Taking on the Giant

By DUSTIN HOLLICK | For a surfer living in Tasmania, to drop into the abyss of a hissing Shipstern monster and come out at the end unscathed is nothing short of the holy grail. To say that you’d pass up a date with the girl of your dreams to achieve it is in no way an exaggeration! Believe me, I’ve done it.

My love/hate relationship with Shipstern began when I was about 17. After years of hearing older surfers talk about the mystical “Devils Point” (as it was known for obvious reasons) I decided to go and check it out for myself.

Shipstern Bluff — a finger of land jutting out in the ocean and providing an ideal formation to taunt the storm-swollen ocean swells into displaying their formidable wrath a few times each year

A couple of mates and I followed our noses and ended up at what, after 15 years of surfing throughout Australia and Indonesia, I still consider the most awe-inspiring view of sheer, raw, untamed power and beauty, that my little hobbit-like feet have take me to. We spent four hours that day sitting on top of 200 metre high sea cliffs, staring down in disbelief at the monstrous, perfect waves crashing into the bluff, only 10 kilometres (as the eagle flies) from the soft piddlers of Roaring Beach that we surfed on a weekly basis. There was no doubt in my mind that before I died I would surf this beauty.

In the following years I walked into Shipsterns bluff every few months, just to remind myself that it was there, that yes Mother Nature is indeed boss, and to bask in the amazing natural beauty and energy that permeates from the area. In these years I never saw anyone surf it, and often wondered if anyone ever had.

…it would be scary enough just catching a wave out there without having to hassle the top surfers in the world just to get into position to catch it!

Whilst living on the Gold Coast, I heard the news that a local surfer, Andrew Campbell, had started surfing the wave. I grew up watching Andrew surf and knew he was a great surfer of big waves, so I believed these rumours to be true — yes it was indeed possible to surf Shippies! Later on that same year I saw concrete proof that it was surfable. Andrew and professional surfers Brendan Margieson and Dave Rastovich went and surfed it. This was all caught on film by surf movie maker Justin Gove . Tassie’s secret was out!

I decided I’d better get myself back down there and catch myself a Shipstern beast before the whole surfing world descended on it. God knows it would be scary enough just catching a wave out there without having to hassle the top surfers in the world just to get into position to catch it!

Finally the day I had been waiting for came. The surf was 8-10 foot (surfing feet in normal feet this equates to about 15-20 foot) and looked, as far as Shipsterns was concerned, inviting. There were several pro surfers in town and, unfortunately, different views on their imminent arrival had created a bit of a rift in the local surfing community. As far as I was concerned, the extra surfers made it harder for me to catch a wave, but also a lot safer if anything went wrong.

As I leapt off the rock platform around the back of the break to paddle to the take off zone, the icy chill of the water shocked me. It is weird for the body to go from steaming hot after an 80 minute bushwalk to freezing in 13° Tassie wintertime water. Reaching the take off spot, I looked around at my fellow surfers. There were a couple of maniacs: freaks who would take off on any wave that came their way without hesitation. There were also a couple of guys who were shitting themselves. These guys were paid professionals though, and this meant they had to go no matter what.

It is weird for the body to go from steaming hot after an 80 minute bushwalk to freezing in 13° Tassie wintertime water.

I felt sorry for them and incredibly relieved that the decision to surf this wave was mine alone. After around 25 minutes of watching and waiting, I saw it, my wave. The maniacs were in the wrong spot and the guys shitting themselves didn’t want it anyway. I put my head down and paddled as hard as I could, and all too soon I felt the familiar feeling of weightlessness. There was no backing out now. I made it to the bottom of the wave, step one complete.

The wave then began to draw all the water off the reef as it doubled in size. Being on a wave like this was a completely new sensation for me, every nerve ending in my body was on fire. I stood slightly more upright, but still braced my legs ready to absorb any impact from unexpected twists that the wave might throw at me, and I watched as she unleashed her beauty around me. Before I knew it, I had emerged to the safety of the channel and the hoots of the photographers on the boat. I had done it, I had ridden a Shipsterns beauty. I spent the rest of that day overcome by an amazing feeling of elation.

I still surf Shipstern every chance I get when it is on. Andrew Campbell has made himself a career from surfing it and bodyboarders and surfers from all around the world come to test themselves on its heaving, icy waves. More local guys are starting to surf it for the love of it, but you can still count the number of people who have surfed it successfully on your fingers. If you’ve never been down there, do yourself a favour next time the swell gets over three metres – jump in your car, pack your walking shoes and get down there. It is a sight you will never forget. ¶

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