Editor and Photo Editor: Vaughan Blakey
Designer: Corbin Nash
Photographer: Brian Bielmann
Editor: Luke Kennedy
Art Director: Mat Macready
Photo Editor: Ben Bugden
Photographer: Brian Bielmann
Surf photography has come a long way since you chased down your first big wave on a boogie board. Tell us about the changes and how it’s changed you.
You were on your own out there. I had a canon all manual camera, which meant you actually had to set exposure yourself; more importantly you had to focus, and you had 36 photos on your roll of film.
I remember paddling out next to another photographer Denjiro Sato of Japan, we made it through the shore break and were almost out to the lineup when one of the surfers wiped out and his board came flying out of control right towards us and hit Sato. I can’t remember where, but he got cut by the surfers fins on his board. After that, Denjiro was done and had to paddle back in.
Think about it, after all the effort to get out and then BAM! you’re on your way back to the beach. I remember trying to make every shot count, but that roll of film went in about an hour. I had stayed to watch the rest of the event, mainly because we were terrified to have to get back in through the shore break. The whole time out there, you were just dreading knowing that you would have to get back through that, sometimes if you didn’t time it right, you would not make it in.
You see, the current would suck you down to the far left inside on the other side of the bay, to the rocks, known as “jump rock” because in the summer, when the surf is flat, everyone jumps off the rocks, but in the winter, it’s the spot you don’t want to get caught in. So you swim your ass off to get back out and as far away from that are as you can, so you would have to paddle back out to the lineup and start swimming in on the right side all over. It could take hours to get in, NIGHTMARE. Fast forward to today, you have jet skis to get you in the lineup, an all-automatic everything camera and it has 2000 photos, not to mention a ski ride back in straight to the beach. It’s actually awesome. Honestly, I would never go back out there if I had to do all that again. That said, compared to how we had it, now all those concerns are gone. The other big difference is all the technology, the limits are being pushed big time. If it was 10 years ago, the Eddie would never have run at this size. One of those closeout sets would have come through and taken everyone out: surfers, photographers, everyone back to the beach and they would have said too big, it’s over. But with the incredible Hawaiian Water Patrol with their skis, the surfers can push their limits. The surfers are the stars; so badass. the ski drivers the rescue team. I think it has to be the most dangerous contest in the sporting world. Just crazy.
Certainly you’ve been in some life threatening situations, now that you’re a seasoned pro, how are your choices different? What gives you pause?
Well, I’m 58 years old, at Pipeline there are about 30-40 photographers out there for each swell. Since there are not many magazines these days and very limited space for photos, it’s mostly the internet that showcases the work. Most of those photographers careers will begin and end with instagram. I consider things differently now. How long do I want to be out there?how is it breaking? I look at the conditions and decide, if I’m going to swim my ass off through nine waves to shoot one. To me, that’s not worth it. I wait till the days when conditions are good, and the percentage rate is going to be worthwhile; only then I go. I end up looking like I’m out there all the time because I pick the best days! I’m not one of the top dogs out there anymore. There are guys who that’s all they do is shoot out there constantly; I pick the right days and get some gems and that’s good enough for me. Just never imagined at 58 I would still be swimming out at Pipe. It’s funny, there are very, very few guys still out there who were out there when I started, for the most part it’s all the young guns.
Brain and Craig trying to out run the wall of water. Photo by Clark Little
Chasing down this wall of water was the biggest wave you’ve out-run, tell us about that day at “The Eddie.”
Thank God I did not turn around to look at that wave, when I saw the picture I think I said a prayer right then thanking God for keeping me safe. I was nervous the few days leading up to the event knowing I was going to be out on a ski; everyone was saying it might be too big to actually run the event. This meant if it went, it was going to be the biggest Eddie that had ever gone.
I had actually never been out in the water during clean up sets on a big swell before at Waimea Bay. A clean up set is when the waves close out across the entire Bay and there is literally no escape. I’d been out before when it was really big but never this big, so yeah I was nervous. The morning of the event as the sun came up, we could see a lot of closeouts, tensions were high amongst the competitors, jet drivers. It turned out that there were too many photographers that were supposed to be out there and not enough skis. (I actually contemplated taking myself out of the equation and shooting from the point.) The Director of the event, Glen Moncata said, “You shoot whatever you want, you don’t have to go out there.” I don’t know what it was; but something came over me and I ran for my truck, quickly put on my wetsuit, flotation vest, put my camera in my waterhousing, grabbed my fins and ran for the beach. The skis were being put in the water so I hustled down to the corner and waited for the lull with another photographer, Zak Noyle. As soon as there was a small break in the sets, we jumped in the water and swam quickly to the waiting jet ski, jumped on the boogie connected to the ski; as he hauled ass through the surf before we got caught by a set, we were out in no time, thank God.
Had you been with the driver before?
No first time with the driver, Craig Anderson, he goes by the instagram name of @MakahaCraiger. We probably met but never really talked before, but didn’t take long to bond. When you’re on a ski and you’re going over 20 footers, and they are the small ones, you realize instantly that the driver is the guy who is gonna save your life. You get intimate very quick. Hearing the water patrol on the beach, Mel Puu starts yelling on the radio to all the water patrol in the water, (8 skis probably, all on the same frequency), “There’s a closeout set, it’s big guys, get moving now! Get everyone out fast! This one is really big! Go! Go! Go!”
I had a strap on the back of the ski that had been ripped, so it was loosely tied and had a lot of play, kind of like the reins of a horse, so it was hard holding on with one hand and my other hand holding a big camera in a water housing. We start heading for the horizon, and when we can see the sets, they are huge mountains of water moving at us and we start heading for the shoulder as fast as we can we are riding sideways on this beast waiting for a place on the wave that’s not already feathering. (this is when the wave is already breaking and there is already whitewater at the top of the wave and there is nowhere to get over as it’s really hard for the skis to get over the wave when there is whitewater at the top) so we continue going full on as far as we can till we are on the far side of the bay, we can’t get over this thing.
” Hold on!” Craig yells, “We gotta ride it in!” We turn at the top of the wave and actually ride this thing all the way to the bottom going as fast as the ski will go. We’re bouncing like hell and Craig is yelling “Hold on! Don’t let go!” I’m holding tight with my arm on the strap, trying to hold on through the bumps and bouncing off the seat, I’ve got my legs as tight on the ski as I can, not even sure how long it took us to get in but I could hear the wave breaking right behind us like a waterfall.
We barely stayed in front of it, just a mountain of whitewater that could overtake us at any moment, about half-way in Craig yells to me, “You may have to jump!” I’m gonna do whatever he tells me, I pause for a second, yell back, “Just tell me when!”
I have no idea what this means, I’m just following orders and hope I survive.
I’m waiting for the word to jump and then a little farther in and he yells, “Wait! Hold On! I think we might make it!”
We literally get 30 feet from the beach and he swings the Ski around hard and we blast right thru a huge shore break wave, we barely make it through, I manage to hold on to the ski strap, but fall backwards off the seat; still holding the strap I manage to pull myself back up, just in time to go through a second one, and the exact same thing: Blast through, fall off but holding the strap and again pulled myself up, and we gun the damn thing side to side getting around the wave on either side, finally we are back outside and realize we made it.
We both start screaming. “We made it! Shit! we made it! AHHHHHHH!!!! Screaming at the top of our lungs, “that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever done my whole life!” I yell. He yells back,”Yes! That was definitely one of the craziest things I have ever done!”
I’m thinking: Wait, Craig’s a water patrol jet ski driver in Hawaii, and he’s a Hollywood stunt man and he’s says this was one of the craziest things he’s ever done. Shit. Thank you God!
We had around 20 more waves come through, almost as big as this and we had to run alongside of, but we were able to find an exit each time. I was out for 3 heats of surfers, almost 1/2 of the contest and we got a call that I had to come in, as there weren’t enough skis and I had to let another photographer have a turn. The jet ski brought me in and I was on the beach, I seriously wanted to kiss the shore.
There were thousands of people lined up as I walked back towards the stands and some of them started applauding me and whistling, one guy came up and took my photo with him.
It’s funny, I think they thought we were all fearless out there but we were not, we had plenty of fear, we just pushed through it and went out there. I got back through this sea of people and was under the shower when I heard the announcer say, look all the skis are coming in being chased by another huge wave, but this time they made sure they were farther in front of the wall of water, and they had no escape on the inside as we did on our wave.
They had to ride the skis right up on to the beach. I looked out and saw how big the sets were and I immediately thought, “What the hell was I doing out there?” and my next thought was “I’m so happy they told me to come in 5 minutes before that set, I did not want to go through that again.”
It was time to finish shooting the second half of the contest from the point. The nice safe point, the closest spot to the waves you could get, and not a drop of water on me.
How does a surf shot land on L’Uomo Vogue?
Yes , I’ve got a photo on the cover of L’Uomo Vogue magazine right next to Bruce Weber. It’s a shot of John John Florence from a ski in the water during the Quiksilver Eddie Aikau Contest. I’m so stoked! Bruce has been my hero for years as far as a fashion photographer goes, my favorite; and Herbie Fletcher has some shots in there, Dibi Fletcher wrote the story. It’s about The Best Surfer in the World! doesn’t get any better than that for me. I think I can claim to be the only surf photographer with a shot on the cover of Vogue, it’s a shared cover with Bruce and that’s what makes it awesome! I was on the phone with him while I was shooting the shore break and when I hung up I was so excited to tell everyone, “I was just on the phone with Bruce Weber!” none of the surf photographers knew who he is, luckily Buzzy Kerbox was there, and he is good friends with Bruce. Bruce started Buzzy’s career back in the 80s with his Ralph Lauren Campaign.