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".

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