Lifting the lid on Australia’s most controversial surf spot

Photo: Ray Collins

Originally published in Riptide Magazine

Pikers Hole, Cape Solander, NSW

It’s 2pm and Cronulla’s Luke O’Connor, who has just finished work, is tearing through the Sutherland Shire en route to Kurnell. The swell’s pulsing and the charts look promising for a session at a slabbing right-hander that breaks menacingly close to rocks. Finding photographer Mitch Fong at the check spot, he’s told a tow-surfing team has just left. The winds are a tad funky and the tide’s getting desperately low. Luke jumps into his wetsuit and is out in the lineup within five minutes. It’s just another day at Australia’s most controversial surf spot. Had the tow team still been in the water it’s likely Luke would’ve copped some sort of grief. Intimidation has come to typify the wave known as “Ours”, De Niro’s or Cape Solander, depending on who you ask.

“I like to call it the original name, Pikers Hole,” says Australia’s eminent bodyboarding historian Chris Stroh. “A few local stand-ups, paipos and Cronulla kneeboarders were surfing it first in the late ’60s and ’70s, but not on the big gnarly days.” While Pikers Hole is likely the earliest name for the wave, the history of the area goes much further back. Kurnell is the name the British gave the area (it’s thought this is perhaps a deviation of an Aboriginal word) and it was there inside Botany Bay where Captain James Cook first landed in Australia on April 29, 1770. Looking left, the ship’s crew could’ve stared into the barrel at Cape Solander, had the wave been breaking that day. The ensuing history of violence against the country’s Indigenous inhabitants is well documented.

“Around ’89 Warren Feinbeer told us about this secret reef that was super heavy,” Stroh continues. “He along with his brother, Steve Austin, and dad, Rudolph, surfed it regularly by themselves. Ross Hawke and I followed him out to Solander to check it out. With no-one out it was hard to tell what it was like. I thought it looked like it was breaking right on the rock ledge, but Warren was into surfing waves like that. We watched him surf a couple of smaller barrels, but we ended up going back to good old faithful Suckrock instead. I never heard of anyone else surfing it until a few of the younger Cronulla bodyboarders found it. At the time they were at war with the Bra Boys [Maroubra-based surf gang], who were coming to Shark Island, and there were fights happening all the time in the lineup.”

Stroh says the Cronulla bodyboarders had the wave to themselves for a while, but it was when they began bringing non-local photograhers to the break that word of it spread. “Next thing the Cronulla crew got super paranoid about anyone else surfing and began threatening other bodyboarders who ventured out there,” Stroh says. “They were like the Bra Boys in the early days, hassling, threatening and waving baseball bats around.” Stroh says he received threatening phone calls after taking Jeff Hubbard and Spencer Skipper out to the wave and posting photos of the session, without naming the break, on his website. “Next thing I’m getting harassed by a few individuals,” Stroh says. “Real childish stuff.”

The next phase in the saga came when the Bra Boys caught on to the wave’s location after watching a Tension video in the early-to-mid noughties, Stroh says, despite the fact the footage was reversed. “They just took over and barred all bodyboarders,” he says. “To get his point across, a senior Bra Boy put one of the bodyboarders in a jiu jitsu hold and left him unconscious on the rocks. That was the end. They named it Ours.” The highest-profile incident to follow came in 2007 when Mitch Rawlins was allegedly told to “fuck off” before being punched in the head, while famed cinematographer Chris Bryan was said to have been ran into by a jetski. The altercation was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Today hardy bodyboarders continue to surf the wave when not overrun with surfers, but confrontations persist. While O’Connor didn’t encounter any bad vibes during his 200-Hours session, he’s had a few run-ins in the past. “I was surfing out there once and you could see this guy yelling and screaming on the rocks telling us to ‘get out before I have to bash you’,” Luke recalls. “We slowly came in one-by-one and I was one of the last still out there with the surfers. Before I knew it the guy was out in the lineup in my face, telling me to fuck off and to ‘go get a stand-up and you can surf out here’. You can’t reason with the guy so I went in. Halfway through getting changed [in the carpark]… it was chaos. The guy’s marched up the access track and almost cordoned off the road with his gang of mates. We started the car, but couldn’t possibly get anywhere and he pressed himself up against the window and gestured with his hand to wind it down. I did about an inch and he glared at us through the slit. All he said, in a fairly calm voice, was ‘I know your faces’. He jabbed the window and moved on to the next car.”

Luke says one of the main intimidators has since moved overseas, which has lessened the risk of confrontations. But he says another of the gang’s high-profile surfers has broadcasted that he’ll be on to any swell, tow or paddle, at the wave in the foreseeable future following the announcement of a Red Bull-sponsored invitational event, pitting some of Australia’s best big-wave surfers against international stars such as Shane Dorian and Bruce Irons. The waiting period for the one-day contest began two days after Luke scrounged into his solo waves and runs until August 1.

It’s rather incredible that in 2014, at a break just a stone’s throw from Australia’s largest city, a wave continues to be regulated through violence and intimidation. Chris Stroh, however, believes things could’ve turned out differently. “I can’t help but feel karma caught up to those first bodyboarders who tried to claim it as their own,” he says. “Maybe if they shared the love it might not have turned out this way. It was inevitable that such a wave could not remain a secret for too long. At least the Bra Boys don’t surf The Island these days, so that’s a bonus.”