On the Search with South Amer­i­can slab hunters Bruno San­tos and Guillermo Satt.


Leg­endary pho­tog­ra­pher Ted Gram­beau goes deep into the Pa­cific to a land of heavy waves and sketchy cliffs.


As the moon rose over the site of their day, the boys couldn’t help but sit and watch for one minute longer, one wave longer. It was quite a sight, this one.

That’s Aus­tralian pho­tog­ra­pher Ted Gram­beau talk­ing. If you know Ted Gram­beau, then you’ll be able to hear the sound of his deep, rough, vaguely er­ratic voice; the vol­ume ris­ing with each syl­la­ble, the de­liv­ery slow­ing with each word, drag­ging out each sen­tence un­til you can al­most feel their iso­la­tion.

Two days be­fore this vo­cal erup­tion, Ted called the Rip Curl head of­fice. He said he knew of a place, and that place was about to get ab­so­lutely smacked with swell. The winds were right. The di­rec­tion didn’t mat­ter. The only thing that mat­tered was that it would be two days of travel, and the clock was tick­ing.

If the call had come from any­body else, another en­thu­si­as­tic pho­tog­ra­pher look­ing to jump on a trip, the an­swer would have been no. But it came from Ted, and of all the world’s pho­tog­ra­phers, Ted is up there when it comes to know­ing what the hell he’s talk­ing about. He has spent the bet­ter part of the last three decades chart­ing swells, star­ing at maps, and learn­ing the ocean.

“We can’t just go tak­ing any­body,” he said. “This place… the surf... it’s not for the faint-hearted. If we are go­ing, we are go­ing in search of some of the most hard­core waves you'll find. It’s re­mote, it’s dan­ger­ous, and we will be on the edge.” Two men from the Rip Curl ath­lete pool fit the job: 34-year-old Brazil­ian Bruno San­tos, and 24-year-old Chilean Guillermo Satt. The two men have known each other for the past decade not only as Rip Curl team­mates, but also as travel com­pan­ions, hav­ing spent months to­gether chas­ing heavy swells around South Amer­ica and outer lying re­gions.

Bruno first made a name for him­self in big wave surf­ing when he won Teahupo’o through an en­try into the tri­als, and since then has con­tin­ued on as a full-time Searcher, chas­ing heav­ier and more re­mote slabs with each jour­ney. Guillermo, a full decade younger, is just be­gin­ning to fol­low in his friend’s foot­steps.

So within 48 hours, Bruno, Guillermo, Ted and videog­ra­pher Jon Frank were walk­ing out of a tiny air­port on a tiny is­land in the mid­dle of nowhere. As they opened the doors they were met with a brisk wind and light driz­zle. They shook hands with their con­nec­tion, a lo­cal water­man who goes by the sole name Ale­mao, and em­barked on the start of a jour­ney nav­i­gat­ing some of the most ter­ri­fy­ing and re­ward­ing waves of their lives.

“There was a huge amount of an­tic­i­pa­tion lead­ing up to this trip,” says Ted, still re­call­ing mem­o­ries three months later. “It was al­most like an eerie drama, be­cause once you see the coast­line you re­alise where you are. It’s prob­a­bly the heav­i­est coast­line I’ve ever seen surfed, and not user-friendly in any way.”



On one side of the is­land is a big, per­fect bay out­lined by a sheer cliff face div­ing into the ocean. A wave runs along the bot­tom of the cliffs, then turns and grinds across the bay. When it gets big it can be a 12-foot dry-reef slab, one of the best waves the boys found. Dwarfed by the sur­round­ing vol­canic moun­tain, it is a post-card per­fect left.

“It doesn’t look quite as im­pres­sive un­til you put a hu­man in there for ref­er­ence," says Ted. "The lit­tle dots on the hill that you think might be rocks are ac­tu­ally cows and horses. When you re­alise that, it dawns on you how big the swell re­ally is. We quickly found out that six-foot surf was ac­tu­ally 10-12 foot, and ab­so­lutely reel­ing down the point.”

Bruno San­tos and Guillermo Satt took a gam­ble with pulling the trig­ger on this trip. They didn’t know what they were in for. But when they woke up to an ocean like this, it be­came clear… the gam­ble paid off.

No mat­ter how beau­ti­ful, the wave doesn’t come with­out a set of hur­dles, and with them a set of con­se­quences. The en­try into the wa­ter is tricky, po­ten­tially deadly. “There's a 20-foot cliff jump to get into the ocean," Ted ex­plains, "and then you have to get across the bay, which, if it’s big, can be com­pletely closed out. Af­ter­wards, to get back in, you’ve gotta some­how scale up that same rock face, tim­ing your at­tack be­tween sets. It's crazy, and for ex­pe­ri­enced surfers only. There are a lot of guys on the World Tour, most, ac­tu­ally, who wouldn’t be com­fort­able out there.”

Cou­ple the in­tem­per­ate na­ture of the land­scape with a dis­tinct dis­con­nect from the out­side world, and you find your­self in a treach­er­ous, high-risk setup. Ev­ery­thing done on this is­land is mul­ti­plied by a de­gree of heav­i­ness and in­ten­sity. As Bruno so elo­quently told the crew af­ter a ses­sion one day, “Doc­tors should put heart mon­i­tors on surfers who pad­dle out here! It is not soft!”

The other side of the is­land is no dif­fer­ent. Most places, even in the outer reaches of the Pa­cific Ocean, at­tract cer­tain di­rec­tions of storms – swells com­ing up from New Zealand, or down from Mex­ico – but not here. This par­tic­u­lar lo­ca­tion gets ham­mered by al­most ev­ery high and low that trav­els through any part of the Pa­cific.

“It only be­comes sur­fa­ble when the wind has some form of north in it,” says Ted. “We got that on two or three oc­ca­sions through­out our trip, but some days were just too much – 15-foot grind­ing death pits. The whole is­land was al­most like a smor­gas­bord of choices – only the choice isn’t which wave you want to get bar­relled on – it’s which wave you want to kill you. It’s big­ger than Tahiti here and it gets one of the most di­rect hits of swells in the world.”

That’s ac­tu­ally how Ted found this place – on Google Earth, just fol­low­ing where the swell goes, and who gets the brunt. Per­haps that is why this is­land, this place, is so un­touched – be­cause we’ve only had the tech­nol­ogy and abil­ity to fol­low swells that acutely, for a rel­a­tively short pe­riod of time.

When Ted Gram­beau stared at Google Earth and tracked this swell, hunted this is­land, he never could have imag­ined that this is what they would find.

“I’ve been re­search­ing swells for well over 30 years,” says Ted. “But since swell maps have come into the pic­ture, we’re fi­nally able to ac­tu­ally track swells un­til they dis­ap­pear al­to­gether. Pre­vi­ously you’d have to look at a syn­op­tic chart, and usu­ally only ap­ply it to the places you knew – In­done­sia or Tahiti, or some­where along those lines. We never seemed to fol­low those swells and find out where they went af­ter they hit those spots.

“So now it’s much clearer around the world, and I think this ac­counts for a lot of the rea­son why there are so many peo­ple go­ing off the edge these days, mov­ing away from the tra­di­tional ar­eas – to places that bear the brunt of swells. Where you go, ‘Oh my god, this lit­tle vol­canic out­crop is in com­plete line with some of the heav­i­est swells in ex­is­tence!’ There is a whole se­ries of is­lands that just con­tin­u­ally gets smashed by swells, and then it’s just a mat­ter of tim­ing it to co­in­cide with op­ti­mum winds. It’s all very cycli­cal, but it’s try­ing to find that per­fect com­bi­na­tion. Fore­cast­ing has im­proved so much now that a raid can be such a high chance of get­ting it right, with re­ally short no­tice – just like this trip.”

Af­ter ev­ery jour­ney, it’s in­evitable that you look back and compare your pre­con­ceived no­tions about the waves and the cul­ture and the place with the ac­tu­al­ity of what you found – where your ex­pec­ta­tions were met, and where the real­ity fell short. Ted touches on this…

“It’s funny. I was talk­ing about ex­pec­ta­tions, but very rarely do they get met or ex­ceeded. This was one of those rare cases. There’s some­thing about surf­ing in an en­vi­ron­ment that’s steeped in cul­ture and rich­ness – it adds an en­tirely new ele­ment to a trip. You get this feel­ing that it’s more than just waves – it’s a sense of place, of cul­ture. It’s an awe­some thing in its en­ergy and scale, and that is def­i­nitely trans­lated into the ocean.”

Strong off­shore winds. Steep, jagged cliff­sides. Reel­ing, 12-foot slabs. A pow­er­ful and un­known ocean. A herd of white horses stand­ing on the hard­ened vol­canic lava above. No signs. No

land­marks. Just raw el­e­ments. This is where the team found them­selves, and it’s the en­vi­ron­ment that shaped the cul­ture of the place they tem­po­rar­ily in­hab­ited.

“We’d come in to the shore and the wife of the lo­cal guy would cook up a BBQ. We’d sit on the rocks eat­ing fish un­til the sun went down, some­times with­out even say­ing a word. It was such a nice scene and it was gen­uine. It was mo­ments like that that cre­ated the magic of the place – the jux­ta­po­si­tion be­tween the harsh el­e­ments and the peo­ple who sur­vive in them.”

It doesn’t re­ally hap­pen like this any­more. These days ev­ery­thing is a catered-for ex­pe­ri­ence. You pre-pay for a boat trip. You check in and your bags are trans­ferred. You’re brought to your lay­over ho­tel and you get your wel­come drink filled with cheap al­co­hol. You wake up and you get trans­ferred onto a boat where you’re fed for 12 days. You’re dropped off at breaks and you get your photos off the pho­tog­ra­pher and you know ex­actly what you’re go­ing to get the en­tire time you’re away.

“That’s not what this was. This was a jour­ney. A real jour­ney. And in my hum­ble opin­ion, that ideal is en­dan­gered.”

Ev­ery­one that has trav­elled, ev­ery­one that has surfed – they know that the whole thing is re­ally about the jour­ney. Per­haps that’s why a trip like this… to an is­land in the mid­dle of the Pa­cific, on a vol­canic rock, get­ting blud­geoned by mas­sive swells, as re­mote, as you can get… is so im­por­tant.

It’s keep­ing the Search alive, from the rugged ends of the earth.

This was one of the best days of the trip, they said, and we be­lieved them.


Ses­sions this good are funny, be­cause you never quite know when to get out. And when you do, there’s al­ways one call­ing you back.


Re­ward. Risk. Two ideals that must be weighed up as a surfer in a re­mote area. In this case? Re­ward > risk.

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