TWO days which will live long in the memory of the participants. First-up, Dungeons provided sheet glass bombs under a bluebird sky, lightly sprinkled with international glitterarti. Then the swell filled in overnight. Sunset on the second day administered a fierce contrast, heavy and unforgiving, all playing-out beneath the leaden sky for Jake Kolnick, Simon Lowe, Jacques Theron, Mike Schlebach and Grant "Twiggy" Baker.
"Sunset was next level." Twig told us. "Up until a certain size it is quite an easy wave, but when it's like that, it is as challenging as any big wave in the world. The bulk of the swell hit on Monday night with the offshore buoy reading 25ft at 19 seconds, and God only knows what kind of waves came through?"
The major factor in this monumental challenge is not simply the size and ferocity of the wave, nor the drop, or even your rail. It's being in the right place. As surfers the world over can attest, positioning is crucial and inches matter. In big wave surfing with displaced currents running every-which-way consequences are multiplied and that is where the skis come in. You might well have been under the impression that no-one towed these days unless it was 100ft and inside-out, but that's not strictly true. There's always been a middle ground. What GMAC calls "tow paddle" and Simon Lowe, one of the surfers out at Sunset terms "paddle assist".
I was lucky enough to be put in the spot by the ski to 'paddle' into one wave, which I can guarantee I would never have caught had the ski not been there. In fact, I can almost guarantee that no waves would have been 'paddled' without the ski putting the surfer in position.Simon Lowe
Simon arrived at Sunset at 10am. "Twiggy was there being assisted by Jeremy Johnson to try and stay in position as it was impossible to stay in position on paddle power alone due to the strong current." He told us "My partner Andrew Marr and I tried to paddle using the same technique and I was lucky enough to be put in the spot by the ski to 'paddle' into one wave, which I can guarantee I would never have caught had the ski not been there. In fact, I can almost guarantee that no waves would have been 'paddled' without the ski putting the surfer in position. I do not mean this due to the size of the waves, but due to the strong current. Whilst we were looking for another wave, Twiggy, Andrew, Jeremy and I got to witness what Twig described as a wave reminiscent of that unridden Healey wave at Cloudbreak (50 foot face, just barrelling top-to-bottom). Wow.
"We carried on trying the ski assist technique but it was impossible to have three skis (as Mike Schlebach was also trying) in the small area. It was chaos. So we all (barring Twiggy) chose to tow. Andrew, Mickey, Jake, Mike, Jaques and I, surfed beautiful big clean waves all day, whilst Twiggy managed to catch some great ones. Others paddled out under their own steam and either paddled right back to shore, or, like in Juries' case, endured a two wave hold down en-route to being deposited on the shore 1km in.
I am over the tow. I am already trying to work out an anchor system with a big buoy that we can attach a number of handles to and can be dropped in position just next to the peak at Sunset. Everyone can hold on this and thus eliminate the ski.Simon Lowe
"From a personal point-of-view, although it is fun, I am over the tow." Continued Simon Lowe "I am already trying to work out an anchor system with a big buoy that we can attach a number of handles to and can be dropped in position just next to the peak at Sunset. Everyone can hold on this and thus eliminate the ski, which, can then be used solely as rescue. Should that have been in place I am sure a lot more waves would have been paddled into in the purer sense of the word."
Also out that day was Mike Schlebach, who told us he always knew they were going to be at Sunset on Tuesday. "We had just come from three days of incredibly big and unusually clean long period swell and Tuesday looked like it would be the biggest of the lot. My surf and tow partner Jake Kolnik and I arrived out the backline on our ski to find Twiggy and Jeremy Johnson had arrived too. Andrew Marr and Simon Lowe arrived shortly after. We decided to try and give it a paddle but there was a huge rip running through the lineup making it impossible to stay in position. I got a 20 foot set on the head within about 5 minutes…it was going to be a long day!
"Andy, Simon and Twiggy tried to give it a go paddling with ski assist and when we joined them with our ski, the peaky lineup started to get really busy and we were all feeling out of control. There just isn’t enough space for more than two teams for a ski assist mission.
Andy, Simon and Twiggy tried to give it a go paddling with ski assist and when we joined them with our ski, the peaky lineup started to get really busy and we were all feeling out of control. There just isn’t enough space for more than two teams for a ski assist mission.Mike Schlebach
"The swell at this stage seemed to be peaking and in my mind the waves were in the 20 to 30ft range. Simon, Andrew and Jake and I decided that to give this a proper go we were going to tow. The waves at Sunset that day were incredible. Without the rip issue we had the best day towing we’ve had in years out at Sunnies. The face of the waves were super clean, it felt like J-Bay on steroids with super long rides and barrel sections. Mickey Duffus and Jacque Theron joined us a bit later too and got some bombs.
"Twiggy kept going with ski assist vibe for most of the day and paddled into a few great rides and later towed with us towards the end. It was a great day to get out there and have some fun again towing."
Sometimes there is no option but to tow. Hard and fast rules about what is correct or 'en-vouge' must play second-fiddle to safety and communication; pushing external concepts of what is and isn't fashionable the margins. What matters is the enjoyment of surfing these waves, or watching these guys at work.
"We've had a run of the most amazing waves down here, climaxing with this surf at Sunset which will probably go down as one of the biggest in South African history, so in my opinion we just had the best run of surf." Said Twig. A sentiment echoed by Simon Lowe. "We do indeed live in a beautiful place and with five big wave days already in the bank, prior to this last run, coupled with more storms on the way. I think the winter of 2013 will go down as a very good one."
All images Nic Bothma / nicbothma.com