Ben Dunsmore, Deadman's. Photo Mark Onorati

STORM CREATURES

From SW412

Long-read epic: The Story of Sydney’s Winter of Swell

By Nick Carroll

The weird thing was, everyone was home. It was July, mid-season for Indo and Teahupoo and Puerto Escondido, and in a normal year many of the core crew would have scattered on their various missions on or off the grid, hunting surf, or work, or some combination of the two – or maybe just The Wave, the one you’d feel your year come into focus around, the one you could keep in your special place, until the next one showed up.

Everyone had plans. Matt Dunsmore would have been up in northern Sumatra, guiding at one of the resorts the way he’d done the past two winters – fortunate times, seeing as how slack 2018 and ’19 had turned out to be at home. Jordy Lawler and Kobi Clements would have been chasing points somewhere. Chis Lougher might have gone to Mex, where he’d spent the past five seasons. Dylan Longbottom would have been in Bali, where he and his wife Martinique had set up a home base for their gypsy surfer-shaper life. Nazaré, Morocco, Tahiti. Ollie Dousset would have been on a gas or oil rig off the northwest coast, getting his old life back. But Covid had kicked every travel plan in the teeth and so here they were, stuck in Sydney or thereabouts, half at a loose end.

Matt just kept on with his carpentry trade. Dylan had come back to Oz in January with Martinique and their two youngest, Summa and Malia to visit family, and was planning to head back to Bali for the winter when the pandemic bells started ringing. They bought tickets anyway but with a day to go a sixth sense stopped them.

Grainger might have been doing strike missions to Cloudbreak or somewhere, but here he was, coaching surf school, waiting for the wind to change. If there’s a Kahuna of northside Sydney’s exploding big-wave scene, it’s Matt Grainger. With his mate Captain, he’s re-pioneered the German Bank, been on every South Narrabeen swell for two decades, and might be the only 50-plus surfer in the world to have paddled Nazaré. Matt is a renowned super-frother but in recent years he has begun to gain a grip on himself. It’s hilarious, this new Zen version of Grainger. “I don’t get caught up in that FOMO bullshit anymore,” he says. “You can’t be everywhere.”

Instead he has his rituals – his 15-year-old Warner tow-board, his guns, Captain. All tried and tested for the day you drop everything to surf. “Me and Captain are both really good at clearing the plate. Surf schools, whatever else is going on. That’s the first bit – getting away from the real-world stuff so you can be clear in the mind. Surfing’s everything on that day. You just wipe the world.”

Ollie, on the other end of the big-wave Zen curve, took it as a sign. Before the accident that cost him his right leg, he’d been an expert at offshore rig access, and he’d spent a year convincing the company he’d worked for that he could still do the job. It was a circle he’d felt driven to try to close. He retrained, requalified, completed his fitness tests and was ready to go. Then in late March, just before he was scheduled to fly in, the WA border closed. “All my options of returning to my old life were gone,” he remembers thinking. “It felt as if the Universe was nudging me toward a new kind of life.”

So he went surfing. Ollie had just finished a summer of paragliding and a couple of months in Hawaii. He was ready for some shit. He remembers deciding this winter was going to be epic. “I reckon I pretty much brought it on,” he said, laughing. “I was gonna send it!”

The Black Summer receded quickly, then slowly. In late February a plume of wind and rain rose across the Great Dividing Range and enveloped much of the December fire zone north-west of Sydney, pouring down so much of the sacred liquid that Warragamba Dam doubled its storage in three days. Two weeks later, another plume, from the south-east this time, extinguished all that was left of the disastrous south coast blazes.

The fires were done, but the natural processes now set in train continued in all their submarine subtlety. Acidic run-off from the burning flowed down creeks and into the Nepean and Hawkesbury rivers, and came back to the headlands and platforms of northern Sydney and the southern Central Coast, killing off millions of small crustaceans whose shells remained locked to the reefs in the calm of early autumn. Little swells came and went, light winds blew, and thick masses of sand built up along the beaches, till it was hard to remember a time when they were anything but big broad deserts.

In the human world, with the Covid panic already underway, it was anything but calm. Doom was upon us. People were rushing to supermarkets in search of toilet paper, but the Tasman Sea was a broad sheet of untroubled blue.

Then a strange thing happened. Along with toilet paper, people started buying surfboards. First in a trickle, then a flood. By Easter, the great and unexpected surfing Boom of 2020 was fully underway.

Dylan’s whole trip had changed so much, he couldn’t be sure it’d still fit in. In the past decade, along with doing some off-the-hook charging himself, he’d become one of the world’s handful of go-to big-wave surfboard designers. His guns and tow-boards had grown more and more tuned in the wilds of Nazaré and Teahupoo, under the feet of guys like Lucas “Chumbo” Chiancha and young Matahi Drollet. His latest piece of work, a flat-decked swallowtail gun with a hard-top rail edge and a lowered entry rocker, came straight out of Chumbo’s Nazaré tube-riding experiments. Knifing 30-foot beachbreaks… surely this wouldn’t find a place in a semi-flat Australian east coast autumn.

But things had changed here too. Dylan was stunned to find out how many people had developed a desire to charge. The step-ups, the guns, the tow-boards. “I remember when a big day came, I’d be surfing by myself. It’s different now.” Dylan settled the family in Cronulla, the ancestral Longbottom home, took up shop space and began fielding orders for ten-foot Chumbo models. Grainger was in, Toby Martin. Chris Lougher already had two Dylans in the bag from 2019. Pretty soon the order book had blown out to 50 a week.

Yet still the Tasman Sea was that quiet blue, still the sand lay unnaturally thick and warm along the coast, barely stirred by little pulses from south and east.

It wasn’t winter.

Then it was.

Kobi Clements, South Narra Pipe. Photo Mark Onorati

The first isobaric bump happened on May 15 — a wobbly piece of air wandering across from the late NW monsoon. It drifted into a little dip of low pressure off the NSW North Coast and almost went somewhere. It turned the winds in Sydney properly onshore for the first time since the February deluge.

A week later, on May 20 another piece of suspect air came further south, shifted off the NSW/Vicco border and fell into the hole of a cut-off low. The low deepened, the winds around it accelerated. By May 21, the low had pulled a strong fetch into line in the mid-Tasman Sea. The air turned cold and the sky was a faded grey, a snow sky. That was a Thursday. On Friday morning, the swell jumped eight feet in four hours. While the citizens of Collaroy and Wamberal began a panicked scramble for sandbags, and Channel Nine sent a camera crew to film Kelly Slater at Little Avalon, Matty Dunsmore went out for a late at Northy Bombie.

Matt is 24 years of age, a relaxed beanpole of a human, carpenter by trade, rides Hot Buttereds. His pale blue eyes survey the world calmly. He started the winter with what he calls “a good quiver”, but by the end of July he was pretty much out. The Dunsmore clan is North Narrabeen to the bone. Dad Glenn is old school Northy.
Big brother Ben, also an excellent surfer. Sister Kirsty is in the US on an athletics scholarship. “We’ve all pretty much grown up here,” says Matt. “It’s a good community to be a part of. They’ve pushed us to be better, it’s a pretty high-quality surfing environment. I guess you need to make a stand somewhere to keep up with everyone.”

To Matt, that means ledges, bombies and massive killer beachies, the kind of surf Sydney specialises in during major swell events. The same waves Grainger and a handful of others have been rediscovering over the past two decades, as the big-wave resurgence in Hawaii and California had fed back into local quivers. Epic as they are, these waves – German Bank, Deadman’s, Queensie and Northy Bombies, South Narrabeen and several others of lesser fame if not renown – have a hang-up. They almost never break twice in a row. They don’t give you a chance to get to know them in a relaxed day-to-day way, the way you might figure out Sunset Beach or Pipe or Puerto Escondido. They’re creatures of the short-lived storm. Matt knows it. “We normally get one wave turning on once a year. Like Deadies… most years there’ll be one day when it breaks. Normally windy, but there’ll be a day. And Southy; it’ll happen once. Germans might turn on once. But this winter I surfed every big wave there is, even a couple of ones we don’t really talk about were good. And that doesn’t happen often.”

So when the bombie showed that afternoon Matt was out there, even though by then it was windy as shit. So was brother, Ben. So was Laura Enever and her brother Chris, and Grainger on a 10’2” Wayne Webster Camel gun which he reckons must be about 90 litres, but which satisfies his gun criteria – get out, catch waves, make the drop. So was Ollie, who thinks he might have got five or six, feeing like it was just prep. Everyone knew Saturday would be good, but they didn’t think it’d be that good. Saturday May 23 was the day everyone realised this was no normal year.

At dawn it was corduroy and huge. The Northy Bombie was big as it could get. If you were up on the hill at Turimetta, you could have seen all the way out to Weirdo’s bombie, maybe five kilometres away off the north-east tip of Long Reef, where massive, magnified sets were blowing up, maybe 20 feet or more. A few minutes later, the same set would find a line onto Northy, pluming and beautiful. Matt watched and thought, you can’t paddle out. You’d have to go from Collaroy. He thought, just tow for a bit, see what happens, maybe come in and get a paddler and go back out. Kieren would do water safety. A guy named Kieren Prenter drives the ski for Matt.

But by the time they got the ski out, people were already paddling. Ollie, Kobi Clements, Sean Woolnough, Davey Cathels, Casey Twight. A couple of other skis were buzzing around – Jordy Lawler, Matt’s brother Ben, Chris Enever. Matt began to feel a bit silly. He still regrets not paddling Northy early that morning. “Northy Bombie doesn’t get like that, ever. That’s pretty much the best anyone’s ever seen it. Before I started surfing it I’m sure there were some days, but nothing as big and clean as that.”

Then the German Bank came into their heads. Imagine what it was doing. Watching the maps in the days before, Matt had been convinced the German Bank was going to be as big as it could get – “huge-huge” – and seeing unrideable Weirdos, you’d be forgiven for making that assumption. He and Kieren took off and went around the corner and found Grainger and Captain whipping each other into 15 feet of shifting deepwater bombie. It was big, but not as big as he’d hoped. Matt got the best wave at Germans that day, a thick 15-foot-plus thing from deep on the reef, but still he felt like he’d fumbled the morning. After finishing up at Germans, he went back to Northy and paddled it for six hours straight.

Other spots were nuts. Avericks, the scary drop-down reef outside South Avalon headland, was crowded for the very first time. The miraculous south-west wind kept it clean for a lot longer than usual. Joey Gough and Beau Cram got the best of it. Further north at Merewether, crew towed and paddled into waves that looked like big cold-weather Laniakea. At Wedding Cake Island off Coogee, Richie Vaculik found himself going inside-out and upside-down.

Everywhere you went crowds gathered… not to surf, the way they had in the autumn calm, but to watch a moment of seasonal change. Thousands of people watched some kind of surfing that Saturday. People are drawn to headlands in swells like this. They watch quietly, almost meditatively, like they might watch the flames of a fire. Somehow, despite all that energy, the sight is restful to the eye.

On Sunday the low came back in a bit too close and blasted everything with ferocious southerlies. It was May 24, a date of hallowed significance in the Sydney surfers’ winter almanac. Frothing, Slater drove down to Manly and surfed Deadman’s. Kelly got that day, but this winter was meant for the locals. By the time Deadies rose from its slumber for real, he was gone.

Grommets, North Curly ocean pool. Photo Michael Hogan

The late May storm blew all the dead shellfish off the rocks. Their exoskeletons gathered in little middens in the coves and crevices of freshly exposed reef and sifted around under shorelines that overnight had migrated almost back to the foredune. The erosion was swift and savage, and the mainstream news began reporting threats to property. A large freighter lost some of its container load off the coast, and some of that freight – thousands of face masks destined for pharmacy shelves – washed on to the depleted shores.

A strong southerly and smaller east swell showed on June 3, then came awkward near-starts for two weeks – little trough lines from the monsoon blowing out into the Tasman, but never quite triggering the deluge. Never quite going flat either. June 24 was the harbinger. The one that nearly went. A cut-off low drifted east of Sydney and almost fully gelled the way the forecasts said it might. After a day, a south-west change blasted it out into the mid-Pacific.

A couple of other near misses. Awkward southerlies. Then on July 12, an inland low born of that late monsoon carried some weird air across the Great Dividing Range to the coast. A strong high slipped south into the Tasman to cradle it. Overnight, the whole 1200 nautical miles of water between Australia and New Zealand turned into a fetch aimed directly at the central NSW coast.

Boom.

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.”

Mike Lavers, Deadman’s. Photo Guy Williment

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.”

Chris Lougher on what’s been described as the greatest wave ever surfed in Sydney. Frame Spencer Frost

In 15 years of picking his way through the Deadies minefield, Chris Lougher hadn’t made a barrel at the joint. Chris’s 2020 had sucked. He’d broken up with the girlfriend and around March, not long before the Covid really got rolling, ”threw my life in the bin” — went hunting big surf on the southern fringes of the continent. He wanted to change it up, get some epic waves while he felt he still could, suspecting his body would give way to it sooner or later.

Chris is 34, a chef by trade. Originally from Curl Curl, he started out as a bodyboarder, surfing the local beachies and slabs, Dee Why Point and Winki and others. His younger sister was into surfing and for some reason, around the age of 17, Chris began riding a mal, then began borrowing his sister’s shortboard and broke it. Her first ever board! She took a job as a lifeguard and he just kept on surfing – the Point, North Narrabeen, Winki and Deadman’s. Like a lot of guys who get a taste of it, he knew the Northern Beaches is one of the sweetest surf zones in the country when it’s good — full of nooks and crannies that turn on in bigger swells.

But Chris had the surfer’s restlessness. Six years ago, he moved up to Lennox Head and began travelling. Chris has older copies of SW and Tracks in his possession, and one has a cover of Skindog Collins on a gem at Puerto Escondido, an early point-of-view shot. It pulled him into going to Mexico five years straight. He went to Hawaii and got more of a taste, began thinking about the outer reefs and Peahi and what it would take to ride them well. That’s why he’d headed south — to feed that taste on waves he’d heard about or seen fleeting pics of over time, maybe go to West Oz or head back into Vicco, depending.

Then Covid locked down West Oz, and things began souring in Vicco. Chris headed back to the family home at Curly to think about his next move. Then there it was, the weather map. He knew immediately that “it was one of those rare ones. Those lows, they always come with the weather, with shitty winds and all the rest of it. Normally also it peaks overnight. It’ll be seven or eight metres on the buoy overnight then you’ll get up and it’s five metres at nine seconds. But not this time.”

He had two boards, both shaped by Dylan Longbottom: a 10’2” and a knifey 8’0”, not the square rail thing but more sleek tuberiders, after the fashion of Laurie Towner’s Cloudbreak guns. Chris didn’t know Dylan personally, just by reputation. He ordered the 10’2” and 8’0” on Instagram. “I’d been building a quiver for Hawaii. Ideally I’d have two of each, two 10’2”s and two 8’0”s, but I’m only halfway there.

“I kept looking around and the guys doing the most performance big-wave surfing were on Dylans. That or Christenson’s and I didn’t have a connection there, this was the only Australian connection I had. Laurie [Towner] got that big wave at Cloudbreak, that incredible takeoff and barrel. Then there was the Nazaré contest with Chumbo. They were knifing it under the lip. I thought, now that’s what it’s about, not just taking off and dropping to the bottom, but knifing into the barrel. Plus Dylan is such a good surfer and he’s the tow-board guy for pretty much the whole world. I could see he was on the way to something special.”

Days before a swell, as a Deadies grom, Chris would be talking with Sam Jones and Max Dodson, frothing on it — part of the psyche-up rhythm of a challenging spot. This time was just like that, texting back and forth, psyching. “I did a bit of training in the days before, getting the mind right and the boards ready to go.”

Monday night, not expecting too much, he was lured over the bridge to see a friend in Bondi. On Tuesday morning, still on the wrong side of the Bridge, he got up and checked the cam and saw it was flat. By lunchtime, it was already 10 feet. “I was driving over the Harbour Bridge, filthy at myself. But it didn’t end up mattering much, I still got there in time.” In the session that afternoon, Chris noted a change in the people in the Deadman’s lineup – not just the same faces he’d seen over the years, but younger crew, adventurous. He liked this; he felt a good energy in the water. He watched Annie dos Santos, the 18-year-old Brazilian emigre, paddle out and take a solid set wave. “She just swung and knifed it on her backhand. Did this mid-face turn and flicked out. I don’t think I’d even surf out there at all if I was on my backhand.”

But then he got a face-slap wipeout, one where you fall at speed and come down hard, saw stars and came in feeling what he called “ditzy”. He took his time getting changed, and heard the headland erupt at Matt Dunsmore’s pit. He can’t remember hearing them heckle Matt’s no-wave paddle in.

Wednesday, July 15, he woke early. The crew who dashed to Deadman’s without a surf check early that morning missed one of the great sights of the winter. Out in open water, the swell was a solid 15 to 20 feet, brushed by the winter’s seemingly perennial south-westerly, capping and breaking on bombies that hadn’t even been visible on May 23. You can see the whole of Curly and right out to North Head from Chris’s parents’ house. He had a good idea of what he was in for. He had the 8’0” in the car, put the 10’2” on the roof and drove out to the Fairy Bower carpark. “I don’t think I even checked it. The carpark was jammed. I got a park and got changed. I put a hood on – I don’t want to be cold, and I wanted to avoid another face-slapping.”

Straight away he got a couple of big ones. One stepped out underneath him and he got ragdolled. Another one, he got to the base but couldn’t find a way around the whitewater. Another one, he fell while setting up the barrel. For fuck’s sake! he thought, all this time and I’m still not making a barrel out here. He began coughing, then found he was coughing up blood. Joey Keogh was right there, said, “Are you okay?” Chris was not totally sure. He went in and spent an hour just standing there in his wetsuit, watching. The tide was almost at its lowest and every wave was gurgling out, people falling out of the sky, nobody making anything. He waited till after the low mark had passed, paddled out, pulled back on a couple, and finally went one, just a smaller one, to shake off the awkwardness of having pulled back on waves other people might have gone. Sam Jones reassured him, “It’s all right mate, it happens to everyone.”

Chris paddled back out to the spot and a nice one came, he went it and ended up bodysurfing out the end of the barrel, which was something. Back out and the biggest set he’d seen that day reared up. Beau Cram got the first one. “It must have been a good one because you could hear the cliff going off.” Chris got the second one and rode clean through it, over the foam line from Beau’s wave, and saw Beau down the end with his hands in the air, hooting. “Thanks for the view!” Beau told Chris, “That looked sooo good!”

Chris couldn’t believe he’d finally made a barrel at Deadies. He paddled back out, now fully empowered to hunt, and, feeling like everyone was sitting a bit too wide, went around behind them to a deep takeoff behind the ledge.

And there it was, The Wave. “Toby Martin was there and he just said, go, it’s yours. So I did.”

It was so simple. Chris let the board run down and turned, and just stood up in the pit, the way he had on the wave after Beau’s. “That’s the best thing about surfing, hey, when you can just stand up and look around. I could feel it drawing, it felt amazing, but when I saw it later I hadn’t realised it drew that much – the pics took me by surprise.” It looked like it might barrel through Winkipop as well, but it didn’t. Chris ran it out, and paddled wide of the pack, wondering if that wave had even happened. Fuck! he thought, I hadn’t made a barrel, but now I’ve made two in a row! Calmer, he went back out and got a couple more.

He remembers a lot of camaraderie that day, the particular kind of connection you make with your fellow surfers in those kind of conditions, when you’re sharing the sense of the day at some visceral level, making the raw decisions to take off or not, at the same time looking out for each other. That rare air. He got out again at around 1pm, had something to eat and drink, went back out, and with the Deadies spell now broken, got a bunch more barrels.

Chris was the last one out. Just like Matt had the day before, he ended up paddling in on dark, but this time nobody booed.

Not everyone was on Big Wednesday at Deadman’s. Dylan decided to head down south – a risky move given the wind, which was focused to brutal effect on the coast past Wollongong. But he was with a special mate, the great Brazilian waterman Everaldo “Pato” Teixeira, hero of the Teahupoo Code Red day nine years earlier. Pato and his family had arrived here in February, bringing his daughter over for a grommet event on the Goldie, and somewhat like Slater, they’d been stuck here ever since.

Dylan thought, get Pato something epic, but instead they ended up watching a death slab for hours. “It was incredible but just too dangerous. We thought, wait for the tide, and kept watching it. We watched all day and in the end we didn’t go. There was no exit strategy, if you wiped out you were going to die. You couldn’t even get in to do a ski pickup. It was just bare rock.”

In keeping with his new Zen self, Grainger took his time. He thought first to tow Queenscliff Bombie, but the swell was too south. He drove over to North Head and checked Deadman’s and decided against it. “I try to listen to myself more these days,” he said, “and internally it didn’t feel like a good call for me. There were a lot of people out there and not many good ones. I could feel there was a chance of being hurt.” Eventually he and Captain ended up towing South Narrabeen, where they pretty much stayed for weeks.

Southy is Ollie Dousset’s original home break, and his favourite wave. It was the seemingly poor cousin of big Northy just up the road, a nondescript series of sandbars on most days, whose best feature was its lack of crowd. But in this renewed normal, the era of bombing east and south swells and jet skis, and refractions off deep sand dumped outside by the dramatic erosion of 2007 and 2016, it’s somehow become the Spot. Sydney’s little Puerto Escondido. Ollie was so stoked on it he dragged his Ulladulla mate Dane Fisher up just to surf this semi-closed-out beachie. “There was really only Tim Caplin, Isaac Buckley, Riley Cadman and to some extent Matt Grainger who were surfing it back in the day,” he said. “We had our own crew, we surfed it by ourselves and we used to love it.”

Matt’s been surfing it since his grommethood. He can remember Sean Woolnough, Northy’s über lifeguard big-wave guy, being one of the few who bothered with it. Now, as the next swell lined up – a powerful black nor-easter that blew cloud and eight-to-twelve feet of thick jagged groundswell on to the coast – he found himself out of boards. Except for one: a 10’4” Bushman, a skinny mega-wave gun given to him at the age of 17 by Matt Cattle, ironically the kind of board you might ride at maxed out Puerto Escondido. He’d tried to ride it on bombies but found it was too narrow, and when would he ever see a beachbreak big enough for it? So it stayed in the garage, until it was the only thing left to ride.

That next swell hit on July 26. It rained off and on, so if you were a tradie like almost all the crew who discovered themselves this winter, it was a day off. Southy was crazy. Matt Dunbar, photographer and filmmaker, shot what he could, watched what he couldn’t, and listened to the older crew’s running commentary from the carparks. He saw Kobi Clements, 16, get what the commentary squad called “the best wave that’s ever come through at Narrabeen.” Dunbar wouldn’t normally have been around either; he travels and shoots for the WSL, but in 2020 here he was, at home, seeing this kid throwing himself off ten-foot beachie hell-pits. Over and over he recalls hearing people say, “It’s like Pipeline.”

Which makes it sound easy, in a way. What with people towing and paddling, maybe 50 people were having at crack at Southy that week, but it didn’t seem all that crowded, because hardly any of them were in the lineup at the same time. Even on his quick-paddling skinny 10’4” gun and using his considerable wingspan, Matt Dunsmore found himself getting knocked back on the paddle-out, sometimes three or four times in a row. It didn’t matter how good you were. You’d get 40 or 50 waves on the head, find yourself at Collaroy, and have to walk back up the beach and try again.

Ollie tried to paddle out for 40 minutes on his 9’2”, then under the very last wave to catch him before making it, snapped the board. Northy local Jamie Thompson came past on a ski. Ollie asked him for a ride back out with his 9’6”. Even the skis were getting dusted. At one point, he and Jamie were both locked inside the impact zone. Ten-foot waves were smashing the sandbar so hard they spat sand into the air behind them, while Ollie and Jamie slowly travelled the length of Narrabeen Beach, first searching for a way back out, then just making sure they survived. By the time they made it back out, they were one-and-a-half kilometres away.

Maybe the sketchiest moment belonged to Dylan. He and his daughter Summa had shown up with the ski in order to get Summa some bombs. Summa is 15 years old, and seemingly a chip off the old block. She’s part of the reason the Longbottoms had been thinking of moving back to Australia from Bali in the first place. Older brother Jai, 21, had made the move himself a couple of years before. “That’s what happens with kids from other countries in Bali,” Dylan said. “They get to 17 or 18, and they just want to go back – to Australia, the US, wherever. It’s hard to get a job there. Plus they want to spread their wings.” Summa, with her budding hell-girl career, was right on the edge of that moment.

The crew watched, enthralled, as Dylan whipped his fierce goofyfoot daughter into a couple of authentic Southy left closeouts. Dylan recalls chasing her in on one, and realising her board was tombstoning down the inside, gunning the ski in across the foam layer, then spinning it to try to get as close as he could. It didn’t work. Dylan was thrown off the ski, in the process rupturing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Dad and daughter swam in. Summa was fine.

Deadman’s reckoning. Photo Murray Fraser

The amazing thing was that nobody died. 

Summa got her own scare a couple of days later, when another pulse hit and Dylan took her to the Cape. If you’re wondering about that, think of the number of times you’ve seen a photo of a goofyfoot riding Cape Solander. “I wasn’t telling Summa what to do,” he said. “I said, if you wanna come, come, and if not, that’s fine too.
I was scared of making her do something that was too much for her. We put the ski in and drove around and she said, ’Dad! just give me one, I wanna get it out of my system.’” So she got on the board and Dylan pulled her around. “I said, ‘Don’t worry about the rock, the wave will spit you out the end into deep water, that’s where it all goes.’ So what happens? She got a wave and it put her right on the rock.” Dylan says he was calm, but could see Summa was agitated, so he drove the ski right up onto the rock. “I just backed it on so the sled was on rock and she could climb on. Then we got it off on the next wave. We drove out a bit and looked at each other, saying, ‘That was heavy!’ Then she went a couple more.”

But they didn’t die. Down in Ulladulla, Ollie Dousset nearly did.

Surfing one of the area’s notorious reefs, he snapped a leggie and went in to get another. He’d loaned his other 10-foot rope to a mate at Deadies and was left with a real big-wave gun rope, originally 15 feet but stretched out to more like 20 through wear. He paddled back out. The surf seemed like 12-to-15 feet. Ollie still had a nugget of annoyance in him after missing the Deadies session. He took off on a closeout, straightened out and pin-dropped off the board.

The wave ragdolled him, he came up, got a breath, and the next wave ragdolled him. He was just thinking to himself, hmmm I wonder when I’m gonna hit a rock, when the massive leggie snared itself around one. Now Ollie and his board were at opposite ends of a fulcrum, being pulled against the whitewater. Ollie couldn’t get a breath. He also couldn’t reach the leggie strap to release it. “I’m just slowly going through the process of problem solving,” he recalled. “I think okay, now I need to pull the leggie pin. So I reach down and I can’t get there. There’s too much water pushing me.”

He remembered Dane Fisher saying something to him, something from one of those big-wave rescue courses: Grab your arse to save your arse. So you could pull yourself in far enough to reach down to the pin. Ollie did this, got to the pin, yanked… and nothing happened. Yanked again, nothing happened. Just too much force on the pin. So now he had to grab his left hand with his right hand, like a one-armed pull-up, and get some pressure on the pin. This was by now already a three-wave hold-down. The pin popped and he was free.

“I come up and get a breath of air, look in to see where I am, and the first thing I see is Kirk Bierke in his big jumper sprinting down across the rocks. I get goosebumps just talking about it. I love that man so much. I think he’s just secretly been looking out for me.” Ollie washed in. “If you’re not training for that, what are you really training for?” I told Ollie he was lucky. “Oh, I dunno,” he said. “I don’t really believe in luck.” Okay then, you go on not believing in luck.

 

Back at Deadies, Thursday was still good, but smaller. Chris Lougher got a whole lot more, maybe 15 barrels. Friday was a South Narra day, at least in the morning, but he showed up late, took 40 minutes to paddle out and didn’t get a good one. In the arvo he was sitting up at his parents’ eating a mandarin and watching, when a big set hit Deadies. Soon the low’s second layer, a long interval easterly pulse, had set the ocean “roaring”.

He surfed again, but after that he was fried. He’d checked in about the coughing-up-blood thing with a friend who’s an emergency care guy who told him not to worry, it was probably just acid reflux. But he’d also had a problem with concussion, or something like it, for years. “It takes me a couple of weeks sometimes to get over heavy surfs. Just to really recover, get re-balanced. I’m not sure if it’s from playing league as a kid or the wipeouts in Mexico.”

On the Sunday, Chris went over to Solander to check it, but felt it was a bit too much of a circus. Then Monday jacked a little again from the east, and he immediately thought about North Steyne. “I love surfing that stretch when it’s good. It’s a memory thing. I used to go to school at St Paul’s and go past there on the bus, and I remember one day in this big east swell, going past and it was ten-foot and there was nobody out. I knew other spots would be good that morning but I just went there.”

A few guys were at Queenscliff bombie, nobody really on the beachie. Chris tried to get out straight off the beach and couldn’t. The fatigue he felt in the attempt should have warned him, but it didn’t, not enough anyway. He walked way down the south end and paddled out and back up. Pretty much straight away he took off on one, hit a bump near the wave base, fell, and the lip came down and hit his shoulder and dislocated it. Just blew it right out. He washed himself in as best he could, waving his good arm and hoping for some help, but nobody came. A couple of guys from Grainger’s surf school eventually pulled him up the beach. Eventually the lifeguards came down with the magic green whistle; one of them was his sister’s partner. Chris had to bag him a bit. “Where were you?”

They got him sent to emergency where a doctor relocated the joint. It wasn’t bad, but that was Chris’s winter done.

Bungan mystery swell, 1968. Photo Croll family archive

Everyone who took on the winter of 2020 had their memories of other times. Grainger’s memory especially was activated, with all his experience, but he found it difficult to weed out the years from the sessions. “Just to have this many swells back-to-back,” he said. “How many hoaxy swells have we had here in Sydney when you get up and it’s howling onshore and you’re like, ‘Yep, it’s fucked again.’ But this time it was the opposite.”

In time, 2020 will become another layer in the shifting sands of our surfing memory – like the shells killed off by the acid waters of the fires, now being rolled and dissolved along the Sydney rock shelves, eventually to become part of the sand load waiting for another epic winter.

Yet where do seasons like this come from? Wondering about this, I did a search back down through the stand-out Australian east coast winters I could recall, trying to see if there were things, or maybe just a thing, connecting them. There was June 2016, the famous Black Nor-Easter swell when Lachie Rombouts got that 20-foot left at Avalon and Jughead was almost eviscerated at Cape Solander, and there was that next five or six days of slowly declining swell, drifting down from 12 to six feet under clear skies and offshore winds. There was 2007, six weeks of back-to-back ten-to-15 foot surf, from all angles under all conditions, surf so big and consistent it eroded not just the beaches but the surfers, until only a handful were left driving around looking for people to surf with. There was 2001, the July swell, when the entire coast turned into Hawaii for five days straight and a guy drowned at Sandshoes in Cronulla, of all places.

There was 1998 – not a winter that time but a summer, strange and powerful, with cyclones stalking the Tasman and savage winds killing thousands of muttonbirds, who drifted into surf zones, trying and failing to summon up the energy to take flight. There was 1992, when a late cyclone lit everywhere up with fifteen-foot bombie bombs, and 1988, when a late autumn suddenly went nuts with a month-and-a-half of excruciatingly perfect surf – not huge, but magically perfect as if ol’ Huey had waved his magic wand over the early 1970s dreamlands of the north NSW coast and the Sydney reefs and beachbreaks and spoketh to His people: I give you this bounty, so that you may surf in abundance. Which His people did.

And 1974. Christ. The swell that changed the world. Actually not the swell, but the swells. May 24 that year is engraved in myth as the starting point, when the biggest east coast low in living memory scored a direct hit on the Sydney area and produced what was later called a one-in-500 year storm event, with surf so big it changed the shape of the entire coast, in some cases forever. In fact the 1974 surf binge began much earlier, in February that year, when Tropical Cyclone Pam swung down out of Vanuatu and lined up the whole coast. Pam dropped nearly 400mm of rain on the Sunshine Coast in a night, and trapped a group of surfers, including Hawaii’s Gerry Lopez in Noosa, behind the floodwaters for nearly two weeks. Gerry and co were there for the Pa Bendall contest and ended up scoring in ways they might never have thought possible.

What Pam began; the Tasman Sea continued. It smashed the first big pro contest in Sydney surfing history, the 2SM-Coca Cola Surfabout, with relentless surf into the 12-foot range, such that a round of the contest was held at Fairy Bower. Nat and MP ripped, but nobody went near Deadman’s. Hell, back then, Deadman’s didn’t even have a name.

All these years, all these events, and yet really, other than the fact people surfed them, nothing seems to tie them together. June 2016 was a one-off, as was 2001 – neither swell was contained within a larger event, they just seemed to fall out of the sky, driven by freakish fetches forming in line with the coast’s odd bathymetry and regional geography, tucked in the western lee of North Island NZ. Nineteen-seventy-four’s winter was so batshit crazy that it beggars comparison. Two-thousand-and-seven tried but couldn’t quite match up. This one maybe got a little closer, but there wasn’t any TC Pam.

But I’m haunted by the ones we don’t know about. While scratching away at this task, I asked as many people as I could if they had photo evidence of past Sydney swells. One, Bungan’s Robert Croll, sent me a bunch of slides his late father, Richard had taken of their home beach, sometime in May or June 1968. The images are fucking amazing. They show a 20-foot-plus groundswell, huge, long interval, erupting on some deep distal reef maybe a kilometre off the beach, torn up by a strong south-west wind. Rain clouds loom over Long Reef, and a big early winter rainbow curves down to a point overlaying Northy Bombie, which shows a foam trail in the middle background.

The surf that day is bigger than anything that struck us this past winter. But I’ve never heard anyone say a word about a 20-foot-plus day in 1968. It’s in no surf mag. It’s nowhere in the collective memory. We think we know our coast. The truth is we don’t know shit. We’re still just scratching the surface.

The swell of winter 2020 finished off the boulder that had fallen off the headland at North Avalon, toppling it into the ocean. Photo Chris Grundy

Then it was done.

Everyone could tell. Like Ollie said, when we talked on a bright, flat August morning, “When I saw the northerlies I knew it was over.”

Chris Lougher’s shoulder, amazingly, wasn’t too damaged. Ligaments and tendons seemingly intact. After a couple of weeks of rest, he headed back up to Lennox, got a new job and a new place to live. He’d been thinking maybe it was time to buy some real estate, settle down to it. Maybe get a job on a super yacht, save money quickly for a house deposit. He knows he’s priced out of the ancestral home of Curly, but there’s probably a way in still around Lennox. “I kinda made a promise to myself not to buy any more boards until I had a house, but I really want to get my quiver sorted,” Chris said, sounding like he was at that classic hardcore surfer’s turning point – trying to figure out how to plan a future, while still chasing the feeling he’d got at Deadman’s in July.

By now Matt Dunsmore was in the midst of buying a unit at Narrabeen, renovating the kitchen in his spare time. He switched off. He’s had three days of surf since the July swell; two of those were Northy Boardriders. “It is what it is. You work hard and once it’s all sorted hopefully I’ll be able to travel again. I’ve kind of set my life up around surfing and enjoying myself, working hard first then enjoying yourself after. It’s a balance.”

Some people find that hard but not Matt. “I have a pretty good life,” he said, in his easy way. “I work hard, I travel a lot. In my eyes I’ve got everything where I wanna be. How do you not be happy about that? Sometimes you work hard, sometimes you enjoy yourself. Everything kinda falls into place.”

Dylan Longbottom was as ever, counting his blessings. “It’s just been so good to have a winter like this. Everything’s been so hard for a lot of people, but for us it’s been the other way round.” Dylan catches up with Murray Bourton on occasion and remembers Muzza sharing  with him a thought about surfing thriving in recessions. How you could count on it. “Oh yeah,” he remembers Murray saying, “this is gonna be fine, you watch. Everyone will want to surf.”

Grainger was back tow-foiling off White Rock with the Lost Boys of Long Reef, training his junior squad, and coaching when it’s right. He’d taken delivery of his Dylan Chumbo 10’0” and is waiting for The Day.

Meanwhile, Ollie Dousset was beginning to think about his other mad trip, paragliding. You can do it off the northern rim of Long Reef in the summer nor-easters. He was psyched but also had a sense of foreboding about it. “If I do stick around and do that, I know I’m gonna push it and I’ll probably get hurt,” he said, grinning. Instead, he reckons he might just head overseas, into the Northern Hemi big-wave season. The winter of 2020 had nudged him away from his old life, and now he would follow this new path he’d started down. The one-legged big-wave charger. “I’ll find a way,” he said. “I’m gonna go and I’m not coming back.”

 

Sean Doherty