One Wave is a Life’s Work
CHRIS LOUGHER’S DEADMAN’S RIDE ENTHRALLED SURFERS AROUND THE WORLD, BUT IT WASN’T DUMB LUCK THAT PUT HIM IN THE SPOT FOR ONE OF THE BEST WAVES EVER RIDDEN IN SYDNEY.
Chris Lougher is still in his wetsuit as he perches on the cliffs above Deadman’s and tries to pull himself together. A few minutes earlier he’d dragged himself from the water, coughing blood and shaken after a heavy wipeout. Only the day before he’d slapped so hard on the wave face of a set, he came up from the ensuing hold down concussed and blurry-eyed.
It wasn’t supposed to play out like this.
At 34, the wiry-framed natural-footer from Curl Curl (he has the word Curl tattooed on either wrist) had spent the best part of 20 years chasing glory at Deadman’s. Despite a lifetime infatuation he still didn’t have a wave out there he was happy to put his name to. Although driven more by personal dissatisfaction than ego, it niggled him that many of his Northern Beaches peers had chalked one up at ‘Deadies’ and had the photographic evidence to prove it.
This was going to be the moment where everything clicked – light winds, optimal swell direction, and none of the heavy weather typically associated with Deadman’s sessions – and Chris was better prepared than ever.
In the week leading up to the swell, Chris was in the pool performing a sequence of breathing and training drills he’d learned while working as a lifeguard in England. The confidence-building techniques had been passed on by a Kiwi guy, who had in turn borrowed them from his brother, who was a former Olympic swimmer.
The day before the muscular lines from the intense, east coast low began showing up in Sydney, Chris cooked the food he would need to sustain him over the course of the swell. Time spent with Greg Long had taught him to take his diet seriously, while a bad case of food poisoning – mid-swell in Mexico – had made him wary of eating out when the waves were on. This time he was leaving nothing to chance. He planned to snack on fruit and nuts between sessions, but when the giants had been slayed and the adrenalin levels normalised, there would be a hearty, pre-made chicken risotto waiting for him to fill the void and fuel him for the day to come.
In the weeks prior to the east coast low Chris had been roaming Australia on the whim of wind and swell. COVID restrictions had eventually soured his capricious sojourn, but not before he rode a roaring offshore bommie in South Oz alongside Heath Joske and underground cult figure, Geoff Goulden, aka Camel. The first day of the swell Chris paddled a mile over the sharky trench – alone. On day two he travelled first class in Joske’s tinny, slipped him ‘a pineapple’ to say thanks and then threw his 10’2” over the ledge on a few heaving Southern Ocean lumps. It was just Chris and a handful of stoic, big wave beatniks enjoying their version of 15-foot-fun on the edge of the Great Australian Bight. “We had a really magical sunset session,” reflects Chris, “I got to see the mythical Heath Joske out there on his hand-shaped 9’6” and I got to meet Camel, who is just a pioneer of bigwave surfing…at that point it was the best session of my life in Australia.”
After the euphoric highs of recent weeks, Chris was now slumped amongst the clifftop rubber-neckers at Deadman’s. Just an anonymous face in the crowd; wondering if he was up to another shot at it as he tasted the blood in the back of his throat and dripped in self-doubt.
“... At the wave often referred to as Mexican Pipe, Chris rapidly earned a rep as the gungho, underground Aussie guy ...”
Chris Lougher’s obsession with Deadman’s began when he was a young teenager. From his North Curl Curl home he could sit with a pair of binoculars and train his sights on the distant right ledge that would lurch, and chuck violently at the base of the Ferry Bower cliffs.
He also went to school at St Paul’s, on the hill at North Manly. There was slim tolerance for surf-inspired truancy at the strict Catholic college, but the playground was near enough to hear the rumble of a set at Deadman’s. Back then Chris was a bodyboarder, and if he didn’t have school and Deadman’s or Winkipop was on, he’d take the bus or ride his pushie 7km from home at North Curl Curl.
The bodyboard was eventually ditched after a fateful session alongside Kelly Slater at Deadman’s in the early 2000s. Slater famously lost his back fin but still handled the girth and power of the Deadman’s lineup on an unintended twinny set-up. Chris remembers feeling way off the pace as he watched Slater masterfully negotiate the unruly lineup. “I was on my booger and I just wasn’t getting the speed on any of them. And I just thought ‘this is stupid’ and that’s the moment I really started surfing.”
Fuelled by a desire to really conquer Deadman’s, Chris picked up a board and never looked back. He began surfing every day and was soon comfortable riding fibreglass in waves of consequence. As his skills and confidence grew other waves beckoned and as he entered his 20s he felt the pull of a life that was moulded around surfing. For four years straight, every cent Chris made went towards an annual, season-long pilgrimage to Puerto Escondido. Chris funded his Mexican adventures by working as a lifeguard on Sydney’s Northern Beaches and cooking in fine dining eateries. He may play down his culinary skills but over the years he has plated up at some of Australia’s best restaurants including; Gaia Retreat, Paper Daisy, Cabarita (a two hat joint under Ben Devlin), Three Blue Ducks, Byron, Allure Currumbin (one hat) , Garfish and Elements of Byron.
At the wave often referred to as Mexican Pipe, Chris rapidly earned a rep as the gung-ho, underground Aussie guy. He became a regular on the 15-foot-plus days and made his presence felt amongst an ultra-competitive crew that included noted Puerto Escondido locals (such as Oscar Moncada, and Coco Nogales), the Puerto diehards from north of the border, and the fly-in-pros like Greg Long, Shane Dorian and Mark Healey.
Of course, no extended stint in Mexcio is going to be without its moments of high drama. At Puerto, the wind typically goes onshore by lunch, but occasionally it swings back around delivering uncrowded conditions to those who have eschewed the ritual of afternoon cervezas. It was a day such as this when Chris snuck out with friend, Will Dillon. “I paddled for one of the earlier waves,” explains Chris. “Not knowing there was like a 10-15 wave set out the back and they were like double the size. I didn’t get into my wave and I just got sets on the head. It kept me in the impact zone, and I was swirling around. My energy was really starting to get sucked.”
As a trained lifeguard, Chris is typically reluctant to call on assistance, but he concedes that he was happy to see the ski arrive. “Yeah, I think a few guys started freaking out, so they threw the ski in… I was pretty happy to see Gordo one of the main lifeguards coming to get me...by that stage I was already starting to think about having to swim the 1.5km down to the Harbour to come in.”
On land, Chris fashioned friendships and entrenched himself in the Puerto community, but Mexico’s drug-related violence casts a perennial shadow over the country and one naïve slip can easily put you in a precarious situation. Chris vividly recalls being thrown into the role of reluctant mediator on behalf of two wellknown pro- surfers f rom back home who had been trying to score cocaine.
“They definitely got themselves in a hairy, hairy spot one day,” he states emphatically. “They were prodigies and they thought their shit didn’t stink, and these guys were gnarly… I knew who they were dealing with by face and by reputation and they were the guys you don’t want to fuck with… They (the young pros) definitely owe me a lifeline ...”
On another occasion, Chris was sitting in the tower with the local lifeguards when a woman was struck by lightning. Chris swung into action alongside his Mexican friends, as they did their best to revive the woman who eventually left the beach in ambulance.
The experience alerted Chris to the fact that the local lifeguards were ill-prepared for a whole range of scenarios – including the numerous situations surfers could find themselves in at a wave like Puerto. Relying on his lifeguard training from back in Oz he ran courses to get their incident response skills up to speed and hatched a plan to purchase a defibrillator for the team. When major US based forecasting website, Surfline, hosted a big event in Puerto, Chris fronted the stage and asked for donations, explaining the need for improved safety. “I literally walked around with my hat in my hand,” he recalls, also mentioning a few of the well-known American pros who kept their hands in their pockets. In the end, the charity initiative came off when Greg Long (whose dad was also a lifeguard), teamed up with a successful American businessman and stumped up most of the necessary funds.
After four full seasons in Mexico, Chris’s heavy water ambitions hit a major speedhump when he broke his back surfing Snapper Rocks. “I ended up being in a bit of a seating position on the bottom,” recalls Chris. “It was kind of like the shallowest I’ve ever seen the bank – crazy shallow.”
X-rays later showed Chris had compressed his T-12 vertebrae, just above his lumbar vertebrae, at the base of his spine. After three months with a brace wrapped around his mid-section, he emerged from the recovery keener than ever to chase waves. He saved up and booked his maiden trip to the North Shore, hustled a few second- hand boards on arrival and stayed in cheap accommodation. Although he was a starry-eyed, North Shore debutant his first session at Pipe saw him hunting down third reef peaks at Pipe on a borrowed 7’6” Tokoro. “It was too hard to compete with the pack on the first reef so I sat out the back and waited for the chip-ins.”
Despite a few memorable sessions, Chris left Hawaii feeling somewhat dissatisfied with the waves he’d ridden and convinced his trip could have been far more fruitful if he’d been on the right equipment. He became increasingly aware a truly lifechanging wave doesn’t come along very often and that when it does you have only a few spilt seconds to get it right. “I was on the wrong equipment… I realised if you’re a tight-arse on your boards and try and save a dollar here and there then you miss that moment.”
After studying the ever-expanding highlight reel of big-wave surfing, Chris was inspired by the exploits of João De Macedo and Lucas Chianca at Nazare. Like another of his favourite surfers, Laurie Towner, Lucca and Joao were riding Dylan Longbottom shapes. Chris contacted Dylan and decided he needed two of his boards if he was to be prepared for the kind of scenarios he wanted to target. He ordered an 8’0” and a 10’2”, both quads with Future Fins set-ups. “I don’t really focus on the
“... On the cliffs above Deadman’s, Chris had the taste of blood in his mouth, his 8’0” Dylan Longbottom by his side and unfinished business on his mind ...”
science of my boards too much,” indicates Chris. “I feel it and then I try and go from there. I like quads… It’s just the lift that I get from a quad, and I find that they are more manoeuvrable on the face…”
With the two Dylan Shapes in his arsenal, Chris felt prepared for whatever wave he put himself in the path of. Blaming equipment was no longer an option.
On the cliffs above Deadman’s, Chris had the taste of blood in his mouth, his 8’0” Dylan Longbottom by his side and unfinished business on his mind. He’d spent more than a decade chasing waves of consequence around the world, surely he could do better than this in his own backyard. “I was like, ‘for fuck sake when am I going to make one.’ I’ve put myself in position so many times in swells prior.”
Still in his wetsuit, he ate some fruit, sipped on water, and tried to make sense of the lineup that had just delivered him another merciless flogging. Chris observed that with the tide bottoming out, few surfers were making the waves and felt a little less self-critical about his own failings. “I watched them all gurgle for an hour, and I’m like, ‘well the tides too low, I don’t need to be out there now anyway’.”
After pulling himself together Chris waited for the tide to turn and made his way to the jump-off at the base of the cliffs, calculating that there would be enough water on the reef by the time he waited for a lull and paddled back to the lineup.
Once in the water, Chris knew exactly where he wanted to position himself. “I’ve kind of got my spot where I sit out there and I sit there regardless, ” he insists. He indicates that he’d taken his cues from Tyson Williams after watching him surf it in a massive swell several years earlier. “It was the biggest I’ve ever seen it and I was shitting myself… It was howling southerly – hurricane force winds, and I just remember he was so fit, and he was sitting deeper and huddling in under it. That’s how I worked out how I wanted to sit.”
Like Chris, Williams was a bodyboarder (Williams was two times Bodyboarding World Champion) who had transformed himself into a highly respected stand-up surfer. Tyson was also the school captain a couple of years ahead of Chris at St Paul’s. They were never super close but always very aware of one another and when Tyson took his own life in 2016, Chris knew he had lost a kindred spirit. “I can still remember an inspiring speech he made as school captain,” reflects Chris. With memories of Tyson at the forefront of his mind, Chris returned to his designated spot in the lineup, which was 20 or 30 yards deeper than the rest of the pack.
With his position firmly established Chris let one big set go past, deciding that despite the size and appeal of the wave it wasn’t going to barrel. “You can definitely pick and choose the ones that are really going to hit the reef and wind down,” he emphasises.
When a second set lifted on the outside ledge, offering a small knuckle to chip-in on, Chris committed. “It had more water behind it down the line, so I knew it was going to throw more,” he explains. “It was like a raging bull going down the face… It had heaps of side wonk. It was just step, step, step, and it was going foamy and I remember holding on as hard as I could and then the thing just started throwing and I ended up getting barrelled and coming out.”
Chris was overcome with elation when he kicked off the first wave and vividly remembers the reaction of Beau Cram who had watched the whole thing from down the line. “He said, ‘Oh thank you so much that’s the best thing I’ve ever seen.’ It’s pretty weird when people say thank you to you for your surfing.”
The roar of the crowd on the cliffs further confirmed that it had been a screamer. “That was the best wave I’d gotten out there,” comments Chris. “I was stoked that I’d finally gotten one after all this time.”
Buzzing with renewed confidence Chris stroked back to the lineup where he was a little chuffed to be greeted by a grinning Toby Martin. Although Toby had grown up over the hill from Chris at Dee Why, the former CT surfer had never said so much as a word to Chris over the years. Now he was happy to congratulate him. “As I paddled back out Toby said, ‘Sounded like it was a good one,’ with a big grin on his face.”
Reassured by the success of his first ride, Chris returned to exactly the same position in the lineup. Around 15 minutes later another promising set flexed on the outer reef. Chris was ready, but first he had to make sure he had the green light to go. “It had the right angle on it again .... everything I look for. But it wasn’t my turn. I just looked at Toby, and I had to give Toby that respect, and I swung and I screamed, ‘Toby, do you want it?’ And he was like, ‘No Chris it’s all yours’.”
Such moments of adrenalin-fuelled concentration can inspire mental blanks or crystalise as vivid memories. Thankfully, the latter is true in this case and Chris does a good job of recounting ‘the wave’ that enthralled surfers around the world. The wave he had been waiting a lifetime for.
“No one really looked at it and I was like no way. It looks like it chips me in, but
I had to really put my head down and paddle for it… It was drawing really hard off the bottom. There’s a little rivet going across the face, but it didn’t really step out, but it was to the left of me… So I just picked my line where I felt it wasn’t going to foam over and create that gnarly boil. Because I’d just had a wave, I stupidly had all this confidence and I got to the bottom of the wave and that’s when I tried to do that thing where you paint the walls. I went to stand up and put my hands out wide, but I was thinking consciously, ‘You F#$^ing idiot, what are you doing, why are you trying to stand in it, you’re getting too cocky’… I could feel it really drawing off the bottom and that’s when my stance kind of changed and I was like ‘c’mon please make this thing’… I had the big bowl view when I stood in it but then it kind of waterfalled in front of me. There was one moment where I was just kind of holding on… I was thinking ‘just go high, just try and go high’… I tracked high and the thing waterfalled in front of me and I just held on for dear life and came out of it. It kind of spat a little bit. I was just elated. I was like, ‘Oh my God I just got another one and it was better than my first one…”
Chris claims he was desperate not to succumb to any kind of vain-glorious celebration but admits he found it hard to suppress his euphoria after he emerged in a hail of spray.
‘I knew there was so many eyes on me and a lot of cameras, and I was like you can’t claim it, don’t claim it. Don’t be that guy. I just did the flick and the jelly leg claim. I was just so happy…it was just one of those moments…”
Once again, the headland erupted with a chorus of cheers and whistles, but curiously Chris found himself craving a moment of solitude. “I’d finally accomplished what I’ve been trying to do for so long and I just wanted a little quiet moment to myself…”
On the roll of a lifetime there was no way he was going in, so he paddled back to the lineup, well wide of the pack.
After savouring the long paddle, Chris did allow himself one witty indulgence as he drew level with his mate Sam Jones. Jones is also a noted underground charger; he and Chris regularly discuss swells and Chris had seen him score his share of bombs at Deadman’s. Sensing it was at last his opportunity to claim bragging rights, Chris couldn’t resist some good-natured banter with his mate. “I said to Sammy, ‘ I think the heat’s over mate.’ That was just a moment between me and him.”
Chris rode several more timeless waves that day. It became a session for the ages and made him an overnight, social media sensation.
While Chris was reticent to embrace the ensuing media attention, he admits being curious about the footage and photos of the wave. “You want to see it, just to know if looked as good as it felt… the moment happened so fast. That wave may have been 10 seconds long and I had like a 100 thoughts on that wave…”
While the life-changing ride was captured from multiple perspectives lenses, it was one particular angle that really did the wave justice.
As an army of camera-wielding hopefuls huddled at Deadman’s, award-winning filmmaker, Spencer Frost, decided he wanted a point of difference, so he posted up over a kilometre north of Deadman’s, from the headland at Freshwater, on the other side of Manly Beach. Fortunately, he had the equipment for the job.
Spencer’s Red Camera shoots 240 frames per second, which means it can deliver glorious, richly saturated, slow-mo-style footage of intense, action moments. Used in the right way the Red can help elevate the stakes in what is already a magic moment. When Spencer shot Chris’s wave from way over on the Freshwater Headland, he instantly sensed he had captured something special. “I was actually on the phone to my mate when the wave came through – I was just like, ‘Oh my god, I think I’ve just shot the best wave I’ve ever seen.”
Eager to see if his instincts were right, Spencer hung up on his mate and immediately replayed the footage back on his camera. He was delighted with the results but felt even more reassured when he sent the frames to a couple of close friends. “Everyone was saying that’s the best wave they’ve seen ridden in Sydney,” reflects Spencer.
Spencer initially posted the frame-grabs (still-frames) to his Insta account but not the footage. The frame grabs alone inspired hundreds of comments and thousands of likes when they were reposted on the Tracks Instagram account. When Chris saw the frame-grabs he got in touch with Spencer. “I was like, no way, he probably shot that on a Red Camera, I bet… it’s the bees knees of cameras.” Spencer was happy to send Chris the actual footage of the wave, but the clip’s delivery came with strict instructions he couldn’t yet share it on social media. The professional filmmaker had schlepped it out on Freshwater Headland for hours and wanted to sell the special footage exclusively before it was gobbled up by an insatiable social media.
Chris remembers being at his parents’ home in Curl Curl when the clip came through on his phone. After marvelling at it for a few minutes he was desperate to show someone. Aware he couldn’t pass it on to his mates, he showed it to his Mum and Dad. “They said something like, ‘That’s nice Chris’,” he recalls with a chuckle. “It made a bit more sense to them the next day when it was in the paper. Dad loves his footy too, so when the wave popped up on Fox Sports while he was watching, I think he understood.”
Once all the footage was out there, Chris admits that he struggled to cope with his overnight fame. “Everything that came after is not what I really look for,” he states. He had 300 new friend requests on Instagram within a few days and various media outlets pursuing him. In response, he switched his Instagram to private and ignored the media. Besides being bashful, his other main reason for dismissing those eager to hijack his fabled ride was the fact the waves were still pumping, and he wasn’t done yet.
After riding the wave of the swell on the Wednesday, Chris surfed hard for the rest of the week, backing up a few more successful Deadman’s outings with a session at heaving South Narrabeen on the Friday morning. By Friday lunch he was back at his parent’s place at Curl Curl eating a couple of mandarins and happily reflecting on his life-changing week of waves. “I was beat. I was so f’ing beat, ” he recalls.” Then he saw a wave break 500 metres off South Curl Curl Headland. He watched the same swell line light-up Queenscliff Bommie and then finally bend into a provocative arch at Deadman’s in the distance. The swell had pulsed and despite the exhaustion, Chris resigned himself to the fact that he would have to go out again. “I was like, ‘I can’t give up an opportunity because we wait so long for these days’.” On the Friday afternoon he paddled out at Deadman’s for another memorable session. “It was big and there was one other guy out there who was just happy to see me,” he says with a laugh.
Chris may have had his 15 minutes of fame, but he is well aware that joining the ranks of the big-wave elite who get paid to chase swells around the globe is a different thing. “I know that a Nathan Florence is way more marketable than a Chris Lougher,” he comments pragmatically.
In the absence of sponsors, Chris also appreciates the fact he has to resolve some hard questions about where his life is heading. “I’m 34 now and I’m not getting any younger… Do I want to get married and have kids or do I want to throw all my eggs into spending a season on Maui trying to chase waves?”
Like many who answer the call of big waves, Chris views Peahi on Maui as the ultimate challenge. “I definitely want to paddle out at Peahi once in my life. Maybe I’ll just sit out there and watch it from the channel… but to get out there and get a big one would be a box ticked before I’m 50.”
While he concedes he wouldn’t reject an offer from sponsors to help him pursue his goals, Chris belongs to a section of the big-wave tribe who are fundamentally governed by intrinsic forces. “At the end of the day we’re still out there when it’s onshore with howling 60-knot winds, we’re not doing it because there’s cameras focused on us. We’re just doing it for the challenge,” he explains. And whatever may come of his quest to surf Peahi, Chris Lougher can hitherto be comfortable in the knowledge that he rode deep at Deadman’s, on the kind of wave he had dreamed about since he was a 14-year-old staring into the belly of the beast, through binoculars f rom afar.
Sometimes the juiciest stories don’t make it to print. Perhaps the content is too sensitive at the time or doesn’t quite fit the editorial theme. Other anecdotes remain tightly kept secrets amongst the Tracks team who have been given a rare glimpse at what transpires behind the rubber curtain of pro-surfing. Fifty years down the track we felt it was time to dig up a few of the tales that shed a little light on what really happens behind the scenes in the making of Tracks.