On the crest of a wave - SHAUN WALLBANK
The Mercury - May 15, 2010 09:33am
FOR the uninitiated the giant surf is untouchable. but Shipstern Bluff can be tamed, says Shaun Wallbank.
I'M usually a really good sleeper but on the eve of an impending surf session at Shipstern Bluff I toss and turn for hours.
It's impossible not to think about the next day, it sneaks back into the subconscious no matter how many sheep are counted.
I visualise riding a Shipstern wave in my head, playing it start to finish over and over again.
It's a curious concept because planning for the ride is hopeless anyway, the wave is so unpredictable.
This can be best explained by the architecture of the seabed below it.
The rock shelf under the cliff at Shipstern is a series of platforms approximately 10 metres long which make up huge steps down into the ocean.
These platforms provide the jump-off area where the shelf drops off into deep water.
At the top of the point the rock shelf protrudes further out into the ocean which forms the reef for the waves to break on.
As ocean swells that have travelled thousands of kilometres over deep sea meet the shallow bombie they lurch towards the shore with so much force it creates a barrel big enough to stack two b-doubles inside without even touching the sides.
The structure of the reef is further mirrored in the wave face as it reveals bumps and kinks while it hurls itself over huge underwater boulders.
For a successful ride at Shipstern, one first needs to navigate their way down this series of steps and get to the bottom of the wave.
Before explaining the rest of the ride, it is necessary to revisit the elements of surfing.
The fundamental purpose of surfing is to stay as close to the breaking part of the wave as possible every manoeuvre is based around this principle.
The Association of Surfing Professionals judging guidelines stipulate that riders are awarded points for critical manoeuvres within the critical part of the wave.
Riding inside the barrel is considered the ultimate display of control over this critical space and attracts maximum points in competition.
This practice is also widely acknowledged as the ultimate euphoria for a surfer and the level of euphoria can be reasonably related to the size of the barrel the bigger the barrel the better the reward.
Shipstern produces barrels about as big as they come, so for a surfer this is one of the best kicks you can get.
I was talking to a medical expert and close friend of mine the other day about the nature of adrenalin.
He was explaining in simple terms how the body reacts to such a chemical and we chatted about the phenomenon of "adrenalin junkies".
It actually is real, he confirmed. There are people who become addicted to the feeling they get when adrenalin is released within their body commonly known as the rush.
I don't think I'm one of these people but I do know that standing beneath the lip of a section at Shipstern sure activates a few endorphins.
After one has negotiated the steps in the face it's time to position the board and pick a line through the barrel.
There is so much water sucking up the face that it's important to get the right angle aim too high you become a projectile in the lip, too low and you risk losing speed and being engulfed by the breaking wave.
From here it's pretty much said and done. If you picked the right line you are about to go home a very happy person, if you didn't ... that's bad.
A wipeout at Shipstern is a story in its own right: each cubic metre of water weighs one tonne.
Let us consider the physics of that equation for a moment. If you could measure precisely the amount of water held in a shipstern wave it would be more than 100 tonnes of weight.
Wearing the impact of the lip can leave you feeling numb and wondering whether all your limbs are in fact still attached.
The best thing I can compare it to is an electric shock impossible to fathom until it hits you.
It would be amazing to see what a wipeout looks like underwater. There would be some extreme bouts of contortion going on under the surface.
There's only one good thing about a wipeout down there once you've been shoved to the bottom, dragged back up 10 metres and whipped back down again but survived you know the worst is over.
Like the wave in general it's brief but intense.
Hopefully you have avoided the wipeout and ideally you're now crouched inside an auditorium of water which feels like a vacuum as seconds pass like minutes.
Just as you're starting to feel comfortable and the light at the end of the tunnel gets closer the whole wave takes a gasp of air like a gigantic lung.
Upon exit, air and water is ejected from the barrel so hard and so fast the force is enough to knock a man from his board.
Your face and lips and ears are lashed with spray and it stings for minutes afterwards.
As you pull onto the shoulder and the consequent safety of deep water it's hard to contain your excitement.
It's considered conceited to celebrate your ride, but inside I'm dancing like a cat on a hot tin roof.