Russell Bierke Has Problems

17 Feb 2016 1 Share

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COASTALWATCH | Interview

Story by Brett Burcher 

Russ Bierke’s got issues…. Mental ones and plenty of them. The abnormal 18-year-old needs little introduction. He’s been touted as a potential future big wave frontrunner by two of the best Marks in the business, Mark Healy and Mark Mathews.

The Hawaiian 2015/16 winter was the Bierke family’s fourth season since moving to Australia in 2001. The January 15th swell at jaws is another occasion that thankfully needs little introduction. Besides, finding words to describe it is well and truly beyond me. It's now common knowledge that a number of the biggest waves ever paddled into were recorded on that fateful day. A wide-eyed Russ was front and centre to witness the show unfold. He had surfed Jaws for the first time just two weeks earlier and it left quite an impression.

“I went to Jaws 2 weeks earlier for a swell run but it was only 15-18 feet and really windy”. Obviously in a foul mood, Jaws wasted no time letting him know who was in charge. On his very first wave, he slid in deep on a large north peak. “I was way too deep and had to pull straight and watch the whitewash catch up to me,” he says.

Feeling relaxed after a deep breath, he initially planned not to pull his flotation vest so he could get a feel for his first of many Jaws holdowns. “The instant it hit me, it violently rag-dolled me and pushed me over the edge of what felt like a rushing waterfall”. On the brink of bursting, he was forced to equalize.

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Deciding not to stay true to his word, he blindly attempted to pull his floatation vest but his arms were everywhere they weren’t meant to be. “I kept getting forced down, as I finally pulled my vest I got shaken again by more turbulence and ended up letting off two canisters”. “My vest was as inflated as it can possibly get and I was still getting driven underwater deep enough that I had to equalize a further two times”. Leading into the hyped swell, he found himself reflecting on that frightening wipeout; ‘If a fifteen footer is capable of doing that to me, what’s a thirty footer got in store? Am I allowed to let off six canisters at once?’

Aaron Gold drops down after paddling into Jaws

Aaron Gold drops down after paddling into Jaws

The swell was predicted to peak in the mid-afternoon. Russ paddled out at 11 am to a sunny, glassy and almost empty twenty-foot jaws lineup. “It was really eerie because you knew exactly what was on the horizon” recalls Russ. The amount of perfect un-ridden gems that rolled through without any takers seemed odd and in hindsight you could have wrapped up your session before lunch with a few incredible rides. More anxious hours past, until right on cue, around 2.30 pm, a thirty-foot square freight train bulldozed its way through the Pe’ahi lineup, signaling the official beginning of a groundbreaking session in big wave surfing.

For the majority of traditional big wave spots, a large focus of the ride is committing to and valiantly executing the heart-wrenching drop. Once negotiated, it's generally roses from there on out. At Jaws, however, the drop is just another piece in the defiant puzzle. “Chasing down the wave out there is so hard because it appears as a big outstretched wall,” says Russ.

“When it stands up, at first, it feels as though it’s going to land on your head, but it holds its steepness and steam trains towards you.” In most cases, the wave sneak’s underneath the restless pack. “ The most nerve-racking part is holding your ground, you’re basically inviting the wave to mow you down”. If you commit to a wave, paddle your throbbing heart out and miss it, you’re almost certainly finding yourself in the firing line for the following wave.

“When it stands up, at first, it feels as though it’s going to land on your head, but it holds its steepness and steam trains towards you.”

Even with a light wind puffing, the feathering spray stretching off each bypassing wave would smother the entire lineup for several seconds, blinding any vision of the approaching dangers. “Stuck in a giant cloud, you would paddle for the horizon and all you could see was a big, dark wall standing up but you were completely unaware of its direction or path,” explains Russ. “I had experienced it on a lesser scale, I guess it happens at most big wave spots, but this amount of haze was just surreal”.

SEE ALSO: Tom Carroll Calls It; Aaron Gold Paddles Into 80 Foot Jaws 

The afternoon of January 15th didn’t just push the established limits, it eclipsed them to a realm our imaginations would struggle to manufacture. Taking nothing away from other heroic performances, the two most notable rides that stood head and shoulders above all others were that of Aaron Gold and Pedro Calado.

Russ watched in utter disbelief as Aaron muscled his way into that XXL bomb. “I looked across as I paddled over it and Aaron had his head down paddling directly down the face and it looked completely vertical”. In Russ’s eyes, Aaron Gold was a definite standout, for reasons beyond that one wave alone. Gold and close friend Ben Wilkinson caught two huge ones each.

According to Russ, Ben paddled out as the brunt of the swell arrived and surfed for two to three hours. “One huge airdrop of Bens comes to mind and for anyone else it would of looked a hundred foot but next to Ben’s enormous frame, it looked closer to four foot,” laughs Russ.

The big wave Bierke family (L-R Claire, Kirk, Leanne & Russell)

The big wave Bierke family (L-R Claire, Kirk, Leanne & Russell)

You may already know, but that was Gold’s opening wave and although getting swallowed on impact, he didn’t feel the urge to pull his floatation vest. Ironically, it was probably a wise move. His second wave was just as big, and it brutally repaid him for his earlier negligence. “It was another massive one but this time, he pulled up into a chandeliering barrel that clamped shut and imploded on him, pushing gold straight to the bottom” explains Russ. While cartwheeling his way across the jagged reef, he was forced to pull his flotation vest for only the second time in his life.

Amongst the triumph and tribulation, Russ managed to catch one wave, the biggest of his life to date. It was a vastly different lineup than he had experienced weeks before on his maiden voyage. “The way the reef reacts when it’s thirty-foot plus is mind-blowing, it turns into a slab,” describes Russ. “To be in the position to get a wave was next to impossible for me, nothing to do with the crowd at all, mainly just the sheer speed of the waves” he concedes. “On every big wave that was paddled for, it seemed as if the guy was moving backward”. “Really, they are going Mack ten down the face, but in comparison to the speed of the crashing lip, it’s as if they are stuck in reverse”.

As physically taxing as big wave surfing is, it’s also a mental minefield. Perceptions and judgment become somewhat distorted after dodging thirty to forty foot mountains for hours on end. “After seeing so many huge waves, you became acclimatised to what you are actually watching,” says Russ. “A wave would pop up and you would think, oh yeah, this one looks good, and totally forget that it has a sixty-foot face,” he laughs.

After several years of head-turning performances and his most recent accolades, it's easy to forget the fact that he is just 18. Winning ‘The Crew Generation 2 ’ series solidified his status as Australia’s leading big wave prospect, but maintaining a reputation on the big stage can sometimes come at a cost.

SEE ALSO: Russell Bierke's Saturday Morning Pit

“I don’t feel pressure from anyone, only from myself,” he admits. “I like to prove to myself that I can perform in heavy situations”. “If I feel super uncomfortable, I’m not going to do anything stupid, it has to feel genuine”. Although openly critical of his performance, he understands it is only early days and that time is on his side. “I just have to put in time at those big wave spots to reach the level I want to achieve” he says. “It’s so hard in Australia to consistently surf big waves, it's more slab orientated and even though they are both big and gnarly, it’s a whole different ball game”.

As physically taxing as big wave surfing is, it’s also a mental minefield.

He woke the following morning to a declining swell and picture perfect conditions. Still on a high from the day before, he entered the line-up hungry for a big one. He found his groove early, picking off some beauties that involved setting his line into a gapping cavern. He felt much more in tune with the line-up and it restored some of his inner confidence. You get the feeling that if a similar day happens to arise, he may well be inside Aaron and Pedro on the next wave of the millennium.

If anything, Jaws has inspired him to step up his game. He firmly believes there is plenty of room for improvement on both his behalf and the sport in general.

“The two biggest waves ridden that day, the guys only made it to the bottom and the wave caught up to them” he says. “Which is still the craziest thing ever, but I guess eventually people will be taking off under the lip and pulling into those sections”. It’s a scary thought, but I wouldn’t doubt it for a second. 

As the swell continues to pulse through the Hawaiian Islands in one of the most consistent winters in history, the best big wave surfers in the business continue to make their way to Jaws. There's a new recruit frothing on pushing his game harder and further amongst the big guns and he's not going to let waves go unridden.

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VIDEO BELOW, Master & Apprentice Talon Clemow's Story Of Mark Mathews & Russell Bierke

Tags: russell , bierke , jaws , peahi , brett , burcher , gallery (create Alert from these tags)

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