In the new March 2014 issue of ESM, our “Over The Ledge” feature chronicled the rise of a new generation of East Coast big-wave surfers making a splash on the elite international scene, and we also delved into the hard-charging history that’s gotten us to this exciting new tipping point. Our expert sources for the article had more harrowing big-wave surfing stories than we could possibly fit into the mag, so we decided to bring those tales to you through this three-part web extension.
Today, let’s kick things off by checking in with Southampton, NY, native and Irish big-wave surfing/water safety staple Dylan Stott; Dominican Republic native, Mavericks charger, former Big Wave World Tour competitor, and Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards contender Andres Flores; Massachusetts shaper and big-wave enthusiast Shawn Vecchione, and Florida pro/Mainland Mexico pioneer and charger Shannon “Hopper” Eichstaedt. Here’s what the guys had to say…
Dylan Stott: “As a kid, I remember crying one time when my dad brought me out surfing on a good day at the jetties. But then, after that day, I spent a lot of time wishing I could shrink myself down to the size of a hamster to get that same feeling again. I started to really like the drop. I’d go on anything just to see if I could get to the bottom. As soon as I graduated high school, I went to university in Hawaii and lived on the North Shore. I didn’t surf any really big waves until I started to work for a tree-surgery company the year after I moved to the North Shore. My boss, Robbie, was a madman from New Jersey. Everyday work involved climbing 70-foot skinny-ass coconut trees that were half rotten and whipping around in the trade winds. There wasn’t a day that I didn’t think I was going to die. Robbie taught me how to control and harness fear: you’ll get it, or you’ll die. He also lent me big boards and took me out at Waimea and some outer reefs on days off. Big-wave surfers tend to be interesting, clever, and giving people. I think being constantly aware of your own mortality makes for a higher caliber of human being.
“The biggest waves I've ever ridden would have to be in the winters of '07 & '08: the first couple sessions in Ireland towing at Mullaghmore before I knew how bad the consequences get. Mullaghmore is the scariest, prettiest thing I've ever seen. I went up and had a look during a big swell one time when I first got to Ireland. I just went, “wow,” like a tourist. You would not have been able to convince me that, one day, I'd be surfing it as much as I possibly could. But I’m totally dedicated to safety. I'm secretary of the Irish Tow Surf Rescue Club, and our main goal is to get everybody who surfs big waves qualified for PWC (jet-ski) rescue. Whether you tow or not, you want to be able to do something if things go bad. I'm PWC, Beach Lifeguard, and CPR/First Aid qualified, and I try to get everybody who goes out in the big stuff to get those three things. You have to be able to rescue, otherwise you're just being irresponsible.”
Andres Flores: “Since I was a little kid, I always liked to sit out the back and wait for the sets. I would do it every session by instinct, no matter how big the waves were. Then I went to Hawaii when I was 24 and surfed Pipe maxed out. That was a dream come true, and I managed to get a couple good ones. A few days later, I got to surf Waimea with a board that Kalani Chapman let me borrow, and after that, I was hooked. Then, when I came back to California, I went to Mavericks, and that’s where I really learned to surf big waves. Big-wave surfing is my life right now. It’s this adrenaline rush and a feeling that you don't get anywhere else. It’s so addicting that I'm wiling to give everything for it. The biggest challenge of it is in the mind: learning how to manage yourself without panic. But it’s also a reward, because, when you do learn to manage yourself in difficult situations, it’s priceless. Big-wave surfing teaches you so many lessons that you can use in the normal basis of life.”
Shawn Vecchione: “I think up-and-coming guys will learn the hard way, like most East Coasters do when they go to Hawaii, that they’re always under-gunned, because we’re not used to riding big boards. A lot of us move to Hawaii and will try to surf triple-overhead on a 6-foot board. But you’re going to see East Coasters learning that they do need bigger boards in their quiver. A lot of it’s education, because we don’t get bigger waves here often enough.”
Shannon “Hopper” Eichstaedt: “In Hawaii, surfing big waves is a bit easier, because you’re lining up with a reef and the wave comes in at a certain spot. In Mexico, you’re chasing rips, so it’s a lot different. It’s two miles of all these peaks everywhere, and you’re chasing them up and down the beach sifting through rips and closeouts. At the beach breaks, the waves breathe in a lot harder: it’s like a vacuum cleaner. The wave inhales you, and it breathes in so hard you come up just tingling like pins and needles. It’s a pretty intense feeling. Just the power and the energy of the ocean is awesome. Todd Morcom and I love it here. We wake up real early in the morning all amped to get out there, and we can hear the waves from our house when it’s big, because we’re right there on the beach, and it’s just rumbling. It echoes through the house.
“The big feeling is the drop: being under the lip and your arms are falling, swinging back, then you get to the bottom, and you angle your board and knife it under. That’s an incredible feeling. But you’re always scared. Those waves are big. You’re hoping for the best, but you never know. For us, when we’re on the jet-skis doing step-offs, we don’t wear a leash, and that’s pretty dangerous, because if you’re not attached to your board, then how can your guy find you if you get knocked out? It’s a numbers game at that point. What happened to Todd this past June was probably the gnarliest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. That shook me up for a while. He got one giant barrel that session, and then the next one broke his leg. That wave was every bit of 40-45 foot on the face. And if he cleanly exited, it would have been like a 10-second barrel. It would have been Ride Of The Year, hands down.”