© Stu Gibson/Andy Chiza
Take a look at the insane mechanics behind Shipstern Bluff
The Southern Hemisphere’s most notorious surfing slab will host this year’s Red Bull Cape Fear, so watch this video to learn how the wave keeps on motoring.
The mechanics of Shipstern Bluff
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On the south-eastern corner of an island at the end of the world lies a mutant wave that has quickly become mythical in surfing folklore: Shipstern Bluff.
A churning reefbreak on the wild southern edge of Tasmania, where freezing Southern Ocean swells smash into dolerite cliffs, this year Shipstern Bluff is once again playing host to Red Bull Cape Fear – a one-of-a-kind, invitation-only, big wave surfing event.
When competitors arrive they’ll come face-to-face with one of the most fearsome arenas in surfing. Sets the size of small buildings stack up to the horizon, and as they trip over the notorious Shipstern steps they produce one of the most technically difficult rides in surfing.
The ’Stern is a wave like no other. From the infamous step to the cliffs where it breaks and the cold water and rogue wildlife, there’s no shortage of vicious variables at the Southern Hemisphere’s most famous slab.
Mick Fanning is just one of the competitors who's been invited to take on the challenge. “Surfing a wave like Shipstern Bluff gives a sense of satisfaction and relief,” says the three-time world champion. “But it’s a whole different ball game in an event like Red Bull Cape Fear. To test myself against the ocean, but also against my favourite big wave surfers, will be a real honour. I’m going to relish the challenge.”
The end of the world
There’s nothing between Shipstern Bluff and Antarctica. Look south and you’re looking at 2,000 miles of freezing, open ocean. It’s the perfect runway for huge ground swells, rolling in from the south west, pushed up by beefy low pressure systems. The first thing they hit is the jagged reef at Devil’s Point.
The wave is also exposed to Tasmania’s famous ‘Roaring Forties’, wild, gusty westerlies that howl across the Southern Ocean at speeds of up to 24 knots. The water temperature hovers somewhere around 12°C (53°F). The thing is no joke.
Climbing the steps
What makes Shipstern Bluff particularly tricky is the geometry of the reef itself. It’s a super shallow, stair-step slab which rises suddenly, shelf upon shelf, straight out of the depths. Ground swells gallop in from the south at roughly 70kph and when they finally slam into the reef they jack up to 30-feet in height, before folding over into thick, grinding barrels.
The jagged sea bed also causes mutations on the surface of the wave, leading to Shippies’ famous ‘steps’. Imagine waves within waves, sudden random jack knife humps, which cause the water to drop out from underneath your feet. Now imagine freefalling with 300,000kg of ocean surging up behind you. It’s probably the wildest, most unpredictable eight-second ride in Australian surfing.
Watch the rocks
Like The Boneyard at Mavericks, the rocks at Shipstern Bluff are almost scarier than the wave itself. The Stern is arguably the heaviest wave in the Southern Ocean and the margin for error is razor-thin. Wipe out early, before the barrel starts to throw, and you’ll be pushed down onto the shallow reef with 15 semi-trailers worth of water overhead.
Another 10 metres beyond that and you hit a series of sharp, dolerite teeth. Surfers have gone headfirst into the boulders here and it’s easy to get your leash wrapped around a rock, which is far from ideal. This is some serious, not-to-be-sniffed-at surfing, folks.
What lies beneath
As if the wave itself wasn’t enough, Shipstern is home to the type of marine life that makes surfers keenly aware of their own silhouette. The first character is Sammy the Seal – a local (harmless) fur seal who’s been known to frequent the lineup and even surf the occasional wave.
And while Sammy poses no threat, he and his pals at the nearby fur seal colony at Cape Raoul tends to attract Great Whites. Which, you know, may or may not be considered a less-than-ideal presence in the line-up. Orcas have even been spotted lurking just behind the break, too – which isn’t to say they pose any risk. They’re just, y’know, out there.
How to watch Red Bull Cape Fear
The event site for Red Bull Cape Fear will be strictly closed to spectators, however the entire competition will be broadcast live and free at Red Bull TV.