It was a week before famed Australian slab surfer Mark Mathews' Cape Fear contest was set to run, featuring an international field of big-wave legends including Shane Dorian, Bruce Irons, Ian Walsh, Albee Layer, Jamie O'Brien and Makua Rothman. The only problem was that the World Surf League (WSL), locked in a cold war with event sponsor Red Bull, threatened to ban any surfer who competed in the event from participating in future WSL contests. The big names all pulled out.
It might not have mattered, however, since it appeared the contest wouldn't run. Couldn't run. The forecast just looked too big. The system spawning in the Tasman Sea would eventually be known as the "Black Nor'easter" and would batter the whole Eastern Seaboard, washing houses into the ocean and lighting up reefs and bommies that had lain dormant for a generation. Cape Solander -- Cape Fear, also known as Ours, pre-branding makeover -- was a dangerous wave at 6 foot, and with the storm sucking fuel from the Tasman, it appeared it would be two or three times that size and beyond contemplation. But with the storm eye tracking the coast and the whole thing so damn volatile, at the last minute Mathews saw a glimmer of hope. He traded calls in turn with his forecaster and his insurance broker. If it ran, it would be something else.
That only left the problem of finding someone to surf it. Where, at short notice, could you find a group of lunatics gladly willing to sign the waiver and surf the blackest of black-diamond days? Where indeed.
SINCE it first appeared on magazine covers and in videos in the early 2000s, slab surfing has been a misunderstood movement, cast almost immediately as the redheaded, snaggletoothed cousin of big-wave surfing. While traditional big-wave surfing could trace its ancestry to the ancient Polynesians, slab surfing, with its smoke-belching skis, energy drinks and aquatic stunts, seemed like the seafaring spawn
of motocross and "Jackass."
The waves being ridden didn't even look like waves. Some looked like Escher staircases. Some looked like three-dimensional renderings of the reef below. Others seemed to contain the trapped souls of shipwreck
victims screaming to get out. They were gothic hellscapes every bit as grotesque as Teahupoo was perfect.
While slabs were being surfed all over the world, the epicenter of slab surfing was undeniably Australia. Shipstern Bluff, Cape Solander and The Right were revealed to the world in relatively short succession, and the first publicized sessions at those waves seemed almost colonial.
It all felt very "The Fatal Shore," down to the symbolism of Cape Solander being just a mile from where Captain Cook claimed Australia for the British, and Shipstern Bluff a couple of bays away from the ruins of the infamous Port Arthur penal colony.
More than anything, however, slab surfing was defined by the guys doing it. The surf stars of the day were too sensible, too highly paid and too good-looking to risk their necks on the end of a rope. Of the skill set required to slab-surf, having the balls to let go of the rope was by far the most crucial, and that opened the door to a whole bunch of guys you'd never heard of -- guys outside the diorama of pro surfing, guys on the fringes ... guys with day jobs.
They were miners, divers, firemen, fishermen, plumbers, bricklayers,electricians and dockhands. During the week, they wore hi-vis yellow and orange -- the ceremonial uniform of the Australian tradesman-- and they worked shifts to buy time inside 20-foot tubes. In Australia, it's not the aristocracy or the academic class but the humble "tradie" who sits atop the cultural totem, and the fact that they were now surfing waves
the pros wouldn't was cause for national celebration. Australians cheered as garbagemen and caretakers of invalids were spat out of enormous barrels.
"It's pretty nuts how hard they charged when you consider they were getting nothing out of it apart from the rush," says Mathews, who was one of the first professional slab surfers. "It shows how f–king addictive it actually is. These guys were risking their lives and it wasn't even their livelihood."
While Mathews and fellow pro charger Koby Abberton might have pioneered Cape Solander, they were quickly followed into the lineup by a small army of carpet layers. In Maroubra, laying carpet for a living was a generational rite of passage -- along with throwing eggs at police cars and the occasional holiday up the hill at Long Bay Correctional Centre. So when a submarine slab wave suddenly turned up on their doorstep, it was immediately ritualized in much the same way. The carpet layers took over the joint on every big swell, goading each other into dry-reef closeouts and cackling maniacally whenever someone was smashed into the cliff and dragged across the barnacles.
"You know what it reminded me of?" Mathews says of those early days. "It was like a game of park football that just got out of control. Those guys would go mental out there -- no rules, just destroying themselves, not getting paid and actually going harder because they weren't getting paid. Then they'd turn up to work the next day limping and bleeding and laughing."
THE Kelly Slater of slab surfing is a guy called Jughead. In a previous life Jughead had been Justen Allport, a laconic father of three with a "Beavis and Butthead" laugh who worked as a fireman at the Bateau Bay Fire Station. On his days off, however, he chased impossible surf. "Jug chased it hard," recalls Mathews. "I remember when I was young looking at photos of him surfing and thinking, 'How is this guy not dead?'" Allport, of course, almost was dead on several occasions.
Allport chased waves, not magazine covers. "I went to The Right one time," he recalls, "and Mark sat way out the back and waited three hours. He caught one wave that day. Koby didn't even catch one, because they were waiting for the biggest, darkest one for the cover shot. Meanwhile, I was inside taking a thousand smaller ones that were better than any wave I'd ever get back at home." Allport reasoned like a working father, not a pro surfer: "If I get days away from work and the kids, I'm catching everything that moves. That's the difference: It's recreation for us; for them, it's a job."
Being a fireman is in many ways the perfect day job for a guy like Allport. For one, slab surfing seems less dangerous than walking into a burning building, but most importantly, the job affords plenty of days off. Allport currently works 24 days on, 24 days off, 24 back on and then another five off. And even when a swell clashes with the schedule, he can "negotiate." The boss at the fire station knows the look when Allport walks up: "All he ever asks is 'Where are you going?' and 'How big is it gonna be?'"
It's this gusto for heavy surf that has made Allport a standout in slabs, but it's also taken a steep physical toll. Twelve years ago, on his first-ever trip to the USA, he chased a swell to Mavericks, but upon landing at LAX he got a call from good friend Ken "Skindog" Collins telling him to change his connecting flight to San Jose. "We're surfing Ghost Trees," Collins said. Allport's American odyssey lasted five waves. "Skinny said, 'Whatever you do, don't fade.' So of course I faded, bunny hopped a boil, and as I landed, my back foot slipped out of the straps and the board did a 360 with my front foot still in the strap." His left fibula spiral fractured in four places, his tibia snapped clean in half and the nerves in his lower leg shredded like cooked spaghetti. He still has the screws in his leg today; the big toe on his left foot no longer works, and if he touches his shin he feels like he's being stabbed. He returned home and was on paid medical leave from the fire brigade for a year while he recovered.
IF you've seen a photo of The Right over the past five years and noticed a hairy, marsupial-sized creature at the base of the wave scurrying for its life, it was probably Mick Corbett.
Like a lot of young guys in Western Australia, Corbett's done well from the mining boom. Between running his own electrical business down south and subcontracting to the big red quarries in the north, he's squirrelled away enough to live off of. And like a lot of young surfers out west, Corbett now has money, time, toys and 2,000 miles of empty coastline to play with. "When I was first starting up my sparky business, I didn't have a lot of time, but since then I took a step back and started living my life a bit more and chasing waves," says Corbett. "It's funny: Every single person I surf with is a tradie. Everyone works to go surfing. We're all good lads, out there to catch a wave and have a good time. No point doing it otherwise."
The Right, an offshore seamount open to everything the Southern Ocean has got, might be the pinnacle of the slab-surfing movement. Watching it break on a big swell, moving with the viscosity of liquid metal, a head-high tube spinning perfectly at the base of a 20-foot mound of water, it's hard to imagine a more monstrous wave being ridden.
"It's a hell of a wave," chirps Corbett. There's no horizon-staring faux romance in the way he delivers this line. He says it like he's checking your fuse box. "Once you get to the bottom of the wave, it feels like
you kind of start surfing uphill, then it just takes the biggest breath in before it roars past you and just rips your face off." Over time he's reached a perverse level of comfort out there, although he was shortened up recently while trying a floater on the end section and is now out of the water for six months with torn ligaments in his knee. It could be worse. In this land of oversized everything, Corbett was recently sitting next to a guy in the water who got launched into the air by a 16-foot great white. "I turned around and there it was. I've been in the ocean all my life and have always wondered what my first great white would look like," he laughs. "I don't wonder anymore."
JAMES Hollmer-Cross answers the phone with his good arm. He's at home in Hobart, Tasmania, and rolls straight into an itemized list of trauma inflicted by giant, ugly surf: "I've broken three bones in two years, all surfing." Hollmer-Cross runs his own business as a house painter, but moonlights as one of Shipstern Bluff's deepest. "It's lucky that I'm insured, but the injuries have burned bridges with a couple of regular clients. After the second or third time I got hurt, they were over it." The latest injury was a broken arm suffered while surfing Shippies. Fortunately, it wasn't his painting arm.
It was a wipeout at Pedra Branca, though, that almost finished both his surfing and house-painting careers. "Yeah, it was pretty savage" is how Hollmer-Cross remembers that violent spill three years ago. At the time he thought he'd broken his back, but had instead broken his leg in two places, torn the ligaments in his knee and perforated his eardrum. He'd been pinned to the reef and the power of the wave squeezed him like a tube of toothpaste -- only it wasn't toothpaste that came out. In a perverse yet redemptive twist, the footage of his wipeout was picked up and spliced into the 2015 remake of "Point Break." The humble house painter from Hobart made it to Hollywood and the payout floated his family while he got back on his feet.
When Hollmer-Cross was a young lad, Shipstern, like most slabs, was nothing more than a myth. "We heard rumors," he recalls, "about this really, really heavy wave down south that was secretly being ridden." Turns out a guy named Andy Campbell had been walking into the bush on the down-low and surfing it alone, before taking Hollmer-Cross and friend Marti Paradisis along one afternoon. "We only had two hours before dark and it was f–king pumping," remembers Hollmer-Cross. "I only caught two waves: one I made and one I got absolutely punished on. We ended up getting lost and walking out in the dark."
After salmon farming and bulldozing old-growth forest, surfing at Shipstern Bluff quickly became Tasmania's new boom industry. The Tassie boys charged hard on bigger and bigger swells, and this menagerie of house painters, abalone divers and cray fishermen put the forgotten island at the bottom of Australia back on the map. Some of them, God forbid, even went pro, including Hollmer-Cross.
Slab surfing had arrived and evolved so quickly in the early 2000s that every new swell felt like a quantum leap, and surf fans around the world couldn't get enough of the ensuing carnage and heroism. When the new discoveries dried up and the limits plateaued, however, the surfing public grew bored just as fast. Deskbound thrill seekers yawned as footage of another 20-foot Shipstern swell played out on their screen, and Hollmer-Cross soon found himself working as a house painter. "I was pretty rattled at the time, but it was actually the best thing that's ever happened to me," he recalls. "We were pretty obsessive, and surfing for a living was testing my relationship with my family. That change meant I could juggle surfing with my own business, and, you know what, I feel like I earn my surfs more now."
IN recent years, as the public's fascination with big, bloodthirsty slabs has waned, slab surfing has begun a slow drift into obscurity. The renaissance of big-wave paddle-in surfing has certainly played a part, but perhaps it has more to do with the total cartoonish detachment the average surfer feels looking at these mutant waves, finding it far more relatable to watch someone ripping Snapper when it's 3 foot and perfect. Or maybe surfing's eternal feedback loop just hasn't made us feel sentimental about guys wearing energy-drink trucker hats yet.
"Slab surfing" doesn't have an entry in the Encyclopedia of Surfing, despite being historic on every level. Maybe it was too underground, too provincial, or maybe, like a slab wave itself, the whole thing was so
momentary that it simply imploded, leaving only some hissing whitewater and a bunch of guys held together with screws, hobbling around job sites with some good stories.
Mathews -- himself hobbling after a slab wipeout that initially had doctors telling him he may never walk again -- laments the fact that these guys never truly got their day in the sun. On the other hand, Mathews
has surfed with them enough to know they live in a different world -- a world decoupled from the vainglorious ideal of the big-wave rider, a world without a fame metric and a world where surfing stays pure in a way that can happen only when it's done without a paycheck. Mathews has a theory on the psychology behind the hard charging tradesman. "It's bullshit that you only do something purely for the love of doing it," he says. "That you only do it for you. There's always some level of acknowledgement you're after by doing something, especially something as crazy as slab surfing. You want some form of acknowledgement, but these guys don't want it from the rest of the world; they just want it from their mates. They're famous with their mates and that's enough."
One phone call in June 2016 put Mathews' theory to the test. After getting word that all the big-ticket sponsored pros pulled out of the Cape Fear event, Mathews scrolled through his phone and by lunchtime had pulled together a "Star Wars" Cantina of firemen, fishermen and carpet layers from all corners of the country. If they surfed like the maddest of mad dogs with just their mates around, what would they do when the world was watching?
When the day arrived, the swell at Cape Solander was too big, too east and totally out of bounds. People would be turned into pet food. In other words, it was perfect. It was the rarest of sporting broadcasts, the kind you watched thinking that it was not only possible, but likely that someone would die on the live stream.
It was so dangerous that the surfers voted whether to run or not, although with Koby Abberton conducting the silent vote, nobody was game to say no anyway. By the time they passed the hat around and the surfers had voted to run, Allport had already slipped out the door, put his wetsuit on and was running down to the rocks to jump off. He didn't even know the contest had been called on. There was nobody out, so
he was going surfing.
Half an hour later and Allport was lying on a sled, bleeding badly after taking the first big set of the day and duly being slammed head first into the rocks. "I was a bit dazed and saw this blood and said, 'Is that mine?'" Allport recalls. "I remember driving in on the ski and looking in toward shore. My kids were all there that day and I was thinking, 'This isn't that cool.' My middle girl, Millie, was a bit upset. My eldest girl was worried about the middle girl being worried, and my youngest bloke was jumping up and down going, 'Dad got smashed!' He thought it was great."
"That's what amazes me," says Mathews of Allport, shaking his head, "that he's kept going that hard. It proves it's something that doesn't let go of you. It slows down in the way that you chase it less and it takes up less of your life, but you put a guy like Jughead in the water and the instinct just takes over." As Allport was carted away, the show rolled on, the surfers making the most of their day off work, lining up one after the other to be ritually marmalized, surfacing down in the bay, eyes wide, huffing foam, and after a quick inventory of limbs, laughing perversely. In a way, it was a blessing that the international field wasn't there -- a sentiment that the international field, watching on from back home, no doubt shared.
As for Allport, he remembers only flashes of the ski ride back into Botany Bay and the trip to the hospital, but remembers clearly what he was thinking. "During that whole time, I was thinking to myself, 'You dickhead! This is day one of the swell. There are five more days of waves and you've got the week off!'"