Aussie Tsunami surfer Ross Clarke Jones is a man who rides waves that eat surfers. He tells Jade Richardson why.
It was standing on its haunches, biting at the sky.
A swelling, growling wall of water; a snarling slice of sea.
The biggest wave ever ridden; a freak wall of liquid thunder churned out by El Nino tides that summer, was a sight that even the hardest of Hawaii’s big wave riders preferred to watch from the headland. It was a wave the size of a department store, with the velocity of a train wreck and destined for the same kind of impact when it finally smashed itself against the flat water.
When surfer Ross Clarke Jones popped to his feet inside the blue-green throat of the biggest wave he’d ever seen, he was risking not only being swallowed, but chewed and snapped by the 40-foot jaws of the North Pacific. He did not look like a legend, he looked like a stickman in an avalanche.
A wave that size is pure velocity. On a crystal-clear day, under a skyful of blue, a wave like that emerges from the sea like the mirage of a mountain, a holy place – full of power and promise. It swells up in ominous silence, sucking great sheets of thick water inside. It prowls for a while, bouldering into a curve too huge to be described as graceful. It looms like a predator on the horizon. Descending fast.
“I’d never seen anything like it,” tells Clarke Jones. “The sight of that thing made everything else any of us had seen in the last 15 years instantly obsolete.
The sets were breaking at 25 feet. It was a league beyond anything any of us had ever known, and the guys who were there were the best big wave riders in the world.
“The water was like glass, the weather was perfect. We had all arrived at Waimea for the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Surfing Challenge – it’s a contest that doesn’t even kick off unless the waves hit 20 foot.” The swells hadn’t been big enough for the epic big wave contest in nine years, but in ’98 it just went wild. By mid-morning on the first day organisers, fearing injury – or worse, pulled the plug. “They cancelled the comp because it was just too extreme to send guys out there,” says Clarke Jones. “We were evacuated from the contest and headed for the top of the mountain range that skirts the sea, from there we could see that the whole 11 miles of coastline was one huge swell. I had one thought; how can I give that up?”
It is never a question that Clarke Jones considers logically when the surf’s up. If most other human beings were to think, seriously, about the prospect of riding such a monster, there would be a very sound argument for settling for a double short black and leaving the surfboard in the car.
When a 40-foot wave breaks it is the aquatic equivalent of a landslide. 9200 tonnes of water, travelling at approximately 120kms per hour fold into a soufflé of white water as thick and dangerous as rubble. Standing with your feet strapped onto a 7 foot, 5 inch piece of fibreglass on the face of something that big is like nothing else on Earth. Watching from the beach, you can feel the noise – like the boom of a jet. When the wave implodes the force of the impact moves the sand under your feet. If you are brave (or crazy) enough to be in the water when such a wave explodes, it is nothing short of apocalyptic.
“There’s no way you can even get near surf like that without a jet ski to tow you in,” says Clarke Jones. “The whitewater alone is bigger than any swell a surfboard could get through. In this kind of surfing skill on the jet ski and the surfboard are crucial. You need a partner who knows how to get you behind the wave, you need a powerful ski, one that can hit 100kms and not spin out. You negotiate a path onto the wave at a speed that matches the pace of the water and hope like hell you’ve got your line right. Once you’re on, you’re committed. You choose a line that races out the collapse of the wave, you think only of what’s in front. There is no noise, there is no past. There is no 35-foot wave. Only the future.” It is a future of intense seconds where you ride clean water, take some air and hold on to your line for as long as your survival instincts can bare it.
In big wave surfing Australian-born Ross Clarke Jones has made a name for himself by refusing the possibility of error. “There’s no point thinking, ‘Can I do this thing?’”, he says. “The only calculation I bother about is; big wave, fast ski – me first!”
It’s a philosophy that has made him THE name in big wave surfing and earned him a reputation as a fearless maniac. “Sure,” he says. “Maybe that’s half true. The thing is, once you’ve got a taste for that kind of thing there’s nothing to stop you. I’ve got a hunger for it, and when I’m on the beach feeling everybody’s anxiety, it’s like fuel for me. There’s no fear – only the craving to be out there and inside.”
He’s a man who should know better. The opening sequence of Biggest Wednesday, a cult status short film documenting Clarke Jones infamous ride on the Waimea swells, a Quicksilver ad sums up his surfing career in a simple set of statistics.
‘Busted eardrum. Broken back. Mangled heel.
Millions of stitches. Fractured skull.
12 close calls. Cracked ribs…
and 10,742 thick barrels.’
The latest offering from IMax, Extreme, features Clarke Jones flirting with mortality on swells already written into the skin and carved into the skeleton of the 34-year-old whose body knows only too well that his flesh is weaker than his fetish. The fourth wave of that January Wednesday was the wave of his life – and could easily have been the last.
“That was the wave,” he recalls. “It was awesome. It outran the jet ski, I held it for a while but the line was wrong. I saw my partner, Tony Ray, get swallowed on the jet ski and then I felt the sucking. One minute I was on it, I could feel it riding out underneath me – the next I was inside it. I was nothing – the world inverted, the world ended. No up, no air, nothing but my last breath – the call to surrender. That kind of wipeout is, well, how can I describe it? It feels pretty good. You curl up, there is no pain. You get thrown around corkscrew fashion at about 100kms an hour inside a vacuum. When it’s over you’re deep, very deep underwater. It’s over, you’re out of air and your only worry is which way out.”
One minute without air is a long time when you’re metres deep in a cyclone swell. The wipeout itself is enough to knock your last gasp clean out of your lungs, after that the turbulence can suck whatever oxygen is left in your blood. “The trick is not to panic,” says Clarke Jones. “You’ve got to relax, let the water spin you, don’t choke. If you get the headspace right you don’t lose your cool, then you can enjoy it – there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
It doesn’t always work out quite this way. Just a few years before the summer of ’98 Clarke Jones was underwater in Hawaii facing an entirely different scenario.
“It was a big swell, but not like ’98,” he recalls. “I was riding a wave when a Hawaiian guy dropped in front of me, at that speed I would have killed him so I pulled into the tube, got sucked up the face headfirst and spat out – straight onto the reef.” Clarke Jones landed butt-first on dry reef, a fall of about 10 metres at a speed of almost 70kph. The blow sent compression fractures right up his spine, whiplashed his neck and left him unconscious, being dragged back into the swell. “I came too 10 metres from the shore, underwater. The waves were pounding over me, I couldn’t move my legs at all. People watching from the beach ran down and hauled me out, they pulled me onto the sand and while I waited there for the ambulance I thought; my God, it’s a broken back, I’m paralysed – it’s all over. I was beyond humbled, demolished by the ocean.” It took four months of rehabilitation but the determination to get back to the water was intense. “In the end it just made me stronger,” he says. “Through that time I told myself, this is nothing. I said to myself, this is not the end, it’s just something to go through. After that there was no more fear, nothing to stop at – I felt I’d broken through a wall.”
The word most often used to describe Clarke Jones is fearless. It’s a misinterpretation by his public, not a private ambition. “People like to think because I do these things I’m some kind of superhuman, somebody without limits. Perhaps it helps people justify that they’re not out there themselves,” he says. “The reality is that I was born on the 6th day of the 6th month in 1966 – how deep into my anxieties do you want to go?”
Sure, when it comes to big waves he admits to no fear, “When you get scared out there the adrenaline shot’s too strong to be any good, it makes you weak – I’m not out for that.” But there’s other things that do get Clarke Jones in a sweat. “Sharks scare the living daylights out of me,” he says. “Can’t stand spiders. Snakes; can’t touch ‘em – I can’t even confront a dog, I’m no good with animals, or humans.”
On an autumn Thursday, surfing the break at Terrigal, NSW, Clarke Jones got to know a lot about being afraid. “I was paddling around the point when something grabbed me around the leg. It got me by the leg rope and pulled me under, let me go, then went for me again,” he tells. “I got sucked under and I could feel this thing dragging at me – there was no pain, but I was screaming like a schoolgirl. Shark! It made my blood run cold. It turned out, in the end, that I’d got tangled up in fishing buoy but I couldn’t stop screaming anyway – pure terror.” That was in the beginning, when Clarke Jones was just a kid. “I found out about myself that day in the surf,” he says. “I’m out in the water because it’s a kind of paradise, surfers understand that. When I’ve faced sharks (or fishing buoys) in the water I’ve got the distinction really clearly – there’s a big difference between scaring the hell out of yourself and being exhilerated.
“Riding the big waves happened because I was seduced by the idea. From the day I surfed the pointbreak at Terrigal, when I was only 11 and my mum was screaming on the rocks, I just knew it was where I wanted to be. I always loved the feeling; the intensity and the sea, it was never about conquering fear. I hate being afraid.”
Since then he’s surfed his way around the world to ride the sea in Japan, South Africa, Indonesia, Morocco, Peru, Brazil … the list goes on. “I just like to be on the ocean, in all kinds of ocean,” he says. “I love the emerald green sea off France, I loved Peru – like surfing on the moon. I love it when it rains, I love the golden light and the brisk energy of a dawn surf in Sydney. It’s not that surfing has made me into something, not even the big waves that everybody gets so excited about, it’s more that the sea has taught me something, a way to belong I think. Yeah, it’s that – a way to belong.”
Published by Panorama, and The Sunday Telegraph.
Eddie Aikau was a big wave surfer and the first life guard at Hawaii’s Waimea Bay. He saved more than 500 people in the water, inspired generations after him, and died in February 2016 – his life story is being celebrated by surfers all over the world.