6th July 2001- NSW East Coast
Every decade or so, NSW gets a ground swell that is bigger than the usual ‘East Coast Low’ wind swell that we get every now and then, but once every thirty years or so all the weather conditions come together to form epic swells that become part of our surfing folklore. For three days starting from Friday 6th July, through the weekend to follow, was one of those events.
For me, I was 31 years old and still surfing with a hardy bunch of local surfers most days, especially on bigger swells. David Hunt, Rod Katis, Damian Barden, and a few others were on my daily text message surf check. Between us we could have all the beaches from Shoalhaven Heads to Shellharbour checked every morning, and an agreed spot to surf. With word of a big swell coming I checked Bombo Beach at Kiama early this day. When I turned up, it was cold and a light SW wind was blowing, tipped to turn around to the west during the morning. I rang Dave and Damo to report that the swell was big, and building. Whilst beach breaks like Bombo don’t usually hold the swells once they get over 8ft, today the sand banks were looking ok on the occasional set. The swell was marching in, and we were still assuming we would have to find a reef break somewhere.
“It’s odd”, I told both of them, “it’s getting bigger and bigger, but I swear there is a surfable left coming through from way outside to the shore.” Both were understandably sceptical. The rip along the rocks going out from shore was also a way to get out through the huge swell. They all checked their areas and found people unable to paddle out through the beach breaks and most surf spots maxing out. All the big wave surfers on the coast jumped in cars and started the usual travel ritual trying to find a spot. All the while I was watching Bombo and watching one or two waves in each set looking surfable amongst some very big closeouts. The swell was tempting me to take it on at a beach which just shouldn’t be surfable today.
One by one Dave, Damo and Rod all turned up with me to watch from the car park, alongside a few other surfers watching in disbelief as the swell got bigger and the wind turned westerly. Dave and Rod are fellow firefighters, Damo had to close his restruant just to get there. “I’m going out”, I said, “but I need back up”. The other three looked at each other, then back at me, and all knew that it was one in all in. So we suited up, much to the pleasure of the other surfers in the car park who now had some test dummies to see if it was surfable.
Out we paddled, into the rip in the corner which was like an escalator taking us out only inches from the rocks, scratching through the sets to make it out the back. Huge rolling lumps passed us in the deep water as if to mock and dare us to paddle in closer to the beach to catch one. Fear and excitement in each of the eyes I made contact with out there.
I can’t remember who got the first one, but there were hoots and hollers as one by one we all got our first wave, screaming down the steep takeoff to be threatened by the lip of a wave double overhead. Choosing the right wave amongst the monsters gave a long, amazing ride all the way toward the beach. I remember my first wave closing out at the end and me going over the falls. I was about 40m from the beach when I came off but the force of that wave, and the two that hit me before I could even take a breath, rolled me into the beach and spat me out as if to say, “get out!”. Back onto the escalator rip we went each time.
And so, as most surfers were travelling up and down the coast trying to find waves, we surfed a spot most didn’t think to check, or didn’t expect to be surfable. Most days they would be right, but not this day.
The swell peaked later that day and stayed sold until late Sunday, then dissipated, but for those few days many were calling it a 30 year swell. Many surfers have fond memories and legendary stories to tell of that weekend. The experience and comradery the few of us that surfed together that day had is the sort of thing you never forget – and we haven’t. Big Friday was our day, and we survived.
Adapted from a story I wrote for my mate Damian Barden’s daughter Cynthia, for a school project 2019