The concept is simple: take a bunch of Backdoor’s best team surfers and put them into the best waves we can find in the south. Covid has other ideas.
The lineup is impeccable: newly crowned national champion Daniel Farr, Under 18 national champion Ava Henderson, inaugural Super 16 champion Taylor Hutchison, Raglan Surf Academy graduates Jay Piper-Healion and Caleb Cutmore, Northland legend Paul Moretti and Backdoor’s marketing guru Darren Celliers, also a ripper in his own right. That’s seven of the best surfers in New Zealand and the type of lineup that makes any surf photographer smile.
Then the call comes: Jay has Covid. We are one down before we have even started.
Day One: The Local Dependable
The forecast is also playing havoc to our plans as the swell size leaps around and the winds swirl from good to bad and back again. The Day One plan is to get the team off the plane and into the best waves, and as close to St Clair, as possible.
Blackhead is that one dependable beast of a wave that usually offers something exciting. Adding the six surfers into the mix just seems to be a great way to start the trip. Glassy walls and oodles of sunshine add to the scene as the team tears the walls to bits and seem instantly comfortable in the cold water.
Caleb immediately goes to town with a wave count that really sets the scene for his trip. Taylor follows suit and Daniel goes to the air at every opportunity. Darren and Paul lay into some big turns to turn the lineup inside out. Proving that she is not here to make up numbers, Ava puts on a dazzling display. Her vertical reos and rail carves as solid as if she is fighting for a national title.
“Blackhead is so much fun,” Taylor offers. “I just love surfing different spots and surfing waves that I don’t typically surf.”
That’s what I love most about these type of trips – getting to see the best surfers without the limitations of heat surfing: no time restraints, no building your house, no zone to adhere to. Just pure go-for-broke free surfing. With Ava being such a well-heeled comp surfer I felt this is the perfect environment for her to throw caution to the wind and just surf however she likes in the lineups.
And her Blackhead performance bodes well for the next three days.
But one landing from a huge rotator isn’t the start that Daniel is looking for. He lands heavily on a bent knee and compresses his MCL. He is instantly in pain, but carries on surfing into the dusk.
“I was gutted because we haven’t had much swell at home,” Daniel explains. “So, getting on the plane to come down here, and hearing we’re going to actually get some swell … I was frothing out. We got to surf Blackhead first and there were a couple of sick ones and so many fun ramps. I was just trying to get that big rotation but, I guess I landed wrong and hurt my knee.”
By the time the sun has settled into the horizon, we have a bunch of shots in the bank and a smile on all the surfer’s dials. But all is not well: Daniel’s knee is getting worse, Paul admits that his ankle tendon injury is making itself known (not that we can tell out in the water).
Back at the house overlooking St Clair Point we eat dinner, laugh and look at the forecast for the following day. It is dire: an easterly wind – which is like the devil wind in Otago. The day is looking like a write-off. I put a quick call in to Graham Carse, of Quarry Beach Surfboards. He steers me to a beach up on Otago Peninsula … a last chance spot, of sorts.
Photo Gallery: Day One, Dunedin
Day Two: Covid Bites, Again
“Derek, I have some bad news,” Darren’s voice is wavering. “Ava is really sick and hasn’t come out of her room. She might have Covid.”
That is a worry for me. Ava is the same age as my 16-year-old daughter Taya so it isn’t a nice situation to think about. I swing by with a handful of RAT tests, Vitamin C and PPE. I hope it isn’t Covid.
We don’t have to wait the 15 minutes. Ava’s positive test is almost instant. A deep red T-line that really cuts deep for us all. I feel so sorry for Ava. This is an important trip for her. We go into Covid mode and isolate Ava in her room until her mother can reach her from Christchurch for the medivac home. We decontaminate the house and cross-check exposure with the rest of the team. The decision is made to continue since exposure to Ava has been limited. Then we are five.
Daniel decides to skip the “day of the devil wind” to rest his knee and so the remainder of us head up the Otago Peninsula in search of a desperate wave somewhere.
What you have to remember is that Caleb and Paul love a good punt. So onshore winds are actually very encouraging for them. And that’s exactly what we find as they tear an otherwise forgettable bank apart right in the heart of sea lion coastline.
They aren’t great waves by any stretch of the imagination, but the surfing is on point and hands down exciting to witness. Paul and Caleb go to the air on nearly every end section, Taylor sniffs out some seriously grunty sections and Darren puts on more of his great rail game.
We weave our way back through the sea lion-laden dunes and chalk up another memorable session. Plenty of banter flows over a late lunch as the lads debate who got the most waves, the best waves and the biggest spray.
We spend the afternoon at Blackhead, which delivers yet again.
Photo Gallery: Day Two, Otago Peninsula and Dunedin
Day Three: Call Of The Catlins
The Catlins isn’t on everyone’s radar for surf and we like it like that. It has a clutch of fickle breaks that are hard to target. Especially when you have a 2m south swell and a 2m northeast swell in Otago (yes, one from each direction). So our Catlins adventure barely encounters another surfer. Most of them go north. For this day we are joined by the talented young filmer Isaac Chadwick.
Among team Backdoor this is the day of days – the best in the forecast and loaded with promise for a fickle wave that rarely comes to life. The chance to surf it is too much to pass up for Daniel – he loads up with pain killers and we all head south.
Most of the waves in the Catlins have a very specific tidal range where they work, so we head for a spot that likes a small swell and light winds. That is an interesting call with a big grunty swell running. But, like all new experiences, or naivety, the team strikes out off jump rock into some seriously heavy beach break waves without much consideration for the conditions.
Caleb leads the charge again. He’s always amped and always the first out there. He also has a lucky streak that doesn’t rub off on the others who are following 20-minutes behind him. He slips out easily into the take-off zone. The others get hammered for 25-minutes as clean up sets pour through.
“I was lucky at the start,” Caleb admits. “I got out easy enough, and then I thought the paddle out is easy, so when I got one to the beach, I went and tried a second time and it took me probably half an hour. If you timed it well, you got out sweet. I reckon it was a solid five foot … maybe the old six footer. But it was breaking hard and there was nowhere to hide from it. It was nice to surf somewhere different and to tick that one off the list.”
The lineup is unfriendly as waves break like waterfalls. The dropping tide doesn’t help matters. Caleb and Paul find the best runners, Taylor and Darren spend about an hour paddling and Daniel’s knee seems to be back to full health as he goes hunting for ramps. It is a testing session. Not so fruitful on the photography front, but certainly entertaining.
Now for the main event.
This particular Catlins point break is rarely surfed. Some reckon that’s because of the sharkiness of the place, others reckon it’s a rubbish wave. The outside section is a fast-wally speedrun that delivers you into a kelpy section (the take-off on smaller days) and then into a series of bowls before the wave reels off into the depths of the bay. That only happens on the very big days, but on the day we snagged … it isn’t far off, just the last section pinching shut before the abyss.
It’s a lineup that is stunning as much for its remoteness as for its wildness. Seals lounge around on the rocks, yellow-eyed penguins bounce along to their nests and massive sea lions patrol the depths.
Caleb and Paul are first in the water and paddle straight to the outside take-off. Darren, Daniel and Taylor soon join them. They have the lineup almost completely to themselves, apart from local surfer Ruben Peyroux who is enjoying the chance to ride the walls and show them the way.
The Outsides-esque wave suits Caleb.
“That wave is nice,” he smiles. “It’s just nice with the change of scenery and surfing a slightly different wave. It’s got a different sort of speed and the way that it kind of sucks off the reef is a bit different. I’ve checked it a few times in the past, but never scored it. So, that is pretty cool.”
The sets start to fill in with the tide as one-by-one the team become acquainted with the wave’s nuances, sections and shape. Everyone steps into their straps for this offshore session that becomes a reo and carve-fest. Occasionally Paul finds and weaves through a hollow section.
The quality waves force Daniel to test his knee.
“I’m glad I got in the water – that left hand point is so much fun to surf and to try to do some big down carves on those walls,” Daniel adds. “I could still feel my knee, but it’s all good.”
A group of surfers wander down the hill to surf, but they just stop and camp up to watch the spectacle unfold.
“Who are these guys? They’re tearing this to shreds,” Rob tells me. He’s from Westport. He’s not worried about paddling out. “I just want to watch these guys surf it.”
On one wave Caleb is joined by a large sea lion.
“That was terrifying,” he recalls. “I turned to Darren when we were out the back and had been surfing for about three hours. I said to him, ‘man, I’m stoked we haven’t had to run into any sea lions’. And then five seconds after I see this big sea lion popped its head up and just made a whole lot of noise. I caught the next wave and then he chased me in and I didn’t know what to do. I just kept surfing the wave until I pulled off and I was waiting for him to meet me at the end. But he was kind enough to let me go. I didn’t want to do a turn because I thought I might hit him and then he really wouldn’t be happy.”
“It was nice not having to deal with him at the end of the wave, but looking back on it … it was a pretty cool experience. He definitely had his eye on me.”
It’s a mesmerising session for all of us. Four hours later the team is spent, wrecked and stoked – one of those post surf hazes that you never forget. The Catlins had turned on and given us a solo show that we couldn’t have scripted.
“Down there you feel quite exposed,” Caleb offers. “You feel as though you’re looking out to Antarctica. It’s right in the deep south, it’s real rugged with the coastline and the big cliffs.”
We stop at a pub in Balclutha to refuel and recount the day’s waves. There’s pasta, chicken parmigiana and steak. The bar lady talks us into a jug of beer. Some locals invite us to join their table for some gambling. We study the weather map and plot an early start for our final day.
Photo Gallery: Day Three, Catlins
Day Four: A Taste Of The North Coast
There is an element of relief that nobody has gone down with Covid when I pull up to collect the team at 6am. It feels like we’ve given the virus the slip. The North Coast is the jewel in the Otago surfing crown and we’re heading for a pointbreak that is moody, unreliable and generally overrated.
The gravel road that leads in affords us the first view of the break. The junky swell is finding its way along the last section of sand and turning it into something fun. In the half light we can hardly see anyone out.
It’s a fitting book-end to the trip – hardly anyone out and waves that grow as they wind into the end section. The team revels in the righthanders. Caleb relishes the chance to hone his backhand reos. Paul and Daniel add another chapter to their air show. Darren and Taylor bury their rails like life couldn’t get any sweeter.
“This trip has been unreal,” Taylor shares. “I loved it and the whole vibe of the place. And how many different waves there are. We’ve surfed a couple of spots that I have never surfed before, but always wanted to – that was pretty unreal.”
We drive back to Dunedin with a sense of contentment. We threw a dart at the calendar and scored a bullseye. Otago and the Catlins had won over the team.
“I’m feeling so fried right now, but in the best way,” Taylor smiles. “I haven’t felt this surfed out for such a long time … it’s so good. It’s even a buzz going for a surf trip in general. I haven’t packed my board coffin and suitcase for so long – it’s exciting going to the airport and getting on a plane with my boards.”
For some a taste of the Otago and Catlins coastline is just the tip of the iceberg.
“This trip’s been making me want to move down here,” Caleb grins. “I’ll finish up at uni at the end of the year and then who knows where I’ll end up, but this is an epic spot.”
We wind the trip up with lunch at the Starfish Café and a review of the footage with Isaac. It’s been a whirlwind tour of Covid dodging, wave hunting and some first-class banter among the boys. I’ve learnt that Taylor is a very, very funny character to have on a surf trip – especially when coupled with Caleb and Darren – a great mix. Paul is just a legend in his own right. Solid, dependable – he strapped his ankle every day and hardly mentioned it despite having tendons in tatters (confirmed by MRI a few days after the trip). That’s some pretty good character right there. And Daniel, too, fought through a nasty MCL strain to turn up on the biggest day and still be able to dazzle with his air game on the final day. Just class.
Photo Gallery: Day Four, North Coast Dunedin
Post Script: Covid Has The Last Laugh
It was a big week that left me shattered. By Saturday I was still in recovery mode. I feared the worst so had a RAT test – negative. Sunday still no good, but negative. Monday morning my RAT came back positive and so my eight days of isolation began. I soon learnt that every single one of us on the trip tested positive by the Monday. All with varying degrees of symptoms. Covid had caught us all.