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”.