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.

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“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.

Photo: Phil Ge­orge

The fab­u­lous and fright­en­ing gloom of Nazare.

In­set Bot­tom: Ross, grab­bing the bit by the teeth at the 2016 Ed­die Aikau event, where he fin­ished sec­ond.

Main: Ross rel­ish­ing the des­cent on a Nazare be­he­moth.

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