Richard Fitzgerald surfs Aileens at the foot of the Cliffs of Moher in Co Clare


(Joel Conroy): Cillian Murphy (Voice); Richard Fitzgerald, Gabe Davies, Kevin Naughton

Running time: 80 minutes (G)


You probably remember that last scene in the 1991 film Point Break: an Australian beach, purple and howling as if the location had been switched mysteriously to Donegal; Keanu Reeves' FBI agent Johnny Utah thrashing in the stormy surf with Patrick Swayze's Bodhi, a bank robber and surfer dude. Bodhi finds himself handcuffed under water and gets upset: he won't now get a chance to go out and surf that suicidal 60ft wave building in the churning ocean. Utah takes a look out to sea, unlocks the cuffs and lets Bodhi paddle out to his doom. Utah, you see, understands the romantic impulse.

That impulse is at the heart of Joel Conroy's Waveriders, a superb and seamless Irish documentary about extreme surfing that won the audience award at the 2008 Dublin International Film Festival. Ostensibly, it's a history of the sport and the development of fringe 'soul surfing'. But Conroy, in a stupendous final reel, achieves something unexpected and transcendental: his images of surfers riding waves in the maw of a monstrous angry ocean will linger long in your mind.

Waveriders is narrated by Cillian Murphy and begins in the indigo climes of Hawaii. Here is a story not just about surfing but the unique role Ireland has had to play in it. Surfing was reportedly discovered by Captain Cook. He saw Hawaiian natives riding waves in the 1770s and was gobsmacked. (The New England missionaries that followed were harder to impress. The surfers, naked without the aid of wet suits, were quickly banned.)

Surfing became what it is today thanks to the Hawaiian-Irishman George Freeth. His father, an emigrant from Ulster, married a Hawaiian woman of royalty who taught the young George to surf. Jack London watched the surfer on his travels and was mesmerised.

"He is a Mercury – a brown Mercury," London wrote. "His heels are winged, and in them is the swiftness of the sea." Freeth took surfing to California and with it began a modern phenomenon. Before he died of the Spanish flu in 1919 at the age of 35, he had also invented life-guarding as we know it today and so can be blamed entirely for that other worldwide phenomenon known as Pamela Anderson.

Much of Waveriders concerns itself with 'soul surfing'. The men who pursue it are like pioneers: bearded and gnarly faced, they travel the world for the most inaccessible and exciting waves.

It began in the 1970s when an American called Kevin Naughton tired of the California/Hawaii stranglehold and began visiting far-flung outposts. He found solace off Bundoran. "It was over in California by the late '40s. Here I was in Ireland and it was just starting."

We meet eight-times world champion Kelly Slater who goes to the west of Ireland for his holidays. Soul surfer stars, the Malloy brothers, a second-generation Irish family, head out with Donegal professional surfer Richard Fitzgerald to surf Aileen's. This enormous and now famous Irish wave is set in a spectacular theatre, buffeted by the Cliffs of Moher and accessible only by jet-ski. Fitzgerald, who hails from Bundoran, is the kind of guy who cheers when the weather forecast is bad. He looks like Jake Gyllenhaal, speaks with a soft Donegal twang and is made of titanium.

The film is packed with poetry. There is a sequence in early morning light off Antrim where surfers ride waves as the moon glitters on the water. "Surfers, because they're exposed to the wild, have something most of society has lost," says one surfer. And Conroy goes to great lengths to capture this. Waveriders harnesses something intangible: that spiritual purity that lures extreme surfers to the ocean.

The last reel off the Atlantic seaboard takes you close into the minds of these frontiersmen. It begins with a forecast of storm warning and the sight of four men heading out to sea.

The ocean churns like Biblical end-days. It's the kind of weather that would sink ships. The waves tower over the men like foaming giants, about the size of a four-storey house. If you come off your board in these conditions, there's a good chance you will die. The tiny men in black look like ocean snackfood. They are whizzed in front of the waves by jet-ski and let go. You wait for them to be gorged but each surfer holds steady. Miraculously they emerge safe on the other side.

The footage was shot in December 2007 and the waves were the largest ever surfed off Ireland.

It's a very moving spectacle, and on a cinema screen it's staggering. It puts you back in touch with nature at its most elemental and exhilarating. Watching it, you experience what Captain Cook must have felt when he first discovered surfing.