Mikey Brennan at Shipstern’s jump rock. Photo by Andrew Chisholm.

The Short History Of Rock Offs

The history of rock jumps in Australia is lost in the mists of time. It seems reasonable to conclude that the practice came into its own with the shortboard revolution: it’s hard to picture the Duke scuttling over a rockshelf with his thirty-five kilo redwood behemoth and nimbly flinging himself and the giant lumber onto the incoming surf.

A rock jump first appeared on film in McCoy’s classic 1978 flick A Day in the Life of Wayne Lynch, in which Lynchy and Maurice Cole fling themselves off one sandstone cliff near Port Campbell in order to deceive you about the fact that they’re actually surfing off another. For a second the jump looks like going awry: both men are clobbered by a series of foamy set waves before they get clear and who knows, maybe the edit spared us some carnage. You’d have to ask Jack.

The sandstone jump-offs in western Vic present a hazard quite unlike the ones further north: the rock is formed into flat sheets that have dissolved into millions of small, jagged protuberances, lending the surface a texture not unlike the unfinished Death Star. This stuff can tear into flesh and fibreglass with ease.

Up the east coast it’s boulders and their attendant hazards – shellfish, barnacles and slime – that have plagued surfers down through the years. Rocking off and getting in at big Lennox is akin to being rolled up in a doona and beaten by Mafiosi. As a junior, Mick Fanning came a cropper on the rocks at Burleigh and smashed his face on a boulder so hard he was off to hospital without even getting wet, proving even the best can fluff it.

Nowhere else in surfing is the surfer’s personal cool so openly gambled. Mark Visser made a helpful YouTube vid on the topic – his formula: pick your path, commit, and jump front-on. Which underlines the fundamental terrors here – sometimes the only safe option is to make big distance across the rockshelf while the water’s down, hoping like hell that you get an ideal foamball to jump onto, because the distance is too great to run back again mid-set. The immutable law of reef biology is that the further you get towards the water, the more algae, weed and vicious pointed shellfish await you. Running forwards gets more dangerous and perversely more necessary. Committing is the golden rule.

On the west coast, it’s urchins. Never in evolutionary history has so much defensive hardware been deployed in the protection of so little edible flesh. Jakes and Red Bluff are the urchin spine-removal capitals of the known world.

Some more locational classics: the Snapper backwash – locals ride the returning wave off the rock into perfect position and then get pitted right in front of you while you sweep uselessly down to Rainbow with the rest of the blow-ins. Outside Indicators at Raglan eats surfboard fins like All Blacks eat possum pie. And Punta de Lobos, Chile’s mega left, is the big daddy nightmare rock-off of them all. You have to jump off a cliff, swim a churning crazy channel praying for no sets, climb up some rocks, still praying a set doesn’t smash you through the little razor-barnacled rock chute, then make another massive jump into more churning whitewash. And it doesn’t even put you out the back.

Rock-offs might be a little passe these days. Check the footage on Kookslams of a guy throwing his board off a twenty-foot high pier and then jumping…straight onto it. More successfully, Mark Healy jumped off a pitching trawler in heavy fog at Mavericks. And Visser jumped out of a plane (for reasons which aren’t entirely clear) alongside his ski and boards, attached to a separate parachute, in search of mid-ocean monsters in Operation Deep Blue.

Just remember, for all of these, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. When you’re done surfing, you’ve got to work out how the hell to get in.

Jock Serong