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Surfing Shipstern Bluff, Tasmania

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In surfing, there are great surf spots and there are insane surf spots. Great surf sports might include Rincon , J-bay, or Cloudbreak. These are waves that get perfect and otherworldly at times, but generally remain in the realm of possibility for advanced surfers. Then, there are those insane waves that even advanced surfers say “Hmmmm, I don’t know about that one.” Take Pipeline for instance, the drop it past vertical and stands some 30 feet over shallow and decidedly cavernous volcanic reef. The crowd is probably about as dense and deep with talent and anger as anywhere in the world, BUT the water is warm, the beach is close, and lifeguards are usually watching. So while the wave is well beyond what most surfers can handle, the location and accessibility make it a possibility.

Now, let’s take a little trip to an island off the coast of Australia where the water is frigid and great whites patrol like submerged serial killers. Tasmania lies some 150 miles southeast of Australia and a mere 1,243 miles away from Antarctica. This is the devil’s playground, and just off the south end of Tasmania exists a wave that slams headlong into a 40 foot rock sheer rock face at the end of a two-hour hike through thick bush. It’s the devil’s favorite wave which was once aptly named Devil’s Point. It’s part Waimea, part Shark Island, part Teahupo and all kinds of nasty. This, my friends, is Shipstern Bluff.

Shipstern Bluff is a right breaking mutant wave that slams over a massive hunk of granite. Waves pour in from deep water and release with unholy power over that rocky ledge and slam into a mass of boulders. What’s more is that the water is below freezing, so your 4/3 wetsuit, gloves and booties will make that 30 foot, morphing multi-level drop even more difficult.

The name Shipstern Bluff comes from the massive headland of rock that juts iconically into the sea and stands tall behind the massive magnitude of the wave itself. It sits like a dead hulk of a sea faring vessel. The ghosts of that lifeless mass blow in and out with the lashing winds. This ain’t Hawaii by any stretch of the imagination.

If you are looking for isolation, this is the spot. Miles from the nearest hospital and a long and bumpy boat ride to the nearest anything, Shipstern is for surfers who are looking for the edge of the surfing experience. The isolation, the sharks, the cold, and that God awful wave.

Credit for first surfing the wave is often given to Tasmanian Andy Campbell who is said to have first surfed Shiptern Bluff in 1997. However, Matt Griggs’ superb book Surfers interviews Tasmanian David Guiney who paddled out with Mark Jackson for the first time in 1986. According to Guiney, he surfed the place for years by himself before turning Campbell onto the place. In 2001, Guiney chaperoned pro surfers Kieren Perrow, Mark Mathews and Drew Courtney and the secret was out in a big way.

While the wave size is consistent, the wave’s ridability depends on the wind. A slight cross-chop can mean certain and violent disaster. But even when it’s perfect, the wave as it pulls on the craggy rock below mutates into several sublevel sections that form on the face, making for more than one true trough. Spectators can immediately see which surfers are experienced in the many faces of this Devil’s drop. Most visiting pros find it more than they bargained for and locals have taken infinite near death drags into the rocks before they fully understand the waves shifting personalities.

Although camera and sponsors and professional egos have defiled the lineup at Shipstern Bluff, nothing will change the wave. The wave has moved the edge of surfing a little farther into a realm that most never dreamed of.

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