Hello? Yeah, this is me, I’ll just turn the fricken’ disco off. I was just getting into building an Ikea wardrobe…”
Ross Clarke-Jones is not the sort of person to lord his impressive surfing credentials over you. He possesses the sort of good-humoured larrikin attitude that transcends arrogance. There is a Boomer avuncularity to him recognisable in fathers at a Christmas party after the third or fourth beer, telling tall tales of yesteryear. It’s not that he feels the need to impress: he just rolls out cracker stories because he loves to tell them.
I begin by herding the elephant out of the room; his recent surfing stint at Nazare, Portugal. His apparent brush with death and exclamation that he was done for the season have been the talk of the surf press.
“That was spur of the moment… It was three and a half months, such good surf; I didn’t have to use my airlift canisters once! The waves didn’t touch me. This was the last swell of the season, really, and I was a bit slack and a bit careless…”
The swell being smaller than usual, Ross didn’t take the usual precautions of a buoyant life vest, and the oversight cost him. Ditching his board, he soon found himself trapped beneath the tumult.
“I was getting smashed around at the bottom, it was like a conveyer belt! It swept me 200 hundred metres under the water.” Soon he was being thrashed on the rocks like a rag doll.
Ross is blasé. “I didn’t think I was in any danger at all, I just thought ‘This is going to be hard work!’ The mindset is to fool yourself that you’re not in danger so you don’t panic.”
To some, this might seem incredulous, even arrogant, but a devil-may-care attitude is to be expected of a battle-hardened surf warrior like Ross. Born and bred as a North Shore local originally, growing up in Mosman, he became acquainted with the beach early:
“My dad wasn’t a surfer but he used to take us down to the beach every day before school. He took us to Manly or Balmoral. Every day he’d chuck us in the car and I’d wake up in the ocean!”
The family moved to Terrigal when he was 10 and by his early teens surfing had become an obsession. “I remember I was like, 13, and I looked out and it was big! I could even see the fear in the older guys, and I just fed off that. I was like ‘What’s wrong with ’em?’ I was kind of insatiable in that respect. It was never big enough…” He pauses, “Until I got to Hawaii.”
Once in the pro-circuit, in Waimea Bay, Ross experienced true big wave surfing:
“I thought, here we go, this is Turtle Haven times, like, two or three! But I felt really confident and safe and excited to be a pro!”
He recounts, with great relish, his first competitive experience in Hawaii:
“First heat, 25 feet, Waimea: perfect. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it like that again. I was just following Mark [Richards]. Meanwhile, the rest of the guys, Robbie Bane and Salazar were nearly drowning on the inside!” He guffaws, “I was like, ‘What’s happened to these guys? Is the heat over or something?’ But ignorance is bliss, right? So that was a real turning point again as far as my career as a big wave surfer…”
Ross has always had a bit of a halo when it comes to big wave surfing: he’s never broken a bone surfing… technically. “I didn’t wipe out for years! It took a really bad wipe out with Tom Carroll, actually. It was a strong, pretty dangerous west swell. Me and Tom are renowned for taking off on the same wave all the time, right?” he giggles. “We just got launched together. I got really hammered. I hit a bowl on the bottom. I didn’t think you could even hit the bottom! We usually come up laughing, I can tell you, we weren’t laughing then,” he chuckles.
The unflappability of Ross in the water is really only matched by the buoyancy of his own personality in person. But there were darker times.
“I got third in the world titles, behind Mark Sainsbury, he was my best mate. I was so jealous I wanted to punch him! We were like, rivals you know? And then he died a couple years later of an aneurysm. As soon as we turned pro, that was it. It was weird…” A little of the jubilance leaves him and the memory of his passed friend lingers between us. “He pretty much invented the floater [the surfing equivalent of a lip grind in skateboarding], in competition anyway. He should be acknowledged for that.”
One of Ross’ crowning achievements in the surfing world is, by his own admission, his victory in ‘the Eddie.’ Effectively, the Olympic Games of surfing, the Quiksilver-sponsored Eddie Aikau Surfing Invitational is every surfers’ dream.
“Yeah ’87 I think was the first one. And I was confident I could win it, or at least do well in it. I thought ‘This is easy!’ And then it took like 14 years to get a good go at it… But once I won, it didn’t sink in for months. I forgot even that I had a $50,000 cheque! I was down at Star City with two mates a month later and I broke down and cried and went ‘Fuck, I won!’” He bursts out laughing.
What is it about the Eddie that makes it such an event then?
“I’m not sure it’s going to be on ever again, and it’s such a shame that Quiksilver and the Aikau family couldn’t sort it out. It was like rejoicing, celebrating the life of Eddie Aikau, the lifeguard. He epitomises the big wave surfers. He was just a good guy and he helped people, saved countless lives. And half the thing was – you got an Eddie invite! Just to get the invite was cool. And if it goes on, it’s the best event on earth. It’s like a coliseum of 10,000 people crowding the cliffs. They’ve got drums going when the set’s on. But if it’s all over, that was the one to end on. It was a full storm that lasted days.”
Does he still feel like he has something to prove in competition?
“It’s a personal thing first. I always like to leave it at that. I don’t want anyone else’s judgement, ’cos that felt so good, right? I don’t want to see the photos because they look too small or whatever. It’s become this competition, like ‘Did you see my photo?’ and I’m like ‘Oh, fuck…’ I’m so far past that now, I mean, I used to do that, and it doesn’t work!”
Oddly, one of Ross’ proudest moments doesn’t involve actual surfing at all. When filming a feature-length biopic of his life, through good friend Kelly Slater, he somehow managed to rope Hollywood legend Dennis Hopper in to narrate it. “It was like an hour narration. He took six hours because he wanted it just so. We’d go ‘That’s perfect!’, and he’d come back with, ‘Fuck you, I’ll tell you when it’s perfect!’ So when we were discussing what he’d be paid, I thought, I’ll give him my tow board, because he loves art. So Justin and Chris went down there with the surfboard. He took his Andy Warhol original down off the wall, and put the board in that spot!” Ross spits out gleefully.
“Then I got to meet him at the premiere. He was waiting for me in the competitors’ tent because his son was watching Kelly. He said, ‘I’ve been waiting to meet you. Can we get a smoke around here?’ I said, ‘I don’t think we can smoke around here, but I’ll have a stogey with you. Let’s go.’ He says, ‘I’ve got my car over there,’ and it’s this black limited-edition Jaguar. I said, ‘Can I drive?’ So here I am, doing 110 down the Hollywood freeway with Dennis Hopper and he didn’t give a fuck! It was classic.”
From the outside, it’s tempting to regard Ross as a tortured thrill-seeker, a dare-devil death junkie Icarus, flying ever closer to the sun. How else could he justify seeking out these higher and higher levels of adrenalising push-pulls in a war with nature and self? To a staid, landlubber like myself it seems irreconcilable. But a few hours spent tongue-wagging with the man makes it apparent the truth is much simpler and far more fun. “I really am doing it for a pure reason. It’s not money, it’s that I fucking love it!” The man is just really into big wave surfing.
As our time comes to an end, I mention that this is really my first article for the magazine, sort of a proving ground. “Well, we’re either going to send you straight to the top, or get you fired!” Ross bellows good-naturedly. “So,” I can practically hear him lean forward, “Do you want the story about Pamela Anderson or Gisele Bündchen?”.