The excerpt below is from Nick Carroll’s 10,000 word epic “Storm Creatures”, the story of Sydney’s winter of storms. It features in SW412.
North Head separates Sydney Harbour from Manly Beach. Its eastern rim is an imposing face of exposed rock layers. You can see around 140 million years of history in those layers and slabs. Over the past 10,000 or so years, rock from the upper layers has fallen into the ocean and been swept by southerly swells around the point, forming Fairy Bower. Bigger chunks of rock and deeper ledges somewhat parallel with that north point have formed Winkipop, the hollower section of wave above the Bower. Another 150 metres or so up the cliff line from Winkipop, a hard-underlying layer of old lava rock, fractured along its length yet partially intact, remains just submerged outside the exposed rock shelf.
Deadman’s. It’s classic Sydney coastal geology — a sketchier version of Little Avalon or Dee Why Point, or Rockpools at Bungan, or the distal northern rim of Newport Reef. Deadman’s is not even a wave… until once in a blue moon, it is. Deadies is a minefield. You can’t tell what the wave’s going to do. You might get one and find it just fizzles out. One might go right past and heave on the inside ledge, where the great bodyboarder Max Dodson goes to ride things nobody can stand up on. One might lead you to tread on one of the mines, gurgle out on you, catch a rail at the wave base, break a board or a body. “It’s pretty much a glorified closeout,” says Matt Dunsmore. “It’s so hard to make a wave out there, but when you do, it’s sick. When you don’t, you don’t get washed onto the rocks, but you do get washed to Winki which is boulders, foam, shit everywhere.”
Ollie had surfed ten years at Deadies before he lost his leg. Now, he said, on the eve of this swell, “I was terrified. I hadn’t surfed it with one leg and you have to ride a small board.” Ollie doesn’t have small boards anymore. He had an 8’0” Kirk Bierke, and a 9’2” and 9’6” from Mark Bowman who holds the singular distinction of building Midget Farrelly’s still extant gun range. The 9’2” was off the rack, shaped for somebody who didn’t follow through. Mark said, “Fine, it’s yours.” Seizing the moment, Ollie asked if the 9’6” across the room was also up for an owner.
On the Tuesday morning, July 14, Ollie and his buddy went to check it and ran into Sam Jones, who Ollie considers the best of the Deadies crew. “It’s a funny mix of guys out there. There’s big-wave guys from up and down the beaches who come to surf it, but they might not know who’s who. Then there’s guys who just wanna have a go, paddle out and end up getting in the way. It’s a spot where the deeper you sit, the easier it is.” Sam was frothing. Ollie waited till after lunch, then had what he felt was a good surf in sub-standard conditions, just to tune in. He planned to paddle out before dawn the next day. He worked out how long it would take to paddle around from Shelley Beach, just inside the Bower, so he could land in the lineup just as it was light enough. He figured ten minutes.
Sunrise on Wednesday, July 15, was 6.58am. Ollie parked down the bottom of the hill and was in his wettie at 5.45am. He got out quicker than expected, although a set came through the Bower as he skirted the break and nearly got him. “It was really breaking wide and I was just like, fuck yes, it’s on. I had the goal to paddle the biggest wave of the morning. I thought, it’s on, get ready. I hope you’re ready, bro.”
Ollie has a video of his first wave that morning, the first wave anyone caught. It murdered him. The thing popped just as he reached the edge of the Deadies part of the extensive reef system that runs down the edge of inside North Head. He saw it coming, a solid 12 feet, thick, and remembers thinking, ho, what a crazy bomb that’d be for someone in the spot. The second wave reared and he realised, I’m in the spot! The swell was still carrying slightly out of the south, an unusual feature of a day that big at Deadman’s which normally takes a more easterly angle to set it up. But this swell was so big, a south swell was acting out an east swell’s bulk. The wave shifted across and Ollie turned and went, thinking, this is perfect. He got some way down the face… and the face just disappeared underneath him. The bottom of the wave changed shape. He was flushed down the line by the next two waves, and all the way out past Bower, a trip taken by many in Ollie’s wake that day.
He got a few over the next coupla hours but was disappointed. It looked like the tide was going to rise and kill it. He got in his car and fled down to Ulladulla. It meant he missed the midday session, when Chris Lougher got the wave of the century. “I was fucken pissed off. I learned that if you’re gonna relocate, do it at night.”
On the Tuesday everyone was watching the map.
Matt was working, checking it every hour, wondering, when’s it going to hit? On his lunchbreak, he had a proper check and decided the swell was an hour away. He crammed the rest of his work and took off to Manly. He had a 6’6” in the car and just went with it.
It was a no-check surf, not a lot of light left, but as Matt went off
the rocks he could feel the swell about to really surge. As it built, Matt got his best wave of the entire swell, a good big barrel, which sent the crowd on the cliff screeching. He got another one from a
bit inside the usual takeoff, then another that wasn’t much good.
Three waves and it was almost dark. The tide was rising, and everyone was suddenly gone. Matt was stuck out there. He thought, go anything to get in, but wave after wave wouldn’t allow it. He’d pull back and watch them close out to Winki. A massive one came and he missed it. He thought, I’m gonna get hurt here. By this time the clifftop crowd was whistling at him to get one.
The cliff crowd was a huge feature of the Deadies days. There was no social distancing or respectful decorum up on that cliff; it was as rowdy as a football crowd or a rock concert at the old Narrabeen Antler, screaming, cheering, sending clips into the ether on social media, creating even more chaos along the road leading into the Bower as others tried to get a look.
The crowd was cheering for Matt, but when he decided, fuck this I’m just paddling back in, they started booing. Booing! Matt was laughing at it, the idea of being booed out of the lineup, kinda booing himself in a way for not getting a final bomb, but also thinking, well you try being out here in the dark trying to pick off 12-foot gurglers with North Head on your flank. He could feel the joke.
On the Wednesday he got out pretty early on his 8’8”, got four or five waves, then snapped the board and was admirably flogged, washed all the way around and down into Manly Beach itself. Bruises, oyster cuts, the works. Even lost the fins out of his board. He tried to make it back into Shelly Beach but there was too much water moving, so he gave up and drifted his way into Manly and jogged back around the path with bits of the board.
Annoyed, he went to work. Then Spencer Frost sent him the clip of Chris Lougher’s wave. Maybe you should get back down there, Spencer suggested. Matt couldn’t deal with this visual prompt.
He dropped work, said to his crew that he’d make the hours up later, and went back down to Deadman’s and got the 7’10” out of the car. He got a fun one, then was smoked again and destroyed the 7’10”.
He made it into Shelley this time, then gave it up for the day. “I think I was just so tired from getting flogged. I got a fair few. A couple where I didn’t get that deep but in the pocket. A couple of steps that were fun. But I was getting flogged a lot.”
Then he thinks for a moment, about the clip Spencer sent. “Chris owned that swell. He was on every good wave.”