What Lies Beneath: the mutant slab of Shipstern Bluff

Ryan Hipwood flying through “the steps” at Shipstern Bluff in 2009. © Andrew Chisholm/A-Frame

The Reef Beneath

While surfing I have always been torn between watching waves or looking at the reef and critters beneath. As a terrestrial mammal, we focus on surface manifestations and less on the aquatic. In this series of posts, I focus on the narrow interface between the ocean’s surface, the propagation of waves, the reefs they encounter, and the sea life below; a happy merger of my interests as a surfer and marine biologist. Anyone who has taken a tour of the seafloor beneath their favorite surf spot cannot help but appreciate the reef, and how it influences the waves and marine life alike. Here is their stories.


Russell Bierke at Shipstern Bluff. Photo: unknown.

Shipstern Bluff

It takes a special breed of surfer to surf such a wave..

Mick Fanning

For a long time is was a myth. Both a dream and a nightmare, A perfect mutant slab far off the trail. A slab of epic proportions. It’s Teahupoʻo, arguably the gnarliest wave in the world, on steroids. A place at the end of the world that required hiking through hours of rugged forests. To get there you had to travel through “the neck” the narrow peninsula that guarded Australia’s most hardened penal colony in Port Arthur. It’s a wave in front of a vertical jagged ship-shaped cliff that’s at the end of an isolated peninsula, on the south end of an island at the end of the world. Add to that,Tasmania lies smack bang in the path of the “roaring forties,” and experiences some of the fiercest winds in the world which have been a bane to sailing for centuries. There is nothing between it and Antarctica, 2000 miles away, and it receives the brunt of giant swells blasting out of the southern ocean. Welcome to Shipstern Bluff.


Geology

In the blink of an eye, the waves hit the shallow ledge and transform from a lump in the ocean into a 20-foot (six-metre) face.

David Guiney
The Dolerite Cliffs of Tasmania. Photo credit: Nishi Wojnar/Flickr

You can see the bottom in the cliffs, you can see it as you paddle out, and you can see it you ride the “steps” the wave within a wave within a wave that defines the break as it blasts in from deep water onto a super-shallow stairstep reef.

Looking towards Shipstern bluff on the Tasman Peninsula

The reef beneath the wave is ancient, It was created hundreds of millions of years ago. The Dolerite cliffs, as they are known, were forged by fire when dinosaurs roamed the planet, 180 million years ago. It was created by a massive eruption so large that ir covered a third of Tasmania and some of Australia, it is igneous rock (formed by magma) that defines the island with its’ distinctive mountains and soaring sea cliffs. It also created the reef.

Coastal mapping created from field surveys using small vessels equipped with sonar sounders, video drop cameras, and differential GPS (Barrett et al., 2001) reveals a high profile rocky reef close to deep water. This unique geomorphology sets the stage for a wave that comes flying out of deep water, hits a shallow reef, then jacks up in height, often several times the size of the swell, then peels over in thunderous tube.

The ocean entry to Shippies, showing what the reef looks like.Photo source: SurferToday

As the wave crashes into a very shallow reef, it encounters two elements that make the wave unique: 1) a stair-step reef; and 2) water sucking off the reef into the wave. As water piles up and ther wave hits the reef, it creates a series of waves-within-a-wave that define the break. But it’s more than the reef that defines the wave, its location is critical.

The tube ar Shippies. Photo: Sean Davies.

Shipstern lies of the path of a major exposure gradient, as the waters to the south are maximally exposed to the prevailing southern ocean swells (Barrett et al., 2001). These giant swells create an unparalleled wave, a huge body of water that arcs up seemingly out of nowhere to create the most exhilarating eight-second rush in Australian surfing.


History

After a 4WD drive through dense Australian wilderness, then an hour’s trudge through the Tasmanian heat, photographer Sean Davey peered over the edge of a 300-meter cliff. Next to him Kieren Perrow, Mark Mathews and Drew Courtney looked out into the Southern Ocean and saw waves breaking off the base of a distant bluff that resembled a ship’s stern.

Ben Mondy, Surfline.
Surfline’s article on discovery, 2020.
Surfing at Shipsterns Bluff, 2001. Photo: Sean Davey.

Legend has it that Andy Campbell, David Guiney, and Mark Jackson had it to themselves for most of decade before it was exposed to the media in 2001. Prior that time, no one had seen photos or video of the wave.I have to ask: what raw courage (or madness) drives surfers to risk life and limb in such an isolated wave on a monster, unforgiving wave and shallow, sharp reef? Like Jeff Clark at Maverick’s, who surfed it for years by himself far offshore but in plain sight, shippies extreme isolation protected it from the masses, at least until 2001.

The site can only be accessed by an 18 mile (30 km) jet ski/boat ride or a two-hour hike through the rugged Tasman National Park. Its remote location is why it went undiscovered for so long. Add to that the giant swells, bitterly cold water (53F [12C]), and dangerous marine life and you have one of the scariest waves in the world. While charging monster slabs moved into the media arena and competitive circuit, a slab militia developed and scoured the world for rivals to Shippies and Teahupoʻo. Still, Shipstern Bluff with its mutant steps, remains as one the world’s most challenging breaks.

The Science of Shipstern Bluff, by Redbull.

The Steps

Rides are short and intense, normally running into dry reef or cliffs.

Koby Apperton

“Shippies” is unique due to the mutation of the face of the wave as it hits the reef, where several unique challenges emerge.For surfers, riding through the steps is the main challenge.As the air drops off below them, they try to maintain their balance and composure as they repeatedly land back on the mutating wave face creates multiple waves with a wave. If they navigate the steps surfers are rewarded with a huge, fast-paced barrel. It’s a few seconds of terror followed by an exhilarating tube big enough for a bus.


Marine Life

The Bruny region of Tasmania, which includes Shipstern’s Bluff, was identified as a priority for mapping due to its high degree of marine endemism, high habitat diversity and the more urgent need
for protection (Barrett et al., 2001). But there is not much known about the reef as it’s a dangerous place to dive. Due to the rich marine life of the area, seals, orcas, and white sharks are not uncommon so exploring the reef is difficult at best.


The challenge

Most tragic surf accidents happen in heavy, hollow surf.

Mike Stewart.

The future of Shipstern’s is now in the hands of a new generation of surfers. Under the intense competition of today’s talented professionals (including many women) and the glaring lights of global social media, surfers are being driven to ride dangerous slabs in increasing frequency. Pruett (2019) addresses the elephant in the room: why haven’t more people died on slabs like Shippies?

Pruett (2019) has a number of theories about slab surfers. 1) they have more skill and can cope with mutant waves; 2) theyt get into fight-or-flight mode and have a heightened ability; and 3) As the massive lip unloads on the reef, a layer of water remains and dampens their impact. Still, as Fregel Smith (Pruett 2019) said about a new slab in Ireland: “Tom Lowe broke his foot a few weeks back and dislocated his shoulder twice. Mickey snapped his arm. Another smashed his kneecap in seven places. Another mate broke his whole face and had plastic surgery. One guy broke his back. I smashed my face in, 16 stitches. The list would go longer if I were to name all the injuries here.”

Why do surfers ride slabs like Shipstern’s bluff? Because despite the risk the ride is awesome. The fear barrier is still there but now many are facing their first thick slab rather then contemplating the risks from shore.

Others in the Series:

References:

  • Barrett, N., J.C. Sanderson, M. Lawler, V. Halley and A. Jordan. 2001. Mapping of Inshore Marine Habitats in South -eastern Tasmania for Marine Protected Area Planning and Marine Management. National Heritage Trust, 2002 pp.
  • Mondy, B. 2020. How Shipstern’s Bluff Broke. Surfline. Accessed May 1, 2020.
  • Pruett, Matt. 2019. Slabs, a brief history. Surfline. Published April, 26. 2019.
  • SurferToday. The mechanics of Shipstern Bluff. Accessed May 5, 2020.
  • Wilmoth, P. 2006. Conquering the beast. Theage.com, accessed June 5, 2020.

  6 comments for “What Lies Beneath: the mutant slab of Shipstern Bluff

  1. Ian Kelmartin
    October 5, 2020 at 10:16 am

    I’ve been there; truly an epic spot. The roar of those waves as they unload the energy of thousand of miles of fetch in the roaring 40’s is all consuming, even from 1000 feet up on a bluff.

    • October 5, 2020 at 10:21 am

      That’s awesome Ian, thanks for the comment. I’d love to see and feel it myself. Truly an amazing place.

  2. October 5, 2020 at 10:40 am

    Impressive, wonderful piece of journalism. I’ve enjoyed every bit of it -and I’d shit in my wetsuit had I to surf that monster! Thanks!

    • October 10, 2020 at 9:52 am

      Thanks, appreciate the comment

  3. Michael
    October 6, 2020 at 6:45 pm

    Thanks so much for sharing this

    • October 10, 2020 at 9:52 am

      You’re welcome. It’s fun to research and write about

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