Moving mountains

Photo: Steve Wall

Originally published in Riptide Magazine

When 19-year-old Sunshine Coaster Lachlan Cramsie woke up on a still May Sunday he had no inkling it’d be the day he’d catch the biggest wave of his young life. Sleeping on a borrowed bed in Kiama, NSW at his mate Shane Ackerman’s house, it’d been a week since Cramsie had made the permanent move south from Queensland with his parents. The family home wasn’t even ready to move into yet. Cramsie was seeking bigger and more consistent waves than the notoriously fickle Sunny Coast, but neither he or Shane, 21, could’ve known the south swell lashing the coast that day would develop into a wave-fest that’’ll be talked about with wide eyes over cold tins for decades to come.

“It was my first time surfing there,” Cramsie, now 20, recalls. “We were checking it from land and thought it was maybe eight-foot, but as we paddled out we all started noticing it was a bit bigger. Once we got there we sat in the channel for half an hour, watching it. Wondering if it was surfable.”

They were soon joined by Chris “Griz” James, Damien Martin and photographer Rod Owen. The trio had scored the deepwater bombie that morning, but the “average” session had been foiled by the lunchtime onshore. “You could tell it was gonna get big ’cause it was kinda junky and there’d be these eight-to-10 footers with the odd bigger one,” said Martin, who then bailed back to the boat ramp with Rod and Chris for lunch. With hours in the day dwindling the trio was set to return home, but a call from legendary South Coast ripper Graham “Moth” Miller, hinting at a stiff offshore moving along the coast, convinced them to stay. “We waited and waited until finally you could see these big rooster tails from the beach,” Damo says. “We put the skis back in and punched it out.”

Michael Chapple, another renowned South Coast stalwart, had also surfed the morning session. “When we got back out it was friggen psycho,” says Chapple, who was nursing a long-snapped ACL in his knee. “It really was eerie. Usually you see the sets come in, but it was different this day. These were actual mountains and the lines were stretching along for a kilometre. The walls were going all the way across to the island nearby, which they never do. Usually you’re straight into it, but I remember getting into the channel and saying to Matt [Young], ‘Which ones are gonna be the good ones?’ Like, how do you know? We watched it for 10 minutes and then thought we’d better get out there before it gets dark.”

Martin was first to step into the abyss. “I was doing six-foot airs trying to get into ’em, eh,” Damo laughs. “The nor’ wester was still so strong and it was fighting the southerly that was there before so it made it real hard.” The older fellas notched a couple each, but all were a tad unnerved by the shifty lineup, which had moved further out than any of them had ever seen. Chapple says they weren’t just battling the stiff gusts, but also a fiery setting sun, directly in their line of sight. “It was as if you were lying in your back lawn, looking up directly into the sun. But you were towing into 12-footers.” The fact there were no paddlers in the lineup also made finding the right line tricky. “Now you were just looking for the reef to start drawing water off – you were basically letting go and hoping for the best.”

With the day’s light quickly fading Damo threw the rope to only teenager in the line-up. “I was pretty spewing,” Griz remembers. “Damo was like, ‘Do you wanna go?’ It was looking sketchy so I said nah, so then he says, ‘Cramsie do you wanna go,’ and he’s like, ‘Yeah, alright’. A minute later that thing comes through. Fuck, it’s gotta be one of the biggest barrels on the East Coast ever. For a boog for sure.” For Cramsie it was a baptism of fire – not only for his new life on the South Coast, but his foray into legitimate big-wave surfing. “At the start I wasn’t too sure about it,” Cramsie says. “That was the first wave I’ve been towed into in my life. But it was Damo and he’s pretty good. The boys were screaming in the channel, but I wasn’t too sure what it was gonna look like on camera. I was just happy to finally get some solid waves and photos under my belt.”

With hoots still echoing in the salt-spray, the group quickly sensed the urgency of making it back to shore. “My ski had started beeping for fuel with about an hour of light left,” Chapple says. “We had to ride back pretty much in the dark, which takes about 20 minutes. I had no idea if we were gonna make it. I had a photographer on the back who was shitting it. I could feel him grabbing on to my ribs the whole way back.” For Moth, too, it was a confronting ride. “I’ve never seen the ocean like that. I saw bombies I’d never seen breaking. The live buoys were reading 16-and-a-half seconds, and maybe six or seven metres. It was honestly the biggest I’ve ever seen it. By 4pm there were sets guys were calling 15 foot… just massive mountains of water.”

Back on dry land Griz and Rod posted up nearby at Damo’s place where his girlfriend cooked them chicken parmigiana and roast vegies. They were nodding off by 8.30. But they were also acutely aware that, while the swell looked to be dropping slightly, there’d hardly be a breath of wind in the morning. And talk had spread like wildfire. Photographer Josh Tabone – who’d been caught in diabolical roadworks all afternoon on the way down from Port Macquarie – was fast asleep in the backseat of his car by the side of the road near Kiama, while Cramsie and Ackerman didn’t dare leave the boat ramp. They too were folded up around the seats of Shane’s Subaru, alarm set for the early. Meanwhile, Cronulla charger Shaun Pyne, who’d also been titillated by the charts, was zooming down the coast in his Hilux. “I’d been working heaps, six days a week, in Sydney and not really surfing much,” Pyne says. “But stuff it, YOLO. Threw a sickie. I stayed at Tyge’s [Landa] house in Ulladulla… he gave me the older brother pep talk to get me into the zone.” Landa – now better known for his handiwork with a video camera and editing suite – was well qualified. Then a young rider on the rise, Landa was towed into one of the bombs of the day during a similar swell at the spot in 2006, which Movement magazine featured with the tagline, “Virgin images of Australia’s biggest ever session”. While she wasn’t a virgin any longer and the April swell had been surpassed as the “biggest ever”, whispers of the current day’s session had everyone wondering – could tomorrow be the one?


The morning was a red-eyed blur for some, like Sydney photographer Steve Wall, who began the drive from Sydney at 1am. While for others it was just another sunrise. “It was a normal day really,” Glen Thurston says. “I juiced, light brekky, drove to the spot and paddled out. Didn’t think too much into it.” The most eventful start belonged to Pyne, who was on a boat to the spot at first light. “We were cruising out of the harbour and there were six-to-10-foot sets breaking in the bay,” says Pyne. “Next thing you know the skipper crashes through a wave, which smashes the windscreen and [starts] filling the boat with water. There’s no bilge pump, camera gear’s getting soaked… the skipper tapped out and bombed it back in while I bucketed water out in the dark. The boys went back to Tyge’s to fix their gear, but I wanted the pit of a lifetime. I drove down and paddled out solo.”

If the swell had dropped overnight it was barely noticeable. Three-time world champ Ben Player – who’d also endured the swirling 45-minute paddle – found out the hard way how serious the conditions were. “I got out and everyone was kinda sitting on the shoulder,” Ben laughs. “There was a bunch of guys with skis, so I was like, what the fuck are all you guys doing? So I went and paddled on the inside and pretty much got cleaned up by a 10-wave 15-foot set. One landed top-to-bottom on my head. It was kinda deserving because I got out there all cocky, but the ocean just does what it does. It equalises everyone and knocks you the hell down.”

While the pack hunting waves seemed large, they were still dwarfed by the number of those on jetskis. “I’ve never seen that many in the water,” Owen recalls. “Mate, I’ll throw down 25 skis. I actually drive one and chase the wave down and shoot… and it was like a fucken jetski training facility dodgem course.” And with the whiff of petrol and testosterone in the air confrontations were unavoidable. “There were guys that didn’t know what they were doing,” Damo says. “Me and Graham pulled a couple up on it. They pretty much dropped in on us and I had nowhere to go [on the ski] – Graham was on the wave and they pretty much washed a 10-footer down on him. I’ve gone up to the dude and was like, ‘Mate, be careful. That ski weighs 450 kilos – you’ll kill someone’. And he’s like, ‘Fuck off, mate. I’ll do what I want!’ Thurston too was left scratching his exhausted head about the motivations of some drivers after one particularly nasty hold-down. “I seriously almost drowned on one wave,” Thurston says. “I had tow surfers driving straight passed me, not even stopping to help. I was pissed. When are waves more important than people?”

There was no animosity, at least, between the bodyboarders, but two distinct camps inevitably formed. “I think it’s more of a tow wave at that size,” Damo explains. “Because where they’re [paddlers] taking off is the best part of the wave. [When towing] You can come in behind it and you’re already backdooring it where the dudes paddling are looking down on ya from the shoulder… and you’re just flying through the pit.” Some of the photographers’ comments seem to back up their claims. “Damo and Graham Miller were towing laps the whole morning and pretty much got all the good ones,” Wall says. “I mean, a couple of guys paddling got some… Shaun Pyne got one sick one. Ben got a couple, Ewan [Donnachie] got one… but I dunno. I think it was the [swell] period that made it a bit [too] fast to paddle and get right in the spot for the real heavy ones.” Owen says Moth might’ve got more barrels than everyone in the lineup combined. “I swear to God he didn’t stop catching waves. It was just in-out-in-out all day.”

Those to eschew the rope agreed the arms and legs approach was much more of a slog – both mentally and physically – but therein lays its appeal. “Towing’s good if you can get in behind the peak, but other than that paddling requires a lot more skill and balls,” Pyne says. “Its not hard to hold a rope and get whipped in, but braving big sets, using your whole body to hold the face and scoop in, and drawing a good line while trying to maximise your speed on a large wave that’s trying to overtake you is pretty hard.” Griz, who like Thurston paddled for eight hours straight, agrees. “I really like that it’s such a battle against the elements. You’re out there for hours dodging rogue ones so it’s more satisfying when you finally get one.”

With the waves only dipping slightly as the afternoon progressed, one-by-one the skis rode off into the distance with exhausted and elated men on the back. “It was just me and Rod left and he was like, ‘I’m over it’,” Griz says. “I was like, fark… I should probably go back out for some more, but I was so tired. A couple of mates checked it that afternoon and were like, ‘Man, it looks so good!’ There was not one person out. It was crazy.”

But where does the session rate? How big was it? And does it even matter? “There were some 15-footers I reckon,” says photographer Ray Collins, who tipped the session into fully certified West Oz-style circus when he left and returned in a hired chopper around midday. “But when do you start saying crazy things, you know? When does it become 17-and-a-half foot? It felt like I was shooting Waimea Bay out there, that’s all I know.” Damo says the waves were “pretty much as good as it’s ever gonna get” in the region. “It was full groundswell, big period and a lot of power. The only place I’ve ever seen it like that is South Oz, WA and Vicco. Sunday arvo was the biggest waves I’ve ever seen here for sure.” Ben Player says there’s no question it eclipsed the ’06 swell. “That day [2006] there was probably one set that came through and maxed out, like breaking behind the reef, but the other day there were lots doing that. It’s the biggest waves I’ve seen full stop. I only took off on a few, but I guess the fact we were all out there being a part of pushing the limits of paddle-in surfing… it’s pretty cool. It’s a bit of a privilege.” While most were at least calling it the biggest they’ve seen the East Coast, some were hesitant to throw out any hasty calls. “It was crazy, but it has been that size a fair few times in my experience,” Thurston says. “It was just a really good, testing big-wave session in my books.”

When the next day dawned it was back to regular life for those who scored, albeit with thoroughly aching bodies. Steve Wall and Shaun Pyne boosted back to Sydney for work. Michael Chapple was back teaching his primary school students, preparing them for their upcoming NAPLAN test. And Chris James, like so many other “big-name” bodyboarders, was back at his 9-5 too, helping fund trips further afield in the ridiculous chase for more waves that could kill him. “I was pretty rattled hey,” Griz laughs over the phone, more than a month after the sessions. “I was scaffolding the next day so it was fucked. But at the same time you’re on a high. I work a lot more now than I have in previous years so that kind of session definitely gets you through the week. You’re buzzing for… shit, I’m still buzzing from that session now.”