LAST MAN STANDING
Aged 51, Ross Clarke-Jones', new focus on Nazaré has kept him at the vanguard of big-wave surfing. He tells Tracks how after 30 years at the top, he's nowhere done yet.
“You have to evolve, but I’ve always been true to myself and done what I want to do,” Ross Clarke-Jones tells Tracks. “My sponsors once asked me, ‘What do you want to do in five years?’ I answered, “Fucked if I know, in five years I could be dead.’ And that was when I was 30.” Ross Clarke Jones is now 51 and very much alive. With dark bones, black eyes, speed in his veins and a laugh that can power a thermonuclear reactor, the man born on 6.6.66 is the last man standing. This European winter he was yet again nominated for the XXL Biggest Wave Award for a behemoth ridden at Nazaré. It seems a move to Portugal has yet again kick- started a career that is 35-years strong and nowhere done yet. Clarke-Jones burst into the surf consciousness back in 1987. “That year I got third in the World Amateur Titles, turned pro, got that wave at Waimea (in giant surf in the Billabong Pro, the then 19-year-old rode one of the biggest waves of the event on a 7’6”) and then MadWax came out. So it was 12 months that changed my world.” For the groms out there MadWax was a surf movie. In it Clarke-Jones played Wizz, a grom who finds a book on how to make your own surfboard wax that magically transports the user to whatever surf spot they want. And yes, as you might tell from that synopsis, its screenplay didn’t win any awards. However it’s goofy tone, great soundtrack and loud, neon lit surfing by Tom Carroll, Gary Elkerton, Richard Cram and Clarke-Jones made it a cult classic. Clarke-Jones, who initially wasn’t even supposed to be in the film, was its breakout star. Last year Red Bull paid homage to that movie with a web clip called GoMad. In that installation Clarke-Jones played a big wave guru who shares his teleporting powers with Leonardo Fioravanti, Kanoa Igarashi
and Caroline Marks. Now Clarke-Jones’s acting may not have improved much in the three decades, but it was yet another squaring of an incredible career circle. In those 30 years, Clarke-Jones, after initially failing in his ambition to succeed on the competitive tour, has forged a career as the outstanding big-wave surfer of his generation. No bad feat considering when he started such careers really didn’t exist. Basing himself in Hawaii each winter, his initial focus was winning the Eddie Aikau. It became an all-arching obsession, one that he eventually paid off in 2001, when he became the first non-Hawaiian winner. In that time he also led the tow surfing charge. Along with his partner Tony Ray, RCJ was part of the first wave of professional surfers who took up the rope after Laird Hamilton had started the movement. Ross’s nominated XXL wave at Nazaré this year came almost 20 years to the day that he rode one of the pivotal and, at the time, largest swells in history at outside Log Cabins on the day known as “Biggest Wednesday”. He was also part of the first pack to surf Jaws, tow surfing the Maui wave every time it broke with a select crew in the early 2000s. However it was the reintroduction of paddle surfing, specifically at Jaws, that stuck yet another stick in the spoke of Ross’s career. “I’d towed Jaws the best years of towing and I just didn’t see the point in paddling it,” he says matter-of-factly. “It’s not the cool thing to do now, but I don’t give a fuck if you call me cool or not. Call me an idiot, I don’t care. I mean it takes a lot more courage and skill to paddle those waves, so hats off to those guys, but I don’t want to drive a truck on a racetrack. I want to drive a Porsche. Towing is still the most effective way of riding a really big wave on really short equipment.”
While the rest of the world’s best surfers decamped to paddle Jaws every time it broke, Clarke-Jones stuck to his jetskis on the outer reefs of Oahu, as well as paddling his beloved Waimea, which had suddenly become relatively uncrowded. Yet with tow surfing falling out of favour, Ross had hit another plateau. He was still chasing big waves, doing a season in Mavericks and missioning to Cortes Banks and slabs like Shipsterns, but approaching 50, it looked like the writing was on the wall. Surely it would have been easier just to retire gracefully. “Fuck that, you can’t kill me,” laughs RCJ. “And Nazaré popped up. I’d been there in 2005, and it was like 300-foot, perfect Pipeline, but we had no idea how to get out there. I’d always wanted to spend a winter in Europe, but I was always based in Hawaii, chasing the Eddie Aikau. Then we had the event 2016, and after that it was canned. So I had the chance to go explore properly.” In 2016, Ross Clarke-Jones came second in the Eddie, his third runner-up result, finishing behind John John Florence in the biggest waves seen in the 40-year history of the event. For a 50-year-old, who supposedly couldn’t paddle, it was a remarkable achievement and one that probably isn’t given its due credit. Ross finished ahead of Dorian, Jamie Mitchell, Kelly Slater and Makua Rothman. Many thought he’d finished ahead of Florence too. “I was so close and it was in the hands of the judges and they wanted John John to win, so I was like, ‘Whatever.’ And then I looked at his cheque and it was 75 grand and I was like, ‘Oh fuck, well, that hurts’,” he laughs. “But I spent a week after that partying in Honolulu and everywhere I went the locals were like, ‘Ross, brah, you won
Ross Clarke-Jones has never been accused of taking himself too seriously.
The fabulous and frightening gloom of Nazare.
Main: Ross relishing the descent on a Nazare behemoth.