There is no other place on earth that epitomises surfing more than the Pacific archipelago of Hawaii. Considered to be the home of surfing by many, and most certainly the birthplace of big wave surfing, (think Makaha, December 4th 1969) it has always been the benchmark for surfing both competitive and free.
It’s also where the “Aloha Spirit” comes from — the attitude of friendly acceptance for which the Hawaiian Islands are so famous. And it refers to the powerful way one can resolve any problem, accomplish any goal, and achieve any state of mind or body that you desire. Anyone who witnessed or saw footage from Jaws last season will know what this means, and will agree that Jan/Feb ’16 has been etched into history as the most prolific and profound season in big wave surfing since that historic December ’69 day on the West Side.
Ahead of his forth-coming film debut, Risky Business we caught up with South African charger Matt Bromley to reflect on that monumental El Nino season at Jaws.
Matt Bromley: With the strongest El Nino in years lined up for Hawaii, Guy Mac (filmer) and I had high expectations; but nothing could prepare us for what was actually in store.
On the third day of our trip, still on The North Shore, we were filming at sketchy, marginal Pipe. I lost it on an ugly, back-washy one and got sent straight into the reef. After grating my toe and elbow, I rolled over the ledge into a hole and got pinned against the back of a cave. The water kept surging against me and I couldn’t move. I felt the overhanging rock above my head and went into panic mode, clawing my way back to my leash and wrestling out of the entrance.
I remember feeling so scared, thinking to myself, 'if I wipeout, I won’t be able to even hold my breath for ten seconds because my adrenaline's pumping so hard.'
Mentally, the experience rattled me so much over the following few days, (and I was unable to surf physically anyway with the big gash in my toe). Then the first red blob popped up on the MSW models, and Jaws called…
I’ll never forget my first paddle out. Massive mountains of Pacific water were marching in with a stiff offshore breeze. I watched Pedro Calado get pitched on a solid north peak and get sent down to the depths. We looked for him, into what seemed like a war zone; a churning, spitting, raging mess of white water where no human should be. He surfaced for one breath before the next one hit. I remember feeling so scared, thinking to myself, "if I wipeout, I won’t be able to even hold my breath for ten seconds because my adrenaline's pumping so hard."
I waited way out back, and after some intense prayer time and deep, meditative thinking I snagged a sick one, pulling into the barrel behind Kai Lenny. I remember looking out and seeing him casually looking back, watching me in the pit.
After that, the blobs just kept lining up. No sooner would we arrive on Oahu when another swell would have us scuttling back to Maui. That was really heavy. You need a few weeks to recover from a Jaws session both physically and mentally but there we were thrust into back-to-back sessions every week.
You’d be driving down the famous, dusty road not knowing whether it was going to be 20ft or 50ft. Sitting on the cliff the waves look even larger than they are. All your big wave heroes are around you and you're always questioning whether you belong in this elite group of athletes. Doubts set in: “I’m definitely not as fit as Jamie Mitchell”, or “I don’t have anywhere near as much as experience as Dorian”, or “Mark Healey can hold his breath for six minutes.” But you have to block that out and just send it to the flats like John John.
Everyone is brought down to ground level at Jaws, and every surfer has a special reverence for this wave, driven by fear and awe.Another thing is the talk on the cliff. When the gnarliest dudes are claiming it’s that scary, it really strikes fear into your soul. There are guys making big calls, guys under-calling, dudes whimpering and others waxing their boards for hours and taking far too long to get ready. Some brus are loud while others like to go about their business quietly. It’s an interesting mix of crazy emotions and different approaches.
One thing is for certain, big men are being humbled. Everyone is brought down to ground level at Jaws, and every surfer has a special reverence for this wave, driven by fear and awe. It’s the craziest wave in the world. A huge thanks to Zane and Matty Schweitzer who kindly took us two ferals in. They fed us, took us to all the great spots around the island, took us fishing. And Matty, a newly made father, even did water safety for us out at Jaws. What legends.
A week after the ‘Aaron Gold Swell’, an even larger, long period swell was predicted...
We arrived early morning and it was flat. Some of the boys were in the water already, sitting way out in anticipation. I was standing on the cliff with Frank Solomon and we were busy making some big calls of our own about the swell. The horizon went dark and the ocean went lumpy. I thought, "here it comes…"
The first one stretched across the lineup, standing tall and breaking from deep on the reef, freight-training through. One dude turned and tried to knife it down the face of the wave. His fins slipped out and he fell down the face, only to connect with his board in the stomach. He folded over the rail and skipped down the face for seconds and then got sucked over. Frank put his hand on my shoulder and looked away. We thought the guy had just died. He popped up way in with his two booties on. It was Simon! He’s 61 years old and one of the best big wave chargers from back home in Kommetjie, Cape Town. Incredible.
He was washed the length of rugby field under the water. I never saw him again.
The swell had definitely landed. Suddenly the sets started pumping. Frank was like, "you out there?" I suggested we should probably try and surf before it got too big. By the time we paddled out, there were like 50 footers pulling in. Everyone was sitting way out the back as the swell was only supposed to increase through the day into the evening.
I watched a lonesome, unknown charger try swim his board through the lip of a massive, massive peak and get sucked over. He was washed the length of rugby field under the water. I never saw him again. I overheard some of the local guys’ beach markers on some of the previous sessions and put them to the test, sitting way further in than the pack. When it’s that big, you’re just waiting for like a hundred footer to come out of nowhere and break on your head. And when all the sets are going unridden, it’s really difficult to get a perspective of how big the waves actually are. Was it 60ft or 25ft? My good mate and fellow Saffa, James Lowe commented on a medium size wave and was like, that’s the same size as Aaron Gold’s one from the last swell. And there were way bigger ones coming through than that.
A set marched in and the second one started to stand up on the reef. It stretched 200m to the channel and inside the wave there was a double up. The wall starting bending in on itself and I thought, if I make the takeoff and get a rail in, it could be the best wave of my life. James was paddling next to me, a little further out. I was shouting, “James. You going? You going?” And he shouted back, “GO BROMDOG!” I flattened my chest onto the board and put my head down. This was it. The wave lifted me and I carried on paddling down the face. The path down was super bumpy, and a chop sent me
My leash had snapped and my beautiful Lyle Carlson 10’8 was already getting ripped apart on the rocks.into a straight track. By the time I got to the bottom and looked up, the lip was already falling and the wall stood up way down the line.
It’s strange making such a life changing decision with only a few split seconds dividing the thought from the decision. Pull in or straighten out? It felt like I was pondering on it for a while though. Then the thought of getting lipped sent me into a panic and I straightened for the rocks, narrowly escaping the lip and then getting blasted. I thought, "here we go, this is about to get really bad."
I pulled my arms in close to my torso and pulled my knees up to my chest to brace. The beating was pretty violent but wasn’t that long. I had another two on the head and then got rescued by the amazing Hawaiian water patrol. My leash had snapped and my beautiful Lyle Carlson 10’8 was already getting ripped apart on the rocks. The driver dropped me off near the rocks and shouted, “Go!” I swam for my life through the rocky shore-break and body surfed up the boulders.
Climbing alone up the headland I sat on the hill directly in front of the peak. Perfect, gargantuan, 60ft peaks peeled off left and right, spitting both ways. Surviving the session and watching more unfold, it felt way too surreal. I gripped another board that Matty kindly lent me and got a few more under my belt before the sun set. It was a truly special day.
The best part was climbing back up the cliff, unscathed, in one piece, and joining the survival chatter at the lookout. People who were strangers at the beginning of the day had become brothers. We knew we had experienced something special. Mother nature had won but we had managed to lift a few life-changing moments from it.
Jamie Mitchell was left way out the back on his own. It was getting dark and there was one more ski waiting for him. A huge set rolled in and he scratched under the first one, losing his board. It was the nightmare situation. He then tried to swim through the next one and got sucked over. He surfaced way in on the inside, alive. We all let out a sigh of relief. To close the day off, as the last light faded the mother of all mammoth sets pulled in and barrelled top-to-bottom across the entire reef. Everyone started hooting and screaming. It was Peahi’s last flex to display its absolute authority and cement itself in all of our memories forever.
This was the perfect finish to our Risky Business journey. After five months on the road, Guy Mac and I were ready for home and ready to edit a fine film spanning four continents and countless hours and kilometres chasing the dream. We hope you like the finished product.