4/10

Four days. 10ft+ swell. This was new foil territory for Jeremy Wilmotte. But not being one to shy away from a challenge (or the occasional jet ski rescue mission), he teamed up with his tow crew and hit the outer reefs…

Words: Jeremy Wilmotte
Photos: Simon Bridge


Local big wave hero Matt Howard, a long time friend, rang me while I was at work one day, and once again showed total disgust at my lack of knowledge of the impending swell forecast. Gone are my days of being the narrow-minded surfer who checks the swell and wind forecast multiple times a day. I now feel evolved and at peace being the guy who really does not care about that… foilers can appreciate the ocean no matter what the conditions. As Laird said in a YouTube video I once watched, “no expectations, no disappointments”. Either way, it did not take more than five seconds on the phone to pique my interest and quickly start analyzing this swell. It was definitely going to be very different from our usual Australian East Coast lows that generally last two days maximum, with a peak swell at night time from the south and are accompanied with gale force onshores at 35+knots that make it near impossible to ride the waves. 

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The prediction was for four days straight over 10ft, with offshore to light winds everyday and getting bigger as each day progressed. We don't live on the North Shore of Oahu, so that is incredibly rare and not only that, this swell was forecast to bring some beautiful clean blue water and sunshine, a pleasant sounding scenario having recently been hammered with the wettest La Niña to hit Sydney in my short lifetime, accompanied by non-stop flooding. My aim was clear: to slut myself around as much as possible on whatever jet ski was heading out and foil as much as I possibly could. The goal was to replicate what our Hawaiian heroes have already accomplished over the last few years on a slightly smaller scale, and in our own local community. But after 20 years of paddling this particular wave and getting dragged underwater, it was not the size that was keeping me up the night before the swell hit, but rather if our skills on the jet ski were ready and if we could handle the warp speed of the foils we certainly would reach. 

The wave itself is a hidden gem of a bombie that does not reveal herself until the waves reach at least 10ft. It is located just off Wedding Cake Island, 1km outside of one of Sydney's most popular flat water ocean beaches. I grew up surfing here and getting bulldozed by 12-30ft monsters a couple of times a year and it has to be the funnest, most challenging wave we have in the local area with a very small, friendly crew that chases it on the regular. It is mostly a left, but there is also an amazing right hander that goes straight into the rocks, which is much cleaner during the regular southerly winds, but more challenging and with larger consequences. The left has never been too big yet in all the years we have spent out there… it just keeps breaking further out to sea. 

 

The nearest boat ramp to the wave is some 20km away, so it takes about one hour to reach the wave on the ski. I’d strongly advise you to wear a dive mask or, as some do, a motorbike helmet, as the trip will flood your eyes with salt and the passenger is guaranteed to have a broken arse by the end of it. It's an extremely wild ocean out there when these large swells hit our coastline due to the combination of wind and swell reflection from the cliffs. It's not uncommon to bury the entire ski underwater at least once in the chop. On this particular session we made the long (and safer) 20km journey, while the other tow team took the (less safe) shortcut and reduced the distance to 7km by launching from Malabar Beach.

The session was a total success and after some five hours on the water we decided to head back together and stop off at Malabar with the other team, to ensure they got back safely but also so we could refuel, as we only had 10% left on the fuel gauge. While we had stopped in calm waters and started to refuel, a member of the other tow team – “Captain X” I’ll refer to him as – gently drove his ski up the beach, unfortunately forgetting that the tide was coming up and the swell was rising. So, sure enough, while walking up the beach to get his car, we saw the first wave of the set come and wash the ski further up the beach and turn it perpendicular to the waves. The second wave was when things really went bad and the ski did a barrel roll like my three-year-old does in the sand. We could do nothing but watch as we carefully closed the fuel cap and stowed the jerry can. By the fourth wave, the ski had rolled back upright and families and beachgoers had started to gather and watch things unfold. It was pretty obvious Captain X needed my help, so I stayed to assist, and Jesmond Dubeaux (my tow partner) took the ski we had used back into open waters and around to the safer boat ramp. 

Somehow, beyond my comprehension, the ski handlebars had not bent and it powered up on the first go. Luckily for Captain X, the local council workers had not finished yet so he drove through the busy city beach gate they usually lock and proceeded to make his turn up the beach next to the ski, to load it on. The city tires on Captain X’s Land Rover meant he did not stand a chance… he was fully bogged in. This was turning into a shitfight… We physically turned the trailer and reversed the car onto the harder wet sand knowing full well that if any set came, the car would not roll as well as the ski had. During this time I relaunched the ski into the water and ran it up the beach in true David Hasselhoff style, between the sunbaking families who were either laughing at us or completely confused at what was happening. 

With the ski on the trailer it was time to rev it up the beach towards the park and onto the road. It took three goes at this, reversing the car and trailer down way past the water line during a break in the waves and flogging that engine till she was blowing a black trail up the beach. In the end everything worked out, except for a shattered ego and a seriously sand-riddled car and jet ski. 

The best part of this situation was that I was receiving texts on the local foiling group chats – they had watched the whole thing unravel via the live cameras installed on the beaches and had related it to watching a comedy show.

It turned out this wasn’t even the best day of the swell. This came on Saturday and I was on the ski with the aforementioned forecast-aficionado, Howie, the original tow surfer of Wedding Cake Island. It was such an amazing situation being out there with him in 15ft waves with perfect offshore conditions. I have so much respect for true watermen like Howie who totally understand the positioning within the lineup and what the wave will do. It took him less than two waves to understand how to tow a foiler and ultimately how much easier it is, as we do all the positioning by letting go 100-200m further out. Another great quality of these old sea dogs is that there is no bullshit. I clearly remember falling off on a mid-sized wave at about 50km/hr and getting totally de-oxygenated from the impact, only to feel the lip land directly on the back of my head and re-adjusting my spine. Once back on the surface and having then been hit by a further two waves, I felt pretty average and informed Howie I had tweaked my neck, thinking it would then be his turn behind the rope. The response was immediate, “there’s a huge one coming. Get up.” I guess the injury could wait, and it did… (Although the pain in the neck did linger around for the next two weeks.)

Sure enough he was right, and the big black line on the horizon turned out to be my biggest wave. I let go at least 150m out, past all the paddle surfers who were by now scrambling and throwing boards to get under the whitewater. Somehow I managed to keep my setup (an AXIS ART 799, 300 progressive tail, 900mm high modulus carbon mast and advanced Crazy Short fuselage with a Pump 4’2 board) from breaching and getting myself destroyed again back to back. It was definitely a memorable wave judging by the speed and lack of control while flying down the wave face, a totally new sensation. Something I always inform people and truly believe, is that when you’re on a big one, you have absolutely no idea how big it is. My theory behind this is the intense focus required in the forward direction to where you are going takes away from any visual observation behind you. Your best indication will be the speed you're traveling at, how badly destroyed you get if you fall off, people’s screams, shocked faces in the lineup, or simply photos after the session where you can get a gauge on what happened. But mostly, when you’re out there, it's all a bit of a blur and just a rollercoaster of pure joy.

It’s true the Hawaiians have been doing this for years and experience swell sizes of this magnitude on a regular basis, but I personally learnt so much with regard to gear and hopefully opened up the next generation’s eyes in regards to big wave surfing on the east coast of Australia. The main takeaway from these four days of experimentation for me was that with a foil there is potentially no limit to the size of waves that can be surfed: I’m very excited about the future as the gear progresses in this niche foiling division… 

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