Words by: Anthony Pancia | Photos Ord
IT started with a U-turn, resulted in a near drowning and ended with an almost humours image of a body caught in the lip of a heaving south coast wave. The body, near drowning and U-turn all belong to East coast surfer Brett Burcher, one of the select breed who’ll happily drop everything and burn thousands of kilometres to chase waves of serious consequence.
“I’d flown over to Perth and driven up to surf Gnaraloo with Fergal Smith, from Ireland,” says Burcher of the fateful trips’ origin. “But we got there and the swell wasn’t as promising as we had expected, so we decided to leave and do the long haul trip down south to The Right in one day.” With close to 3000 kilometres under their belts from the trips north and south, the two rendezvous with photographer Russell Ord in a caravan park close to the notorious wave. “We’d seen Ord up in Gnaraloo,” says Burcher. “But being the rock star he is, he’d flown up for a one day shoot then bailed. I called ahead and he organised a ski for us.”
The day gets off to a cracking start, with Burcher towing Chris Shanahan into an award-winning wave. Unfortunately for Shanahan, it’s the Billabong XXL Worst Wipeout Award. “That was horrific,” recalls Burcher of Shanahan’s spectacular 15- foot free fall. “It wasn’t my day to start with…and then it was my turn.” Burcher starts with a medium sized wave before giving Shanahan the thumbs up to chase down the building wall of water heading their way. Meanwhile, Ord, who’d already been shooting from the frigid water for several hours, takes note of the tell tale signs and moves into position. “I was in the perfect spot,” says Ord. “All Burcher had to do was pull in, travel a meter or two and I would have got a great shot.”
Which is what Burcher had every intention of doing, however the force of water rushing up the face of the wave caused his surfboard to loose traction in the worst possible position. Cinematographer Darren McCagh, still reeling from Shanahan’s earlier spectacular wipeout, frames Burcher’s forward progress and hits record. “He was looking good,” recalls McCagh. “He’d picked a nice line but just seemed to lean into it a little too much and his board went straight and he just slid off.” The resulting footage would earn McCagh his second prestigious Billabong XXL Best Wipeout Award nomination. But at that point, such accolades were far from Burcher’s mind as he finds himself sliding on along the base of a very solid wave. “To be honest I was pretty calm,” recalls Burcher. “That’s the beauty of being towed into a wave, you’re not exactly sure how big it is until you see the video or the pictures. I honestly wasn’t sure how much of a pickle I had found myself in.” Turns out, Burcher was in a bit more a pickle than he originally thought, and just as his situation turns from bad to, really really bad, Ord appears in the bottom left of the footage, hoisting his camera to fire off a sequence at the perfect moment. “My first thoughts were that he was actually going to make it out in the prone position,” Ord recalls.
“But then the wave just picked him up and threw him like a rag doll.” For a split second Burcher and Ord are at eye level with each other “I knew Russ was shooting from the water,” says Burcher. “As I was being sucked up and about to go over in the lip, I heard him say shout “Oh Nooooo”, that sound is forever burned in my brain.” The wave passes, Ord kicks through it but Burcher is sent straight to the bottom of a frigid Southern Ocean. “The wipeout was like nothing I’ve experienced before or since,’’ says Burcher. “I was sent 20 times deeper than I’d ever been before. I was just praying that I wouldn’t pass out. When I eventually made it to the surface, I couldn’t hear or comprehend anything. My nose was bleeding and I had perforated an eardrum.” McCagh, still filming, maintains composure to capture the moment that would earn him a second XXL nomination for the morning.
“You couldn't help but feel sorry for the poor bastard and what would have been going through his head at the time,” says McCagh. “How guys like him survive the punishment I'll hopefully never know.” But survive Burcher does, albeit a little wary, though he does eventually see the humor in the ridiculous situation. “That wipeout spooked me for a while,” he says. “But looking back on it, it’s kind of embarrassing in a way. I don’t think I could have stuffed up that wave any more if I’d tried. I’m glad it happened though, it made me realize how crazy the ocean can be and I have so much respect for that spot and the people who surf it, especially Ord, I’ve seen him swim in some hazardous locations, but The Right takes the cake.” See it here on Surfline; Footage by Darren McCagh. Little more relaxed back on land.