Surfing: News from the north shore - Surf's up and the big wave addicts need another fix

"Real Waimea'' is stirring and surfers are steeling themselves before taking on some of the biggest waves in Australia. Just make sure your timing is right or you will never make it back to the beach.

The hardest thing about big-wave surfing is getting off the beach. The second hardest thing is getting back on the beach. At Waimea Bay, when the mighty one awakes, the beachbreak alone is tough enough and quite capable of inflicting a pounding. But beyond it lies the more paralysing prospect of dropping into tumbling vortices of water that are like the largest mouse-traps ever devised.

My own experience in this most epic of arenas is limited to the four to eight foot apprentice wave known as Pinballs, for the good reason that if you wipe out, you end up getting bounced around on the rocks at the eastern end of the Bay.

But this is not "Real Waimea", as the locals call it. Real Waimea doesn't begin until the wave hits around 15 feet (on an imaginary vertical from peak to base) and extends all the way up to 30 or 35. This is when surfing becomes like jumping off the top of a small but irascible tower-block and then having the tower-block chase you down the street. This is also when I generally start affecting a limp and sitting it out on the beach.

Waimea is gradually stirring from its summer-long hibernation and flexing its muscles. In the last week or so, in a couple of successive swells, it rose first to 10-12 feet and then 12-15. There were maybe 30 guys out. Including one woman (Layne Beachley from Australia) and, what is even rarer, a lone Brit. For some of the big-wave vets, a 15-foot day is a useful sparring session, a rehearsal for the real thing (which rumour always maintains is definitely coming tomorrow or the next day). But for Simon Jayham, born in West Ham, this was by far the biggest wave he'd ever ridden. And this wasn't, by any means, a glassy, user-friendly 15, but a tricky, swerving, bumpy 15 (which in Britain would be 20).

Jayham is now based in Swansea, the manager of the leisure centre, and line-up regular at Crab Island, a mean reef-break on the Gower Peninsular. He is a heavy dude: an ex-nightclub bouncer, around 210lb, with shoulders like an American footballer's, except that he doesn't need the padding. His worst experience, prior to the North Shore, was having to explain (single-handedly) to 30 thirsty Spanish sailors that it was closing time. But that enforced acquaintance with the intensive care unit of Swansea General, was a picnic in comparison with his recent two-wave hold-down at Waimea.

The set of the day comes steaming through the middle of the Bay and Jayham momentarily hesitates out of respect for the sheer size and power of the wave. Then he starts paddling right into the way of several million tons of water. "I was here to catch the biggest wave I could and I was thinking this is ridiculous - the opportunity comes, I'd better go for it." But he gets into the wave a fraction late, shoots over the falls and the wave unloads on his head.

"Normally you just pop up. But I wasn't coming up at all. My ears were bursting. I didn't even know which way was up. I felt for my leash then pulled myself up it."

Sometimes the leash is a lifeline, leading up to the light. Sometimes it's a noose around your neck, knotting you to the impact zone. Jayham broke the surface only to have his next assailant in the gang of waves hammer him back down to the bottom. Under this weight of attack, even Charles Atlas might as well be an eight stone weakling.

To me this would be a stern warning and I would reform. But Jayham, a big wave addict who can't kick the habit, calls it "character building" and is even now preparing for his third encounter with Waimea, ordering an 11ft 7in Willis Gun and mixing it with the crowd at the smaller but more consistent Rocky Point.

Which is where most of the ASP professionals are keeping their eye in while awaiting the climax of the Pipeline Masters. The early rounds were surfed off in six foot barrels. Anywhere else in the world ASP officials and competitors would have been giving thanks, but here, where 10 feet of vertical perfection is the norm, they were moaning that "this was not the pipeline we know and love''.

The most relaxed guy on the beach is Kelly Slater, who has already won his fifth world championship in a row without even paddling out, and is still tipped to crown it by taking out this most prized event as well.

Slater is now widely regarded as the greatest surfer of all time. His trademark slides, floaters, aerials and all-round silky skills mark him out as the Pele or Cruyff of surfing. He is surrounded by paparazzi and crowds of adoring fans.

A few years ago, a couple of swooning girls came up to me on the beach at Pipe and said: "You're not Kelly Slater, are you?" I was fool enough to say no and I have been kicking myself for that elementary error ever since. It was my one chance of being world champion for a night and I blew it.

Oddly enough, I found those same girls the very next morning at the house of Mark Foo, the (then) living legend of big-wave surfing and top gun at Waimea. They were cooking him breakfast while he lazed in bed.

In Hawaii the ASP rankings decline in significance. Here you are judged on the size of your waves. This is why Milton Willis, who is a contender for the K2 Big Wave Challenge $50,000 (pounds 33,000), treats Slater with respect but also with an undeniable touch of hauteur. "He's not a competitor," he says. "We're not even on the same playing field.''

While I was sitting out the serious stuff on the beach at Waimea, I chanced upon a circular marble memorial stone, laid into the ground up by the lifeguard tower, dedicated to Mark Foo (1958-1994), a man I'd thought was immortal. It was inscribed with something he once said: "To get the ultimate thrill, you have to be willing to pay the ultimate price".

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Tradewind Recruitment: Nursery Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: "This is a good school. Pupils' behaviour i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3/4 Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: *** Urgent: Year 3/4 Teacher required - Abb...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: The Geography department of this outstandin...

Tradewind Recruitment: Teaching Assistant (SEN)

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: A Special Needs school (SEN) in the London ...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen