Pioneers of Big Wave Adaptive Surfing
by Joe Frazer & Sean Brody
Photos: Courtesy of Athletes
The piercing scream of the alarm brings the night silence to an abrupt halt at 2am, but only for a moment. You have been lying wide-eyed in anticipation of the alarm, of the morning, of the swell. This inhumane hour is reserved strictly for the crazies and the addicts, and you can’t help but snicker as you realize that you are one of them. Although you are not wandering aimlessly or craving drugs, some other unruly force compels you.
You’ve trained all year for this day. Surfed your local break at its biggest, put in the hours with your jetski driver, who you trust with your life. You’ve double and triple checked everything is ready so you can be on the water by daybreak. Now it’s time to perform.
As you approach the line-up, the waves sound like booming cannons being fired in the distance, with plumes of offshore winds lingering as ghosts of waves unridden. The taste of salt is heavy on the air as water collides with coast and the first of many knots begins to form in your stomach.
Again, you check your equipment before positioning yourself behind the jetski, no going back now. Within 15 minutes, your driver is signaling you as waves start to roll through. On the third one, you’re whipped in just as you had rehearsed and you find yourself giving Sir Isaac Newton a solid run for his money, fighting the laws of gravity as you bottom turn on an ominous 35-foot bomb. You set your line across this seemingly endless mountain, aiming for the safety of the channel, while being chased by a runaway train.
With adrenaline pumping, you catch your breath and head back out to position yourself for another. The sky darkens as a violent wall of water blankets the horizon, promising to reign terror on anything in its path. With your ass in the hot seat and your heart in your throat, you get the signal and turn around to face your assassin with a frantic, yet calculated determination. The thick, murky wave sucks up half the sea as you stare down the face of a liquid Everest, your existence literally hanging in the balance.
“Just like last time,” you wishfully reassure yourself, before being pitched with the lip as it unloads like Niagara Falls. You fill your lungs with as much air as possible before smacking the water’s surface like wet concrete. Hoping to escape the lion’s share of the wrath you take two solid strokes down, but just as you think you are deep enough to be in the clear you get sucked backwards into the belly of the beast. A thorough thrashing ensues. You start seeing stars as your lungs begin to spasm for the air they so desperately crave. You are under water for longer than you had ever prepared, your limbs are rattling in their sockets, and you are forced to surrender to pressures you’ve never known, eventually washing up through the boneyard of rocks everybody knows to avoid.
Now imagine enduring this experience, pushing the capabilities of the human body and living to tell about it, but without the use of your legs.
There is a unique breed of individuals, part watermen/part hellmen, who not only tolerate putting themselves in harms way by chasing unthinkable swells, they live for it. Amongst this narrow and elite crew of big wave surfers exists a microcosm of Big Wave Adaptive Surfers, utilizing extreme abilities in extreme conditions.
Professional adaptive surfer and Wheel Chair Motocross rider, Christiaan Bailey, did the impossible in 2008, becoming the first adaptive surfer to tow-in surf Mavericks, inspiring a whole community of adaptive athletes to Go Big.
After growing up in Santa Cruz and catching the eyes of some major brands by the early age of 11 in both surfing and skateboarding, Bailey was carving out a promising career in extreme sports. While being filmed at a local Santa Cruz skatepark in 2006, Bailey crashed, fracturing multiple vertebras and damaging his spinal cord, paralyzing him from the waist down.
Surfing and skateboarding are not just sports or hobbies to Bailey- they are a way of life- and he was quickly finding ways to get back to the level of performance that he craved.
“He wanted to ride hotshot boards, he wanted to ride a 6’6”. Nothing changed in his mind when he got injured,” reminisces Eric Roush, Bailey’s surfboard shaper.
With a newfound surfer/shaper relationship and an encouraging crew of friends, Bailey found himself on the boat at Mavericks just a year after his injury with one goal in mind, to surf the beast once again.
Training with long-time friend and surf partner Sean “Barney” Barron in the Santa Cruz Harbor, the biggest obstacle was figuring out the proper way to tow Bailey in without knocking him off the board.
“Since I can’t use my legs as shock absorbers, when you hit choppy waters the board wants to bounce you, so it requires a lot different weight distribution,” Bailey said. “More importantly, is an incredibly skilled driver on your ski, because I can’t sling the traditional way, he had to do a very quick snap sling to get me into it.”
Bailey’s dedication and determination inspired many, and even sparked a friendly rivalry when
fellow big wave aficionado, Bruno Hansen, was able to overtake him in their respective prone
division to become one of the first ISA World Adaptive Surfing Champions in San Diego, California in 2015.
Bruno Hansen, 45, is surfing’s Jacques Cousteau; he was born in Denmark, grew up in South Africa, and currently lives in a tree house in Bali, thriving on a lifetime of maritime adventure. After surviving a brutal car jacking, provoked in South Africa, Hansen was left without the use of his legs. However, with a life devoted to the sea, it was only a matter of time before he was back in the water and on a board. Hansen has been surfing and sailing around Bali, Indonesia for the last 12 years and continues to push boundaries in and out of the water.
Hansen has figured out how to continue riding a regular shortboard design by tying his legs to the board, emphasizing that his extensive knowledge of the ocean and brute strength are what he relies on when the waves get big.
“I was experimenting alone for years,” Hansen explained. “I’ve learned to swim deep and keep my eyes open looking for the pockets of cleaner water under the foam and try to swim between them. I have an extra-long paddleboard leash so I can be free of the board completely.”
Surfing Nusa Dua in Indonesia when it is 20 feet or bigger can have its consequences. “Nusa
has claimed it’s victims. It took me 10 years to learn the wave and be comfortable when it
gets big,” Hansen said. “I have found myself fighting for my life quite a few times alone out on a reef on a big day.”
Bailey and Hansen will be competing against one another once again at the second ISA World Adaptive Surfing Championship, December 8-11, 2016, in San Diego, California.
While Bailey and Hansen chase waves and break barriers in the prone position, athletes like Fellipe Lima from Brazil, are taking to big waves in a different craft, the waveski.
Lima is experimenting with the more upright approach to surfing big waves. After falling from a balcony and losing the use of his legs, Lima caught his first wave with a kayak. He tried the prone position, but found his preference to be the waveski, which became his new found passion, being lighter, faster and more maneuverable for the type of high-performance surfing he wanted to achieve.
Lima is a master of his craft, creating his own unique technique to flip over his waveski without having to unstrap from his equipment.
“I spent a long part of my learning process getting use to the roll, and doing breathing exercises, so I don’t lose the board and can get back out as fast as possible,” Lima said.
With the dream of one day surfing Jaws and plans to head to Hawaii in December 2016 and Indonesia in April 2017, Lima says big wave surfing comes naturally to him because his love for
adrenaline, “I just drop it and have big fun, now a days I am trying to break new ground and surf really big waves, training tow-in techniques with big wave riders Carlos Burle and Alemao de Maresias.”
Each decade, there are a handful of surfers pushing the progression of our beloved sport further into the realms of what was previously deemed impossible. From Greg Noll and Eddie Aikau cheating death by pioneering Waimea in the 50s and 60s, Laird Hamilton’s gravity defying displays at Teahopoo at the turn of the century, Shane Dorian’s outlandish paddle-in waves at Jaws, or Garrett McNamara’s recent cartoon-like heroics at Nazare, only a fistful of names will forever be associated with milestones in big wave surfing.
It’s time Christiaan Bailey, Bruno Hansen and Fellipe Lima join that list. By putting mind over matter and overcoming obstacles that most people would never think twice about, they laugh in the face of adversity, reject the notion of “impossible”, and charge serious waves of consequence at the crack of dawn with the rest of the crazies.
To continue reading Adaptive Surfing Magazine Vol. 1, click here.