step up if you dare
We enter a swell and a realm where step-up’s and sleep ins are not welcome! Where doing so would be at your own peril!
There was once a time as a surfer, that once your quiver grew from your first single ‘Do Everything’ board, to perhaps a back-up or small wave specialty boards, that the most serious participants of the sport dropped an order with their local shaper for a semi-gun, or for the chargers a ‘Gun’ and for the real hell-men a ‘rhino chaser’. Here in NZ waters those boards went a little like this. Most guys for their shortboards rode boards in the range of 6’- 6’3” obviously dependant on their size of course, then their semi guns were around 6’6” and usually pin tailed to smooth out those long lines required when surfing waves with a bit more grunt. Then the chargers also had boards above 7’0”, when looking at these sleek crafts visions of days out beyond the horizon came to mind. Then of course there were the complete nut cases that had 9’+ boards usually built for specific waves and dusted off once every couple of seasons when the swells shook the very bedrock that NZ’s foundations were laid upon! New Zealand is not a renowned big wave location, however tucked away usually in some of the most remote parts of the country lie a few gems that when the oceans get angry and spawn thick grunty swells these gems roar into life. With an intense energy and thickness unlike the typical bigger wave experiences you may have faced at your local, these type of waves have a lot of water moving and push into the coastline with such speed and force that only a real gun with volume to match should be under your chest, anything less would be fruitless and at the same time dangerous! These are no such places for the ‘Step Up’! Another phenomenon that has slipped from surfing society in recent years, is the often spiritual act of the ‘Dawny’. Rising well into the darkness, heading off into the un-known with tense anticipation screwing your stomach in knots. Out through the darkness you can hear the energy, you can sense the power and you can also taste the salt air which is full of sea spray from the pounding of the ocean. The following is a story about such a day, a day that began well before dawn, a day where only big balls and big boards would survive! Sleep in or show up under-gunned and you may as well head on back home! The numbers on the digital charts had pre-empted our move, not for years, in fact eight years, had we seen such figures this close to the event. Sure, there are plenty of big swells forecasted throughout the year that get the blood boiling, however most within a few days dissipate quickly, and what looked so very promising can often deliver very little. What made this swell even more unique was that it was all about to go down in mid-summer, in fact in the first week of the year, during a period when the most common waves are 1-2 foot and sea breeze onshore. And while this swell grew as it passed up the easterly side of NZ, it also came with offshore winds in the package. After eight years of nothing quite like this, many were fooled into believing the charts were over-calling the figures and chose to wake and see what their local beach breaks would deliver. Others, and many others, simply admitted that their quiver was a shadow of its former self and only consisted of their standard board and of course that by now familiar title a ‘Step-Up’ one or two inches longer. Where had the real boards gone? Awakening oneself at 3:30AM during a public holiday period felt like madness, yet extreme measures are sometimes called for when extremes are happening. Off into the darkness we drove, one eye on the road, the other on any form of wind direction sign, the puff of smoke from industrial chimneys or the angle of lean of the roadside toitoi’s. Was it offshore? Had the swell filled in? An hour’s drive later, all the questions we sought answers to were laid out in front of our eyes when pulling around the last bend to the sight of lines to the horizon, and
these were not just your typical nice swell corduroy, but thick, high energy mountains. You know when a wave approached and begins to break that when the crest takes a good five seconds to hit the bottom and explode that it’s rather big, in fact MASSIVE! Back in 2009 a journey into the unknown to a reef out beyond the horizon took place, a journey which fruitfully produced the biggest waves ever ridden on the shores of Aotearoa, and that took place at a spot not too far from here. This swell was even bigger than that day, and once the local lads were up and amongst it, laying eyes on their home waves breaking in places they’d never seen it break, it was evident this was one for the history books. At first light the conditions were simply maxed out and far too dangerous to attempt, yet as fast as this swell was to appear, it was also forecasted to drop away just as quickly, the key was to utilise that window when it became manageable enough to surf, yet not missing the best opportunities. Blair Stewart is one such surfer that lives for days like this, he is also a surfer that over the years, while the stepup board had become all the rage, he knew that there would come a time when a real ‘GUN’ would come back into its own, the only thing he had to do was blow off the inch of dust that had gathered since it’s last use, probably at Sunset Beach in Hawaii 2004. The 7’6” bladed Ralph Blake shaped pin tail would ride again! Bobby Hansen was another of the surfers up for the challenge yet Bobby had openly admitted that he didn’t think his biggest board of 5’10” would be up to the task, so he rolled in late after spending the morning scrounging around town for the biggest board he could borrow, getting his hands on a 6’8” off his shaper Tommy Dalton. While an early start was called for, as it’s better to be on point than chase your tail all day, most of the morning was spent psyching up, watching the lineup settle, prepping, and almost going, before another 15 foot set of eight waves would close out the bay and deter an entry. So by the time Bobby arrived it had settled enough that his timing was perfect! Blair had waxed that slick 7’6” multiple times as he hesitantly waited in hope a wing man would show to join him. There is no scarier place to be than out the back of this amphitheatre with rogue 12-15 foot sets approaching and you are scratching for the horizon on your own. Simply having one man there to take the beatings with you, oddly puts one at ease. This break was once shrouded in mystery, a place whose name was only previously muttered in the form of whisper, and where visiting surfers have been hesitant to visit through fear of intimidation. This day the only intimidation came in the form of brutal waves that exploded on the man-sized boulders beneath the overhanging cliff, which was by now lined with onlookers, marvelling at the monstrous swells, awaiting the entertaining sight of someone willing to take it all on! Sometimes when you think about something too much you can psych yourself out, Bobby was still in preparation mode and Blair had been prepping for the last four hours, and he took one look at the last set, said nothing and run off down the hill and out to the jump spot, full solo guinea pig styles. The peanut gallery now had a gladiator! When Blair launched himself into the oncoming surge and out into the lineup he appeared nothing more than a cork bobbing around in a giant ocean, yet Blair was more than a powerless cork, he had many years of experience in situations such as this and the physical preparation needed. Stroking out beyond the usual take off boil put Blair in a zone he had not ventured for quite some time, yet that demon inside reared itself, and that quiet, tentative surfer that had left the land, once again turned into a beast! The first set steamed in as Blair moved into position, with arms powering and head down, his momentum
wasn’t enough on this one, which had a few of the peanut gallery punters settled in safely up on the cliff, throw in their armchair critique. “Oh, what a pussy, he should have gone that one!” Was one call overheard! The same guy was probably silenced when Blair swung late on the very next lump, was held up in the wind and released into a free fall, sticking at the bottom and laying two massive deep bottom turn to sweeping carve combos, through to the inside bowl where it bowled up and Blair threaded an inside barrel and was blown out into the channel! What a start, getting kegged on the first wave! Bobby in the meantime was still stuck on the inside, with set after set pouring in with no relief making his entry a little sticky, he was also joined by another unidentified soldier, who upon taking his first few strokes looked completely out of his depth. Bobby recognising the situation and immediately said, “Hey bro, it’s not really a good idea for you to be out here” to which the bro replied, “Oh bro I know I look like a kook cause I’ve only being surfing a couple of weeks, but I’m usually a booger, so I’ll be sweet!” Turns out the booger in question, spends most of the year charging huge Teahupoo pits and was more than comfortable in the heavy stuff, so big ups to that bro for taking on such a foreign craft in waves such as this. Although Bobby was on a 6’8” he appeared to be underwater most of the time and admitted later that the board may as well have been a tooth pick, yet he eventually stroked his way to the outside to join Blair, only to paddle over his first wave to the sight of the entire bay closed out by six waves in a row. This punched both the lads deep, holding Blair down on one for a good 20 seconds, which when you time it is a damn long time, By the time that set finished they had all been swept all the way through the
bay to where they had first jumped out! That experience would be enough to make most call it quits, yet with a few hoots and smiles as they made their way back out the channel it was obvious these lads were in it for the long haul. While the swell was dropping away slowly every so often those gigantic close out sets sent the lads into survival mode, for those that know this wave, they can tell you what it takes for a wave to close out this bay, at 8 foot the normal take-off is just off the boil which was a good 80 metres further in, at 10-12 the take-off is still not out where the lads were positioned this day, and those black out sets, they broke another further 70 metres out again. But in between, there were some epic waves ridden, and many waves that were and could not be taken that lit up on the inside with gaping barrels that just breathed. The peanut gallery had by now swollen to numbers that would give the Wellington 7’s a run of their money, which was an odd sight for the regulars, but when half of NZ was on holiday and a fair portion of them visiting locally, the word was out on the best New Year’s entertainment going. By midday the swell began to slow rapidly, which opened the door for a few other soldiers to have a run at the prize, while Bobby and Blair had filled their boots and were simply looking to catch a wave in. A swell such as this would only appear a few times in one’s surfing lifespan, so to be on point and to take their chances and push the limits, the lads were glowing when they walked on up the hill to the sight of a cold brew on a stinking hot summers day! 2017 began with a bang! What’s next?
It was a sellout!
The peanut gallery was treated to some epic entertainment.
TOP TO BOTTOM: Big wave surfing can be a frustrating thing, what appears like a dud outside off the takeoff can offer up a bowl like this 150 metres further inside, and you have no idea. / Blair Stewart has surfed here since he was 14 and has never been so hesitant to take the jump. Going solo guinea pig styles. / That right side piece of whitewater is the usual takeoff boil when its 8-10, so use that for scale and you have the picture.
Two men (yes those dots are surfers) and a rather perfectly shaped 15 footer.