Meet the lo­cal surfers who take on our big­gest waves

A band of thrill-seek­ing surfers shares a deep con­nec­tion forged by chas­ing our wildest waves


It’s a chilly, grey morn­ing at Clifton Beach, about 30 min­utes from cen­tral Ho­bart. A sweep­ing, cres­cent-shaped stretch of sand sev­eral kilo­me­tres long, waves break on to the Clifton shore for nearly as far as the eye can see. In the wa­ter at spa­cious in­ter­vals are a few wet­suit-clad fig­ures. De­spite the surf be­ing – in the words of one lo­cal – “like mush”, they are ly­ing on their boards wait­ing for that one bliss­ful, ride­able wave to ar­rive.

It’s a cold ad­dic­tion, but th­ese men wouldn’t want to be any­where else.

Look­ing di­rectly south from the beach is Wedge Is­land, about 30km in the dis­tance. Out of sight and to the east of that is the leg­endary Ship­stern Bluff where, when the con­di­tions are right, waves are epic in scope and rep­u­ta­tion.

Gath­ered on the sand at Clifton on this weather-beaten morn­ing are mem­bers of the small surf­ing fra­ter­nity whose lives are lived to the rhythm of the ocean. Th­ese are the big-wave surfers to whom Ship­stern Bluff is mecca. Surf­ing for them is more than a com­pet­i­tive sport. It con­nects them deeply with great forces of na­ture and one an­other. They re­fer to them­selves as “free surfers” – as close a band of broth­ers as you’ll get.

Marti Par­a­di­sis, 34, rides the big waves at Ship­pies, as it is af­fec­tion­ately called by surfers. His path to the waves was di­rect. “My dad grew up on a lit­tle is­land in Greece and had a pas­sion for the ocean and the coast­line, and that had a strong in­flu­ence on me,” he says. “At the age of 10 or 11, I used to bor­row my sis­ter’s body­board and go out and surf. It took me over and be­fore I knew it I was wag­ging school and hitch­hik­ing to the beach from Clare­mont. If I couldn’t get to the beach I’d get on my skate­board and ride around the streets and pre­tend I was surf­ing.”

As his surf­ing fever de­vel­oped, it led to an epiphany. “I said to my­self, ‘I’ll do any­thing I can to pur­sue it’,” he says.

Al­lied with a tal­ent in the wa­ter to match his drive and surf­ing wan­der­lust, Par­a­di­sis de­voted him­self to search­ing the shores of Tas­ma­nia and be­yond in the pur­suit of new and bet­ter waves in the time-hon­oured man­ner of many surfers. Like other like­minded souls, he took up camp­ing out, four-wheel driv­ing and boat­ing – what­ever it took.

For Par­a­di­sis and oth­ers, surf­ing nir­vana was a lot closer to home than they thought. Re­fer­ring to his con­tem­po­raries and fel­low big-wave surfers, Par­a­di­sis says: “We are se­ri­ously lucky to have grown up where and when we did and to be of­fered the op­por­tu­nity by our surf­ing el­ders to in­tro­duce us to Ship­stern.”

Ship­stern Bluff was so named be­cause the sheer face of the rock form bears a strong re­sem­blance to the stern of a ship. A very large one. A rock­fall ear­lier this year left a gouge in the bot­tom of the cliff that looks like a gi­ant shark has taken a bite out of it. It is a fear­some and fore­bod­ing place.

The waves that break at Ship­stern and that in­spire such awe and ad­mi­ra­tion in the surf­ing com­mu­nity around the world be­gin as storms in the ocean thousands of kilo­me­tres away – in Par­a­di­sis’ words, “from un­der­neath the coast of South Africa or off the coast of Antarc­tica”.

About two dozen times a year, great masses of wa­ter rolling in from very deep wa­ter hit the shal­low reef at Ship­stern then fold over it. The size of th­ese swells and the shape of the reef cre­ate waves dis­tin­guished as much by their enor­mous base – their sheer thick­ness – as their height. The be­he­moths can be up to five-me­tres high, maybe more. They are very big and very fast.

To reach the speed needed to take off suc­cess­fully on one of th­ese ocean mu­tants, a rider gen­er­ally needs to be towed into place by a surf ski. Arms and legs pad­dling is a measly and in­suf­fi­cient force in the freez­ing, tow­er­ing wa­ters.

Pho­tog­ra­pher An­drew Chisholm, who took this story’s cover and ac­tion shots, is an in­te­gral mem­ber of the dozen or so strong free-surf­ing com­mu­nity who all live within strik­ing dis­tance of the waves. Chisholm chooses, for rea­sons re­lat­ing to his sense of self-preser­va­tion, to record the spec­ta­cle from the safety of land, which means a lot of walk­ing, or oc­ca­sion­ally from a speed­boat. He loves what he hears when the big surf is re­ally rolling and there is lit­tle wind.

“On a still day, when the ocean is glassy, you can hear the surfer com­ing in,” Chisholm says.

“Just the board mak­ing a shud­der­ing sound as it crosses the sur­face of the wave. Then when the surfer pulls back in to the bar­rel af­ter land­ing on the step [an im­per­fec­tion on the face of the wave cre­ated by a reef fea­ture] the hoot­ing and hol­ler­ing of ev­ery­one in and around the wa­ter. I can only imag­ine how the rider him­self is feel­ing.”

De­spite the mag­ni­tude of forces around him, big-wave rider Mikey Bren­nan de­scribes the ex­pe­ri­ence of rid­ing a mon­ster as “be­ing in a cone of si­lence”.

He knows the dan­gers of the Ship­stern break well, though. When I ask him about some of the in­juries he’s suf­fered by be­ing thrown like a rag doll into the foam­ing mael­strom cre­ated by a gi­ant break, he men­tions a bro­ken back, then adds: “I don’t ride the wave to con­quer my fear. I go out there to get the big­gest bar­rel I can get and to get as deep in to the wave as I can. It’s about con­nect­ing with the en­ergy in the wave. [It is] the high­est adrenalin hit you could pos­si­bly get.”

Like­wise, Par­a­di­sis is ad­dicted to the high of a good day in the surf. And some­times he looks be­yond our coast­line for thrills.

“If the fore­cast looks good, I’ll fly to In­done­sia for four or five days to catch a wave,” he says. “Peo­ple com­pare surf­ing to a drug, be­cause it only keeps you happy for a cer­tain amount of time. I’ll look at fore­casts five to 10 times a day, then I’ll see lumps that look like po­ten­tial swells, and I’ll start get­ting the drug go­ing again.”

Along with the on­go­ing search for the near-in­sur­mount­able rush of a per­fect wave comes a deeper phi­los­o­phy. Out of the wa­ter, Bren­nan is a disability sup­port worker. Par­a­di­sis, af­ter years as a spon­sored surfer, works in cus­tomer ser­vice at Ho­bart Air­port. Chisholm sup­ple­ments his in­come from surf pho­tog­ra­phy by work­ing as a deck­hand on an abalone boat.

Bren­nan some­times re­flects on the con­nec­tion be­tween life in a con­ven­tional so­ci­ety, where bills need to be paid and obli­ga­tions met, to the free­dom both phys­i­cal and spir­i­tual that lies in the ocean.

“You make a de­ci­sion as to whether you’re go­ing to live in the bush and con­nect with surf­ing deeply and com­pletely or play the part of con­nect­ing to a so­ci­ety,” he says.

“In a per­fect world I’d get paid to travel the world and chase waves, but I en­joy the work I do and it feels good to give some­thing back to so­ci­ety. Surf­ing to a de­gree has a self­ish side to it.”

The In­ter­na­tional Surf­ing As­so­ci­a­tion es­ti­mated there were more than 35 mil­lion surfers in the world in 2014. In the US, crowd­ing at some beaches has be­come such a prob­lem that some rid­ers have taken to the wa­ter at night.

There’s no need to go to such lengths at Ship­stern when the big surf is rolling, but Bren­nan’s tone is re­signed when he talks of in­creas­ing numbers of “bucket-list surfers” who make the long and dif­fi­cult jour­ney from in­ter­state or over­seas just to surf the fa­mous break.

“It doesn’t be­long to me, but that wave is some­thing that I love and that place is some­where that I love,” he says. “It’s not a se­cret. Any­one who wants to can surf it, but there’s def­i­nitely a com­mu­nity who’ve made it their lives to ex­pe­ri­ence it. I’ve been pro­tec­tive of it and been neg­a­tive to­wards other peo­ple com­ing in [and] not re­ally re­spect­ing the place, con­nect­ing to the land [or] un­der­stand­ing where the swell has come from.

“Crowd­ing can be re­ally frus­trat­ing, but at the same time you have to let all th­ese things go. I’ve had ac­ci­dents hap­pen to me be­cause I’ve been in a headspace that isn’t healthy.”

As the weather gets colder, the numbers in the wa­ter thin out. “As a rule of thumb, more surfers are likely to ride bad waves in sum­mer than they are [to go out] in win­ter,” Chisholm says.

For Tas­ma­nia’s com­mu­nity of free surfers, the weather pat­terns out in the great oceans are their sea­sonal masters. And the com­mu­nity is al­ways ready to an­swer the call.

Marti Par­a­di­sis surfs at Ship­stern Bluff.

Clock­wise from op­po­site page, big-wave rider Mikey Bren­nan takes to the wa­ter at Ship­stern Bluff; ac­claimed surf­ing pho­tog­ra­pher An­drew Chisholm cap­tures dra­matic mo­ments at re­mote surf breaks around the state; Marti Par­a­di­sis started bor­row­ing his sis­ter’s body­board as a kid and feels lucky to have grown up surf­ing in Tas­ma­nia; and Bren­nan de­scribes the ex­pe­ri­ence of rid­ing a mon­ster as “be­ing in a cone of si­lence”.

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