Big Wave Surfing

The Margaret River region's 75 surf breaks produce some extraordinary waves - some of them so big they attract the world's best big swell chasers.

There’s 135 kilometres of coastline from Busselton to Augusta with no fewer than 75 surf breaks that produce extraordinary waves – waves so good that they attract the world’s best who travel the globe following the big swell, chasing the perfect big wave.

In fact, it’s considered to be one of the most consistent big wave surf places on the planet. There’s kudos that comes with riding big waves and awards for those who conquer them. Mick Corbett, who lives in Dunsborough, took out the 2016 Oakley Ride Of The Year award on a wave known as The Right in Walpole (three hours south east of Margaret River) earning $20,000 in prize money.

Mick told Surfing Australia: “Jarryd [towing me in on a jetski] turned around to me with a big grin and said, ‘don’t even look at it, it’s big!’ So I didn’t really look at the wave as I was being towed in, I just looked down the line and tried to put myself in a perfect position. I didn’t really know what was going on behind me; I was just trying to position myself to get barrelled. I didn’t realise how big it was until I got back into the channel and all of the photographers were shaking their heads in disbelief calling it the biggest wave they have ever seen out there.”

That wave, The Right, certainly was big that day at between 30 and 40ft, but it’s the sheer power of that wave that makes it so tricky to surf. “What I love about big-wave surfing is the adventure and the thrill of it. No session is the same. You track these swells for weeks and then you make a call whether to pursue them,” the 30-year-old said. “Then you go and chase the swell and a lot of these swells take you to some of the most beautiful places in the world. Then you get there, you generally know most of the people there and you’re watching the ocean do some crazy things. You could sit there all day watching, it’s mesmerising.”

It might be mesmerising to Mick, but the thought of trying to survive on a monstrous moving mountain of water that could crush bones or throw you around like a washing machine or worse, is frightening to many. Does he ever get scared? “Yeah for sure I get scared, nearly every time I go out I get nervous. But after you have had a couple of waves you really get in sync with the ocean and then you can really start opening up your surfing and charging the biggest waves that come through. It is the best feeling in the world to ride a big wave – no other activity or person can make you feel the way you do when you’re out there.”

Mick says that the biggest break in the Margaret River region that fires in winter is Cow Bombie, located two kilometres offshore west of Gracetown. “It’s the biggest and gnarliest wave in Australia but it requires the right swell for it to break,” Mick said. “The biggest wave I have ever surfed in the Margaret River region, and in fact in Australia, was at Cow Bombie in 2014. That was the biggest day I have ever seen out there, it was around 60 foot and the cleanest. It was also when I rode the biggest barrel I have ever surfed.”

When asked what words of advice he’d give an up-and-coming surfer who wants to ride big waves, Mick said: “Just surf the waves you want. And work your way to bigger waves. Also make sure you have the right mentality about it.”

Image Credit: (cover) Jamie Scott, (above) Mauro Correira, (below) Andrew Semark Photography, Surfer: Mick Corbett

Big waves can be board-breakers. John Dutton who works as a sander at Nathan Rose Surfboards and runs Margaret River Surf Board Repairs has seen plenty. “Right now looking around, there’s three 10-foot guns [surf boards] snapped in half, all from the big swell that came through on the weekend,” John, 45, said. “You become immune to bigger surf living here. I would say consistently the waves are six to eight foot, which some people consider big. Around here, it has to be 10-foot plus before it’s considered big.

“It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been surfing, it’s scary each time. But it’s so enjoyable to go out in big surf, catch a wave and come in unscathed. Chasing the adrenaline rush. It’s not for everyone, I’ve got guys who’ve come in, they’re all amped, they buy a big board, go out to Cow Bombie and catch a big wave, then they realise it’s not for them.

“It takes a long time to build up to that level where you feel comfortable to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. If you’re surfing big waves, sooner or later you’re going to get caught inside and have 15-foot wave land on your head.“I was out on a 10-foot day, caught the wave, straightened off and ended up rumbling around in the white wash. My board speared me in the back, fractured my ribs, and I didn’t know it at the time, but it punctured my lung. I tried to paddle it off, but knew I’d done something bad. I paddled in and rang my mate Phil Chapman who started up Surfing Doctors – he also works in emergency in Busselton. He could tell by the way I was trying to talk that I’d punctured my lung and instructed me to get to hospital as quickly as I could. So I drove myself. As soon as I got in to hospital, they ripped off my wetty and treated me straight away. I was in hospital for a couple of days. That would’ve been my worst injury.”

John said that popular big-wave surf breaks include Mainbreak at Surfers Point, Boat Ramps (Gnarabup) and Cow Bombie. “Boat Ramps is popular when it’s between 10 and 15 foot, but there’s only a handful of days a year when it’s rideable, when the wind and swell are in the right direction,” he said. “When the swell is forecast to be big, there’ll be hype and a big buzz around the place, people are so onto forecasting, sometimes planning their surf two weeks out. The big surf attracts people to the region, people do chase it.”

John had some advice for those looking to surf bigger waves, too. “I’d say don’t surf Mainbreak if you’re starting out and inexperienced because it’s such a heavy wave. Try any sort of bigger wave on an outer reef spot. Surf smaller swell first, like six to eight foot,” said John, who is also an event director for Foamlust surf festival held each Autumn. “Get the right equipment and ride bigger boards when the surf’s small so you get used to the board – it’s very different to surf an eight or ten-foot board than a short board. You don’t want to find out how different the board feels when you’ve got a 15-foot wave about to fall on your head!” You’ll probably also need a mega dose of courage.

Image Credit: (below) Andrew Semark Photography, surfer: Mick Corbett

Learn from the best

If you want to get started or learn better surf skills and technique, then take a lesson with Margaret River Surf School. There’s group and private lessons for beginners to advanced, surf guides, surf camps and high performance surf coaching.

Get the gear

As they say themselves, ‘all gear, all year’. Get some expert advice and get kitted up with everything you’ll need at Hillzeez. There are stores in Busselton, Margaret River, Albany and two stores in Bunbury.

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Dianne Bortoletto

About Dianne Bortoletto

Dianne Bortoletto is a food and travel writer, a regular contributor to Your Margaret River Region magazine and published in Italianicious, Luxury Travel, OUTthere, IN (LAN inflight), RedBull.com, Lightfoot Travel and Broadsheet. She’s been commissioned to write for Tourism Australia, Tourism WA, Perth Convention Bureau and Rottnest Island Authority. Dianne knows her way around the kitchen, wishes she could surf, pretends to keep fit and loves the sound of fast cars. Her other loves include a Greek named Zorba, a Westie named Bella, the Margaret River region and all things Italian. She's an ex-chocoholic and is shamelessly addicted to travel and proper coffee. Having travelled the world, Dianne knows how good we have in the Margaret River region. You can follow her adventures on her blog Travelletto.com / Instagram: @travelletto / Twitter: @travelletto

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