Photo: Mark McInnis
Seven Waves That Were Never Meant to be Ridden
Words by Russell Quinn
Big wave surfing right now: Any cowboy can grab a towrope and get skull-dragged over a ledge by a 1400cc water pony, immediately earning the label of ‘tow chief’. But there still remains a small group of gents pushing the limits of aquatic mountaineering, heaving their skeletons over some of the most disturbing reef breaks imaginable, but doing so with skill. It might make for pleasant viewing from the comfort of your control room, but whether we care to admit it or not, many of these waves were never meant to be ridden. Here’s seven of them, in no particular order.
The Devil’s Horn, South Africa
The Devil's Horn is found on a less-travelled stretch of South Africa’s West Coast. There’s no phone signal, no running water, and no connection. You’ll need four powered wheels, detailed directions, and a considerably large set of figs, because getting hurt just isn’t an option. Local photographer Cobus Bosman discovered the wave several years ago during a routine road trip along the rugged coastline.
“A mate and I came across it on one of our drives in search of something different,” recalls Cobus. “We never expected to find this death slab right-hander on a coast known for its perfect left-hand point breaks. There was this crazy pulse, and I have still never seen anything like it on the charts for that stretch of coast. It was reading five meters at 18 seconds. The funny thing was, we unknowingly camped right in front of it. We knew there was a potential wave there, but nothing could have prepared us for the expression of that slab on high interval swell.”
Like most of the demonic waves on this list, the transition from deep to shallow at The Horn is almost instant, dropping a pack of disturbing steps on the face. Fellow South African shooter Alan Van Gysen has also pointed his lens in, and would not describe it as pretty. “The difficulty with The Devils Horn are the unpredictable staircases that morph into existence,” he says. “The staircases swing out of nothing, and all you can do is hold on and hope for the best. After a big set, the water rips through the lineup and drains everything, including paddlers, out to sea. The ultimate trouble with many of Southern Africa's slabs though is the granite on top of which they break. Granite is extremely hard, and it doesn't erode nice and smooth (which gives you that perfect tube and happy exit). Rather, it's jagged, creased with steps, and often pinches, forcing you through a hole not even a key could escape.”
Supers is that kinda goth chick that you were never thrilled to introduce to your parents. She’s wild, unpredictable, emotionally unstable, but crazy beautiful. It you don’t treat her with caution, she’ll come down on your like a ton of bricks. Located on Australia’s East Coast, this left-hand slab teeters on the edge of being a blatant shorepound, due to, a) its velocity, and b) its proximity to a downward-sloping granite shelf, which sends backwash through the wave. And despite all of this, there’s still a few eager gents who try to win her love, including young hell-man Russell Bierke. “It's a really difficult wave to surf because it comes out of extremely deep water and ledges onto a shallow shelf,” says Russ. “On a good day there's only about one in 20 waves that you can actually paddle, so it's best to use a ski. When you're on the wave there's also backwash coming off the rocks, which is difficult to negotiate. It takes the perfect swell direction for it to even be rideable, otherwise it just goes dry.”
Scott’s Reef, USA
We’re not in the business of dropping pins, and we aren’t starting now. But something tells us you won’t want to find this wave, anyhow. Dubbed Scott’s Reef, but known as The Yeti, this wave can only be described as mutant. Picture: A mushroom-shaped reef, located in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by deep water on all sides, and riddled with sea urchins. On top of that, it’s really unpredictable. The ocean hits it with full force, and if the swell direction isn’t millimetre perfect, she snaps shut like a clamshell. You won’t know your fate until you get to the bottom of the wave, and by that time, it’s too late. You’ll either get the best barrel of your life, or wear the worst beating you’ve ever had. Ollie Richardson surfs the wave regularly and has experienced both.
“It’s the most challenging wave I have ever tried to surf in my life,” says Ollie. “It doesn't matter if it’s nine foot or 18 foot, it gets your heart rate up and the adrenaline pumping every time. When it’s big and I’m towing it, I have to work myself up just to get ready to catch one, because otherwise your hands tend to not want to let go of the rope. Scott's goes from 90 foot depth to zero or 10 feet instantaneously (depending on tide) and the water sucking off the slab races up the wave face at 30-plus miles per hour. It’s really hard to ever get to the bottom of the wave because of how quickly it breaks. The most dangerous thing about Scott's is the bottom. It’s shallow, sharp, covered in urchins, and it really hurts to get bounced off the bottom. I’ve been saying this for years, but if people keep surfing it, someone is going to die or get seriously injured out there. Picture Teahupoo, only less predictable, freezing cold, with big sharks, a shallow, jagged reef with urchins, and fickle surfing conditions.”
Kendalls Bombie, Australia
Kendalls Bombie may be the least-surfed wave on our list, and for good reason. It’s ruthless. There’s as many steps as there are lips. Rather than affording you the relative comfort of a mushroom-shaped floor, Kendalls instead breaks over a cluster of jagged rock boulders, often breaking the surface. If you can hold any sort of rail, you’re doing extremely well, as the inconsistency of its foundation spews up sickening boils throughout the entirety of the wave. To make things worse, Kendalls Bombie is surrounded by small cliff faces, and instead of breaking away from the rocks like most waves, she steams towards them and will only let you go at the very last second. And finally, the wave breaks less than 100 meters from a popular viewpoint, giving the peanut gallery a front row seat to all the carnage.
Let’s briefly journey to remote Indonesia and a wave called Apocalypse. Before you launch into a tirade of abuse, we’re well aware that this wave is often surfed, and seemingly perfect. But the devil is in the detail and its relentless speed. Speaking of one journey to the wave with Laurie Towner and Dean Bowen, Australian big-wave surfer Dylan Longbottom described it as “one of the fastest waves in the world, and kinda unmakeable.” You won’t see her come to life until it reaches six foot, but Apocalypse shows its true form at eight to 10 watts. Breaking in a picturesque bay, the wave lulls you into a false sense of security with a fairly straightforward takeoff. But it reels down the reef with a snowball effect, building on itself and growing as it nears the unforgiving end section, where only one in 10 waves are makeable. Australian photographer Jeremy Cresswell spent a week documenting the wave in 2012 and reckons if you can find an exit, you’re doing real well.
“The wave is situated so far back in the bay, that when you’re there, you wonder how the swell makes it all the way in to the reef,” says Jeremy. “There seems to be a deep trench before the reef that amplifies the swell, and sets seem to just pop up out of nowhere. It’s hard to know whether to enjoy the first main barrel and exit via the doggy door, or pump all the way and gamble on trying to make the final section. When the swell direction is perfect, the wave is definitely possible to make all the way through on the right one, but considering how shallow the second section of the wave is, you are really putting it all on the line.”
Insert yourself here: You’re frolicking around in a big green ocean, the thermom is scratching six, the wind is gusting over 60 clicks, the water is gushing over the reef like Niagara Falls, you’re mummified in six mills of rubber and there’s a 30 foot cleanup on the horizon. This is Ireland’s blackest hole - Mullaghmore. Touted as the country’s premier big-wave spot, Mully’s an unfairly shallow left reefbreak that’ll scare the absolute shit out of you. Any day over eight foot is silly heavy, and wave selection is crucial. Real crucial. Again, the danger lies in its unpredictability. There’s no fixed pattern and the barrel is forever changing, blemished by the constant boils on the wave face and floor. Local gent Tom Lowe has been surfing it for years and reckons on the right day, you can paddle into some of the biggest waves in the world.
“You've got to dig deep in Ireland, deeper than you can imagine,” says Tom. “If you luck into a bomb, one minute you’re outrunning the tube, thinking you’re kooking it, and the next you’re too deep with a 20 foot flaring lip about to pinch. I’ve had the best of both worlds out there, from the ride of my life, to fading way too deep and getting both my legs wrapped around my head. The thing that freaks me out the most is that you can still paddle when it’s big. On the right day, you could paddle into a 30 foot-plus mutant if you’re willing to commit to the unknown. I’m trying new things, pushing myself in what I love the most - paddling. A lot of big wigs come over to charge Mully, some the best in the business, but they've all got the rope out so far. No skill, just balls. I’m not saying its not awesome to get 20 foot tubes towing, I'm just saying it’s nothing compared to paddling. Nothing.”
Cyclops is still a reasonably new wave on the surfing world’s radar, and it’s almost amazing. Almost. In fact, it’s kinda deranged, and should be considered a forbidden fruit. Located on Western Australia’s southern coastline, Cyclops is nature’s equivalent of origami, with its many layers folding on top of itself to create the ultimate work of art. Its beauty is only preceded by its many kinks and buckles – a consequence of the sharp coral reef that it feeds off. Mark Mathews gave it a proper nudge years back, then vowed never to return again.
“It’s borderline impossible to surf,” says Mark. “What makes it so difficult is the fact there’s way too much deep-water power folding onto a reef that’s about an inch off being dry rock. I feel like you would have a better chance running through the barrel on foot. It needs the highest of high tides and that’s still not high enough. It looks mesmerising from the channel. It looks like a perfect peek but what you can’t see in photos and what you only find out when after you let go of the rope and drop into it, is that it horse shoes and folds in on itself. It was way scarier and heavier than I expected. I think I was so lucky on the last wave I rode out there. If I’d fallen at the bottom I don’t think I’d be surfing anymore. I vowed never to surf it again after that wave.”