A team of surfers, weather scientists, and filmmakers scour the world for the toughest surfing conditions, following storms so they can shoot spectacular big-wave sequences in near-lethal waters. Up close and personal with the swell chasers.
Out in the Tasman sea the wind’s measuring about 175 mph, and waves 65 feet 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, 500 nautical miles north of those cyclonic winds and big waves. According to Matson’s readings, the 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,” Matson says. “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 in. 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.”
There are few things that get a 3D water cameraman as excited as capturing an epic wipeout. Congratulations, Dean Cropp!
© Rod Owen
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 can suck as much as $50,000 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 4:30 a.m., 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 champ Tom Carroll are already arguing.
Tom Carroll charges a big one and seems pretty satisfied (and inflated) about how it all went down.
© Rod Owen
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 more than a mile 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 pals 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. Shit, 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.”
Like father: Big-wave surfer Ross Clarke-Jones tows his son, Kanan, into his first ever big wave at a notorious reef break off the south coast of New South Wales, Australia.
© Rod Owen
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 favor 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 favor 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 theaters 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.”
Safety first: Former world surfing champ Tom Carroll’s prototype flotation device didn’t work well after inflating too quickly. He called it the “Pamela Anderson.”
© Rod Owen
Back at the boat ramp, everything’s been loaded onboard, including two $150,000 3D cameras, and the crew sets off for their destination—a reef break that springs from nowhere about a mile off shore from their New South Wales base. The exact location is a tightly guarded secret. It’s renowned for producing “bombs,” giant waves that literally explode from the inside out on impact.
“It sounds like a jet, a 747, when a big wave crashes,” says Clarke-Jones, on deck and excited. “I’ve never stood behind a jet, but you know that sound when you’re close to an airport? You just get spat out. All the air shuts down and you just get thrown out. And waves that big, when you’re inside, it’s like a big mirror. The whole wave just lights up and there are reflections everywhere.”
After a tension-filled buildup, the excitement turns to disappointment when, at first sight of the break, the biggest waves are topping out at around 10 feet. The sound of the ocean is deafening, but the crew is silent. Tons of water are peeling over in sizable waves, but they’re not big enough for Carroll, Clarke-Jones, and female big-wave surfer Maya Gabeira, who flew in from Los Angeles for a shot at the swell. Clarke-Jones is at a loss. He knows the swell is hitting much, much bigger down the coast, but he can’t just up and leave. This isn’t a solo operation. “I can’t stand knowing there are bigger waves elsewhere, and I’m stuck out elsewhere,” he says, almost angry at the ocean.
“I want to surf big waves, and I know they are close by, but I can’t do anything about it. It’s frustrating as hell, to tell you the truth. It feels like you’re a prisoner. This is the type of thing I live for, and it’s agitating. But you can’t just think about yourself in these situations. You’ve got 20-odd crew, and you all suffer through these things. It’s hard.”Clarke-Jones’s 14-year-old son, Kanan, on the other hand, is relieved. He gets to make his Storm Surfers debut in “safe” conditions, though Dad has done his best to make Kanan scared regardless. Cameramen and producers frantically race to and from the danger zone, trying to make the most of it.
“Ultimately, we’d love to be seeing the boys riding 20-foot bombs every day, but at the end of the day, the story and characters are key,” says co-director McMillan. “In Deadliest Catch, they don’t always pull up a full pot. In fact, more often than not they don’t. But that’s what’s interesting—it makes them human. The jury is still out on whether Tom and Ross are human, but nonetheless, it certainly adds color to the story.”After inspecting the break for himself by Jet Ski, a soaked, cold, dejected Carroll returns to the boat. An uncomfortable Clarke-Jones quips he’s lucky to be on a Jet Ski at all after almost killing the both of them the week before in Western Australia. The near-fatal error came at Cow Bombie, one of the most notorious big-wave breaks in Australia.
Gabeira is the center of attention at six in the morning.
© Rod Owen
In giant swell and howling winds, Carroll towed his best friend into a monster wave, which then exploded, sucking Carroll and his 1,320-pound Jet Ski back into the wave. Both men and machine were sent toppling over the 15-foot falls, the Jet Ski almost crushing them. The crew feared the worst. The situation looked dire as the two men went under. Carroll’s still hearing about it.
“Ross has rubbed the salt in, but I’m used to that,” Carroll says with a chuckle. “I think his first words afterward were, ‘What the hell are you doing? What did you do!’ It could have been so horrible, and it sort of woke me up. It was written on my school reports: ‘Carroll daydreams in class,’ it’d say. And that’s what I’ve been like, all my life.”
“No, you’re a tripper. You trip out,” interjects Clarke-Jones. “I got a bit frustrated with him driving the Jet Ski. He nearly killed me. Seriously, he could have killed me. That thing was aimed for my head, but he did well to hang on to it. Most people would have jumped off the ski, but as a friend, he actually stayed on it and tried to steer it away from me.
“But I happened to turn around straight back under him, the poor guy. And I’ve kicked him while he’s down and ribbed him a bit, and I won’t let him live that one down, but I love the bloke.
“In his defense, you have so much going on when you’re on the ski—the air switch, trying to clean the camera lens, the helmet on with people trying to speak to you, and you’re trying to commentate. It’s a lot for anybody to deal with, let alone Tom.” Clarke-Jones is smiling at his best friend, who smiles back.
The whole team knows that death-defying footage is what sells, which is why they’re including it in the film. “Really, like racing cars, getting hurt and wiping out is what people want to see,” says Clarke-Jones. “As a driver or a surfer, you don’t want to wipe out, but you can appreciate that’s what people want to see. It makes good viewing—so a 3D wipeout is going to look really good.”
With that, the grin appears again on Clarke-Jones’s face, and turns into laughter.
Check out the other fascinating stories in the June issue of The Red Bulletin and download the free Red Bulletin App, available on the App Store for the iPad and in Google Play for Android.