Thursday, April 10, 2008
When Sand City photographer and surfer Wayne Kelly arrived at Ghost Tree just after dawn on Dec. 4, he wasn’t impressed.
“The buoys indicated there was the potential for XXL-sized waves, but I was kind of skeptical because we hear all the time there’s a giant swell on its way,” Kelly says. “And when I got down there, sets were only in the 15 – to 20-foot range. I mean, big waves, but small for Ghost Tree.”
But Ghost Tree, the surfing community’s name for the wave that breaks into Pebble Beach’s Stillwater Cove, was just getting warmed up. Kelly hunkered down on the cliff with his camera alongside a growing crowd of spectators, among them longtime Ghost Tree photographer Bart Keagy, also from Monterey. Before long, the tow surfing teams began to arrive.
“By the afternoon there were probably 10 or 12 skis there,” Kelly says. “Around three or four o’clock it really jacked up. All of a sudden the waves started cloud breaking about a half-mile out. Some of them were closing out from the point all the way to the wash rock.”
As the swell built to 60 and then 70-plus feet, some of the best big-wave surfers in the world were in the water, among them Aptos’ Tyler Fox, who was teamed with Shane Dorian, and Encinitas’ Brad Gerlach, who was paired with Mike Parsons.
The stakes were high. Not only were conditions preposterously dangerous, but the Billabong XXL Awards were up for grabs. Held since 2001, the XXL Awards highlight the biggest and best rides of the year by the international surfing community.
According to XXL event director Bill Sharp, this year more than 500 photos and videos were submitted to Billabong’s nine-person committee, who then whittled the entries down to the best five entries in six categories: Ride of the Year (which earns $50,000), Biggest Wave ($15,000 and a Honda Aquatrax watercraft with HSA sled), Monster Paddle ($15,000), Monster Tube ($5,000), Overall Performance ($5,000) and Girl’s Best Performance ($5,000).
Since 2001, Ghost Tree has been a perennial contender in numerous XXL award categories. This year was no different. The two Monterey County photographers’ patience was about to pay off.
“I wasn’t planning on being there all day,” Kelly says. “But I ended up staying there from sun up to sun down.”
Late in the afternoon, Brad Gerlach, who won Ride of the Year in 2006, was towed into a monster. From their vantage point on the cliff, Kelly and Keagy reeled off numerous frames as Gerlach let go of the rope and dropped into the massive wall of kelp and sucking water.
As the light waned, Tyler Fox, an ’06 nominee for Ride of the Year, was towed into a wave that may have been bigger than Gerlach’s. Again, Kelly and Keagy captured Fox’s ride with their cameras.
Kelly and Keagy eventually submitted their photos to the XXL Awards and on March 21, Billabong announced that both Fox and Gerlach had been nominated in this year’s Biggest Wave category. The winners will be announced on Friday, April 11, at the Grove Theater in Anaheim.
While the winning surfer of the Biggest Wave award walks away with 15 large and a new tow rig, the winning photographer or videographer also wins $4,000 for capturing the ride on film.
That’s where things get a little murky. In addition to Kelly and Keagy’s shots, a handful of other professional photographers, including Mike Jones, Dave Nelson, Jason Murray and Sebastian Rojas submitted shots or video footage of the same rides.
According to Kelly, judging wave size has always been subjective, while choosing the best image of a ride is ultimately more a matter of opinion.
“The way I understand it, they use all of the images for judging,” Kelly says. “Then they go back and pick their favorite photo that portrays that ride.”
Many are calling 2007-2008 the greatest year in big-wave surfing history because of 12 months of startlingly large and clean conditions from Chile to South Africa (to Europe to Tahiti to Hawaii to California to Mexico).
Although the Ghost Tree shots are impressive, most believe that Mike Parsons’ Jan. 5 ride at Cortes Bank is the frontrunner for Biggest Wave. Early this year, Gerlach towed Parsons into a jaw-droppingly large wave at the Cortes Bank, a chain of underwater mountains in the Pacific Ocean, about 100 miles west of San Diego.
Regardless of who wins, many will not remember Dec. 4 for the size of the waves, but for its cost to the local surfing community. The dangerous conditions proved fatal for Monterey surfing icon Peter Davi.
“I’d known [Davi] since I was a kid,” Kelly says. “I always aspired to surf like he did. When I was young, he was my hero.”