Jeff Rowley rides Jaws for the Billabong XXL Ride of the Year, January 2012 (1)
“Like trying to catch and ride a Tyrannosaurus Rex with your bare hands – the best thrill, but you’re so glad to be alive!” That’s how big wave surfer Jeff Rowley describes paddling into and trying to ride a gigantic wave at the legendary “Jaws” Peahi reef break, off the island of Maui, Hawaii.
Jeff Rowley rides Jaws for the Billabong XXL Ride of the Year, January 2012 (2)
Rowley's analogy of a T-Rex rodeo could very well apply to big wave surfing in general. In this extreme form of an already pretty intense sport, the surfers take on waves that would have the rest of us scurrying off the beach at the mere sight of them. Take the 50-foot monster Rowley recently surfed at Jaws, earning him a place on the Big Wave World Tour for 2012.
Jeff Rowley rides Jaws for the Billabong XXL Ride of the Year, January 2012 (3)
On January 4, 2012, eschewing a jet ski to tow him out to sea, Rowley became the first Australian surfer to paddle into and catch the colossal waves at Jaws – something he describes as one of his biggest life achievements. “Surfing Jaws was my Everest,” Rowley tells us. “I spent the last 18 months with laser beam focus on preparation and training for surfing Jaws, so overcoming my fears to paddle into the wave was fulfilling my dream."
Jeff Rowley rides Jaws for the Billabong XXL Ride of the Year, January 2012 (4)
For the benefit of those who’ve never attempted to take off on a vertical freefall down the face of a giant wall of water traveling at 50 kilometers an hour, here’s how Rowley describes the experience: “I was going to catch that wave no matter what happened,” he says of taking on Jaws. “It was massive and I was in the right position and it was my time to go for it. I stood up and the wind hit me and tried to rip my board from under my feet as I started freefalling. I couldn’t see a thing but I pushed down as hard as I could and made the ride.”
Jeff Rowley rides Jaws for the Billabong XXL Ride of the Year, January 2012 (5)
When Rowley went into the ocean that day, he wasn’t just looking for any wave, and he wasn’t just doing it for his own adrenalin rush. His goal was to catch a 50-foot wave as part of a push to raise $1,000,000 for Breast Cancer Australia, through his foundation Charge for Charity. “If women can fight cancer, then I can conquer my fears to catch a 50-foot wave,” he has said. “It is my way of giving back to others, whilst living my dreams.”
Jeff Rowley rides Jaws for the Billabong XXL Ride of the Year, January 2012 (6)
As for winning a place on the Big Wave World Tour, Rowley says this of the honor: “The best big wave surfers in the world compete on the Big Wave World Tour and this competition showcases some of the best big waves in the world. I have been surfing big waves since I was about 17, so I’m really grateful to be invited to surf on the [tour] this year, the pinnacle of competition for big wave surfers.”
Here's a video showing Rowley's historic paddle-in to surf the giants of Jaws amidst howling winds. A few weeks after that record-breaking ride, Rowley chalked up another achievement at Jaws, placing 4th in the world in the Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards in the Ride of the Year category for another wave he caught at the formidable surfing location.
“For the big wave I caught at Jaws on January 30, I knew I was in exactly the right position the moment I saw it,” says Rowley. “I didn't want to waste any energy paddling; I was under it and it was going to eat me if I didn't make it.”
Jeff Rowley rides Albatross, off Victoria, Australia, July 2012 (1)
One of Rowley’s other entries for the Big Wave Awards 2012 was his solo paddle into a reef break known as “Albatross” off the coast of Victoria, Australia. At the time a phenomenon now known as the “Australian Winter Superswell” had struck the coastline, throwing up waves well over 45 feet high. Rowley had previously made history at the same spot by surfing an enormous 50-foot wave in 2011. Now, in July 2012, he was doing it again.
On this latest occasion, paddling in the conditions Rowley faced was seen as dangerous; in fact, the day was deemed ‘unsurfable’. Yet, alone in the sea, Rowley paddled out the two kilometers into Albatross – named after the giant birds there that sometimes swoop down on surfers. “I’ve been waiting months for the Southern Ocean to come alive. This might prove to be the Swell of the Year,” he said at the time.
Jeff Rowley rides Albatross, off Victoria, Australia, July 2012 (2)
Getting out to the waves at Albatross was a challenge in itself. Rowley had to jump off a cliff into frothing whitewater and swim against a fierce rip current just to reach his target. “It’s a total adventure,” he says. We’ll take his word for it.
The thought of swimming out to these gigantic waves and then getting up on a board to ride them seems pretty terrifying to us; but as Rowley says: “For any surfer, fear is always present, but you have to refuse to focus on it. You have to leave it behind and focus on what you can achieve. If you hold back the result is certain, but if you give 150% who knows what may come.”
Jeff Rowley rides Albatross, off Victoria, Australia, July 2012 (3)
“Albatross is a challenging wave. You’re so far out to sea and there is nothing to line up on or get your bearings – just the waves,” Rowley said of surfing the Victoria reef break in July 2012. “It took me over two hours to catch my first wave, but it was well worth the wait – that was the wave of my winter so far.”
Jeff Rowley rides Albatross, off Victoria, Australia, July 2012 (4)
Rowley came to surfing young; in fact, it almost seems to have been inevitable that the sport would become such a big part of his life. “I started surfing when I was 6 years old,” he told us. “My parents owned a surf shop in Anglesea, Victoria, Australia, and my dad was a surfboard shaper, so I pretty much grew up on the floor of my dad’s shaping bay. From about 6 years of age I was on my own surfboard, but before that I was riding boogie boards in the tiny little shore break near home.”
Jeff Rowley rides Albatross, off Victoria, Australia, July 2012 (5)
In a way, then, Albatross is on home ground for Rowley, who was big wave surfing in Victoria before his eighteenth birthday arrived. “I first started surfing big waves when I was about 17 years of age and I was really launched into that on the southern coast of Australia, just off Victoria,” he explains. “There’s a lot of reef breaks there and they catch a lot of the winter swells in really cold water, and they’re super isolated. There’s no one around, there’s a lot of cliffs, and most of the time it was just myself, or myself and one other friend.” Talk about going in at the deep end!
Riding big waves is in many ways a solo sport – especially given that paddle-in surfers like Rowley push the boundaries by not being towed in by jet skis. And yet Rowley says there are a lot of people he has to depend on just to get into the ocean. As he explains: “It’s definitely just yourself out there in the water and it’s just you that has to turn around and catch the wave, but back on land you actually need the support of a whole team of people – your family, partner, friends, photographers, surfboard shapers.”
Jeff Rowley surfs the Mavericks left-hander, California, March 2012 (1)
In yet another world first, in March 2012 Rowley became the first Australian to paddle into the left-hander at Mavericks, California – one of the world’s most famous big wave surf spots. A left-hander wave is one that breaks from the right to the left, from the surfer’s perspective, and the left-handers at Mavericks are notorious for being heavy and unpredictable.
But that’s not all, as Jeff explained at the time: “The water is so cold and the waves are so powerful, one mistake and the wave eats you for breakfast, and next thing you know, you're washing in towards the rocks". What’s more, the take-off from the wave was a risky maneuver – “a vertical free fall into a nasty slab barrel.” And, as Jeff recalled: “I wiped out on a monster wave and tumbled down. It drained all of my energy and I didn't know which way was up."
Jeff Rowley surfs the Mavericks left-hander, California, March 2012 (2)
Rowley also revealed something of the bigger picture of big wave surfing for us: “There is a lot more to riding really big waves,” he says. “You can’t just go out – you have to be familiar with the location, friends helping you, resources towards travel and filming, and most importantly, commitment.”
And it’s not just catching the wave that tests the big wave riders out in the ocean. “Paddling in is the ultimate challenge,” Rowley explains. “It's man vs. Ocean – actually it's man vs. himself. You have to constantly make decisions that will impact on what happens next.”
Jeff Rowley surfs the Mavericks left-hander, California, March 2012 (3)
Rowley also elaborated on some of the behind-the-scenes practicalities of being a big wave surfer. “When you watch big wave surfing, it might look like we just turn up and catch these amazing waves, but there is a lot more that goes into it, like the logistics of getting there and making it happen,” he says. “It’s a challenge to be there at the right place at the right time, and there’s always the opportunity cost of going to one location over another.”
Jeff Rowley surfs the Mavericks left-hander, California, March 2012 (4)
In view of all the amazing waves Rowley has ridden in his time, we asked him if any stood out in particular. “Every time I get the chance to surf really big waves it's one of the best experiences, and those moments are burnt into my memory forever,” he replied.
“However,” he added, “the one surfing experience that means the most to me, was paddling into Jaws on January 30, 2012. It was just myself, [big wave surfers] Greg Long and Albee Layer, and just a few friends in the water, and there were really the perfect waves. We had to push ourselves as hard as we could in that historic paddle-in session.”
Jeff Rowley surfs the Mavericks left-hander, California, March 2012 (1b)
To those who are thinking of tackling big waves like these for themselves, Rowley has this message: “My advice for youngsters who want to take up big wave surfing is that the most important thing is to have belief in yourself. You have to know that you really want to do it. Once you know you want to surf big waves, you have to train, prepare and get the equipment, and then hunt down the waves. It takes a ‘go for it’ mentality, giving it 150%.” Sounds like good advice for anything in life.
Jeff Rowley surfs the Mavericks left-hander, California, March 2012 (2b)
Right now, Jeff Rowley is in Australia waiting for the call to fly to Pico Alto for the Big Wave World Tour Event that’s going to be held there. “I’m looking forward to competing with some of the best big wave surfers in the world at some exciting big wave destinations,” says Rowley. “Usually I free surf with all these guys at various locations throughout the world, so the opportunity to compete with everyone formally is going to be really fun.”
Jeff Rowley rides the Cloudbreak Superswell, June 2012
We thank Jeff Rowley and photographer and videographer Minnie Vuong for sharing his big wave riding experiences with us, and we wish him the best of luck!
You can watch more videos of Rowley’s amazing big wave rides here.