Saturday, August 02, 2008

They surf at Dangerous Banks, 35km off Tassie, by Damien Murphy - The Sydney Morning Herald - 2nd August 2008

DANGEROUS BANKS is a large shifting sandbar with a mythical and fearsome history, about 35 kilometres off the tip of north-west Tasmania where Bass Strait floods into the Southern Ocean.

Once windjammers coming up from the Roaring Forties were wrecked regularly there and if the weather didn't get them, wreckers lit deceptive beacons on nearby islands in hope of plundering aground ships.

Raging currents, unpredictable winds and giant swells that suddenly jacked up from the depths kept humans at bay for nearly 200 years. But on June 27 three surfers conquered Dangerous Banks. The Australian veterans Ross Clarke-Jones and Tom Carroll and the young Hawaiian Ian Walsh were towed onto 30-foot waves as part of their odyssey to surf giant winter swells around Australia for a pay-TV special Storm Riders, expected to be released next summer.

Clarke-Jones, regarded as Australia's most renowned big wave rider, said the Tasmanian wave was barely rideable but being first compensated for that.

"It was more than wild , it was complete chaos. I've never seen an ocean so angry and confused in all my surfing days," he told the Herald. "We managed to catch a few each but must admit that the ocean beat us to a pulp that day. We were lucky to have all made it to shore to tell you the truth."

Days before, Ben Matson, a surfing website meteorologist who had been tracking ocean storms for the project, made the call that a low pressure system forming in Antarctica would send giant waves onto Dangerous Banks within 48 hours. The surfers and support crew scrambled.

In a Los Angeles taxi, Walsh got the text message, told the driver to head for the airport and booked a flight in transit. He walked off the plane at Sydney in boardshorts, T-shirt and hoodie, carrying only his wallet and passport.

The team gathered in Smithton on Tasmania's north-west coast, and, guided by abalone diver Paul Critchlow, put to sea equipped with two powerboats, six powerskis and a helicopter.

It was Critchlow who broke the news about the break eight years ago when a number of surfers, including Clarke-Jones, were competing in the world's first tow-in surf contest on King Island to the north.

Critchlow learnt about the wave the hard way. In the late 1980s he was ferrying a biologist to a nearby island with his wife, Audrey, in the boat when Dangerous Banks took him on.

"A swell reared up out of nowhere so I just swung the QuickCat into the wave and gunned it but the wave went perpendicular. I looked around to see Audrey flying horizontal out the back so grabbed her by the scruff and held on until we punched through the peak," he said. "The bride broke her ankle when we came down the back of the wave and she hit the deck."

Since February, Clarke-Jones, who lives in the Victorian surfing town of Torquay, had prepared for the expedition with three reconnaissance flights but filming proved problematic. There was no set take-off, rogue waves chased off cameramen on powerskis and the most effective platform, the helicopter, was so overworked keeping track of the surfers that low on fuel, it had to head home.

"It was like climbing Everest meets the running of the bulls meets an iron man contest," Clarke-Jones recalled.

There are financial incentives for the men who ride mountains, including a $US1000-a-foot ($1060) purse for the surfer who takes the biggest drop each year. Clarke-Jones and Carroll, a two-time world champion, are watching Australian surf spots hoping they'll turn on before winter goes.

Seven days after Dangerous Banks they rode Cow Bombie, a reef off the southern tip of Western Australia, despite a shark cruising nearby and Carroll suffering concussion from a heavy hit and long hold down. It was only 25 foot. (Credit: The Sydney Morning Herald).

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