she liked challenging herself and meeting new people. Another, who had just written a cookery book, loved surfing and paddle-boarding; she’d just realised her dream by setting up a gluten-free bakery in Donegal.
Talk turned to why Gutsy Girls was set up. Natalie Bannister, the founder, explained that she wanted a community that connected women through sports and adventure and intended to “create supportive environments that allow you to challenge yourself, to get out of your comfort zone”.
For Bannister it felt that when you entered your 30s it could seem that the road splits: friends are setting up home, having kids and have less time to go on adventures. It struck me how nice it was to be among women who had travelled different paths but somehow ended up together on holiday.
The second day was – thankfully, due to the frost – not about surfing but paddle-boarding on the River Roe, which winds past fields and by wooded banks. We paddled for almost an hour towards a big bridge set beside a small, sandy beach. The terrain beside the river is mostly steep-sided gorge, with some areas of flat grassland.
The water flowed slowly at first, although pacy winds made certain sections of the journey challenging. That’s also when it got quite amusing – as we occasionally collided with one another or beached ourselves on the rocks and in the tall grass that lines the river. I was the worst offender but the other women laughed and pushed me back on track.
That evening we set off to go up Binevenagh mountain. It was just a 10-minute drive from our cottages to the top, and when we arrived there we put prosecco on ice (literally). The cold weather meant snow dotted the grass – but there will be fewer goosebumps on the summer trips. The mountain overlooks the north-west tip of County Derry, Magilligan Point and Lough Foyle. Beyond that, are the hills of Inishowen in County Donegal. From the top, we saw green fields lined with hedges. The river we’d paddled along appeared like a silver crack in the landscape. The sea spread out beyond.
Two local musicians came to the cottages to chat and entertain us with traditional music that evening. After they’d finished, the topic of Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild came up: the story of a woman’s journey to find herself by walking the Pacific Crest Trail. We hadn’t completed an epic adventure but the sentiment – of getting into nature and challenging yourself – rang true to us.
It’s a feeling that stayed with me on my final morning as I ran down Benone beach into the cold sea for a swim before I headed home. There I was, without a wetsuit, freezing cold and, as I rushed back out, my legs red and burning. It was the perfect antidote to the chaos of big-city life, made even better by the fact I shared the experience with like-minded women.
The trip was provided by Gutsy Girls, surfing and paddleboarding weekends from £409, including full-board and lessons for beginners to intermediates. A flight from Stansted to Derry was provided by Loganair.