The Agony and the Ecstasy

Local boy Grant “Twiggy” Baker clinches
the top spot.
(Image: Barry Tuck, Red Bull photofiles)

Dave Smith of South Africa gets a little
help in preparing for the Red Bull
Big Wave Africa competition.
(Image: Jennifer Stern)

Jennifer Stern

The tenth annual Red Bull Big Wave Africa competition, which was held in 15- to 20-foot surf at Dungeons in Cape Town on Saturday 26th July, was an unmitigated success – possibly the best one in the history of the event.

The fantastic, frightening and notoriously fickle Dungeons redeemed itself by providing spectacular waves on only the second day of the five-week window period. Yes, the date of the competition is not set beforehand. Instead, all the competitors, organisers, support staff, press and spectators stand by for the entire five weeks, logging on to the website regularly and waiting for the magic green-light SMS. This means that foreign professional surfers need to spend a full five weeks in Cape Town for a one-day competition. And, not that it’s surprising, they don’t mind at all.

The Red Bull Big Wave Africa (BWA) is one of the three top paddle-in big-wave competitions in the world. For the uninitiated, on some big-wave spots, the waves are just too fast for surfers to paddle in to, so they are towed onto the wave by jet skis or rubber ducks. While this is by no means a wussy option, there is something magical about catching an enormous wave under your own steam.

And Dungeons is certainly a contender for the title of the world’s best paddle-in big wave. California-based Greg Long says ‘Dungeons is the place to get the biggest waves in the world between June and August.’ So it’s not surprising that he spends those months in Hout Bay, which is as close as he can get to the object of his desire – Dungeons. Clearly he’s a man who likes a challenge, as he also categorically states that Dungeons is the most difficult paddle-in wave he has ever surfed – and he’s spent hours on all the well-known big-wave spots in the world, dividing his year between California, Mexico and Cape Town with short trips to Hawaii and other big wave destinations in between.

By invitation only

And Long is no exception. There are twenty-four invited competitors – twelve South Africans and twelve internationals – with a small reserve of alternates. And they are all absolutely dedicated athletes. They have to be. Dungeons is no place for sissies, and anyone taking off on that wave with less than 100% dedication is in trouble. These are all seriously hard men – but with big boyish smiles and an apparent easy-going attitude to life. They train hard, they surf hard, they – literally – lay their lives on the line every time they paddle in to a monster wave and – of course – they play hard. They take life seriously but enjoy every second of it.

In the same way that a big wave is no place for the faint-hearted, it’s also no place for the arrogant. There is never any concept of conquering the ocean, or any of that macho stuff. Surfers really do have to be in tune – especially with a wave the size of Dungeons. And the Big Wave Africa family seems to be an astonishingly close community without being cliquish. In fact, the competition is an interesting mix of supreme professionalism and a fun day out for a bunch of friends. While all the surfers are serious competitive athletes with training schedules as hard and strenuous as any Olympian, they genuinely seem to be going out there to have a good time.

Mickey Duffus, the original BWA director and a competitor every year since the inception of the event, describes one of the highlights of the last ten years, “I think seeing the guys in 2003, the year that Greg [Long] won, when the guys came back in the boat and they were all… you could see something, didn’t know what happened, there was a bond, a real strong bond and only when they got onto the podium, and said they are sharing the prize money, to me that is the highlight, that collective decision they made, to me that is the spirit of the whole thing ….. it’s really just the camaraderie of the whole thing.”

And that’s how it started, really. In the late nineties, a small cadre of hard-core Cape Town locals were surfing Dungeons, and the BWA just sort of happened. Somehow, between Red Bull CEO, Tony Henek and Mickey Duffus, the idea of a big wave competition was born – and there was absolutely no question that the venue would be Dungeons.

Location, location, location

What makes Dungeons special is a combination of its underwater topography and its position right in the path of swells generated deep in the Antarctic. There are no butterflies in Antarctica so, when a penguin flaps its wings, it creates a little current of air that combines with others and starts pushing the sea into little ripples. And the little ripples combine with others and become bigger ripples and so on. And the longer the ride those little ripples have, the more chance they have to grow up to be big waves. And the Southern Ocean is a big place. So, by the time they’ve reached the outskirts of Cape Town they are so not little. They’re big, long, deep, ocean swells that get deflected around Vulcan Rock and Tafelberg Reef – two submarine structures much loved by Cape Town divers in the calmer summer months. And once around these underwater hills, the swells recombine – sometimes stacking one on top of the other, sometimes pushing the swell off to one side. That’s what makes Dungeons so tricky and unpredictable. But it’s also what gives it those enormous waves.

So the 1999 competition went ahead with not much in the way of fanfare or infrastructure – or waves for that matter – but Red Bull persevered and thought they’d give it another try. In 2000, they set up a proper water safety system under the auspices of the legendary USA-based water safety expert, Shaun Alladio. Dungeons was a bit more generous with the waves that year, and the resulting video footage was seen around the world and piqued the interest of a few of the international big-wave chargers who were surprised and delighted to discover that there was one mother of a wave off the fabulously visitable city of Cape Town.

The rest is history. Every year it’s got bigger, and every year it’s got a little more professional and a bit more organised. In 2003 Mickey Duffus decided that he couldn’t handle being director of the event and surfing in it, so he handed the reins over to Gary Linden, who was joined by Jonathan Paarman in 2006.

And – this – the tenth BWA was considered by many to be the best so far. Greg Long, who won the prize for the biggest barrel said, ‘I always knew Dungeons had the potential to paddle in to the biggest wave and the biggest barrel. This was the culmination of eight years.’ It’s hard to measure the size of a wave but the biggest 2008 wave was officially about 25 foot, which means the face of the wave is about double that – 50-odd feet. Think that over – it’s about 15m or five or six storeys.

When asked if he’d be back next year, Long smiled as if spending the southern winter anywhere else was crazy, and added that Cape Town was probably his favourite place in the world – a combination of Dungeons of course, the local surfers who have all become his friends, and the good red wine.

South African takes top honours

The competition was won by Durban-based Grant “Twiggy” Baker with Brazilian Carlos Burle second and Greg Long third. Long also won the Billabong Biggest Tube award by riding a barrel that you could probably (theoretically) drive a bus through. Burle won the Von Zipper Deep Throat Award for courage and commitment in taking on challenging waves. Other speciality awards include the Sensi Threads Biggest Wave Award, which was won by local Capetonian James Taylor, and the Dakine Ikaika Award for Special Moments, was awarded to Hawaiian Mark Healy. “Special moments” usually include a wipe-out of note.

And wipe-outs are not uncommon on this unforgiving wave. The casualty count for the 2008 competition included one burst ear drum, one concussion, and one dislocated shoulder – as well as a relatively minor injury amongst the press photographers on the rubber ducks lurking just outside the impact zone. Oh – and about 15-20 surfboards – almost one per competitor.

If you’re wondering why it’s called Dungeons – ask anyone who’s been held down by one of those big waves for 10, 20 or 30 seconds. Dungeons are cold, dark, scary places – and that’s pretty much what it feels like when you’re being tossed around in the kelp and being pounded into the reef by a few hundred tons of icy Atlantic.

It’s no place for the faint-hearted.

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