Out in the Tasman Sea the wind’s measuring about 282kph, and waves 20m high are being recorded.
“We have to surf this swell,” says big-wave meteorologist Ben Matson, giving the green light for the Storm Surfers documentary film crew to be deployed off the south coast of New South Wales, 925km north of those cyclonic winds and big waves. According to Matson’s readings, those conditions are generating the same amount of power that Hurricane Katrina carried when it first made landfall in Florida in 2005. The easier part of Matson’s job is finding extreme surfing conditions. The hard part comes in judging whether or not they’re lethal.
“The biggest waves are hitting off Tasmania, but they’re too big to ride,” says Matson. “We’ve got two locations in Tasmania, where we’ve got Jet Skis and everything ready to go, but those winds make it just impossible to surf. But we can’t just sit on our hands and let it go un-ridden. So we’re going to go with our back-up option.
“It’s like a mountaineering expedition. We’ve dropped provisions at locations with Jet Skis in Western Australia, as well as Tasmania and New South Wales, all with crew just waiting to be deployed. I’m pretty positive we’re going to come away with some swell from here.”
If it doesn’t arrive, Matson will shoulder most of the blame. During the making of Storm Surfers 3D, the team’s latest documentary, a day lost to a misjudged weather reading cansuck as much as €38,850 from the film’s budget. At the nearby boat ramp, 21 crew members are already assembled and preparing the truckloads of filming gear and surfing equipment.
“This swell is part of a weather pattern that actually started to hit the coast about four days ago,” Matson says. “Snow was starting to fall on the Alps, and I broadly predicted this weather pattern about a week ago. So yeah, it’s pretty much all on me now. It’s a little nerve-racking.”
It’s 4.30am, pitch-black, freezing cold. The Storm Surfers crew is at the Murramarang Beachfront Nature Resort in South Durras, New South Wales. As Matson scans the latest swell readings on his iPhone at a table showing the evidence of breakfast, legendary big-wave surfer Ross Clarke-Jones and two-time ASP world surfing champion Tom Carroll are already arguing.
At 46 and 50 respectively, these two are more scared of retirement than wiping out on a giant wave. To them, the fact they could be pinned beneath the ocean’s frantically churning surface for more than a minute and a few kilometres off the Australian coast is merely part of a normal day’s work.
They carry on like an old married couple. Awaiting the Jet Skis at the boat ramp, the two are bickering over whose surfboards will fit in the car. Both divorced, the pair are as close as two friends can be. If someone ever pitches Grumpy Old Men meets Big Wednesday to Hollywood, these friends of 25 years are perfect for the leads.
“We know everyone thinks we’re mad, and we’re always giving each other grief,” says Clarke-Jones, flashing his trademark grin. “I love stirring Tom up about his driving and stuff like that. He nearly killed me with a Jet Ski in Western Australia one time. But that’s just Australian mateship: nothing too serious. We’ve had serious times together, though, yelling at each other and getting physical, and that’s real, mates go through that. But I love him.
“We’ve been through a lot of stuff together: competitions and competing on the [pro surfing] tour, businesses, divorces and jobs, becoming fathers. We’ve been through it all, and it’s cool to be still surfing and still like two kids together. It’s pretty funny, and I think that’s what keeps us young.”
Carroll and Clarke-Jones first hung out while making the 1987 comedy surf film Mad Wax. Back then, Carroll was a poster boy of world surfing, and Clarke-Jones admits his friend did him a favour by getting him involved in the movie.
Carroll retired from surfing in 1993, and family commitments kept him away from the scene for the best part of a decade. Clarke-Jones, however, never left the big-wave world and was a pioneer during the tow-in revolution of the late 1990s, when surfers began using Jet Skis to tow one another out to big waves. Storm Surfers was Clarke-Jones’s chance to repay the favour and reunite with his best friend.
In 2005, director Justin McMillan and writer Chris Nelius made The Sixth Element, a documentary about Clarke-Jones. A year later, the trio worked with Carroll to make the big-wave film Red Bull Tai Fu. With the introduction of Matson, and his well-honed swell-prediction skills, Storm Surfers was born: actively chasing giant, unsurfed swells around the globe, rather than waiting and hoping for them to arrive.
In 2008 Storm Surfers: Dangerous Banks debuted on the Discovery Channel. It was followed by Storm Surfers: New Zealand in 2010.
Storm Surfers 3D will arrive in cinemas this year, and Clarke-Jones is planning for more and more. “What makes me want to do this at my age? What age? I still feel like I’m a grommet. I still get off on it,” he says. “The adventure side of stuff, I love it. The waves don’t scare me. What scares me is not being able to do it anymore. I actually get off on it. It’s such an exciting, complete feeling after riding one. I like things that excite me, and big waves certainly do that. It doesn’t scare me – I love it. I don’t mind being underwater for a while. I’m confident staying underwater for quite some time, and after 25 years at it, it’s sort of become a second home for me down there.”
Read the full story in September's issue of The Red Bulletin.