Chase the wave

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They say you can’t keep a good man down, and an Australian surfing legend is proof of that. By Liz Swanton

 If you think you have some big plans on the go, it’s fair to say Ross Clarke-Jones has something bigger. Australia’s world-renowned big wave surfer doesn’t do things by halves. If he is ‘on’, he is on—which means hunting down and conquering the biggest waves on earth. However, as this new year dawned, he was still nursing a slightly tender ankle after breaking it last August during filming of Channel 10’s reality show, Survivor. During one challenge, he was swinging from a rope that broke, dumping him on the ground.

Forced from the show, he had immediate surgery and was in a moon boot for three months. He was ordered not to surf for four to six months, but the pressure was on with several big wave competitions calling, and he threw himself into intensive rehabilitation therapy. “It was my right foot, and that’s my back leg on the board, my ‘steering wheel’.” Clarke-Jones says. “I need a good strong ankle, foot and calf and leg to steer the ship. I can go left on a wave because I use my heel more than the toes, but on the right will be a physical challenge until I’m really over this.”

THE DANGER ZONE

At time of writing, Clarke-Jones was holding out for the call to tackle one of his favourite big wave locations, at Nazaré in Portugal. In January 2018, he caught the biggest wave of his career there, setting a world record for riding a 40m-plus (130 feet in the old money) green giant at a spot called ‘Big Mama’. Torn muscles, broken bones and battered and bruised everything are part of the deal when you do what Clarke-Jones does, as are near drownings.

A month after his triumph in Portugal he went from hero to zero at the same spot, suffering concussion when he was repeatedly slammed into rocks and sucked back out to sea. He was in the ‘danger zone’, a patch of rocks and shallow water where it was impossible for any help to reach him. Despite the pummelling, he found enough strength to scramble up a 30m cliff and out of harm’s way, blaming himself for not being as careful as he should have been. That complacency won’t happen again. Nazaré will always be on the agenda, as he continues to chase bigger waves and more records there, and at other favourite big breaks around the world, but there is plenty more in the… ahem… pipeline.

THE END OF THE WORLD

“I have a personal project happening that I’m calling ‘exploring Galicia’. It’s the northwest coast of Spain, the Galician coast. We found a few places where there’s literally no-one there, nobody,” Clarke-Jones says. “And that makes you feel like you’re at the end of the world, and apparently the Romans thought the cliffs of Cape Finisterre (Cabo Fisterra is the local name) were the end of the world. That’s why it is called that—the finish of the land.

“It’s also known as the Costa da Morte, or the coast of death, and it’s rich in history and stories about witches and ghouls and stuff,” he laughs. “Hopefully it won’t be my coast of death!” Planned as a documentary, Clarke- Jones will be tackling the surf, the food and the culture with friend and fellow big wave surfer, Axi Muniain, from Zarautz, Basque Country, Spain. “Axi has been exploring and researching that coast for about 10 years, but he has never invited another surfer, or towed in with jet skis.

So we’re going back to basics and doing the exploring thing, like we sort of did in Storm Surfers (award-winning movie from 2012, featuring Ross and fellow Australian surfer, Tom Carroll). We’re just taking a skeleton crew, not a big production team, so we can move quickly.”

THE NEXT WAVE

Clarke-Jones being Clarke-Jones, that adventure is not the only one on the calendar. There’s also a snowboarding trip to Canada with friends from major sponsor, Quiksilver. The plan is to do some heli-boarding and what that says is, despite the next birthday being his 54th, the likeable larrikin ain’t slowing down yet. “There are no plans to stop surfing because every wave is different. No two are the same so that gets me motivated to keep chasing bigger and bigger waves, because bigger is better and I want to keep going as long as I can. As long as I feel good.” The end is not something Clarke- Jones contemplates. He knows he is not immortal, but he believes he is pacing himself better in his older years. “I’ve always liked to run my batteries completely empty and then recharge again! I used to be go-go-go, with shorter periods of recharging; now it takes a bit longer, like a week.

This is the wisdom that comes with maturity— and I’m probably happier as well. “I just ‘plug in’ and cruise. I watch TV, walk on the beach, and do some stand up paddle-boarding along the coast, from Phillip Island to San Remo. And I play chess—my partner taught me a couple of years ago and now I beat her. “Me time is important. I’ve learned that you need to make that time, because I didn’t before. I would try to surf and party and see my friends and my family all at once. Spread yourself too thin and no-one gets any value. So I just concentrate on one thing at a time—and not pick up the phone when I’m with the people I care about.”

EVERY SURFER’S DREAM

Born and bred in Sydney in June 1966, Clarke-Jones was on the beach from the start. His family moved to Terrigal on the NSW Central Coast when he was 10 and by his early teens he was obsessed with surfing. He started making a name for himself in 1986 and went on to spend 12 years on the ASP World Tour, but his passion for big waves was stronger.

In 2001, he became the first Australian surfer—and the first non-Hawaiian—to win the prestigious Quiksilver ‘In Memory Of Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational’ at Hawaii’s Waimea Bay. Effectively, the Olympic Games of surfing, it is probably every surfer’s dream.

Clarke-Jones tackled it first in 1987 but it would be 14 years before he cracked the win. He has become synonymous with the tournament—now known as ‘the Eddie’— since taking second place in 2004 and again in 2016. He is always on the invitation list. “I haven’t worked a day in my life. All of it has been fun. My work is my love and my interest and my passion.”