Diving headlong into 2018, Aussie big wave hell-man Ross Clarke-Jones is riding harder, faster, and higher! Having recently smashed his personal big wave (and World) record by taking on the ‘Big Mama’ at Portugal’s Nazare.
With his fearless and inimitable style, Clarke-Jones remains the only surfer in the world to ride right over on ‘Big Mama’ – an awe-inspiring wave peak considered to be one of the most dangerous on the planet – and the one closest to the lighthouse at Nazare that dominates iconic images around the world.
Almost 20 years to the day, Clarke-Jones rode the largest swells in history outside Log Cabins on the North Shore of Oahu Hawaii. Labelled “Biggest Wednesday” – Wednesday, January 28, 1998.
“January 28, 1998, was my first Big Wednesday, so to do it all again on an even bigger wave was a massive thrill,” said Clarke-Jones. “And who knows, what’s to come for the rest of the season, something even bigger.”
Despite all of Clarke-Jones achievements he has always been true to himself with a down to earth rawness. Global Surf Sounds journalist Kate Webster caught up with Ross to discuss the big questions.
The story on everyone’s lips is your recent wipe out at Portugal’s infamous Big Mama wave peak in Nazaré. To watch that footage and see you come out relatively unscathed is incredible. What was going through your mind when you came off?
Carlos Burle towed me into my first wave of the morning – which was only medium in size for Nazare. It was around 25ft. I completely misjudged the rip which was on the inside and hit the ripples and lost speed, by this stage it was too late for a bottom turn so I ejected and kicked the board out. I got hammered a little and dragged along the bottom but nothing too brutal.
I didn’t pull the tabs on my Quiksilver Airlift fast enough as I thought I was fine and would come up fairly quickly, I think I waited too long as when I eventually pulled the tab I came to the surface right in front of the rocks. Maybe if I had pulled the tab on impact I potentially would have washed up to the beach and not been caught on the undertow which acted like a conveyer belt.
I was prepared to stay much longer. Mentally, I like to think that I am going to be under water a lot longer than I need to be and/or getting pounded longer as well.
I must say that playing around Terrigal Haven as a teenager at Tube Rock definitely helped with this situation. I remembered hesitating and not hiding behind the rocks when I was 12 and getting slammed against the cliff and getting knocked out. You are always safer behind the rocks so that’s what I did this time.
The best way to survive is to stay calm and let the ocean do its thing.
How do you think big wave surfing has changed over the years as a whole? How has it developed for you, from the very first big wave you rode to now?
In my early surfing years the first person that I was influenced by to travel and chase big waves was the late Mark Foo. He always talked about riding the same swell from Waimea to Mavericks and then Todos.
The very first big wave I surfed was at Waimea in 1986 for the Billabong Pro contest and for over the next decade I was hooked and focused on the North Shore of Hawaii, but mainly Waimea as it was home of The Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau competition.
Then in 1994 Derek Donner invited me to tow in behind a rubber duckie with Buzzy Kerrbox and Laird Hamilton – I declined the invitation to tow backyards with them as I was focused on surfing Waimea.
The next year they started using jet skis, I witnessed them scoring the best waves at an outer reef, and that was the game changer.
I went straight into Honolulu and purchased a jet ski with Tony Ray, and it opened up a whole new playground for us. Tony and I were hooked, it allowed us to surf in conditions that we would never even contemplate beforehand.
2000 was the year that tow surfing was taking off, Laird Hamilton caught the famous millennium wave in Tahiti, Red Bull organised the world’s first tow surfing event on King Island (Australia) and The Billabong Odessey project were offering a million dollars for the first surfer to ride a 100ft wave.
Tow surfing was becoming popular with not only big wave surfers, it allowed people that normally wouldn’t ride big waves or even surf, to ride a big wave.
Jaws was the mecca of tow surfing. I’m so grateful to have towed with only a few skis but more so with the pioneers. Jaws became so crowded with 60 plus jet skis that it was like a war zone. I think this is what kicked started the paddle movement again which divided paddle surfers and tow surfers.
Paddle surfing into a big wave requires a lot more courage and skill to ride it effectively. However, the access, power, speed and quantity of waves you can surf when tow surfing is my cup of tea.
What do you think will be the future of big wave surfing?
With technology evolving so rapidly tow surfing could be limitless.
Is there a wave you have yet to conquer and where would that be?
I never have and never will “conquer” a wave. The honour of having an invitation from a local is priceless. There are still a few big wave destinations that are still to be ticket off my list.
Is there one wave that stands out as the best/a favourite, and why?
My favourite paddle wave is Waimea Bay, North Shore, Hawaii – it is one of a kind! Some people say it’s only a drop but as Mark Richards once said, “The drop at Waimea is the equivalent of ten 10 second barrels” and I couldn’t agree more. For towing, Nazare, Portugal is unbeatable.
With chasing big waves comes travel, is there a destination that you have enjoyed most and why?
I enjoy everywhere I travel. Every destination has its unique qualities but it’s the people and experiences that makes them all equal.
What music are you listing to before going out to surf these monster waves to get you pumped up? Or is there a ritual you have that you do before hand?
Surprisingly I prefer silence beforehand, focussing on my equipment and necessities. I love all genres of music, there is a time and a place for them all.
If you were not surfing, what do you think you would be doing?
A test driver for the fastest cars in the world.
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