The Red Bull Big Wave Africa is more of a concept than a contest. It’s only gone twice since its inception in 1999, but every year it brings a handful of the world’s best big wave surfers to Cape Town for a month long festival of surfing. The field for 2003 included Australian surfing legends Cheyne Horan and Paul Paterson, Brazilian hero Carlos Burle, Hawaiian mullet Jamie {{{Sterling}}} and Californian brothers Greg and Rusty Long. Richard Sills, Grant Baker, Jason Ribbink and John Whittle migrated down from Durban, while Andrew Marr came from Knysna and Chris Bertish represented the Cape Town big wave riding massive via the Channel Islands. Friday the 13th offered us a glimpse of what the Dungeons reef could hold when it started to break at around 10-15 feet, but it was not core, nor consistent enough and the contest organizers decided to hold off and only run the competition in more serious 20 foot plus (5-7 meter) waves.Then the time started to tick by. Cape Town’s winter was uncharacteristically sunny for the next two weeks and no big waves were forecasted for the rest of the waiting period. People started to panic, blaming global warning, El Nino and GW Bush for the lack of serious waves. Even though there were good waves by mortal standards (averaging 6-12 feet regularly throughout the waiting period) the big, bone-crushing, life-threatening, monstrous behemoths of the deep did not come.Then with less than two days to go before the end of the waiting period and the competition for 2003, there was a tiny blip on the synoptic chart. The blip grew mean and mutated into a heaving tempest in the South Atlantic. Huge seas whipped up off the Arctic shelf as the tumult raged and pressed down hard on the ocean, creating monstrous 30-40 foot ocean swells. Finally and without a moment to spare we knew there would be waves. Hurry up and wait was the official call.On the morning of Monday 23 June 2003 Contest Director Gary Linden stood on the Sentinel hill overlooking the break, waiting for it to get light enough to make a call. First light brought with it views of an angry ocean. A very powerful Southerly swell, with short periods was playing havoc over the Dungeons reef and the conditions were just too messy and dangerous to send in the surfers. As the day wore on the swell shifted and started coming in from the South West, cleaning up the lines and it started to look makeable. Then rideable, and finally clean, big and churning down the reef. Not classic Dungeons by a long shot, but certainly big and mean enough to hold the competition.”It’s on!” said Gary Linden and in terms of big wave surfing those were the sweetest words to have fallen from his lips in the last three years.

On the boat out to the break, the sense of anticipation was palpable as the surfers stretched themselves out. Fear, nervousness and lots of deep breathing.”So, what’s the strategy for winning today?” I asked Richard Sills as he stretched into his neoprene.”It’s going to be an absolute self-disciplined, fearless approach,” he said. “Committed. There’s a time to think about it and a time not to think about it. I think just before you’re about to take off on a 25-foot wave, you shouldn’t think about it, you should just go.”In the first heat John Whittle found himself in perfect position for the opening ride. He made a critical drop and rode it all the way to the shoulder, out gunning the avalanche of white water. Then Greg Long hooked a small one into the inside and was perfectly placed for a huge 20 foot peak macking on the inside. A swift turn, late take-off and a screaming ride down the face of the beast and onto the shoulder right in front of the flotilla. A ride which had most punters leaning off the starboard bow hooting like mullets and dribbling their beer on themselves.”That was a lucky peak,” he said later. “I had Marcello Ulyssea on the inside offering to give me a ride out to the channel and I figured, no I’ll just paddle it, and sure enough, in the time that it took me to get there that thing happened to be right in front of me — and I just lucked into it. There were only half a dozen of those waves that came in throughout the day, and I was right there for it.”In the same heat Chris Bertish seemed to be perpetually in the wrong place and took several sets on the head. John Whittle after a pre-heat wipe-out was completely in the zone. He stroked himself into some monsters from deep in the back, often getting pinched by Neptune’s thumb and forefinger, but also making it through a couple of screamers.Carlos Burle caught enough waves to get through to the final, also finding his way into and out of the heaving, frothing tumult. Alas Chris Bertish, Richard Sills and Paul Paterson didn’t get enough waves to make it through and it was back to the boat for a few beers.