Red Dog Down

blindboy
Swellnet Dispatch

Imagine you are paddling into a wave. A big wave. A really big wave. Let's say 35ft face. You have ridden bigger waves in the past but probably not one as heavy as this.  Paddling out you watched sets pouring down the reef, pitching top to bottom and travelling like freight trains. A  minute earlier, further up the reef, a tow in surfer was whipped in at high speed and mowed down as if he was standing still.

The drop looms. Even in this grey, early morning light the reef far below is visible through the transparent tropical water. Now you are on your feet, perfectly balanced and poised for the long drop. You get to the bottom, but suddenly, as the wave draws on the reef, it isn't the bottom. A ridge appears below you and at the speed you are travelling it throws the nose up so sharply that it causes you to lurch forward and fall prone so you are body boarding a 10'0". Now you desperately want this to be a nightmare. You want to wake up in your hotel bed soaked in sweat...but you don't. This is real and now you are drifting, in what seems like slow motion, up the face of this monstrous wave and it feels...it feels like nothing so much as death.

Brent Symes, better known as Red Dog, has spent most of the last decade chasing large, perfect swells. Mavericks, Jaws, Nazare, Puerto Escondido and all the big wave spots in Chile. He's surfed them all and won Big Wave Award nominations in the process. Before that he spent a similar period living, working and chasing big waves on Oahu's North Shore. It was the money he earned working for Hans Hedemann at the Turtle Bay Surf School that he used to fund his first trips. These days he lives in Dee Why, surfs the point and uses the local bommies to try out his big wave boards. Big wave surfing is not exactly a lucrative pursuit, so he depends on his sponsors to fund his trips, people like Kim Burton at Burton Automotive, Phil Stammers from Head Sox and Tobias Smith from Zig Fins.

It is one of the oddities of surfing that while big wave surfing generates great interest amongst surfers and non-surfers alike, it generates very little income for the surfers putting their lives on the line. Nor is there any simple way of progressing on to the Big Wave Tour. It doesn't have any equivalent to the WQS and there no clear criteria for selection.

So when the recent Cloudbreak swell was forecast, Brent approached Kim Burton and Phil Stammers and they funded his trip. He arrived the night before and took a boat from Nadi Harbour early the next morning. Before they had even left the harbour the captain was pointing out waves breaking in the harbour where he had never seen them before. Half way out, noticing the lines of white water in the distance, he warned Brent that it was bigger than he had ever seen.

(Tim Bonython)
When they arrived at Cloudbreak, Brent watched as a series of waves, with perhaps 30-40ft faces, pour down the reef. It was like nothing he had ever seen before. Paddling out he saw Garrett McNamara get towed in and realised that it was much bigger and more powerful even than he had estimated from the boat. He then loaded the two CO2 canisters he had borrowed from Jamie Mitchell into his inflation vest. The airline had confiscated all his before he boarded the flight.

Sitting in the line up with a roll call of big wave surfing's elite, including Nathan Florence, Evan Valiere, Damien Hobgood, and Kelly Slater, he asked if anyone had paddled in and someone told him that Zac Haynes from WA had taken one further down the reef but had not made it out of the barrel. Anyone who has spent time in challenging conditions knows the equation. It's not "if" something bad will happen, it is only "when". So looking at the conditions, Brent began to wonder if he would even ride a wave that day. It was grey and rainy, and the sets were so large that just paddling over them blocked out the sky.

Zac Haynes (Tim Bonython)
Then a huge set came through, Brent thought about it, but Makua Rothman towed in further up the reef. He saw the second wave as a tow surfer began a run for it but quickly swerved away. Brent looked again, it was huge with a perfect wall. This was what he had come for. He felt a moment's doubt but committed anyway.

Everything was good. He got to his feet smoothly and was in perfect control as he dropped. Then he got to the bottom, hit that ridge and ended up body boarding his 10'0" gun up the face of a gigantic barrel on the heaviest wave he had ever ridden. Many surfers have found themselves in life threatening situations. Some died, some survived, but it's doubtful anyone has survived a situation quite like the one he found himself in....and that thought was in his mind. Death was not just a possibility, it was a probability. He pulled on the cord of his inflation vest to release the gas just before he was dragged over behind that huge lip. It didn't work. So the nightmare began.

Imagine your worst wipeout. The one that smashed you to the bottom with such venomous power that even now, years or decades later, you remember it. Now multiply it by five and you are still not close. The power of a wave goes up with its volume so it is not a linear relationship or even an exponential based on a square. The best approximation is to cube it, so a 20ft wave has 8 times the power of a 10ft wave. This puts Brent's wave so far beyond what most of us have experienced as to make comparisons pointless.   

Brent cannot find words to describe the violence of the impact that drove him through metres of water and into the reef so hard that, even though he took the worst of it on his knee, the glancing blow to his head was still enough to cause concussion. For a long time he was tumbled and twisted until he felt, as he put it, "completely violated". As the turbulence eased he felt himself drifting to what he thought was the surface but it wasn't. He had been caught in a down draught and pushed to the bottom again. He had now been underwater for about 35 seconds. After orienting himself he swam up to within a few metres of the surface but just before he reached it, another wave smashed him back to the bottom.   

Holding your breath following a good lung full of air, without exertion, in a comfortable position is one thing. Doing it after the serious exertion necessary to catch a big wave while your heart is racing with the excitement, then taking a thrashing against which your body automatically generates resistance is another. Throw in the confusion caused by a concussion and it becomes much more difficult.  

Brent was held on the bottom for so long that by the time he reached the surface he had been underwater for at least 50 seconds, yet his ordeal was far from over.  The third wave hit him in the face before he could get a breath. Now he really thought he was dead. As the wave held him down and dragged him further down the reef, everything was going black. As he finally came up, he heard a voice calling, "Jump on! Jump on!" It was Kai Borg of the Hawaiian Water Patrol. With another wave rolling towards them, Brent reached out for the sled but was too weak to pull himself on. Kai sped off and Brent went under two more waves before Kai reached him again.  This time Brent managed to drag himself onto the sled but when the ski accelerated he couldn't hold his grip and slipped off.  Kai called out, "I'm coming back once more and that's the last time I can come."

Another wave washed Brent even further down the reef but when Kai came back again he managed to get on the sled and hold on. As they reached calmer water Kai looked back at him. "You're purple dude and your eyes were rolling back in your head when I got to you. If I hadn't got you this time you were dead."   

Once he was on the boat, all the wounds from the reef impacts began to bleed until he was covered in blood. They organised a ski to run him into Nadi where he was checked out in hospital before flying home. He took a week out of the water and thought about how he might change his approach in the future. 

You can't keep a good dog down!

You can follow Brent on Instagram @reddaww

//blindboy

Before we go, howsabout a few videos of Red Dog?

Sublime at Puerto...

And sub-prime at Mavericks...

Comments

dewhurst's picture
dewhurst's picture
dewhurst commented Monday, 25 Jun 2018 at 10:19am

Heavy one!!

helmet-not-hose's picture
helmet-not-hose's picture
helmet-not-hose commented Monday, 25 Jun 2018 at 10:28am

How failsafe are those inflatable vests? That's the second time in a week i've heard a story about one not inflating. It's like a parachute that doesn't open.

daltz's picture
daltz's picture
daltz commented Monday, 25 Jun 2018 at 11:23am

Literally sends shivers down the spine.
Ironically, it would seem the wave that no-one suspects that is the killer, Malik or Foo for example. So many un-quantifiable variables in those situations.....So gnarly.

Rabbits68's picture
Rabbits68's picture
Rabbits68 commented Monday, 25 Jun 2018 at 11:51am

What a nightmare!

I suppose for these guys that constantly chase huge swells, no matter how prepared they are, eventually they will have a really heavy experience & sadly in some cases they will die. Massive reward v’s massive risk.

Crystal Clear

Tenn's picture
Tenn's picture
Tenn commented Monday, 25 Jun 2018 at 1:59pm

Should put things into perspective next time I'm in a 'heavy' situation

Zigfin's picture
Zigfin's picture
Zigfin commented Monday, 25 Jun 2018 at 2:01pm

Unreal article Thanks heaps for the shout-out , Reddog s one of the hardest charging big-wave riders on the planet !

quokka's picture
quokka's picture
quokka commented Monday, 25 Jun 2018 at 3:02pm

Sound like he was lucky to survive that little ordeal. I'll remember that when I next get 'flogged' at my local 4ft beachie...

the-spleen_2's picture
the-spleen_2's picture
the-spleen_2 commented Monday, 25 Jun 2018 at 3:04pm

How many lives do dogs get?

billie's picture
billie's picture
billie commented Monday, 25 Jun 2018 at 4:23pm

Sorry for the bum steer PurpleCat!

Billie

Lanky Dean's picture
Lanky Dean's picture
Lanky Dean commented Monday, 25 Jun 2018 at 4:23pm

Do they have footage of the wave . You are correct about there being little money available to Big Waver Riders.
It's a wild old world and when you surf big waves these are the consequences. I know full well myself .
Stay safe and Surf Smart.....I have a few friends who are not with us anymore from challenging themselves in big waves.

Really I don't think anyone should be overly reliant on the inflatable vests . Some waves you should just use foam flotation some waves you might not need them.
Too many cowboys out there on the hyped swells nowadays.....
A lot of people don't catch the first wave/s of the set either.....

Jamyardy's picture
Jamyardy's picture
Jamyardy commented Monday, 25 Jun 2018 at 11:15pm

Hey LD, I've used those foam flotation vests a few times, they work a treat, back up within seconds. Only downfall is when you get done, you're unable to dive deep to get under the following waves, hence you get pushed back a lot, but always back up on surface pretty quick. I was talking to a guy in the water recently who had an inflation vest on, he said you can manually blow up the vest, (in the event the canisters have already been used or did not work) not sure how you'd go doing that when getting ragdolled. cheers.

Lanky Dean's picture
Lanky Dean's picture
Lanky Dean commented Tuesday, 26 Jun 2018 at 1:44pm

Seems to me I would be saving my breath and swimming to the surface.
Three wave hold down ...geeze that's pretty tough!
Long period swell.... Waiting, waiting, waiting.

jaunkemps's picture
jaunkemps's picture
jaunkemps commented Monday, 25 Jun 2018 at 4:39pm

Hmmmm I can almost feel that, nasty stuff, lucky Kai came back, it's all good and well when your standing on the beach thinking oh how bad can it be, but after you get in a situation when you start gulping internally for air under water, thats spooky........Any pics from the boat that might put things in a little more perspective!

groovie's picture
groovie's picture
groovie commented Monday, 25 Jun 2018 at 7:34pm

Can relate to swimming for the surface but actually hitting the bottom after being cartwheeled and rag dolled underwater. This was on a 12ft+ day @ a wave that actually doesn't break anymore due to lack of sand flow. Can't relate to 35ft and being near deaths door several times in one wipe-out. Beyond the realm of my reality Red Dog!

zenagain's picture
zenagain's picture
zenagain commented Monday, 25 Jun 2018 at 7:46pm

Nasty- glad he's still with us to be able to share the story.

Watashi wa metabo oyagi desu.

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy commented Tuesday, 26 Jun 2018 at 9:53pm

I just want to add a thanks to Brent for sharing his story. A lot of people would have just erased this from their memory. It is great someone has the courage, not only to put themselves out on the edge, but to be willing to talk openly about the consequences.

Laurie McGinness

freeride76's picture
freeride76's picture
freeride76 commented Wednesday, 27 Jun 2018 at 6:47am

Is he back charging?

That would have to leave some mental scars.

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy commented Wednesday, 27 Jun 2018 at 7:17am

Nothing sizeable around here since he has been back, but he seemed to still be committed to the chase.

Laurie McGinness

innatube's picture
innatube's picture
innatube commented Wednesday, 27 Jun 2018 at 8:17am

So heavy.

XXXL wipeout of the year?

Fish Face's picture
Fish Face's picture
Fish Face commented Wednesday, 27 Jun 2018 at 10:01am

Well hard!

mredhill's picture
mredhill's picture
mredhill commented Wednesday, 27 Jun 2018 at 10:57am

PHEW! That's SO heavy. I need a Bex and good lie down.

Redrum

udo's picture
udo's picture
udo commented Wednesday, 27 Jun 2018 at 12:39pm

Jeez it was Red Dog Down at Cloud Nine a few years ago....well flogged and not by the Ocean either..

Mango Carafino's picture
Mango Carafino's picture
Mango Carafino commented Monday, 2 Jul 2018 at 4:41pm

Better than a story about drowning

goofyfoot's picture
goofyfoot's picture
goofyfoot commented Sunday, 1 Jul 2018 at 6:29pm

Interesting Mango.
Have you ever had the Spare Air tank move during a wipe out or lose it all together?
Also, did you ever use the Spare Air during your nocturnal wonderings around the Bounty nightclub in Bali when I used to run into you years ago? :-)