Ride the Written Wave

A few weeks ago I was called upon to write something about surfing. I’ve written lots and lots about snowboarding, but never from a first-person perspective – usually I’m writing some event report, travel trip-diary, or interviewing someone – so it was refreshing to try something new and different. What I wrote was a little outside the parameters of what was asked…but take a read if you have the time and let me know what you think:

Snapper Rocks heavy-hitters session, mid-June 2010:

A rustle of the leaves outside the window. Was that a change in the wind direction? Quick, get on the net, check the cams. Yep, looks like it’s pumping. Tide is right. Quickly, quickly, grab the board, wetsuit and towel, pack the car and race out the driveway. Engine revving, stomp on the pedal, race off at the lights – it will get you there faster, even if those Government TV ads would say you’re a tool. But why oh why are there so many red traffic lights on The Gold Coast Highway between Palm Beach and Coolangatta? Surely, this 15 minute trip must have been closer to 30…today of all days! Bloody Queensland drivers.

Finally, the Promised Land is in sight…but which wave to choose? It really is a wealth of riches on the Southern Gold Coast. Slow down for the pedestrian crossings on the Cooly esplanade. It’s OK, take you time to cross, old man…it just gives me more time to check out the line of peeling aqua barrels coming round Greenmount, a black speck balanced on each face, tucked into a crouch and coiled like a spring, while an arc of white spray flies off the crumbling lip and back towards the horizon.

Mount the rise into Rainbow Bay, slowing down the hill trying to simultaneously check the waves, the crowds, look for a parking spot, and dodge crazy bush turkeys and golden-haired rakes who flap across the road with their wetsuit arm-wings hanging at the waist with stickered-up DHD spears clutched tightly under bare brown arms. Is that a pair of red eyes glinting? Yep, a ute has just started up, reverse lights now on as well…and there you have it, a prime parking position where you can watch the hordes of upturned bare-feet and awkward footfalls on concrete as more and more rubber-clad bodies race away from you towards the pure white sand and blisteringly clear azure water.

Getting suited up seems to take an age. And don’t forget that spare key tucked into the wetty before you slam down the boot. Wow, for a mid-week, mid-winter, mid-June day, there sure are a lot of surfers in the water. Doesn’t anybody on the Goldie have work or school to go to? I guess this is the swell everyone was waiting for, when the days of southern slop finally turned easterly enough to wrap around the Tweed and charge along the crescent coast like soldiers in formation, wave after wave pounding the sand bars with perfect rhythm. It looks about 3 foot plus out there, perfect for someone who up until recently was more accustomed to measuring 3 foot of fresh pow on a mountainside in the morning.

Racing across the flat, hard sand to cut the rocky corner in front of the surf club, leg rope making that strange, hollow “slap, slap, slap” with every stride. Overtaking a black shape, round at the waist, glad that you’ve done enough cardio to keep running without too much panting, even when the wetsuit is already sticking to you back under the mid-afternoon sun. Big crowd off Snapper Rocks…and you can see why. It looks amazing.

It’s fairly sheltered from the south-westerly winds here by the high-rises and headlands, but there is enough of a breeze to hollow the wave faces, and when the reflected sets double-up to well over head-height it is a pure vision. A religious man might say that this is a true sign that God exists, and that he fashioned Man in his very image, just so that he may tame nature’s fury in such a way. Every wave a barrel, foamy to begin with then turning crystal clear and transparent…and every wave being slayed, constant movement of water and man, black bodies, white boards, blue-green water, white foam, and huge plumes of spray flying high into the sky while a thunderous cacophony fills the air.

A long line of shapes bobs in the ebb and flow from round the corner of Snapper, all the way round into Rainbow Bay and even on towards Greenmount, jockeying for position and trying to find their comfortable place in the pecking order. You’ll never be able to snaffle a wave from right off the rocks among the throng all searching for the ride of their life, but if you’re lucky you might just get one of those waves that heads wide from the crowd halfway towards the surf club.

Navigating the flailing legs, arms and floating boards all around me as I paddle out, just off to the right a figure is crouched lazily back into a wave, right foot facing me, front hand gripping the rail of the board near his toes as he smothers himself in the armchair embrace of the little barrel. It’s like an early 90’s Point Break flashback. Then he stands to gain speed, punches two powerful and stylish turns, and I see that it is, of course, Luke Egan.

It’s hard work out here – every wave is taken, and destroyed by all manner of man and craft. Even bloody boogie boarders are getting pitted! Every now and again someone falls off, or a smaller wave goes wide and the jackals around me pounce, darting inside to snatch their small chance at glory. C’mon Sean, you have to get more aggressive and paddle in closer or you’ll never snap up one of these rare vacant waves. Missed that one. Paddle back out. Catch the wild eye of the surfer bearing down on you. Duck-dive this rising mountain in front of you. Surface quickly, rain of slash-spray falls all around and slaps the water loudly. Look just right at the next wave. It’s a snarling, angry sandy coloured funnel, dark black and hollow right off the rock. There is a small puff of spray, like the last breath of a dying man, from out of the vortex of this head-high black hole…and then somehow a figure emerges from the darkness, as crouched and composed as a bronze statue. Then as he enters into the light he explodes, rising up the face and going over-vert to smash the lip in one glorious powerful snap, sending spray 15 feet high. Once again he is composed and coiled, gouging deep into a distinctive bottom turn laid over almost horizontal, and then as the wave passes you are slapped with the full force of a wake, smiling with the realisation of how much water a mere man and board can move. All around the surfers had stopped to watch this magnificence just like you, and two minutes later that broad shovel-headed face is looming up beside you as Parko laconically paddles out and around. You have to say something, but how do you not come across as a complete star-struck kook?

“That was a sick barrel you got there!”

 “Yeaaaah, it was fun little one, eh?” he whines back nasally as he smiles and paddles past.

Inspired, it’s time to move in closer. Wait, wait…the waiting and paddling in circles seems to take forever. Then finally, there it is, the opening you were looking for. Paddle hard, arms screaming to out-paddle that kid beside you, then you are taken, lifted up slightly from behind and propelled forward. Hands instantly push down, legs up and around, crouched down, eyes focussed down the line of the wave. Senses are heightened as you contort your body into a position of fluid tension ready to react to the changes underfoot. The sun catches the rising water beside and in front of you, refracting like a magnifying glass the crystal clear sand below. You feel the eyes of the world upon you, and other surfers paddle hard across the line of your wave to get out of the way.

You may not be able to gouge a turn, cut-back or hit the lip like Parko, but when you’re on the wave this is your own selfish moment to enjoy and be watched…and now, after this moment of pure joy you can truly understand why so many surfers crowd such a small section of water around the tip of Snapper Rocks day after day. They are all waiting for their chance at glory. And if you can only manage to get one wave out there with some of the best surfers in the world around you, make sure it’s the best wave of your life. It’s all worth it, and you’re sure to want to come back for more!

The photos of Rainbow Bay and Snapper above are from a day in June with smaller swell, plus there are some actions shots I took of Parko around the corner at Duranbah back in January. And here’s some footage of Parko and Egan at Snapper Rocks from a couple of months ago – it might just be the day I was out there with them…the crowds sure look about right!

And this is the footage of Parko getting his famous fin-chop to the foot out at Snapper in July – it has skuttled his chances this year, yet again, of winning the ASP championship. But take a look at the first barrel that he manages to make – it was pretty similar the snarling monster I saw him emerge from up close. Yeeewwww!

 

Get your Surf Shots for Free!

Back in the wintry folds of a cold and cloudy Melbourne it’s easy to reminisce about warmer times, and warmer waters…and so here’s a look back a few months to January when I went out one day to take some surf photos at Duranbah on the Gold Coast. The Jim Beam Surf Tag Queensland trials were on – a novel event where the little local boardrider clubs battled out in hour-long heats to find the overall state winner. Each team could have 5 surfers compete within the hour heat, out alongside 3 other teams, but only one team-member could be in the water at any one time. The surfer would score on 2 waves and then run up the beach to “tag” the next team member who would enter the water to get two more wave scores, and so on, for a combined overall score.

But it wasn’t this unique comp format that had me intrigued, but the fact that the newly crowned World Champion, Mick Fanning, would be competing for his old Kirra Boardriders against World Number 2 Joel Parkinson and his Snapper Rocks Team…not to mention ASP top-tenner, Dingo Morrison, and former champ, Occy, also competing for bragging rights round the bar of the Coolangatta Sands Hotel.

I had never really tried taking any surf photos before, but I thought this might be a good chance to watch the best in the business and see how I would go. I was just using my regular 70-200mm 2.8L lens which was a little under-powered in the zoom department (I wish I had the gear I would be using  just a few weeks later in Vancouver) . So while some pro looking photo dude with bikini girls hanging off his arm was comfortably high up on the sand, I had to wade out knee-deep into the water and then crop the final shots. But overall I was pretty happy with the shots, despite the ordinary waves. Shooting surf photography from the beach is not all that difficult I discovered, except for getting sharp focus (either on auto or manual) in lumpy, choppy waves that disrupt the foreground. And when there is a lull in the action out in the surf, there’s always something to look at on the sand. But it was awesome just being able to see the enormous slashes Mick could throw in small surf, and to see how he interacted like a true champion with all the grommets and fans on the beach. (And over the following months I’ve managed to be out surfing alongside Mick and Parko and seen their wave artistry up even closer). And watching all the action, I was struck by the pure aesthetic beauty of a good bottom turn.

I had met another Gold Coast-based surf photog, Simon Muirhead, a few days previously (see his shots from that day here) – he has a fair bit of stuff published on Swellnet and Coastalwatch – and from what he said, surf photography is even more competitive and under-valued than snowboard photography. I guess it is one of those things where the surf lifestyle is even more appealing than the snowboarding one, and there will always be someone out there willing to take surf photos for free, or a couple of logo t-shirts.

So I was a little surprised to hear from The Sunshine Coast Daily a couple of days later wanting to use one of my photos in their paper. Sticking to my business philosophy of no longer ever giving away a photo for free (which I’ve only done once in four years, and which came back to bite me in the arse recently…but that’s a story for another time) I tried to negotiate hard, even though the paper said they had no budget. I assumed it was some little weekly local rag, like the Moonee Valley Leader, and so was even willing to accept a nominal 50 bucks, equivalent to a web shot payment. But when the paper rep was about to hang up the phone and not run the shot, I relented to its free publication, thinking that at least I’ll have one published surf photo out there.

I was fairly happy just to hear that someone liked my shots…but was a little miffed when I discovered that in fact the Sunshine Coast Daily is in fact a major daily newspaper, much like the Geelong Advertiser or Gold Coast Bulletin. And to make matters worse, my shot was run on the back page as a thumbnail as well as quarter-page in the sport section, and on the website! Take a look at the pages, and check out the article and photo on the website here. Surely they could spring a budget to pay for the shots – it’s a legitimate journalistic story, not some local-scene colour piece like I thought it was going to be.

Oh well, at least it solidifies my resolve to never, ever give away a photo for free again…and at least now I can call myself a bona fide surf photographer!

So take a look at the shots I took that day.

Roadtrippin’ through the middle…

After the Oz winter, a literal seachange was in order. My brother, El Rad, had moved down from Brisbane to the Gold Coast and had a spare bedroom…so it would have been remiss of me to not take up his offer of a place to stay 150 metres from the beach and within 15 drive minutes of four world-famous surf breaks! If i could handle the heat, it would be a great time to learn to surf better and generally just enjoy the good life the Goldy has to offer.

So back in early November i packed up the orange beast and headed north up the Hume, Via the Newell Hwy through the middle of NSW and into Qld. It was two days, 1800km and 18.5 hours of driving time according to my dashboard. I had my serious camera gear with me, but i always like the flexibility of small, pocket-sized point-and-shoot cameras. I have a little Sony Cybershot 8.5 megapixel camera, as well as a couple of Minolta film instamatics that i often load with slide (transparency) film and cross-process for interesting and unexpected results. It keeps photography fun!

Here are some of the photos i took of all the weird things along the way… Click the heading to see more:

After the Oz winter, a literal seachange was in order. My brother, El Rad, had moved down from Brisbane to the Gold Coast and had a spare bedroom…so it would have been remiss of me to not take up his offer of a place to stay 150 metres from the beach and within 15 drive minutes of four world-famous surf breaks! If i could handle the heat, it would be a great time to learn to surf better and generally just enjoy the good life the Goldy has to offer.

So back in early November i packed up the orange beast and headed north up the Hume, Via the Newell Hwy through the middle of NSW and into Qld. It was two days, 1800km and 18.5 hours of driving time according to my dashboard. I had my serious camera gear with me, but i always like the flexibility of small, pocket-sized point-and-shoot cameras. I have a little Sony Cybershot 8.5 megapixel camera, as well as a couple of Minolta film instamatics that i often load with slide (transparency) film and cross-process for interesting and unexpected results. It keeps photography fun!

Here are some of the photos i took of all the weird things along the way… Click the photos to see them larger: