Sean Doherty: The Cape of Mild Trepidation
COASTALWATCH | SEAN DOHERTY
This is the story of Red Bull Cape Fear At Shipstern Bluff, Tasmania
I made my choice early. I watched Johnny Florence’s heat from Keramas while they waited for the swell at to fill in at Shipstern. I watched 10 minutes from Bali and that was enough for me. Keramas was tiny. It was the still-meaningless first round. No, I’d be opting for the contest that promised to feed people to dragons. I closed the Keramas browser and said goodbye for now. The global pro surfing audience – which hovers around 5000 on a good day – was about to be split down the middle. The WSL and Red Bull have only just kissed and made up, and I wondered what the vibe would be like in Santa Monica with the Austrians effectively wiping out the WSL’s day one Bali audience.
When it was eventually called on, the first few waves at Shippies didn’t exactly spark a fire in any of the vital organs. It looked six foot. We’d hiked into Shippies last year on a day this size and apart from two surfers from Sydney there wasn’t a living soul there, certainly not any of the local boys. If today was any other day, free of cameras and caffeine drink events, they’d all be at work. Today was three out of 10 Shippies.
The forecast had been promising but nowhere near topping out, and this is where this whole Cape Fear gets twisted in knots.
The first year Cape Fear ran at Solander it was four foot. I remember a conversation with the Red Bull guy that morning and he was torn about whether to run or not. He’d just dropped his whole annual budget in getting this thing set up, and he was looking at Solander hardly breaking. I made the self-evident point that you can’t run an event named Cape Fear in waves that don’t induce the shitting of one’s britches. He duly ignored me, it ran, and the only memorable moment of the day was Koby Abberton mistiming the rock jump after not sleeping the night before.
Two years later, well, you know what happened. The last running of Cape Fear back in 2016 has totally ruined every future running of Cape Fear. The storm tore up Sydney, Des Hasler’s swimming pool fell into the ocean, and the waves at Solander were completely out of bounds. There was the real chance that someone wasn’t going to make it home that night. In other words, perfect.
The thing is, the Cape Fear model is only going to work on a forecast running in the red, and it’s only going to work if the surfers have to be called into a room and write the word yes or no on a piece of paper and put it in a hat. It needs to run right on the edge or not at all. Run it in the red or pay the kill fee and walk away. Shipstern is the right wave, just not today.
But with a Sunday night audience in the States this was always going to run, even head-to-head with Game of Thrones and the 76ers Raptors game seven. The Americans certainly had control of the levers on this one, and it lost a little of its provincial charm as a result. It got seriously overbaked for an American audience. I didn’t need to know about each wave containing 27 Olympic swimming pools of water, I didn’t need Chris Hemsworth on the channel, I didn’t need a completely wrong swell graphic, and I didn’t need some revisionist Shipstern history. Cote and Wassell had to work hard to sell this thing, but while I wanna hear Cote and Wassell commentate most any other surf contest in the world, there was only one man whose commentary would have saved the day, and that was Ross Clarke-Jones. Pump seven cans of the sponsors product into Ross, sit back and prepare to piss your pants. Instead he was one of the several no-shows, including Kai Lenny.
I walked in to Shippies with Rasta last year, who hadn’t been back there in 20 years. Back then he was sneaking in with Andy Campbell and Margo. This was back when Shippies was still an urban myth. They’d hike in and camp in the scrub and walk out and keep their lips shut. If you get a chance check out Pulsesurf’s Instagram account for footage from those days. It stands up to anything today, despite them riding 7’2”s. When we walked in last year Rasta spent most of the day walking through the bush looking for an old Pang he’d stashed, along with some cans of beans. He lamented the change in the place, the skis and the crowds, saying, “At least there’s not a contest here!” I didn’t have the heart to tell him. The longer it ran today the more it sucked the mystique from the place.
This thing has been on the boil for a few years now, and even the Tassie guys have been split about holding it. At one stage they were pushing Red Bull to make a donation to a local green project (not sure where that ended up landing) but Tassie guys making up half the field was enough trade-off to get them over the line. And they’re good lads. Not puritanically protective, and if you’re there with good intentions and to have a good time they’re with you. From the moment you touch down in Tassie and Marti Moose rents you a car at the airport to the minute you paddle out at Shippies and get called into a six-foot closeout (with a 12-footer behind it) they wanna make sure you have an adventure. They’re mad, but with hearts of gold. At the height of the surf industry you could get by being a Shipstern specialist – Shipstern was a boom industry there for a while – but the post-apocalypse surf industry hasn’t done much for them, so it was good they got a day in the sun today.
The other problem with the swell they got today was that it was just big enough to contemplate running skis, and so you were left with the curious situation of running both paddle and tow simultaneously. It worked better than it should have. Shipstern is one of the last holdouts for the skis, and they slalom those things through paddlers on most decent swells. But yeah, it just seemed odd.
I was worried twice today. It might have only been six foot, but of course Jughead ended up in the worst spot possible, being bounced between the shipping container-sized boulders. Yeah Jughead… who’d believe it? And then the commentary put the kiss of death on Mark Mathews, who by rights shouldn’t have been out there pulling in. You’d lose your lunch if you knew how bad his leg injury two years ago really was. It almost ripped right off, the nerves and arteries shredded like cooked spaghetti. So when he didn’t make his first wave today, and the camera quickly panned off him you thought the worst. Turns out he’s probably broken a foot, which considering what he’s been through is a scratch. It’s the long term price these guys pay, and you rarely get a sense of it. Jimmy Holmer-Cross snapped his femur out at Eddystone a few years back. The silver lining for him is that he got his house painting business back on track just in time for Hobart house prices to jump 15%. The other silver lining is that the producers of Point Breakbought the footage of his wipeout for 20 grand. Jimmy was one wave from winning his home contest this afternoon.
I thought whoever got through the heat with Laurie Towner and Russ Bierke was gonna be the guy today. The two lords of the Australian underground looked completely at home out there. Since his first wave out here 15 years ago, Laurie has mastered the dark art of jumping the Shipstern step from inside the barrel. He was hunting one today. The Night King meanwhile, well, that kid could end up anywhere this year. He’s only just getting started.
But man, I don’t think anyone will quibble about Nathan Florence winning. He had 50 days last year just like today. Tap a swell, fly in, wrestle it. Nate went on a worldwide burner, turning up on every big swell between Nias and Nazare, and threw himself over the ledge of the blackest of black ones. He didn’t need to do that today, he just jagged one at the start of the final, threaded it, and popped out in the channel. Did you hear him say this was the first event he’d ever won? His brother has won everything. No wonder he looked pretty happy. Nate didn’t need to risk his neck today, not by his standards, although if the Tassie guys kidnap him and drag him into Hobart tonight he might need saving.
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