Men who ride Mountains

Sport24 columnist Lindy Taverner (File)
Sport24 columnist Lindy Taverner (File)
Lindy Taverner

The Southern tip of Africa’s Cape Peninsula has some of the biggest rideable waves on the planet during its winter. Battered by a succession of huge swells generated in the 4 000km journey across the South Atlantic from Cape Horn (the “Roaring Forties”), the first obstruction these mountains of water meet is the West coast. In other words, South African surfers qualify to say “what’s happening” in the big wave world.

To qualify as a Big Wave Surfer you have to paddle into or be towed onto waves which are at least 20 feet (6.2m) high!

The size and weight of the boards used vary as to the magnitude of the wave and the technique required to reach and ride it. A larger, longer and more stable “gun” allows a rider to paddle fast enough to catch the wave.

Tow in boards have essential foot straps, and leashes have been foregone as they can do more harm than good by catching and holding surfers underwater and making it harder to fight towards the surface.

Hawaiian Big Wave surfer, Laird Hamilton, was one of the pioneers that introduced tow in surfing in 1992. This crossover sport involves being towed by a jetski at the necessary high speed for massive waves. Small, heavy boards for more speed and easier manoeuvrability in waves over 30 foot. In a few years tow in surfing has allowed surfers to literally water ski onto waves exceeding 50 feet!

While most riders still participate in both sports, they remain very distinct disciplines. Some schools of thought are that it has become a sport of “who has the highest bank balance” to bankroll the tow-in, rather than pure skill.

In a big wave wipe-out, a breaking wave can force surfers down 20 to 50 feet (6.2m to 15.5m) below the surface! Once they stop spinning around, they have to quickly regain their equilibrium and figure out which way is up as they may have less than 20 seconds to get to the surface before the next wave hits them. Water pressure at a depth of 20-50 feet can be strong enough to rupture eardrums and the strong currents at those depths can also severely slam a surfer onto the ocean floor or into a reef.

One of the greatest dangers is the risk of being held underwater by two or more consecutive waves, known as a triple hold-down. Surviving is extremely difficult and surfers must be conditioned and trained to cope with these situations.

Cape Town’s big wave spots are policed by the Table Mountain National Park and even experienced surfers have to be part of an association to be allowed out onto the water. Various extremely dangerous hazards have killed several big-wave surfers, but our guys are real survivors.

In the Big Wave surfing line-up, one of the guys I sniffed out was Surf Zone’s infamous Gigs Celliers. He let me in on the sport’s history and some very interesting stories.

In the nineties Ian Armstrong and Cass Colliers won the Big Wave World Championships, highlighting Cape Town as a breeding ground for men skilfully able to ride mountains of waves and come out alive.

In 2005 there was prize money up for grabs, R1 million for riding a 100 foot wave. Jason Ribbink and Gigs went after the gigantic conversion waves in the Transkei that were apparently crashing OVER oil rigs. There was a strong Mozambique current coming down and the hugest storm in 50 years travelling north, colliding over a section of the ocean with a bulge in the continental shelf. Sponsored by National Geographic to record footage of the freak weather phenomenon; they didn’t get to ride the 100 foot wave, but survived with a hectic tale to tell.

The Red Bull Big Wave Africa event at Dungeons outside Hout Bay in Cape Town ran from 1999 until 2008 and was the strong bonding gel in the Big Wave surf community.  The event is part of an elite group, with the Quiksilver Eddie Aikau Memorial at Waimea Bay in Hawaii, the Mavericks event in Northern California, and those off sections of the coast of Mexico, Chile and Northern Ireland.

When Grant ‘Twiggy’ Baker won in the last comp in 2008 it was the “culmination of a decade of collective effort and the intense momentum in the big wave scene to launch South African surfers into the extreme cutting edge if surfing. Given the international platform, suddenly Saffas were taking podium honours at big wave locations around the world,” words by Gigs, I won’t claim it.

Our very own Kommetjie local, Chris Bertish was the first person to ever paddle into the ferocious, gigantic barrels of Jaws in Maui, Hawaii. The pinnacle of his obsession with Big wave surfing was his win in 2010 in the largest Mavericks swell ever contested. 

Chris explains, “Average waves are 18 foot plus, with 30 to 40 foot faces; you have to be able to be self sufficient and paddle in, jetski’s can’t always get to you; Greg Long is now living the incredible, following an “endless winter” he tracks the planet’s biggest storms and scariest elements!”  Ken Collins aptly names it on his site, Chasing Monsters.”

The epic big wave surfer, Andy Marr describes it as being “extremely alive”. The worst thing that’s happened to him was coughing blood from heavy impact. His mission is to paddle unaided into a 30 foot wave. When I stupidly asked if he ever has thoughts of giving up, ”Give up when you’re dead” was his response.

Young travelling surfer, Frank Soloman is spoken highly of by his peers as genuine and talented. His explanation as to why he does what he does, “It’s about the lifestyle and getting to do what you love all the time,  surfing.”   

Gigs sums it up, “Extremists are purists really, there are very few people who aim to reach the outer limits of their sport. It’s truly living in the now, your mission to find the most exceptional waves in existence. ”

In short,  these men who ride mountains are a fanatical lot with courage that borders on insanity.

There are rumours that Red Bull and Quiksilver are going to run the Dungeons event again in 2012, apparently involving a lot more tow in surfing for the bigger waves, faster action and better spectator viewing.

Watch this space... 

Lindy Taverner is the editor of the RUSH magazine that was based in the Eastern Cape and recently relocated to Cape Town. Previous issues and updated extreme sport news can be found on her site

Disclaimer: Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.
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