Some waves are just not meant to be ridden
September 15, 2017 9:57 AM   Subscribe

A slab, in surfer jargon, is a nearly unsurfable wave that occurs when a swell moves abruptly from deep water across a shallow reef or rock. The result is a fast-moving, immensely powerful tube that breaks below sea level, with a lip that's sometimes 10-foot-thick or more. When a swell is big enough, slabs produce waves that defy imagination, beautiful monsters capable of flinging surfers like toy dolls in a hurricane.

Bodyboarders have been surfing slabs for decades. Since they don’t stand up it’s easier for them to make it down the face of a shallow, high-speed wave. Big wave stand-up slab surfing was relatively unknown until the early 2000s when photos emerged of surfers riding terrifying, previously unimaginable waves in Tahiti (“oh my god...”) and Australia. The word "slab" entered the surfing mainstream and the hunt was on for waves once considered unridable. Since then slabs have been discovered and surfed all over the world: Oregon, Portugal, New England, Brazil, Ireland and more.

But only a few slabs are ridable when waves get truly massive. Two of the best are in Australia: Shipstearn Bluff and The Right.

Shipstern Bluff sits on the southeastern coast of Tasmania in the shadow of a towering cliff. It's been called "a ragged claw-like monster" and the wave "that nightmares are made of." Not only is it one of the biggest slabs on the planet, the shape of the rock ledge it breaks on creates mind-boggling steps and ledges on the wave-face. Sometimes it's not so much surfing as falling down four flights of stairs. Located about half a kilometer off the coast of Western Australia, The Right was first surfed in 2007. Known for its sharkiness and deep-water hold-downs, The Right has become a Mecca for slab surfers, attracting up to 30 tow teams at a time when the conditions are good. While most big wave slab wipeout reels look like snuff films, surfers usually walk away with minor injuries at most when they fall. Physical conditioning and safety vests designed for big-wave surfing play a big role in keeping them alive. The jetski drivers that tow surfers into slabs also function as a rescue patrol, zipping into the swirling whitewater to pluck the fallen to safety.

Deaths are rare, but they do occur. Five people have been killed at Teahupoo alone since 2000. Then there are the two-wave hold-downs, underwater blackouts, head injuries, broken necks and backs, and other horrific injuries. Mark Mathews, who helped pioneer Shipstern and is known as one of the best slab riders in the world, nearly lost a leg [graphic photo] (and ended his professional surfing career) last year after he slammed feet-first into a reef after falling on a relatively small wave. (For more on big wave surfing fatalities, read Surfer's Journal's Death Trip: Surfers are riding unthinkably dangerous waves. Why aren’t more of us dying?)

Despite the risks, slab hunting is now a indelible part of modern surfing, with new, even more insane breaks discovered and surfed on a regular basis -- each one pushing the definition of "unridable" further out. "Surfing always has these periods of dormancy, and periods of quantum change," says Steve Pezman, publisher of Surfer's Journal. "Slabs have opened a whole new realm of waves. That's driven a really, drug-like, addictive exploration."

Slabs previously: Teahupo'o... ohhh... whooooah!, Biggest Teahupo'o EVER, Teahupo'o Code Red
posted by not_the_water (31 comments total) 85 users marked this as a favorite
You *say* you're "not_the_water" but then you make a post like this, and I dunno.....

This is excellent. Thank you. I love surfing posts and this is awesome.
posted by rtha at 10:06 AM on September 15, 2017 [6 favorites]

obvs a shill for Big Water
posted by supermedusa at 10:13 AM on September 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

Not only is it one of the biggest slabs on the planet, the shape of the rock ledge it breaks on creates mind-boggling steps and ledges on the wave-face.

posted by rtha at 10:14 AM on September 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

Excellent post! I don't surf, but I can appreciate the risks involved. And TIL about slab waves for the first time.
posted by mosk at 10:27 AM on September 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

First, the topic was interesting and thanks for broadening my horizon, not_the_water.

Second, GREAT JOB on keying all the videos to the moment where the action starts, rather than the crap first 5-50 seconds of uselessness.

Can we appoint you video czar, please?
posted by aureliobuendia at 10:37 AM on September 15, 2017 [13 favorites]

This is amazing. Thanks for all the links!

This reminds me a bit of action movies where the hero walks away from a car or building or whatever that then explodes behind them and they coolly adjust their cufflinks.

Same thing with these. They barely skate through the pipe and in the background literally tons of water is slamming down and it looks like the goddamn ending of the world.
posted by Phreesh at 10:48 AM on September 15, 2017

I'm not a surfer, but I've done a lot of skateboarding in my time, and those clips of hopping the kinks are nuts. The gaps in their wakes says "oh shit" in my mind.
posted by rhizome at 10:50 AM on September 15, 2017

That Shipstern wave is just wrong. Waves should not have stairs in them.
posted by rtha at 11:09 AM on September 15, 2017 [5 favorites]

Looking at that "hurricane" link, there isn't a human that could actually ride that particular "wave", right?
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 11:10 AM on September 15, 2017

Such ugly music. Such beautiful waves.
posted by Modest House at 11:16 AM on September 15, 2017

The Great Wave of Kawabunga!
posted by ardgedee at 11:31 AM on September 15, 2017

This water is staggeringly, beautiful!
posted by Oyéah at 11:32 AM on September 15, 2017

"Heck no, I'm not going to ride that slab. I'm going to ride the child wave that breaks within the tube!"
posted by rhizome at 11:44 AM on September 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Gods have relocated to Shipstern's Bluff.
posted by Oyéah at 11:49 AM on September 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm only about halfway through the collection of links but I am loving this. I have never had the coordination or courage for sports like surfing, but I love to watch surfers. And I love to watch the ocean when it gets big (I'm a big fan of youtube videos taken from boats in the North Sea). So this is sweet for me.

Watching the "mind-boggling steps and ledges" link, I had a moment when my sense of scale went out the window and the surfer suddenly looked like a little toy to me on the wave.

I am currently reading a wonderful book called How to Read Water: Clues and Patterns from Puddles to the Sea, by Tristan Gooley, and it talks, among many things, about how waves are formed. It's fascinating if you want to understand the movements of water at any level, and Gooley writes in a very readable way.
posted by Orlop at 11:51 AM on September 15, 2017 [10 favorites]

If you like this post, may I recommend The Wave:In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean by Susan Casey. It's a gripping read about both waves in general and big wave surfers.
posted by spindrifter at 11:52 AM on September 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

Orlop that book looks fascinating!
posted by not_the_water at 12:52 PM on September 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

As someone who has a deep-water phobia, and who was plagued by nightmares about tidal waves as a child, I just about had a panic attack while reading the Stab magazine article (well, a bit of it). I only wanted to know what a "deep-water hold-down" is, and on second thought, NO I DON'T.
posted by scratch at 12:53 PM on September 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm like %90 this is what one of the heavens looks like
posted by FirstMateKate at 12:53 PM on September 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

great post though
posted by scratch at 12:53 PM on September 15, 2017

Jesus Christ.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 1:41 PM on September 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

This an amazing post and I can't wait to get home to go through all the links!
posted by ezust at 2:30 PM on September 15, 2017

That looks utterly bananas. I occasionally read a surfing book (Barbarian Days, Kook, etc.) and am tempted to take a trip down to Malibu and try it, but I think these guys are the equivalent of test pilots who don't know if the rocket's going to blow them up or send them to the moon. I abstractly respect that kind of dedication to risking one's own neck for the adrenaline high, but I certainly wouldn't sign on for it.
posted by tautological at 5:30 PM on September 15, 2017

Thank you, I have just spent my entire day learning about big surf, something which I have no earthly use for.

Awesome post.
posted by SLC Mom at 6:38 PM on September 15, 2017

I wonder if this sort of "slab" wave is what got Guy on Terrace House? We don't actually see his wipeout on the show, but the way he describes it, and the results (it REALLY messed him up, more than you'd expect a professional surfer to just suddenly be messed up by a fall during a practice) make it sound like this is what might have happened.

I can especially imagine it, since he talks about how he was kind of desperate for a wave - it was crowded with locals who were "senior" to him, so he had to wait a long time at one point. I'm guessing he just grabbed the wave that was available, and didn't give a lot of thought to it being dangerous until it took him out.
posted by gloriouslyincandescent at 7:33 PM on September 15, 2017

For those who have just discovered a love of watching people surf down moving buildings (and having those buildings fall on them sometimes), you could do worse than watch the surfing documentaries Riding Giants and Step into Liquid. The footage in both is gorgeous.
posted by rtha at 7:42 PM on September 15, 2017

Outstanding post.
posted by painquale at 9:20 PM on September 15, 2017

I enjoyed this tremendously. Thank you!
posted by parm at 3:31 AM on September 16, 2017

Regarding waves and stairsteps - those are lots of fun when you're bodysurfing or body boarding because you can just kind of fall through them. Sometimes you'll hit them wrong or they'll pop up with such force it's like doing a bellyflop and they'll knock the wind out of you.

They are a lot less fun standing up on a surfboard, where it's like trying to snowboard an avalanche during an earthquake and the ground keeps heaving up at you.

Another thing that happens with slab waves and large breaks on short, steep beaches is backwash waves. Every so many waves the backwash gets out of sync with the ebb and flow of the surf and somehow you suddenly have a sizeable wave headed out from shore directly into the incoming slab surf and/or surfers.

When a large, well formed backwash/outflow wave meets a large, well formed incoming slab wave and they collide right in the break/lip throwing zone for the incoming wave - the sea pretty much explodes and will throw jets and fans of water 40-50+ feet into the air.

Worse, these backwash waves aren't always obvious or clearly defined. They can be effectively invisible rushes or undertows of water and then suddenly rear up due to whatever hydraulic forces.

If you happen to be riding that wave when this happens, there's a couple of fun things that can happen.

You get clapped between the two waves, which is like doing two bellyflops at once from a high dive, one on the front and one on the back. If it claps you in the face or clouts you on either side of the head it's like getting slapped in the face by half the ocean. It can also force water in all your face holes.

You hit the backwash wave and you launch off it like a ski jump. Altitude varies from "Weee!" to "holy shit no!"

Or if it catches you just right, it meets and explodes directly beneath you and/or board, launching you skyward like a bullfrog out of a trebuchet.

I've been riding larger waves before and suddenly I'm pinwheeling 20+ feet through the air with enough hang time to wonder what the fuck just happened, with plenty more time to then do at least one full rotation to see the source of what the fuck just happened and have my conclusive answer about the what the fuck just happened before I even land.

It's actually kind of hilarious. I've seen surfers and bodyboarders get launched way overhead and there's almost always this resigned expression on the launchee's face like "Welp, this is happening, and I can't do a damn thing about it."

Another thing about surfing slab waves is you really, really don't want to be in the impact zone of that monster lip. Even on thinner, less freakishly mutant large waves that pitch a lip and form tubes, getting hit by the lip can be a startlingly violent experience.

But on thick slab waves it's just ridiculous. Yes, it's thousands of tons of water. Yep, it's pretty much like someone lifted up a whole swimming pool's worth of water 20 feet in the air and dropped it on you. Even better, it's more like God picked up several swimming pools of water, swirled it around in a giant God-sized gold-panning pan to give it a lot of kinetic energy then whipped the whole thing right at your head, focusing the whole mass into a wedge or point of fast moving water.

If this slams into, say, your face or bum, it'll force seawater into all of your holes. Yes, including your butt. Spontaneous seawater enemas are a thing, even when wearing trunks and a wetsuit, and you never hear surfers talk about it out of the water, probably because it's super "what the fuck". I remember coming home from riding a hurricane swell all day and pooping out sand the next day.

The lip can also slam you to the bottom of the seafloor and keep you there. This is usually how you get a two wave holddown. I've been through a few of these, thankfully on mild, sandy-bottomed beaches. You basically get stuck in a rolling column of water underwater and it's almost impossible to orient yourself or swim to the surface. If you're lucky you can maybe manage to surface just in time to gulp a sip of air before wave #2 slams into you and pins you down for another roll around the ocean floor.

Usually wave #2 pushes you further in towards shore and out of the immediate break and impact zone, but it's still pretty terrifying to be flailing around in the deep soup and foam trying to get your head above water.

You learn to not panic and just go with it. Trying to fight the water before you can do anything about it robs you of oxygen, so you learn to just go limp and let yourself ragdoll to save oxygen. When you stop getting lashed about, then you can start swimming for the surface effectively.

You can hold your breath for a lot longer than you think, too. I've probably been held under while surfing for close to 30 seconds, maybe close to a full minute, which is fucking eternity underwater. But that's about how long a two wave holddown takes.

My personal record for holding my breath when I was still surfing is just shy of 5 minutes. This involved hyperventilating and pre-breathing a bit, then going for a zero energy dead man's float in a pool that was effectively body temperature. I can still manage almost 2 minutes, last I checked.

This is why for surfers, though, getting held under isn't the problem. There's usually plenty of time and oxygen to surface.

The problem is when you get a slab break over a reef or rock ledge, where massive overwhelming hydraulic force meets immovable object. That two wave holddown that was easily survivable on a soft sandy floor turns into a 60 second fight with a tornado in a blender full of hammers and razorblades. You do *not* want to get tumbled or held down over a reef. They're basically made out of natural bits of jagged glass. And then pointy things like muscles, urchins and barnacles grow all over it, making it even more pointy and ouchie.
posted by loquacious at 1:43 AM on September 17, 2017 [25 favorites]

Also worth checking out Red Bull's Cape Fear event.
posted by craven_morhead at 1:37 PM on September 18, 2017

mind-boggling steps and ledges
I am interested in learning how to surf!
I remember coming home from riding a hurricane swell all day and pooping out sand the next day.
I am no longer interested in learning how to surf
posted by nicodine at 8:07 AM on October 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

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