SOME of the world’s most skilled and courageous open ocean surfing identities convened on Australia’s precious Gold Coast today for what is basically the continuation of safety awareness and procedure seminars for Billabong’s ongoing big wave hunt – The Billabong Odyssey. The inaugural one was held in Oregon USA, in October of last year. Many, if not most people, would perhaps consider these fanatical chargers as maniacs rather than ‘courageous surfers’, for their pursuits are not what normal people can even begin to relate to. The marketing punch line for The Billabong Odyssey is 7 seas, 3 years, 1 mission. The mission is, ultimately, to ride a one hundred foot wave – perhaps therefore, ‘Odyssey’ is the perfect word for the mission. As brave and spirited as their quest is, many would most certainly consider it all rather ‘odd’, but these are not normal people!

The main co-ordinating figure for the safety awareness aspects of the campaign is Hawaiian’s legendary waterman Brian Keaulana, son of Makaha’s fabled Buffalo Keaulana. Much of the initial day’s schedule was spent in the upstairs function room at Currumbin Vikings Surf Club, which is the adopted academic classroom for this week’s three-day convention. It’s apt that the gathering be held in a surf life saving club, for what the tow-in surfers and their jet ski partners will learn is most certainly life saving stuff. It’s also apt that the gathering is based around the ‘Vikings’ clubhouse, for if ever the medieval warriors of the sea had modern day counterparts, it’s these bunch of fearless chargers. Keaulana has keyed the words ‘Risk Technician’, to describe the role and practical applications of what the participants will learn this week. Surely bigger risks are almost unimaginable.

There are many and diverse key elements to survival in this domain, the ability of holding one’s breath for extended periods, of course being a paramount one. The world record, believe it or not, is nine minutes! That record was set in static conditions, not whilst being violently tossed and rolled by hundreds of tons of exploding water up to 50 or more feet under the ocean’s surface, but most of these extraordinary ocean warriors have learnt to be calm in such terrifying situations, as well as competent in holding their breath for at least two minutes. “It’s all in the mind” imparted Keaulana to his extremely attentive audience, “all about meditating, being relaxed, and slowing down your metabolism”. Luke Egan shared likewise from competitive arenas in challenging conditions at places like Pipeline and Teahupoo. “Not panicking as you go through a wipeout makes such a difference. It also makes a critical difference to your energy levels when you eventually re-surface and have to paddle out of the impact zone” said Luke. “Yes, energy is oxygen. The more you use, the more you need, and your lung capacity is obviously limited”, added Brian.

Drawing a wavey line on the whiteboard behind him, aptly looking something like the cross-section of a mountain range, but depicting a five wave set of relentless ocean ridges, Brian shared that the average gap between big open ocean waves is something between 15 and 20 seconds, and so one needs to progressively build up one’s lung capacity to at least one minute, for it is highly likely you can be down that long.

Brian went on to share an experience where he was surfing a ‘wave’ called The Rock, outside Mokolei in Hawaii with Brock Little. He got smashed and literally pushed as deep as 50 or 60 feet, calculating his depth by the pressure on his eardrums. “Being rolled and rolled for what seemed an eternity, I started getting concerned” said Brian. “I kept saying to myself ‘Keep relaxing, don’t swim up too early and waste energy” – but it went on and on. I eventually focused, bolted my energy down, and swum up sideways, ending up on the surface and being whisked immediately into a strong current further out to sea”.

Meanwhile Brock was frantically scouring the surface of the impact area on the jet ski, trying to find his partner. Brian could see him, but related to where he now was, and being towed further and further away by the moment, he was literally becoming a speck in the ocean from Brock’s perspective. Aware that Brock could have no idea where he was, Brian decided that the only way open for survival was to swim back into the impact zone, which he did – so Brock eventually spotted him, back in the lineup, body surfing (!) down the face of a 30’+ wave.

Being re-located and collected by your partner is obviously a vital element in the whole process. Initial discussion on that subject amongst the crew talked on everything from using bright coloured wetsuits and boards, to beepers, to GPS transponders, to flares and whistles. The whole pursuit of open ocean big wave tow-in surfing is just so broad and technical, and the risks are obviously as high and threatening as a 10’ thick lip might look as it plummets from 100’ above. These ‘Risk Technicians’, all men (very definitely) and a single woman, Layne Beachley (of course), have a lot to learn this week for their lives and those around them are literally on the line. Photo’s and story by Sarge