SANDY Ryan is behind the counter of the family’s Phillip Island surf shop, organising repairs to a ding in some grommet’s surfboard, when the call comes.“Looks like Shippies is about to go off,’’ cries the enthusiastic voice on his mobile phone.
“Shippies” is Shipstern Bluff, a renowned and remote Tasmanian big wave two hours’ drive and a 90-minute walk from Hobart. The caller is usually Ryan’s mate, Marti Paradisis, a Tasmanian surfer now based in Melbourne.
By poring over the online charts — swells, winds and tides — the two surfers have become expert at predicting when and where a monster set of waves will roll in. For the modern big-wave rider, being adept at surfing the net has become almost as important as getting out for an early morning paddle.
Ryan is one of a growing band of board riders hooked on chasing towering swells. He has no sponsors, other than access to boards from the family’s Smiths Beach shop, and no guarantees.
“It’s not something that you can book in advance, you just need to constantly check the swell forecasts and time it so that you’re there at the right time,’’ Ryan says.
“Even then, you might think you’ve got everything lined up and the swell might peak overnight or not even arrive. You’re at the mercy of the charts.’’
The 31-year-old is also at the mercy of cheap flights, as well as last-minute car hire and accommodation. To whisk away on a big-wave surfari he needs to juggle staff rosters and consider financial constraints. He is fortunate that his wife Nadia, a mother to their two young children, is supportive.
The chase might take Ryan to No Toes on the New South Wales south coast, Tombstones halfway up the Western Australian coast, or even to a deep-sea monster like Pedra Branca, a rocky outcrop in the Southern Ocean, 26 kilometres off the Tasmanian coast.
Usually he will arrive to find other members of the big-wave fraternity on the scene: clued-up locals or perhaps one of the lucky handful of surfers who can devote themselves full-time to the sport. Guys like Shane Dorian, Ryan Hipwood and Mark Matthews.
There might even be someone with a camera to record the moment.
Australian film maker Tim Bonython is one man who follows the swell charts as closely as the surfers. He has done as far back as 1978, when he packed his Super-8 camera and set off for Hawaii’s famed North Shore to capture the powerful waves and their riders.
It became a “major addiction’’ and although he has since won acclaim for his music videos with bands such as Midnight Oil, Screaming Jets and Frenzal Rhomb, getting out in the boat and feeling the spray from the immense waves remains his passion.
“There are surfers on the world tour who know how to make a wave look really good, and they really are the stars, but in big-wave surfing the ocean is the star,’’ Bonython said.
Ryan agreed that there was an extra spiritual dimension to big wave surfing that was not to be found in carving up six footers on the Victorian coast or unleashing cutbacks and aerials in competition.
“You just go so much faster, there’s more risk, but therefore more reward,’’ Ryan said. “All of your senses are so alert, it’s a heightened experience.’’
In a practical sense the main difference was “not necessarily the height, but the shape of the waves. They’re just really hollow waves with a lot of water in them. On a wave your instinct is usually to go down the line towards the shoulder, but on these waves you almost need to angle towards the beach to counteract all of that water that’s pulling up the face.’’
Like all adrenaline sports, there is also a flip side. The dirty lickings handed out by a big wave are considerably more dangerous than the average wipeout: Ryan broke his ribs on the reef at Shipstern a few years ago, and last Easter, while surfing at The Right in Western Australia, had a frightening stint in ‘’the washing machine’’ after tumbling from a wave.
“It wasn’t just the time under water (which he estimated at perhaps 45 seconds) but also the intensity of it,’’ Ryan said. “You’re being ripped in every direction and it’s pretty hectic. You think you’re starting to come up and then it turns into the next wave going over you.
“It’s not like you’re lying in a bath holding your breath. You’re expending a heap of energy trying to get up to the surface.’’
Bonython has spent the past year filming the epic rides and associated wipeout carnage then editing the footage to screen on a national tour known as the Australian Surf Movie Festival. The festival originated in 1981, when he filmed the Rip Curl Pro event at Bells Beach and later screened the highlights from a projector in the back of his car.
The idea is to pay tribute to surfing’s old-school cinema heritage with cutting-edge new vision and editing. The 12th festival comes to Melbourne this week.
“I love the reaction,’’ Bonython said. “Most people look at big-wave surfing and know that there’s no chance in the world they’ll ever get near it, but they still appreciate it and like to get caught up in the energy of it.
“They shake their heads in disbelief and wonder how in the world somebody could handle themselves in those conditions, but on some scale they can relate their own surfing experience to it, even though it’s on the next level, or six levels above their own surfing.’’
Bonython said big wave surfers were more organised and calculated than ever before, and the sport was evolving quickly, with the prospect of an organised tour growing to rival the ASP tour.
“I reckon in ten years’ time the top big-wave surfers may well be getting paid just as handsomely as a top 30 world championship surfer,’’ Bonython said.
This year’s festival includes amazing footage of Coolangatta surfer Dean Morrison riding a heaving beast of a wave at The Right, as well as Tassie surfer James Hollmer-Cross going over the falls in ‘’the wipeout from hell’’ at Pedra Branca (the footage is going to be used in the 2015 remake of the classic surf film Point Break).
Ryan also features, surfing in the same barrel alongside WA’s Chris Ross at The Right.
Bonython said the surfers were stoked whenever he managed to capture footage of their rides, not least because it documented what they might regard as one of the great moments of their lives.
“And also most of these guys don’t get a lot of financial backing,’’ he said. “They might get free wetsuits or a budget of a few thousand dollars to have a sticker on their board. With a bit of luck some footage of their wave might get up on the XXL or Surfer Poll or Oakley big wave awards and give them some exposure.’’
Ryan had another take on the beauty of Bonython’s film, which he had grown up watching with awe.
“The thing is you can’t really tell how big it is when you’re on these waves because there’s so many things happening and you’re looking down the line. You’re well and truly in the moment. So it’s only when you can look at some shots or footage later on that you get an idea and that’s when it really puts it into perspective.’’
The Australian Surf Movie Festival will screen at St Kilda’s Esplanade Hotel on Wednesday and Carlton’s Cinema Nova on Thursday