Masters & Apprentice
Story by Jed Smith for Surfing World Magazine Issue 367
Few things in surfing have the capacity to inspire fear like a ten footer on the head at Shipsterns Bluff. Mick Fanning knows this. He copped exactly that after blowing the first wave of his first set at the slab recently. “I just wanted to get one really quick and I paddled for one, hit the backwash, and the step, and went straight over the falls and then came up and copped probably a ten footer straight on the head. So yeah, that was good introduction,” he laughs.
If there is a more fearsome sight in surfing, Mick has experienced that too. But if you think a run in with a great white or a ten footer on the head at Shippies is enough to rattle his cage, you don’t know Mick Fanning. “Nah, not really. I’ve put myself in some pretty stupid situations in the past. As long as I don’t do that anymore, but, surfing those sort of waves, you know you can get injured but on the other hand if you get a good one you’ll remember it for years.”
The trip, Mick’s first to Shippies, had been 14 years in the making. Ever since seeing the now seminal 2001 Tracks Magazine spread featuring current WSL commissioner, Kieren Perrow and slab-specialist, Mark Mathews, he knew he’d surf it one day. It was just a matter of the stars aligning. “I’d just gotten back from Tahiti (World Tour contest) and I got a text from Mark (Mathews) asking me what I was thinking, did I want to go, and I couldn’t really think of an excuse not to,” he says.
Along for the ride were a few of Mick’s mates from the Goldy, including Brent Dorrington and Jay ‘Bottle’ Thompson, the latter taking time off from the job site to also make his Shippies debut. The local boys, Marti Paradisis, Danny Griffiths and Tyler Holmer-Cross were all over it. As were a crew of ‘mainlanders’ that included Laurie Towner, the man responsible for a handful of the heaviest waves ridden at Shippies; Ryan ‘Hippo’ Hipwood, arguably the world’s most underrated heavy-wave specialist; and of course Mark Mathews, the man who helped blow the lid on the spot way back when.
Laurie recalls bumping into Mick at the airport, Laurie telling Surfing World White Lightning was looking a little paler than usual. “He seemed real nervous,” laughs Laurie, though points out that he had every reason to be. Awaiting them the following day was a genuine thumper of a swell; long periods, sheet-glass, with a high likelihood of those unpredictable triple stepping closeout things that have made pretzels of men in the past.
Being the proud purist that he is, Mick made sure to honour the code and paddle the wave first. We know how that ended. So with the shellacking of a lifetime out of the way, it was time to grab the rope.
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It might come as a surprise for a surfer of Mick’s age and experience, but he’s never really towed that much. The east coast, with its classical lines, point breaks and punchy beachies, doesn’t really allow for it. As such he remained largely clueless on how his tow boards would go, or any of the finer points of towing for that matter. And this wasn’t really the day to be learning.
“It was steppy and wobbly, real glassy, no strong offshore,” recalls Laurie. “The bigger ones were a bit unpredictable so you needed the right wave, with the right shape, and to avoid the evil steppy ones,” he says.
What’s more, a look at the Shippies playing field reveals a Rubik’s cube of variables and potential mishaps. A compact towing-zone requires you to coordinate with the paddle crew down the line as you whip in from behind the lump. Wave selection is all important, the surfer hoping his ski driver can spot the difference between one that’s gonna stay open and one of those triple stepping mutants. “The ones the boys were trying to tell us were good ones looked like they were gonna break in the channel almost!” recalls Mick.
Fortunately, he had a local guru manning the controls as well as two of the spot’s most experienced out-of-towners in Laurie and Mark coaching him. Though mostly they were just laughing at how much he was shitting himself. “They were sorta following me on the ski saying ‘do this, do this,’ and just sorta making me even more nervous! It was pretty classic,” says Mick.
When his driver spotted a bomb, the rope pulled taut, and Mick was jerked in the direction of the cliffs. What happened next was, by all reports, pretty impressive.
“He rode it unbelievably,” says Laurie, “Every sort of wave: steppy ones, big ones, hollow ones. He was a little nervous at the start but after he got his first bigger tow one he was amped and it was really good to see how comfortable he was out there,” he says.
Mick knifed four in a row, navigating the step with ease each time, and never falling once. He describes the experience in vivid detail.
“You sorta whip in and go past the people that are paddling, and then you gotta keep staying low, and as the wave starts drawing you see the boils starting and the steps ledging and you just have to try and hit the smallest part of the step. Once you hit that step, that’s when you gotta grab your inside rail and get under the lip and hopefully not get destroyed,” he says.
His session climaxed with a set on dark that was as good as anything you’ll see towed out there. But you won’t hear that from Mick. He was more impressed with the show put on by the local boys. In particular, Danny Griffiths, the hard-charging goofy-footer who paints houses for a living and splits his time between Shippies and Desert Point.
“They’ve got that place on lock. Danny got the biggest ones, he was going mad,” says Mick. While Laurie points out the insanity of surfing Shippies backside.
“Can you even imagine it? Danny looks so comfortable out there. He does this little carve in front of the step to straighten up and get over it. He makes it look easy,” he says.
Tyler Holmer-Cross, meanwhile, bagged the days best beating. “After I got my first tow wave I turned and saw him get stuck in the biggest wedge and, awwww, it was so disgusting, I was so scared for him,” says Mick.
All in all, a bloody good day, says Mick.
“Waking up, being nervous as hell, then all the boys coaching each other into them and laughing at each other. It was just a good day with a good bunch of blokes,” he says.
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