There's a rat up the Ship's stern
In 1994, Tasmanian surf pioneer Mick Lawrence organised the first reconaissance mission into Shipstern Bluff. Here he recalls that trip, and the fallout that followed from the discovery of one of the world's great waves, when the promise of treasure brought out the best and worst in people.
For some the treasure was financial, while for others, including Andrew Campbell - who Lawrence calls the Edmund Hilary of Shipsterns - the wave offered an experience that transcended material wealth.
Dr Max Banks was head of the geology faculty at the University of Tasmania and I had contacted him in early 1994 to find out more about the origins of a spot I had visited several days before. As a reference, I produced a piece of pertrified wood that had been prised off a rock. I had gone there to survey it as a location for a television commerical I had been commissioned to make for a local financial institution. The brief for the commerical was to promote them as a worthy place to invest and the concept was to show a rock-solid location under siege from overpowering elements.
The Tasman Peninsula was one area that immediately came to mind. The coastline was predominantly sheer cliffs that were regularly bombarded by massive Southern Ocean swells and it was close by. All I had to do was find the perfect spot in terms of camera access and then wait for the elements to fall into pace.
Holding the piece of wood in his hands, Dr Banks took me back a mere blink in geological time and painted a picture of a large mountain and there, on a lower ledge, huge sand dunes had formed. They were on the bank of a large river that sliced through a broad plain and wound its way around Cape Raoul, where it entered the ocean via a waterfall east of Tasman Island. Near the end of that geolgical blink, the ocean rose and swallowed the river valley and the sand dunes were compressed to rock. Horizontal bedding now formed a reef at the base of a sheer cliff, a cliff by the name of Shipstern Bluff, the potential filming location.
I knew a guy called Johnno Rhodes who owned a property on the peninsula at a place called Stormlea and he knew the rugged coastline like the back of his hand, so I gave him a call. Once I gave him a rundown of what I was looking for he assured me he knew the perfect spot only a one-hour walk from his property. He offered to show me whenever I wanted.
Several weeks later a major swell arrived with a north-east wind - a rare combination, but perfect conditions to check Johnno's spot. His local residence was just up the road at at a place called Richardson's Beach. When I arrived he was babbling about how it would be perfect there and from his dining room window you could see why. Out in front of his house four foot waves were winding down the rocky point known as Inside, Inside Mays. The only reason they weren't smothered by hordes of frantic surfers was the onshore wind. Onshore here, but dead offshore at Johnno's penisnula spot. Our timing was impeccable. It was going to be all time he claimed and we headed off bursting with anticipation.
There were four of us in the car. Also along for the ride were a Kiwi surfing mate, David Guiney, and his brother, visiting from Wellington on holidays. David and I were close mates who had shared many surfing adventures in Indonesia and New Zealand, as well as here, where he had lived for some ten years. Although he had surfed the regular spots on the pensinula, our destination today was new territory for us all and though we may not have been going surfing, it sure felt like it.
Johnno's property was typical Tassie bush: massive forest, steep terrain and absolutely stunning views. The walk from his retreat to the coast took about an hour and followed a very basic road down the steep ridgelines until we reached a narrow coastal plain. The swell at Tunnel Bay was solid and wide apart, a true groundswell and the biggest since last winter. Waves were erupting off the short rock shelf and thundering into rock escarpements in spectacular form; and this was in a bay well protected from the direct assault of the ocean. We stood at the base of the steep hill that seperated us from our destination, adrenalin coursing through our veins in anticipation of the unknown, and we charged up the hill like kids heading to the beach for the very first time.
The top of the last hill led to a plateu that ran south towards the base of Mt Raoul, and off to the distance we coul see Cape Raoul with a huge swell exploding up the cliffs at regular intervals. Bathed in perspiration and amped to the max we covered the final kilometre in a sprint. At the edge of the cliff Johnno pointed out the local features and we stood in awe of the spectacular surroundings. As a local you often tend to become blasé about the sheer magnitude of the beauty in our homeland. This spot, however, allowed no such complacency. You would have to be brain dead to not be impressed by it.
Stretched out before us lay a natural aquatic ampitheatre, a bay sweeping from the bluff to our right and out to the cape, and towering overhead Mt Raoul dropping almost into the sheer bay. Halfway across the bay was a left-hand reef with waves whose size was impossible to guess since we had no scale. The sets were breaking well out to sea before smashing into the sheer cliff face and David and I started to babble as we began to assess whether the reef was surfable. Johnno brought us back to reality by heading off into the scrub shouting, "That's not it, the real wave is this way!"
We scrambled down the cliff face through the coastal scrub, then wound our way along the scree at the base of the cliff towering above us as thick, powerful, swell lines borne thousands of kilometres away charged down the shoreline heading for their final demise. We rounded the last kink in the shoreline and there it was - our very first sight of the place that would become known as Shipstern Bluff.
I've been back to Shipsterns many, many times since, but have never seen a swell to match that particular day. How big was it? Who knows? All I know is that it was massive, terrifying, and simply awesome. At the time I didnt even consider it a surf spot, probably because I was there for a different reason - to do my job. As far as I was concerned once my crew had woven their magic, the commercial was bound to be a big success. After almost two decades of producing films I knew a winner when I saw one. Before we left that day I hacked out a piece of petrified wood I found embedded in the cliff. I wanted to find out more about this place and thought my find would provide a key.
It was a long, slow walk back that day. Basking in the glow of discovery I was not in any particular hurry and I wanted to linger in the aura that the place had progressively wrapped around me throughout the day; besides my mate David was finding it hard going on his ankle.
A few years earlier, the physics of a speeding Honda Prelude meeting a stationary brick wall in Sandy Bay had left David with a badly shattered ankle and despite a frighteningly dogged determination, he had found to his utter disgust that reality had forced upon him a lifestyle change, whether he liked it or not. The accident was a turning point in his life and, although he was in a state of denial, as a close mate I sensed that underneath his cover it was eating away like a cancer. It was for this reason that I found David's endless conversation on that walk out somewhat confusing.
While my head was full of elation by discovering the perfect film location, David was babbling about the potential for Shipsterns to be a world-class surf spot. Not only was he going to conquer it, he was going to turn it into a money-making machine with one beneficiary in mind - himself. From my point of view I found his speculation misdirected. For a goofyfoot nearing forty with a busted ankle I wouldn't have thought the wave was ridable. As to making money out of it, I considered the idea repulsive. I had strong thoughts about the collision of surfing and business and, like the Honda and the brick wall, the results to date had a lot to answer for. David's outlook on money had always been different and although it had never troubled me before on this occassion I began to smell a rat!
We shot the commerical on the next big swell and although it was not as big as on that reccy trip, on the screen it exceeded the client's expectations and generated a lot of interest as to where this stunning place with such massive waves was. Having anticipated this, I had taken the precaution of reversing the waves shot in the edit, making it a Pipeline-like left, not the Waimea-like right it was.
Time moved on, as did the relationship between David and me as we drifted in different directions. In his case he became obsessed with Shipsterns and began to recruit whoever he could in order to convince them that the place was a legitimate surf spot. Slowly tales began to rumble on the grapevine about a new big wave spot that David had been surfing on his own for ten years. He even approached the state government to finance a world professional invitational event, but it never made first base.
It was via a surf movie by Justin Gane that the place became public knowledge. It featured a local surfer, Andrew Campbell, pulling into a huge wave called Fluffytonka. A media frenzy erupted with surf magazines, television crews, and the daily tabloids all clammering to discover where this place really was. The wreckage that followed was the biggest thing to hit Tasmania since the arrival of the malibu and the local debate became more physical than just angry words. In the charge to claim ownership of the place, punches were thrown, tyres slashed, lawsuits threatened, and relationships fractured.
The usually peaceful surf community was ripped apart as the claims and counterclaims bordered on utter madness. On one side David claimed he had been surfing it for years on his own - shattered ankle and all. It was his alone and he would determine who could and could not surf it. On the other side were young guys who simply wanted to give it a crack and found a rampaging Kiwi only too willing to crack their skulls if they even dared. In between was Andrew Campbell who had been surfing there countless times with David and couldn't understand what the fuss was about. All he wanted to do was share the wave with anyone who wanted to surf it. In all the times he had been there, he said, he had never seen David catch a wave.
Like all storms, this one passed and when things settled down, Shipsterns in particular and Tasmania in general became the focus of world attention that is still current. The only difference is that a new breed now controls the lineup. A breed who were but young kids floundering about in the shorebreak when the whole thing blew up. They proved me wrong, the place is certainly surfable and I sit back and watch them with awe and the level of respect they certainly deserve. If I was fifty years younger I may well be out there with them, but I'm glad I'm not.
It's interesting to listen to what the kids think about the history of the place. They just take it for granted, like all surf spots. They don't dwell on how it was discovered and who was or wasn't the first to surf it. Although some of the older crew know and fully respect Andrew Campbell, the younger ones dont know him or couldn't give a toss. They are more interested in right now, not back then.
// MICK LAWRENCE
Excerpt taken from 'Surfing On The Inside: Reflections of a Silver Grommet', published by 40South
All article photos by Craig Brokensha