Notes from an annual pilgrimage to King Island, south of southern Australia
By Sean Davey
I’ve been flying back to this rustic little island for 16 or 17 years now, so it is almost a second home for me. I'll typically fly in and bunk up with my long-time buddy, Wire, who’s a bit of legend round these parts.
In early March, Wire called me about some epic swell forecast to hit Martha, my favorite wave on the island. A bunch of low-pressure systems seemed to be forming south of Tasmania, throwing huge bands of wave energy towards the island, so I booked flights right away. Our late season in Hawaii had been so good this year that I hadn’t even got any surfers organized, but, what the heck, I was going anyway. Besides, before I left, Wire called again to say that Kelly had been in touch. Apparently he was planning a King Island R&R mission around the time of the Bells contest in Victoria.
King Island is about the size as Oahu, my real home, although any similarities end right there. For a start, on any given day Oahu has round about a million residents and another half-million visitors. When you drive away from the airport on King Island, you'll see a sign announcing a population of 2,000. In truth, it's more like 1,400 due to some decline in recent decades.
Over the years I have come to know so many people here that I'm a kind of de facto local. I always drop in to see Shannon at the Nautilus Cafe for a coffee. Then there's the iconic King Island Bakery across the road. Every visitor will eventually eat a couple of their epic meat pies – we’re talking lobster pies, Camembert pies, sometimes even wallaby pies. It's hard to walk past the place on a cold morning with an empty stomach.
This place is just what I need after several months of every Tom, Dick and Harry in the surfing world on my doorstep in Hawaii.
I’d only been there half a day, and we were already making our way up north to the fabled banks of Martha. It is a unique location, quite unlike anything I've ever seen. Imagine a beach that faces north but gets most of its swell from the south. "How so?" you're thinking. Well, the island is kind of elongated in a north to south direction allowing for south swells to sweep up both sides and refract back onto its north coast, where Martha happens to lie.
It takes a big pulse to make Martha bear fruit. Typically, you need a massive south to southwest swell to pound the west coast of the island, but even then, over the years I've seen plenty of good swells fail to produce results.
I was lucky enough to sample Martha's wares just once on my first two-week visit, and after that I saw that the weather always seemed worked in two-week cycles, and the good days were always just before or just after my stay. After missing too many primo Martha swells, I began extending my visits to three weeks in an attempt to beat the cycle.
But it’s never that simple. Martha swells also have a bad habit of coinciding with inconvenient tides. It doesn't like a high tide; the swell bounces back off the beach and creates weird backwash, so you’re aiming for low. Of course, big swells and low tides often seem to occur super early in the morning or last thing in the day, so usually we’re either hauling ass up to Martha in the dark, long before sunrise, to catch the back end of low tide or reluctantly driving away from epic barrels after sunset. Eighty-five percent of all my Martha sessions over the years have fallen into this torturous time frame.
This day was somehow different. We arrived around 9am to a barely believable sight. Golden sunshine bathed perfect glassy 4-5ft A-frames, with only a couple of surfers out. Meanwhile, the far end of the beach was shrouded in an odd, low-lying and very dark cloud – really strange lighting, but spectacularly beautiful to photograph.
Because I didn't have any pro surfers with me (yet), I was content to shoot lineups and waves, but I did notice one local getting some great waves, so I shot a few images of him as well. Turned out he was a ‘kelper’ named Ryan. He’d moved here a couple of years ago with his young family looking for a more relaxed way of life. I met him on the dunes after his surf and immediately struck up a conversation with him. The lucky bastard owns a house just a 10-minute drive from Martha, so he gets to surf here pretty much every time it happens. Apparently, on a big swell a couple of weeks before, Martha was the best it had been in years, and everyone was saying that because of the huge swell, the banks were now rooted. I gotta say, though – they looked pretty damn fine to me!
As is the routine around these parts, we stopped in and had a cup of tea with Ryan at his house before heading back to Currie. He and his wife have a young daughter and another kid on the way. So, I wondered, what exactly does he do to pay the bills? A kelper, he explained, is a guy who trolls the craggy shorelines looking for prime strands of freshly washed up bull kelp. They haul it onto their trucks, then take it down to a production facility in Currie, where it’s hung out to dry on racks. Once dried, it’s taken down and crushed into a fine mix, which is shipped around the world for use in various applications, mainly in food and medicine. King Island has a reputation for producing some of the finest kelp in the world.
I asked Ryan if he could pen a few words about "that beachbreak" near his house. This is what he wrote:
This spot is a unique wave. The local surfers who live here put up with weeks of onshore stormy weather relying on the right angle, swell size, wind, tide, and banks to do their thing all at once. It makes it even more of a special session when all the elements come together.
We’re probably lucky it’s so fickle – it makes it a bit of a gamble for outsiders, not to mention the cost of flights and accommodation, cars, etc. You easily could do a couple of weeks in Indo or NZ for less.
I love the raw, haunted look of the sand dunes melting back into the half-burnt-out scrub, to the feeling that if I don’t make this drop I may break my back or my board.
Negotiating the super-sucky drop to stand upright in the barrel and get spat out onto the shoulder – or sometimes if the swell has the right angle, you might be able to backdoor another two sections till you hit the sand – gives me many mixed emotions.
Some days there’s no one up here, and there are five or six perfect peaks from the beach to the point. Walking down the beach, seeing the sun playing tricks on the water and sand dunes, it can feel surreal and dream-like, making you feel pretty stoked on life.
The roads of King Island testify to the island's large wallaby population; numerous road-kills litter the way. But there's one area, about 10 miles north of Currie, where we spotted over a dozen of them within a mile. The numbers have become quite a problem. A large percentage of car accidents here involve wallabies. Accidents involving two or more vehicles are rare, due to the relatively small amount of traffic (if you can even call it that), but the wallaby problem has become so bad that the government is now looking into culling the population back to more manageable numbers. I actually met a guy at Martha who spends his nights counting wallabies under a spotlight. He gets paid something like $37 an hour to do it, and he’s free to spend his days chasing waves. Sounds like a pretty killer job, though of course it isn't a permanent gig. They have him counting wallabies so they can get a grip on what sort of numbers they’ll need to shoot.
We had two nights of incredible storm activity, with torrential rain, lightning and massive thunder claps. I even managed a couple of frames out of Wire's front window of an actual super cell passing right over the main street of Currie. It was amazing to witness the power of that storm! The speed at which that cloud raced over town was phenomenal. Very cool to see, throwing bolts everywhere as it passed over.
It got me thinking about this island in general, and it dawned on me that it really is all about the atmospherics here. Just about all the best photo sessions I’ve had here over the years have been during phenomenal lighting and weather situations. Living on the North Shore, I get to see a lot of cool atmospheric moments, too, but this is one place that I put ahead of Hawaii for amazing light. The air here has a super-clarity unlike anywhere else on earth, and nature here is so raw … no signs of man on most of the coastline … just you and the sea … the rocks and the plants … the clouds.
Of course, after the super-cell event, the weather got even more out of hand. We were checking a series of big storms passing through the Great Southern Ocean directly towards us here on the west edge of Bass Strait. One storm in particular attracted a lot of attention. The isobar charts pegged it as low as 920 millibars, which is extremely low. Hurricane-force winds were forecast for only the second time ever in these waters.
Later, Slater … Welcome to Paradisis
Kelly had missed the first A-frame session, but he was still amping for a visit to the island. King Island is a relatively short flight from the Bells Beach area, so it was a totally do-able scenario, if we could just get the conditions to co-operate. Wire told me that Kelly's initial plan was to go out and win his first round heat at Bells, then spend a couple of days on the island before resuming his 2009 campaign. We had him on standby for somewhere around the 25th or 26th, but right at the last minute, the winds turned bad again, so he called it off.
Not to worry, though. He went on to win at Bells, so we were stoked for him anyway.
We needed to kick Plan B into action, so I called my Tassy mate, Marti Paradisis. Marti has become quite well known lately for his heavy-wave charging at Shipsterns Bluff in Tasmania and a few newer spots, as well. He's managed to net several magazine covers and spreads and was nominated for a Billabong XXL award last year. He's the real deal, and, on top of his big-wave act, he's also a talented small-wave surfer with a hefty bag of aerial tricks.
Marti managed to make it just before the next big swell, although his boards didn't follow until a day later, which happens more often than not here. We were expecting another good swell the following morning, so the plan was to pick up the boards and make a beeline straight up to Martha.
The plane was a little late getting in, so we didn't make it up there till well after 10am. By then the tide was a little higher than ideal, but it didn't faze Marti at all. The swell was only in the 2-4ft range, but it still proved to be just the right tonic. He was just stoked to even be there, quite aside from the cobalt tubes.
Derek Hynd would also have been present for this session except that he saw a larger swell on the chart and thus elected to come a little later. For those who don't know about Derek, he pretty much ushered in the whole retro-surfboard thing when he picked up a crappy old twin-fin in an Op shop in Daytona Beach, Florida well over a decade ago. Tom Curren then "borrowed" the board from him and used it in 12-15ft waves in Indonesia, showing the world that big waves don't really need big boards. In fact, when asked why he was taking the board out in such big waves, he simply replied: "I've seen Mike Stewart haul himself over the edge of big waves on a 4’ piece of foam, so why can't I?” Of course, the rest is history.
Derek carried on his love affair with the fish for a long time, till one day when Wire showed him a video he’d shot of Jamie O’Brien riding a finless surfboard into 6ft pits at Backdoor. Always open-minded about such possibilities, Derek immediately pulled the fins out of his beloved "Cat-fish" and hasn't ridden a finned board since. It's been more than two years now, and he really does have this finless thing down now.
To watch, it looks kind of like a crossover between surfing and snowboarding, yet it's different still. It makes you think back to the days when windsurfers first came out and how strange it seemed to surfers. Of course, windsurfing got huge and has since spawned the newer sport of kite-surfing. I view Derek's fascination with finless surfing in a similar way. Finless surfing is still very much in its infancy, but to watch Derek on one of these boards, you just know that he's really onto something here.
After knowing him all these years, I'm pretty confident in telling you that Derek is happiest when he's breaking the mold – that is to say, pushing the limits of what we know as surfing. I don't think Derek expects the world to follow him and, frankly, I suspect he'd be bummed if it did. Derek seems to thrive on his own trip, just being a complete and utter individual. So often in the past, I'd see him with some absolute relic of a board, but he's just totally psyched to get it wet and see what he can milk out of it. Eventually, of course, one understands his genius, but not necessarily straightaway. Sometimes, it takes time … like a good wine.
When I attended his Musica Surfica finless event last year, I was a little perplexed at how it really connected to surfing in any comparable way, but with time, I’ve learned to view it as a radical spin-off of surfing as we know it. It was interesting to see how much he had progressed in the intervening year. North Swell Goose Chase
I woke up to the sound of hurricane-force winds beating the absolute hell out of the side of Wire's house. I'm lying there in bed, thinking to myself, "Okay, any second now I'll be watching all my shit flying down the main street of town … me, too, probably."
Yet another huge storm was churning its way towards us and looking more and more serious as the days passed and it got closer. Marti had already flown in from Hobart a few days before it arrived, but, frankly, I wasn't really counting on Derek making it because flying conditions looked horrendous. The wind was gusting to almost 90km per hour, but in Melbourne and Tasmania, it hit 180km per hour.
We’d heard a couple of reports about a rare north swell doing its thing on the east coast of the island, which is an area that doesn't get a lot of swell (thanks to Australia sitting just to its north), so we made a beeline over there to suss it out. There was indeed a swell hitting – but just a few feet, and pounded by a gale-force north wind. It was a matter of searching out areas protected from the wind. One spot, known as ‘the Blowhole’, offered nice protection, but the swell was just too small. Marti got his surf down in Narracoopa, but man, the wind-chill factor must have been off the hook that afternoon. I know that it was cold outside of the car, despite the wind coming from the north.
We'd all woken early with high expectations for an epic session at Martha, but the size of the waves was anyone's guess. You never really know till you get there. It may be 15ft and out of control at Currie and only a few feet but offshore at Martha. We were all expecting pretty damn good size, though, because the charts were off the hook, indicating a 20ft-plus swell. With just the right tides and currents this could equate to 6 or 8ft Martha.
We picked Derek up at the airport and raced north.
Arrival at Martha revealed a pretty exciting scene with waves coming from both the west and east, forming A-frame wedges up and down the beach. The wind was a little too strong, but it was predominantly offshore, so no one was complaining. Ryan and a couple of his buddies were already on it.
Marti had been eager to sample Martha's wares for a long time, so he wasted no time in getting into it. Derek, on the other hand, took his time. His first surf was on a new board that I'd never seen before. It had all kinds of weird curved channels in the bottom, complemented by a complex asymmetrical tail. He told me it was made for long, fast righthanders – no surprise since anyone who knows Derek will testify to his love of long righthand points. He scored a few decent waves on that first surf, but it was clear that the board wasn't too great in hollow waves. It tended to dig a bit on his bottom turns, sometimes sending him over the falls.
Derek took out one of his older boards for a second surf and found that it way more suited to the A-frames. He was on a mission. He had added up all his costs for the trip and determined he would need to ride at least 60 waves today, at a cost of about $10 a wave. By the end of the day, Derek had happily met his quota.
By 5pm, all manner of locals started showing up. Most of 'em actually have 9 to 5 jobs and will still make the hour drive north just to catch a half hour before-dark sesh, such is the quality of the surf at Martha. There were guys there from the cheese factory, some builders, a couple of guys from the local abattoir and, of course, Ryan the kelper and his buddy, the wallaby counter.
Soon after the sun had dipped below the horizon and everyone had sampled some excellent Martha's barrels, we had a big old King Island steak at the King Island Club for a bargain price of less than $20, washed that down with a coupla beers before heading home for lights-out nice and early – such is the case on any surf trip when it pumps all day.
Derek had to fly back out again the following morning, and Marti decided to follow suit and get back to Hobart, so suddenly I was surferless again, but not too concerned. I was happy just to hang out and search the lineups with Wire. Still plenty of swell prevailed, and we actually caught a couple of locations that I'd never seen before, despite this being my umpteenth trip to the island. Whenever Wire takes me to one of his "new" spots, I always rib him about not showing me earlier, and he always comes back with, "I can't show you everything mate, I've gotta keep a few secrets up my sleeve."
Our plan for next year is a cracker, but that's a whole other story, still waiting to happen.
Originally from Australia, Sean Davey is a veteran surf photography and a long-time resident of Oahu’s North Shore.