MEET CHRIS ROSS, THE MAN WHO MARRIED A WAVE.
In the beginning Long story, short? Ross shapes his own boards, is gearing up for a paddle session at The Right, uses a trampoline to practice airs, surfs small waves exceptionally well, cannot sleep the night before a big swell, has a musically gifted girlfriend, and a crap load of bees.
"I inherited about 30 hives from an old homeless guy down south and I think I've got enough honey to last a lifetime," reckons Ross. "I've had some pretty wild experiences getting so stung, sometimes 50 at a time. They always seem to get me."
Who knows? The genetically blessed Ross could have also been a model. But the call of the wild was always going to be too much, even for someone born into a postcode bursting with perfect waves. He'd already chiselled out a solid reputation in waves of consequence, but it was his plateauing competitive surfing career that ultimately fuelled the decision to pack his bags, head east out of Margaret River, turn right at Nannup and just … disappear.
"I'd just been knocked out of a competition and I was really down on myself," Ross recalls. "Some friends had been telling me about these waves down south, so I thought, I'll just go and check them out. I We're going, like, right now It'll start about seven days out. And after all these years, Paige knows exactly what's coming next. The phone calls, the metrological talk and the goddam size. Four metres … interested; seven metres … forget dinner, we're on standby. The bags will be packed, the car fuelled and pointed in the right direction and the sleepless nights will begin. Any minute now, a flurry of blond-headed excitement with a distinctive upwardly inflecting speech pattern will pull the trigger, whisk her into the car and the long drive south will begin.
"He used to be much worse, but he still gets so, so excited," says Paige.
"He" is Chris Ross. The hardest charging man of mystery who ever did surf for free. saw the waves, and that was it, I was gone."
Months went by, rumours spread and the legend began to grow.
Two guys enter a bar About the same time, photographer Russell Ord set out with his own goal in mind, nailing the perfect surf shot. On a hunch, Ord also headed south and the longtime friends bumped into each other at the top of a hill overlooking the most beautiful beach on earth. Out to sea, thick walls of water lurched out of the deep Southern Ocean, turning the most magnificent shade of blue before violently detonating onto a barely covered rock shelf. Perfect.
"I knew it was what we'd been looking for," Ord recalled. "We put together bits and pieces of rumours and pictures that had started to appear in body boarding mags. And then we overheard some guys talking in the pub one night…" Ord swam, Ross grabbed the towrope. It didn't take long for the first shocking images of Chris Ross at The Right to appear. Standing tall in the belly of the thickest beast that dangerous stretch of coast offered, wearing little else than a wetsuit and a huge grin.
"That first surf there … it was like nothing I'd ever seen, felt or heard,'' Ross says. "I pretty much knew straight away this was where it was going to be at for me.''
Mum knows best Those first few images took even less time reaching Ross' parents, Jim and Yvonne, who recall bursting with pride after double clicking the first email attachment sent to them by Ord.
"A lot of people expect me to feel fear when I see photos of Chris at The Right," says Yvonne. "But I just feel so proud and I know he has a pretty good handle on what's going on. I actually feel better when I see the photos because at least I know there were a few other people there."
Years before, Yvonne had coaxed her young son
back into the gentle waves of Cowaramup Bay after Ross had tried to match it with father Jim at solid Margaret River Mainbreak.
"I just got clobbered, my head smashed into my board and I didn't want anything to do with surfing after that," Chris recalls. "But mum was really good, she used to take me boogie boarding out at Huzza's and really encouraged me to get back into it."
Yvonne noticed her son's confidence returning, albeit aided by a healthy fascination with action figures.
"As a kid he was obsessed with that cartoon character Skeletor," she recalls. "And when we used to go surfing before school he'd come paddling up behind me and say in the same voice as Skeletor, 'Don't let fear stand in the way of your dreams'; that was his favourite saying."
With the love for surfing returned, Ross swapped boards and started haunting the waves around Margaret River. First on the list was Rivermouth, the punchy little beach break that still serves as the perfect canvas for young rippers including Shaun Manners, Jacob Willcox and Jack Robinson.
"We started surfing there and slowly moved out to Sunday Reef, which is the little reform in front of The Box," Ross said.
First love "As soon as we started at Sundays, I started watching the Box and it just looked like the funnest thing on earth. Then (local ripper) Andrew Sheridan got a cover shot on a magazine that to this day is still the best barrel I've ever seen out there, so we hit it. Soon as we did, I never wanted to surf Sunday's again."
Thus began a love affair with big thick juicy barrels. And just as a murder of crows will tell you, one does not have to travel far in Margaret River to find those.
"I started getting pretty obsessed with The Box and all those big barrelly waves around Margs," Ross recalled. "Once you get a taste of waves like that, everything else seems not quite as special as it once did."
Back in black With his confidence in full swing, Ross returned to Mainbreak, the same wave that almost ended his surfing career years before.
"I think initially I'd see Dad out there always out the back going for the biggest ones and I guess you always aspire to do what your dad does," Ross says.
"Looking back though, I went out there a bit too big a bit too early, but in a funny way it kind of conditioned me, because when I went back out to big massive Margs, I noticed a few crew were a bit freaked out, but I felt pretty calm. That's when I figured I could do alright in bigger waves."
Subconsciously, Ross had also developed the ability to hold his breath for extended periods while free diving for the showpiece of the West Australian barbeque, the humble crayfish.
"I used to be obsessed with getting those things. Sometimes I'd just be peaking out underwater without oxygen but I could see that cray sitting there and I just couldn't let it go."
Ross employed the free diving method of hyperventilating before plunging to the depths, which purges the body of debilitating carbon dioxide thus reducing the urge to breathe.
"It's really only when you get pushed to that point where you think you're about to die that you realise if you push through it, you can hold your breath for at least twice as long as you think you can."
Jim Ross was quick to notice his son's renewed confidence amongst the big waves.
"You'd be out there paddling like mad for the horizon and he's yapping away paddling with one arm. It all came to him, but he did put a lot of work into it. People forget that."
Boyz in da hood It was also around this time Maurice Cole introduced the new buzz sport of tow surfing to those for whom too much of a big thing was never enough. Ross quickly teamed up with fellow big wave devotee, Lief Mulik, and the duo set to work amongst the miles of untapped waves the region had to offer.
"It was just paradise, the absolute best thing in the whole world,'' Ross recalls of those first forays offshore. "Instead of slowly paddling around with the crowds and waiting for a set, you could just grab that towrope and it was just (claps hands) action, action, action. Instead of paddling into a bomb and just hoping to make the drop, you could be setting up for the barrel straight away."
The learning curve was not without its moments of humour though.
"I ended up sending Lief's ski over the falls out at Margs' Bombie one day. I was towing him into a wave and kind of got stuck in the lip. I probably could have ridden it out, but I panicked and let go. Jake Paterson towed us in and we got it fixed but it kept on breaking down after that. I think that was Maurice Cole's old ski anyway, I'm sure it had been sunk heaps of times."
Mulik, who was at the end of the tow rope seconds prior to the sinking, recalls being flung into the wave at warp speed.
"I think he (Ross) just saw the wave and wanted to flick me into it so bad he just forgot I was there. He whipped me in so fast I kind of ended up going in the opposite direction."
Which bank? But Ross' fate was forever sealed in 2007, the same day Courtney Gray yanked Damon Eastough into his award winning 66-footer at the newly discovered Cow Bombie.
That waves of that size could exist in his neighbourhood blew the second-last fuse left in a mind already exposed to a lifetime of big.
"I just could not believe what I was seeing – it was a complete natural phenomenon" Ross said. "Just the size of those waves … it was like Jaws, before there was Jaws."
Shortly thereafter, Ross found himself hightailing it back home after another session down south at the newly discovered Rondogs.
"That was it for me. I drove straight to the bank and got a $22,000 loan for a jet ski."
And as luck would have it, just as Ross went looking for a bigger sandpit to play with his squeaky clean Tonka truck, photographer Andrew Buckley found himself firing off a sequence of Kerby Brown at an undisclosed location way down south that would send Ross, and the surfing world in general, into an absolute frenzy.
Are we there yet? "I'll never forget that feeling of coming round the corner and seeing The Right for the first time," Ross recalled. "I went down there with a mate and it was just windy and wild. We were both thinking, 'What are we doing out here? This is a joke'. But then we got a look at it and I'd just never seen waves pitch so round, so thick and so big." Final fuse, blown. "We had a reasonable first session, but what stood out most was the amount of water drawing up the face of the wave, it just made you feel like you're going as fast as you'll ever go."
It was also at this juncture where Ross' often overlooked knowledge of board design came into play.
"It took a while to figure out what works best out there. My first couple of sessions there, I rode a board with a real straight rocker, two big side fins and a leg rope. The board would always catch a rail and then I had a real bad hold down, the leg rope wouldn't break and I dislocated my ankle. I thought to myself, 'I gotta get these boards right otherwise I'm going to get killed every time'."
Ross sought advice from mentor shapers Marty Littlewood and Chris Chapman.
"We deducted the size of the side fins, added a big back fin and lots more rocker. We did play around with adding weights for a while, but we swapped that for heavier glass jobs and pretty much once we got that sorted, the rest was history."
Look mum, no floatation device "The one thing Chris really worries about out there is the lip," says Ross' girlfriend Paige of The Right's not so subtle falling wall of water.
Paul "Antman" Paterson flat out claims he came as close to death as he ever has while on a spur of the moment trip to The Right with Grant "Twiggy" Baker.
"I honestly thought I was done. I was driven down so far, I opened my eyes and it was pitch pitch black," Antman recalls. "I was down for two waves and I was just lucky I came up and the third wave had backed off and didn't break. Someone was looking out for me."
Despite the dangers, Ross chooses not to wear floatation.
"If you go down out there the lip is going to snap you in two anyway. All the training in the world isn't going to help with that," says Ross. "I put most of my effort into reading the wave right."
Paige however offers an alternate viewpoint as the secret to Ross' seemingly indestructible nature amongst the beastly waves.
"His approach is definitely unorthodox, but I think he's just naturally physically and mentally equipped to deal with whatever happens there," she says.
"And it's almost like he's pre-surfed the waves on the days leading up to a big swell. He can't sleep, gets really edgy and has trouble just chilling. You can really see his mind is going a million miles an hour."
It goes to 11 Before long images of Ross and other devotees including Ben Rufus, Cale Grigson and Chris Shanahan began circulating and a new gold rush began.
About 14,000 kilometres away in the North Western coastal town of Carnarvon, Myron Porter took one look at the heaving dark blue barrels on offer and quickly added the spot to his bucket list.
Porter, a self confessed forecast junkie who was on hand for the 2012 mega swell in Fiji, quickly fig- ured out the variables and began hightailing to The Right at every opportunity.
"I scrutinise the shit out of every forecast model before I make the call to head down there though," Porter says. "And I'll always call Crossy to make sure he's frothing on the swell too."
But the gold rush also attracted bigger crowds with every new swell, adding to tension in the line up and a fairly rapid dilution of the impact pictures of the wave once had.
The tension came to a head during the last major swell, resulting in an overcrowded lineup and a punch up in the car park.
"It's always in the back of our minds," says Cross, of the overexposure of the once secret spot. "We do cop a bit of flak from some of the older locals though and it does seem like we cop a lot of flak for other people's exposure."
But Porter, like many, was quick to defend Ross' motivations.
"He just wants to surf and get barrelled," says Porter. "No hype, no machismo, no spectators, egos or accolades. He is the absolute real deal."
Plan B, C, D and E Such is Ross' devotion to The Right that he's relocated to a farmhouse down south to be closer to the wave he gladly admits to "falling in love with".
He's also found a second house further down the road where he is free to shape boards, tend his bees and bounce to his heart's content on the newly acquired trampoline.
"I've missed a few days out there and I get so down and devastated I really feel like I'm going to regret it for the rest of my life," he says. "So I figured, if I can be right near it, I'll be happy till the end of my days."
Bees and barrels are Chris Ross's two obsessions.