Generation Slab

A profile of hell-child Russell Bierke, from TSJ 23.6.

Light / Dark

TSJ runs on whatever the opposite of a news cycle is called. Indeed, our Smyth-sewn, perfect-bound book actually sails across the Pacific on a long-haul freighter to get to you. But we never take our measured delivery as an excuse to lie behind the beat. No, where forecasting compelling surf stories is concerned, we’re more DJ Quik, less Calvin Broadus.

Bringing us to this edition of The Archivist. Before he won the Red Bull Cape Fear, before he made it into the pages of the U.S. monthlies, even before he was profiled at American online surf sources, our readers lavished in Jed Smith’s look at Aussie big-wave hombre Russell Bierke. While this sounds like some delusional and petty claim, it’s meant to illustrate one thing—TSJ, though high-craft and low-velocity, is a pumping heart of contemporary surfing.

Paired with our delivery of overlooked treasures from our culture’s entire history, subscribers are guaranteed a singular and comprehensive experience. And if you’re still not familiar with Mr. Bierke’s fine work in waves well beyond the merely consequential, enjoy this read with our compliments. And give some thought to subscribing, either for yourself or for a deserving friend. —Scott Hulet

It’s still dark and my phone is already lit up with calls and texts from Russell Bierke, the teenaged wonder of Australian slab surfing. He’s getting impatient. There’s the very real chance that a slab nearby is doing its thing—heaving lips of freezing water at a bone-dry rock shelf—and he wants in. As I pull up in my van, he’s out of his door before I’m out of mine. He has a stack of his signature, bright-orange boards under his arm. His long, albino hair is tucked behind a baseball cap. His school clothes are folded neatly away in his dresser. He won’t be going to class today, even though he’s got a parent/teacher interview tonight. “My teachers are pretty good like that,” he explains. “They let me chase swells and stuff and catch up on work and exams later.”

After a stack of jaw-dropping magazine spreads and big-wave performances, Russ is now being touted as the future of Australian slab surfing. Adding to the hype, he recently accompanied Kelly Slater on a mission to South Australia, where he almost stole the show by successfully paddling into one of the waves of the day. “Russell has got the potential to be Australia’s best big wave surfer,” says Tim Bonython, the veteran big-wave filmmaker who made the call to bring Russ along. “He’s so natural and talented in big-wave conditions I was confident he had the ability.”

Russ can only blush and mumble his thanks when I mention his heroics. We’re not expecting the same heart-in-mouth conditions today, but with 6-to-8 feet of swell lurching across a notoriously dangerous shelf that breaks less than ten meters from exposed rocks there should be some fireworks. I help Russ load his boards into the back, copping a feel as I do. They’re thick, remarkably heavy (12-ounce glass jobs, he tells me) and built with two very obvious functions in mind: traction in the barrel and withstanding the severest of punishment.

His dad, Kirk, a respected shaper and big wave surfer who spent two decades living on the North Shore of Oahu, shapes all of his boards. On the very same day that Russ was bedazzling Bonython’s lens in South Australia, Kirk was surfing only a few headlands away, paddling a giant offshore bombora that would earn him a nomination in the Oakley Big Wave Awards. Russ is very obviously a chip off the old block, but the father/son duo’s big-wave exploits haven’t always ended so well.

Russ was only 12 when he went on his first swell-chase to Torquay with his old man. After packing the van, they drove 10 hours to Bells to greet 12 feet of Antarctic corduroy wrapping into the Bowl. Russ had a fresh quiver of orange boards, the idea being that if he got into trouble, at least his dad would be able to find him. He’ll never forget what they saw when they arrived that day. “It was huge,” he says.

Russ wanted no part of it initially, waiting in the car as his dad attempted to paddle from the beach alone. Kirk failed and was washed back to shore by the relentless Southern Ocean energy. When he returned, he told Russ he was going to try again from another spot on the other side of the headland, where they wouldn’t have to worry about taking sets on the head. Russ agreed to give it a try. The paddle out was easy enough but on Russ’s first wave—what he calls a 10-footer—he got absolutely annihilated.

Russ was only 12 when he went on his first swell-chase to Torquay with his old man. The paddle out was easy enough but on Russ’s first wave—what he calls a 10-footer—he got absolutely annihilated.

Despite the stiff offshore winds and tremendous girth of the swell, he managed to get to his feet and make it to the bottom. Once there, however, his tiny frame was no match for the might of the Southern Ocean. He was quickly mowed down and dragged underwater for what seemed like an eternity. The experience gave him the biggest revelation of his short life. “Surviving that kind of gave me the confidence,” he says. “After that it all just took off.”

A week later he was holding the tow rope behind local south coast slab hero, Paul Morgan, who whipped Russ into one of the heaviest waves on the east coast—an offshore setup that only breaks at 10-foot plus, spewing out giant, almond tubes. He survived it, “only just,” and his path was set.

It’s a very Australian anomaly: vicious rock ledges that rear out of the water waiting to be slammed with mid-period swells. They dot every coastline of this endless island continent, offering surfers the ultimate in technical tube riding. Hawaii and Tahiti might be the proving grounds for barreling waves of consequence, but mastering the Australian slab is a skill all its own—one that requires quick-twitch reflexes, creativity, and the ability to anticipate heavy, refracting water.

The nearest slab to the Bierke house is only a five-minute walk away. It’s a fickle and typically challenging piece of rock that’s provided the ideal training ground for Russ to perfect the sticky takeoffs and tube wrangling required of a slab specialist. To watch him at work is to see a combination of skill and bravery far beyond his years.

When we arrive at the slab that morning, it’s big and orbing and he’s straight into it, splitting drainer after drainer with blasé cool. As more surfers arrive, they can’t help but congratulate him for his bravado. Surfing heavy waves is a tradition down here and the region has produced a long line of underground slab specialists. A photo spread in a magazine, however, is big news and Russ, who recently scored a spread for one of the bigger waves ever paddled into on the Australian east coast, is well and truly in the spotlight within his community. How he handles premature celebrity and the offers of free beers at the pub will undoubtedly determine his fate, though it’s hard to see him straying from his path given the crew of hardened specialists he’s surrounded himself with.

Led by Brett Burcher, Scott Dennis, and Elliot Marshall, Russ’s crew is highly committed, with a slab-tracking radar that ranges from Broome’s Head to Esperance. Brett, who is 24, was once a Junior Series competitor, surfing the circuit at the same time as Craig Anderson. The problem was, after growing up surrounded by severe tubes he never really could get all that frothed up about two-foot beachbreak. These days he’s still living at home with his parents while he tries to figure out a way to eke a living out from his quiet country town. He says he’ll most likely end up as a local primary school teacher.

Elliot, on the other hand, recently quit his job as a carpenter to work as a hotel concierge, thus opening him up for the dawn patrol. His new job also gives him Sundays and Mondays off and the last three swells have all come on a Sunday or Monday. “It’s really paying off,” he says.

Russ spins to go, paddling hard and looking nowhere but at the fast-draining cunjevoi ledge in front of him. His strategy is simple: show no hesitation and paddle hard for every set. In that moment when most surfers are weighing whether they really want it, he’s already halfway down the ledge.

It was Brett and Elliot who first took Russ to Australia’s deep south as a 14-year-old on a slab hunting mission and the group has remained intact ever since. This morning, as they sit in the lineup together, the chatter among these slab specialists is genuinely amicable and a long way from the heavy vibes at most secret reefs: the waves are intimidating enough to keep the crowds at bay. When sets arrive, Russ spins to go, paddling hard and looking nowhere but at the fast-draining cunjevoi (a sort of anemone) ledge in front of him. Despite his age, he gets pretty much any wave he wants. His strategy is simple: show no hesitation and paddle hard for every set. In that moment when most surfers are weighing whether they really want it, he’s already halfway down the ledge.

About an hour into the session, Russ and Brett both paddle for the same wave. As the face thickens on the shelf they draw alongside each other. It’s a tiny takeoff spot and they end up paddling shoulder-to-shoulder, dangerously close to the exposed rocks. Just onshore, a parking lot full of cars sits, their occupants waiting to blast their horns for whoever can scratch in and make the barrel.

Brett hoots Russ off at the last second, disappearing down a blue shaft. He slaps his board at the base of the wave, even having the gall to fade off a bit of speed as the shoulder stretches way out into the channel. In the same motion, he scoops off the bottom and under the lip, chucking in a groovy slouch that echoes Nat Young’s body language from the 1960s.

Russ, meanwhile, lines up the second peak and splits it with such ease that his facial expression doesn’t even change. It’s some of the most impressive surfing I’ve ever witnessed—but sponsorship has proved elusive for both of these surfers. According to Russ, this lack of support isn’t a deterrent. He’s set his sights on the Big Wave World Tour and has his parents’ full support. “Other parents always say to me, ‘How do you let him do it?’” says his dad, Kirk. “But what should I let him do? Motocross, skating, ice hockey, mixed martial arts? It’s just surfing. It’s not really that dangerous.”

But Kirk is unequivocal about what Russ must do in order to achieve his dreams. “He has to leave,” he says. “He has to get out of here and move to Sydney or somewhere where the surf industry is. It’s completely backwards, but that’s the way it is.”

Russ balks when his father mentions this. He opens his mouth to speak but nothing comes out. “Maybe I can just do trips and chase swells from down here,” he eventually pleads as Kirk shoots me a skeptical look.

Fortunately, Russ has other options. Because he was born in Hawaii, he holds an American passport, meaning he can spend as much time on the industry-saturated North Shore as he wants. He even has the advantage of having his father’s friends to show him around, the likes of Tamayo Perry, Mark Healey, and Kohl Christenson. In fact, he did a stint on the North Shore last year, charging big Waimea and Pipe, even going so far as to say Pipe wasn’t all that difficult compared to some of the awkward slabs he’s had to deal with at home. (Though he did get beaten to within an inch of his life at Waimea.)

Back at the slab near his house, it’s the afternoon and the sky has turned black. The wind is now howling offshore and rain has begun to pelt the ocean. Curiously, a cavalcade of battered utes and vans begins to arrive in the carpark. Doors slam and hoots fill the air as a dozen workingman slab specialists start climbing into shredded wetsuits and waxing up ancient, yellowed boards. The sight of black tunnels cracking along pointy rocks is as close to paradise as they can get.

“It’s knockoff time,” explains Brett as he walks over for a chat. “All the boys are on it. You won’t get a wave now.” Even Russ, who was contemplating his fifth surf of the day, concedes Burcher’s advice. He might be the darling of the Australian big wave scene, but down here, in the deep south, where surfing slabs is a way of life, he’s still just a grom to the older boys. They’ll tell you he’s still got a long way to go yet. And considering what he’s done already, that statement might seem like a self-serving cliché, but there’s more than a little truth to it too.

Watch some of Bierke’s more-recent conquests.