Surfing Tasmania's Shipstern Bluff

Oct 25, 2011


A memo to prospective surfers: if things turn nasty at Shipstern Bluff, it’s a long way to the nearest hospital. But that’s the last thing pro big-wave surfer James Hollmer Cross wanted to know during his debut encounter with the notorious Tasmanian surf spot. His big challenge was to block out everything he knew could go wrong, which was plenty. Shipstern’s 20-foot-plus (6.1m) waves have a habit of spitting surfers onto the nearby rocks like pips.

Hollmer Cross didn’t make a single wave that day, but he did get off lightly compared to others who had. Rather than breaking bones, he merely broke both his surfboards. The upside was that he had a friend on hand to lend him another. The downside was that he managed to break that one, too. It doesn’t matter how well prepared surfers are, says Hollmer Cross, the Shipstern initiation is always a baptism of fire. “Kelly Slater surfed them on quite a small day and he didn’t make his first four or five waves.”

The perceived wisdom among those in the know was that Shipstern Bluff, in all its plus-sized muscularity, simply couldn’t be surfed. But in 2001, Tracks magazine covered big-wave trailblazer Andy Campbell successfully surfing the waves at this south-west edge of the Tasman Peninsula with mainland surfers including “Bra Boy” Mark Mathews, after which the bluff began to attract plenty of attention.

More than a decade on, it has become a Holy Grail for boardriders. According to Tasmanian local and surf photographer Stuart Gibson, removing the veil of secrecy that once shrouded Shipstern has given rise to a Jackass effect, whereby under-qualified imitators attempt to add the bluff to their surf wish list. “I’ve had a go at it,” admits Gibson, “but I’ve seen other people surf out there who really shouldn’t be anywhere near the place.”

For locals who do have the chops, a culture of one-upmanship has emerged. “You can take it further,” says Gibson. “You can come from a different line and get deeper inside the barrel. The guys who know the waves more will definitely do that. Everyone feeds off each other – one person takes it further [and] everyone follows suit.”

At the 2010 XXL Global Big Wave Awards, Hollmer Cross was nominated for Wipeout of the Year thanks to a rendezvous with Shipstern Bluff. Because of an increasing number of injuries, Surf Life Saving Tasmania (SLST) rolled out a Big Wave Safety Program last year, teaching the island state’s big-wave surfers advanced safety techniques. “It always has been and always will be an environment that has risk,” says Alex Deane from SLST. “When people jump the gun, that’s when they can get into trouble.”

Richard Bennett is a performance psychologist and author of The Surfer’s Mind. He believes surfing incorporates two types of rides: those that happen above the water and those that happen below it. If you want to be a big-wave surfer, he points out, you need to love both.
“That’s something that sets big-wave riders apart from recreational surfers,” he says. “They love the wipeouts and they’re actually really good at them in terms of the psychology and the physical side. They know how to shut the system down and stay calm, how to keep their awareness and orientation to the surface intact while they’re being completely torn apart by the waves. And they have trust – they’re sure they’ll eventually reach the surface.”

The idiosyncrasies of Shipstern Bluff mean the waves pose various difficulties for boardriders. It’s not just their daunting size and raw power. They’re inclined to mutate, doubling in size out of nowhere, and can also contain smaller, shelf-like waves within the main waves, causing surfers to become airborne as they navigate their way down the water. But first they need to catch their ride. One method involves being towed with a jet ski at high speed towards the waves, then letting go of the rope at just the right moment. Hollmer Cross says that requires a significant leap of faith: “I snowboard, so it feels similar to the kind of speed you get when you’re going down a long run.”

Shipstern Bluff is renowned for more than its waves. Just getting there is part of the experience. Its remote location means the bluff is accessible only by boat or a two-hour bush walk. Although boating is easier, hiking the meandering bush track is a common alternative. Encountering wildlife and rare native flora is all part of the experience.

Then there is the cinematic grandeur of the destination itself. Says Gibson: “It’s a Land Of The Giants feel. Everything’s on a big scale. There’s so much water moving, even when it’s small, and there’s this gigantic flat shelf and truck-sized boulders. You look up the cliff face towards the bluff itself and it’s just ridiculous. It’s scary to stand under.”

Not scary enough to dampen the surfers’ enthusiasm, however. “Every time I’m down there I have amazing fun, whether it’s eight foot (2.4m) or 20 foot (6.1m),” says Gibson. “Everyone’s laughing and we’ll have a couple of beers on the boat for the afternoon. It’s basically a bunch of friends trying to push the limits.”

Source Qantas The Australian Way November 2011
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