The Bluff

Rafael Tapia is known for his big wave prowess and nomadic lifestyle of chasing watery monsters around the globe. So, after bumping into a big wave filmmaker on a stopover in Australia, and with a foil in his suitcase, fate got in the way and he found himself on a boat in Tasmania, motoring through a solid dawn swell, heading toward the notoriously sketchy point at Shipstern Bluff. We had to hear the rest of the story…

Photos: Stu Gibson and Andy Chisholm

So first tell us about your time in Tasmania. Were you out there just to surf?
I was actually on my way to Bali from Chile where I was on a ski trip. I had a stopover in Sydney where I met with Tim Bonython, who shoots big wave surfing. I’ve been with him in Teahupoo and Nazaré a bunch of times, and he was trying to persuade me to go to Tasmania. I was super jetlagged and coming out of an injury, so I wasn’t very keen. Anyway, long story short, he did manage to talk me into it! I like giant waves, but Shipsterns hadn’t been on my list of waves that I wanted to surf.

You look pretty comfortable on that foil. How long have you been foiling?
Well I don’t know if I look too comfortable! But I’ve been foiling for around 10 years, from back when we were using snowboard boots and steel masts, and we could only tow-in. Back then the foils would only work in pretty big waves where you had a lot of speed. I made the transition to normal paddle foiling as it developed, and I love trying to get on some bigger waves as well. I’ve ridden a foil a couple times at Nazaré and Mavericks, and I’ve had a few sessions foiling on some heavy slabs in Chile and in Galicia in Spain, so I felt pretty comfortable with the wave at Shipsterns.

What were your thoughts about Shipsterns?

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Well, it’s not a wave that really appealed to me too much before this trip. I’m not the best backside barrel rider at all. I’m very comfortable frontside barrel riding, but Shipsterns is a very gnarly wave, with that big step, and there’s not that many people who surf it backside. So it wasn’t really on my radar, but I was stoked to get to foil it and surf it!

So how did the session begin?
The trip started very early in the morning, we got into a boat and it’s an hour to get there and it was pretty rough, even at dawn. Once we arrived there were some big waves coming through. I didn’t think it was that big until Justin ‘Jughead’ Allport went out and just shredded a huge one, and took a gnarly wipeout that ended up being pretty serious, although we didn’t really know that at the time.

Were you keen to get in there?
Well I was so seasick from the rolling of the boat and with the jetlag that I couldn’t really move. My friends were trying to psyche me out to go foiling as everyone knew I had a foil with me! I just didn’t feel like it, and I was making peace with myself that I wasn’t going to surf this time. I’m coming out of some very gnarly shoulder surgery, so I didn’t want to risk myself with Nazaré season starting soon. This hadn’t been on my list, and I said to myself, “Ok, I came to Tasmania, and I’m not gonna surf.” Then, with all the movement of the boat, I just kind of passed out! Once I woke up from that power nap I felt like myself again, and then I was like, “Ok, it’s game on!”

And you were straight in the water?
Yeah, I started rigging up the foil which made me feel more seasick! Then I paddled out there with Zeb Critchlow, a super nice guy, and he talked me into some crazy waves. We kind of didn’t find the right waves at the start but then we started getting into it. On one of the bigger ones, local backsider Danny Griffiths was inside the barrel while I was riding the shoulder and that was pretty sick. Then I got another foil wave with Kipp Caddy who was also in the barrel. There was lots more sharing and everyone was super happy, saying I was the first person to ever foil Shipsterns. That was enough for me, so then I got on a surfboard and had about eight more waves and a couple of barrels. I was super happy.

The Bluff

Then it turned out that things weren’t great for Jughead?
The ride back in was gnarly… super, super heavy. Jughead didn’t know this at the time but he had perforated a lung, broken his vertebrae and had seven broken ribs, and it was like an hour to get back in against 40 knot winds, and the boat was jumping up and down. Yeah, it was pretty gnarly.

This session doesn’t look like the absolute biggest we’ve seen it, but it still looks like a heavy session and has to be one of the world’s heavier spots, right?
It’s definitely not the biggest waves you’ve ever seen at Shipsterns, but it was pretty solid. It’s definitely one of the heaviest waves I’ve surfed. Fortunately enough, I didn’t get the Shipsterns flogging, so I’m pretty happy about that! But yeah, there’s a couple of really gnarly spots up in Ireland, and Nazaré has to be up there as one of the gnarliest places in the world. But with a foil you can kind of play it a little bit safe if you know what you’re doing. I was pretty happy I didn’t get hurt.

How are the challenges of ‘regular’ surfing Shipsterns different to foil surfing it?
Well you still have to go over the step, and you’re still only looking for the bigger waves. It’s definitely different. I think foil surfing it is pretty safe because you can get away from it easier, but then again, if you make a big mistake with a foil, it can be lethal…

Which is scarier?!
I think they’re both scary you know? Like when you’re foiling and up on the top of a big ass wave and you’re trying to control your speed coming down, it’s pretty scary! Same as when you’re hitting those crazy ledges, and you know that mistakes can break bones. So I don’t know, I would say both of them are pretty scary, I wouldn’t pick one as any worse!

We’ve got quite a bit of big wave coverage this issue. Do you think big wave foiling is going to be a big part of the sport?
Well, to be honest, big wave foiling is still developing. I’m into bigger waves so I’m always at the front and center of it, and talking to a lot of the boys, we’re all out there trying to get bigger waves. We had one crazy session last year on some outer, outer, outer bank, close to Mavericks, and that was pretty heavy. But I think we’re still getting the gear to work better for bigger waves, so that we can ride steeper and deeper. I hate to be running to the shoulder, but sometimes you have to because of the amount of lift these bigger waves have, and then if you fall it’s pretty heavy too. So I don’t think it’s for everyone, but it’s nice to know that with big wave foiling we can be surfing the same waves with other people and not create wake or cause any problems, so that’s pretty fun.

“YOU REALLY NEED TO BE A LITTLE BIT NUTS TO SURF THAT WAVE ALL THE TIME. I’LL BE HAPPY TO SURF IT MAYBE A COUPLE TIMES IN MY LIFE AND THEN I’M GOOD…”

Yeah this session looked pretty fun with lots of smiles!
For sure, the vibe and the local people are insane. The Tazzy lads are interesting people, they’re all friendly, and they charge really hard, so yeah, they became friends right away! Full respect to those boys… You really need to be a little bit nuts to surf that wave all the time. I’ll be happy to surf it maybe a couple times in my life and then I’m good…

Can you talk us through the set up you were riding?
Well, because this wasn’t meant to be a trip to foil surf big waves, I just had my prone foil with me that has inserts to put straps on. I’ve been riding AXIS foils for quite a bit now, I really like the way they handle any kind of surf. I actually didn’t have a long enough mast with me, I only had a 75cm mast and I would usually use something a little bit larger for bigger waves. But I’m really comfortable on the 75, which is the one I use the most. I was riding an AXIS prone board that was developed in conjunction with Adrian Roper [lead designer at AXIS] and I was using a 680 wing, a long fuselage and a 400 back wing. I really like the way you can change the setup on AXIS foils, so I travel with that all the time.

So what’s up next?
Well, I finally made it to Bali. I’ve been foiling and surfing a bunch here and trying to get healthy for Nazaré when the big wave season starts over there, and I’ll be setting up camp there and then doing trips to Hawaii or anywhere where big waves pop up.

And will you always be taking a foil?!
That’s a very good question. Right now I pretty much only take a foil with me! I already have friends and boards stashed around world as it’s so hard to travel with everything. So basically my luggage consists of a foil, a prone foil board, and a kite, and then I have friends around the world who have boards that I can use when I need to…

AND FROM THE PHOTOGRAPHER’S PERSPECTIVE…

Hey Stu, so is Shipsterns a regular subject for you?
Yes, I’ve been shooting Shippies for a long time now. I think I first made the trek there in 2001.

How do you prepare and what’s the plan of action for you when shooting there?
It comes pretty natural these days. We have a great group of mates that surf the place, we have skis and boats, and everyone is very confident in wild seas and big waves, so we all look out for each other. The camera tech side of things is just like a normal day shooting, I like to shoot water pics down there, so I either go by boat or walk in and swim for most of the day.

Looks like there was a lot of camaraderie in the water that day?
It was a fairly busy day, but we are all friends and happy to share the place with anyone, everyone was stoked to share some waves with Rafael on the foil.

When shooting foiling over regular surfing, is there any difference in how you’d shoot?
Yeah sometimes I like to watch the person or get to know them a bit before I’ll jump in the water with them. I shoot a lot of foiling in Fiji with some great surfers, it’s pretty freaky at first when shooting in the water with a wide angle, there is a lot of trust in the person flying past your legs!

What’s your take on the future of big wave foiling?
I’m pretty new to foiling but every year I see the foilers going bigger and faster, so hopefully it keeps improving. It certainly unlocks plenty of different wave zones…

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