Red Dog Down
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.
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
Before we go, howsabout a few videos of Red Dog?
Sublime at Puerto...
And sub-prime at Mavericks...