Interview by Ashtyn Douglas
Last July, when most of his fellow classmates were prepping for high school final exams, 18-year-old Russell Bierke was busy surfing gargantuan Teahupoo. But such is life for a teenager who chases heavy slabs and massive waves around the world. Much to the detriment of his attendance record, the Ulladulla, New South Wales local has spent the last few years studying swell charts and getting comfortable at breaks like Ours, The Right, and Shipstern Bluff. He’s since graduated from high school and spent the last two months in Hawaii, charging both Pipe and Jaws. A few weeks after I first watched from the channel at Pe’ahi as the kid nabbed giant after giant, I called him to talk about what it was like growing up in a Big-Wave World and how he hopes to make the BWWT someday.
Were your teachers pretty tolerant of you ditching school to go surf monster waves?
My teachers were pretty supportive. I just had to catch up on my work when I got back. It was hard to balance surfing and school because you can’t really time when a swell hits. It was definitely a challenge, but I’m glad I graduated.
Did you do the whole contest thing growing up, or did you steer clear of that route?
Yeah, until I was 15 or 16, I entered pretty much every contest on [Australia’s] east coast. But I remember being so bummed if there was a swell at home when I was going to grovel in 2-foot beachie. I figured I’d be better off spending my time and money chasing good waves, which is what I really like to do.
How’d you first get into surfing big waves?
My dad grew up surfing big waves in Hawaii and would always go to the Outer Reefs. Growing up in Australia, I was always begging him to take me with him. When he finally thought I was ready, he took me down to Bells Beach in Victoria during a big swell. I was only 12, and it was huge — 10 to 12 feet with hardly anyone out. We had to paddle out from the beach around the corner. It was just washing all the way down to the bottom. I was freaked out and got the biggest wave I had ever seen right on the head. That kind of calmed me down, because I handled it. I caught one wave and rode it for a bit and was hooked after that.
So your dad had quite an influence on this path you’ve taken as a surfer?
He’s pretty much the reason I surf. I grew up on the beach at Rocky Point watching him surf. He never pushed me, but I did get that drive to want to surf from him. He shaped for over 15 years on the North Shore, so he’s always shaped my boards, too.
Did you get to spend much time on the North Shore this winter?
I spent the most time I ever have over there this winter. I just finished Year 12 (senior year), so I was free to set off to Hawaii for two months. I hung out at Pipe and surfed there a bunch. When the swell got bigger, I would go over to Jaws and try to figure that out.
How did that go? The surfing Jaws part…
My second day ever out there was the Aaron Gold swell, which was the biggest swell ever paddled. That was pretty interesting, getting thrown straight into the deep end. Now surfing it when it’s any smaller seems much easier. So I guess that day was a good introduction to it.
What’s the big-wave scene like in Australia compared to Hawaii?
There aren’t a lot of giant traditional paddle waves in Australia, but there’s a huge amount of dry rock ledges and slabs. Definitely not as many people chase big waves in Australia compared to Hawaii and the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, but we have a really tight-knit crew who is on nearly every swell throughout the country. Most guys have full-time jobs and don’t earn a living off surfing, even though they should be. They just chase these waves for the love of it.
Do you have any plans to do the Big Wave World Tour?
Yeah, I’d love to get on the Big-Wave World Tour one day. Pretty hard to get onto, though. I’ve just got to keep racking up footage and make sure I’m at all the spots when they turn on.
How does it feel growing up being one of the youngest guys out in big-wave lineups?
It felt pretty normal, just because I’ve always been one of the younger guys in the lineup. But these days, I’ll paddle out and there will be kids that are a couple years younger than me! It’s happening a lot more now that I’m getting older. It’s good to see other kids taking that path, too.
So everyone’s getting started young now.
Yeah, back in the day it was, like, people who didn’t make the Tour or something would start transitioning to big-wave surfing toward the end of their careers. But now with people growing up surfing big waves, it’ll be pretty interesting to see where it goes.
Where do you think big-wave surfing will be by the time you’re 30?
I think in the next 10 years or so, people will be riding big waves a lot better. Like during the Aaron Gold swell, the two biggest waves ridden were huge, but the people didn’t make the waves. It’s insane what they’re doing, but I think the big-wave world will be even more performance-oriented. It’s already changing. Just look at Dorian — he makes nine out of ten waves, back-dooring the biggest sections ever. Also I think the industry is realizing that you can make more money out of big-wave surfing than in the past. The webcast of the Jaws competition was, like, the highest viewed webcast ever. It’s starting to attract mainstream media, because everyone can see how scary and dangerous it is to ride big waves.