It was a 50-50 call. The swell could be too small, the long period, at 15 seconds, not enough to compensate. But in the heads of the 10 people assembling in the early morning darkness at the launch point, that was a gamble worth taking. And so another day in tow surfing history in the deep south begins.
The five teams trampling the sand looking for a place to launch the skis in the early light are James Cross and Joe Van Der Geest aka Joe Dirt, Davy Wooffindin and Jimi Crooks, Jaimie Richards and Nic Luxon, Dan and Karne Gabbott and myself and Dave Wild.
Normally it’s the pounding sets and boiling expanse of whitewater that make you nervous at the start of a trip like this. Today it is the lack of giant walls winding past the launch beach that make us anxious. We head out regardless and scamper across the tessellated ocean surface toward our reef.
“It was small and slow, but it was okay – it’s always good to get out there,” offers Davy.
For 15-year-old Karne Gabbott, already one of the youngest to surf a remote slabbing reefbreak in the Catlins (which he surfed a week after his 14th birthday), this session would also make him one of the youngest ever at this wave. We’re talking a wave that makes seasoned big-wave surfers tremble.
“Davy said we’d go straight out and tow straight into it – no looking,” Karne smiles. “I think if I had looked at it I’d have got psyched out a bit, so probably better that way. It’s definitely more intense watching from the channel – it looks way more scary.”
“I’ve taken a few people out there for their first surf and I reckon it’s always best if you don’t even let them look at it,” Davy laughs. “I knew the tide was full and the swell was small so I thought the best thing to do was to put him on a couple before he even saw it. Not many people look at it and then want to surf it.”
“His dad, Dan, gave me his permission and said he’d sign a waiver,” laughs Davy. “I put him into some safe ones.”
Karne was one of the first to surf a wave in the session and said he felt safe out there.
“It was pretty fun and the waves weren’t too scary,” Karne admits. “I got a bit of a smoking on one of them, but it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. I was a bit nervous when I was towing into my first one, but after that I was alright. I think it was a good size to get warmed up in.”
Having Davy in his corner certainly helped – especially on a wave that has an infamous step right toward the end of a long barrel section. The wall sits up across the reef and the step comes out of nowhere and throws punches like Israel Adesanya – right when you least expect it.
“Davy told me to get low and go underneath the step if I can,” Karne reveals. “It was really good having Jimi and Davy helping me out. They knew which waves to tow me into and had a lot of knowledge out there.”
“I can’t wait to get back out there.”
Joining Karne on debut at the wave was Nic Luxon, aka Lucko. He also benefited from the brain’s trust at the reef and drew some nice lines as the tide dropped out.
“It was a cool session and cool to see Karne and Lucko out there for their first time,” Jimi said.
The small swell meant only the biggest sets were breaking and only the biggest of those was worthwhile. As the tide fell, the swell pulsed enough for a volley of two-wave sets and some glimpses of this wave’s real character. And some decent tubes that didn’t have the usual death clamp at the end.
“I thought it was unusual to actually make a wee tube out there,” Joe Dirt offers. “Usually, you just pull in and get whipped. It was 195° angle so that may have contributed to that.”
Joe has been chasing big waves for several years now. At 32 he’s focused on paddle surfing and tow surfing the biggest slabs along his local coastline. He also has dreams to explore the reefs in the North Island, Fiji and Tahiti.
To help him in his quest, the new father took a job with Southcoast Builders – Davy Wooffindin’s construction company.
“I wanted to get stuck into the whole tow surfing thing and I mean, who else do you go see for that?” Joe asks. “It seemed like a no brainer. He’s a legend and I count my lucky stars every day. He’s really taken me under his wing. He’s a heavy hitter in the big wave scene and I want to get there, too.”
Joe was quick to find some of the better set waves of the morning, including one with an ugly second step in it that sent him flying.
Frame X Frame: Joe Dirt
“I remember getting a smaller one and I hit the step and dropped into it and then pulled into a tube and then the whole thing caved in on me,” Joe recalls. “I remember looking at you guys in the channel when I connected back onto the wave and I remember trying to lay a bottom turn and then look into the channel to find my exit and remember it all going white. I’m a little bit gutted I don’t really feel like I got any goodies that day. It was so inconsistent.”
“You’re always striving for perfection. I’d love to surf it at 10-15-foot, man that would be crazy out there. I haven’t had it how I envision it yet.”
Late into the session – just before the tide starts to poke the reef through the surface, Jimi and Davy begin to find their rhythm with the bigger set waves. They seemed to have a kind of magic touch out there.
“That’s just lady luck isn’t it?” Davy tells me. “A wee bit of luck and a wee bit of good management.”
“It’s just knowing to look for the right waves” Jimi adds. “You have to look for the straighter line. Quite often you get tricked into looking for the one behind. You’ll see a set coming, but on this day if there was a wave there with potential you’d just go. It might look like there is a good one behind it, but there often wasn’t. If I saw a good straight line, I wasn’t mucking around – I’d be going for it. When it’s smaller and a little bit wobbly it’s a lot harder to figure out. When it’s big and clean it is so easy to drive.”
On one of his last waves Davy got ejected from high up on the step, while inside the barrel and took a heavy beating.
Frame X Frame: Davy Wooffindin
“I remember I was on the wave for so long,” recalls Davy. “Normally the step comes at you really quickly. I must have been real deep because I was surfing for ages, pulled in and I was in the tube and I remember thinking I must be past the step. Just as I had that thought I saw it coming up at me. I was like, ‘oh, no, I’m way too high’. As I went off it I tried to kick my board out to get away from it. I remember going through the step and looking at my board – it was vertical right in front of me and I was just launched with it in mid-air. It was horrible. No skin lost though. It was a violent moment, but not that bad in comparison to other beatings you’ll get out there.”
Jimi is 30 and works as a sparky at Leading Electrical in Dunedin. He has been tow surfing since he was 16, and is the youngest to ever surf big Papatowai. But this session was his first tow surf in three-and-a-half years thanks to a stint overseas and then being sidelined for 18-months with a shoulder injury.
“That was the best surf I have ever had out there, but to be fair I usually surf other waves around on the good days,” Jimi adds. “That was the first barrel I have ever come out of out there.”
Jimi found his way into the wave of the day with a super deep ride right under the slab face that saw him carrying full speed into the step.
“It was a nice wave and I wasn’t really knowing what to expect coming into it,” Jimi shares. “You can see the step pretty early on. It’s way out in front of the wave and you can see it drawing off, pulling off the back of it. I knew it was coming. I don’t know what I did, but I always think about snowboarding and just keeping your knees up high rather than extending too much. But I don’t know if I did that.”
Frame X Frame: Jimi Crooks
Jimi said he drew inspiration for those moments from the late Tane Tokona – a local surfer who pioneered many of the slab waves in Otago.
“I remember watching Tane surf a heavy backdoor slab wave down south and I always think about that when I go to approach the step,” Jimi continues. “He’d come in behind the section and he’d always approach it in a very calm manner and stay on his toes. He would never change off his rail – he’d keep bent knees and stay centered to get through it.”
“You’re trying to minimise it. The more air you get the harder it’s going to be to land it,” Jimi shares.
With that handful of waves to highlight the session we pulled stumps and returned to land. As always grateful to have no injuries and another layer of experience notched up for the team.