04 Feb, 2016
It’s been a long, twelve year wait since we last witnessed the intense and regular storms that are the hallmark of a true El Nino weather cycle.
El Nino Power
I spent November and half of December of 2015 sleeping in the back of a mate’s unregistered station wagon on the North Shore of Oahu. I had my cameras ready and was waiting patiently for the weather phenomena to kick in, but that early part of the winter didn’t produce too much worthy swell. Instead we got lots of squally days, lots of wind and lots of rain. The upside I guess was at least I got to do some surfing myself, something those of us who shoot waves tend to only do rarely. But the fact was, I’d come a long way and El Nino was standing me up.
How would you feel turning up knowing you had to take on this?
There was one swell that kicked in for the WSL Big Wave event at Pea’hi, but I decided to shoot/film on Oahu for a change. I’d had some amazing days shooting Jaws in recent years and with an event going in I decided to skip the bunfight of jostling for a decent position in the water or on the cliff and being one of so many shooting the day. Truth be told, seeing the shots from that day I’m bummed I missed what was an historical paddle-in event. It’s the curse of what we do. We always want to be in three places at once. It always stings to think you are missing something.
David and Goliath
Christmas was drawing close and the waves weren’t showing up so, a bit nervously, I left Hawaii and spent my first holiday season and new year back in Australia for more than a decade. It was a rare treat to spend time with family and friends but I confess there was a knot in my stomach – that wasn’t anything to do with too much Christmas pudding – as I kept an eye on the forecast knowing the North Pacific was soon to come alive. I had to get back.
Dropping into the throat of Jaws
Sure enough, the new year ticked over and just like they’d been ordered for a 2016 delivery, the waves came. I was gutted to miss the first dose, the January 15th swell. I was sitting at home frantically trying to get the funds together to fly. The joys of being self-employed with clients who are a year behind in paying. It was gut-twisting. Swells like that don’t wait until your credit card is cleared. I tortured myself checking the swell online hourly (okay every 15 minutes) and tried to tell myself it wasn’t the end of the world.
Albee Layer free falling
Soon after another swell was on the horizon. El Nino was finally getting his act into gear. I was desperately trying to figure out how to get back to Hawaii to document it when a call came in from Mike Prickett. Mike is a legendary surf filmer who I was lucky to randomly meet in the snow some 15 years ago. We’ve been close friends ever since. He told me to get myself back to Hawaii and make it happen. I had just enough Qantas air mile points to scrape into Honolulu, I had my standing booking Chateau Subaru (the back of the station wagon) thanks to my mate Steve, my trusty Chevy truck was waiting with half a tank of gas in it so I borrowed (again) what I could – I just had to go.
How would your gut be feeling paddling out past this?
The universe rewarded my leap of faith (and my girlfriend didn’t break up with me). The swell came as forecast, building abruptly in the afternoon. It was thick, pumping out a 23 second period swell onto Jaws that makes it lightning fast and so much harder to get onto and surf. In Ian Walsh’s words “maybe we should have been towing this one”. It was like watching people trying to jump onto a speeding freight train.
Jamie O’Brien cementing his reputation as a big wave paddle in surfer
Not many waves were caught, only a few were made, but that’s what made it astounding to witness. There were pure gladiatorial moments as mortals took on waves that will become the stuff of legend.
Albee Layer knows how to find it
Everyone has sacrificed and hustled and sweated to be there. For me it’s about making sure I honour these people and pay respect to the ocean for serving up these rare and powerful moments – which I do through my camera lens. For a few hours the static in my brain and all the distraction of excess luggage fees, sorting gear, booking boats, lost keys and the endless logistics that tie us to our phones for days… it all falls away. There will never again be this pure moment, these waves, these surfers, this light, this perspective. I am there to bear witness.
Prickett was right. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss this day. Not only did I get to work alongside a great friend and frankly, the best waterfilmer I know, but we brought some serious Hollywood firepower to play on the day. RED Epic and Dragon cameras fitted with a 50-1000mm lens suspended on a new Shotover gimble gave us next level production values. When you have waves and surfing on show at that level it is a thrill to feel you can do them justice with this calibre of equipment and talent behind the camera. I had a blast capturing stills with my Nikon D800 and 200-500mm lens and I hope the small sample of shots I’ve included here give you a sense of what we got to be part of.
Sometimes paddle power just aint enough
The motion footage you’ll have to wait for. It will be about two years before we unleash all that 6K goodness as it’s going to be part of a much bigger project. I’m so excited about it and although I hate to leave you in suspense I am going to ask you to trust me. It will be worth the wait.
The last picture of the day as we headed back to the Kahului Harbour past Haiku