By GEORGE BRYSON
Anchorage Daily News
December 08, 2008
Not just any waves either. These were gnarly 15-foot to 20-foot Aleutian swells, quite possibly the biggest waves ever surfed in Alaska. So says Australia-born adventure surfer and moviemaker Tony Harrington, who captured the moment on film.
Behind Harrington on the beach at Point Carrew -- which overlooks Yakutat Bay and the wild Gulf of Alaska beyond -- a celebratory crowd of locals hugged the rim of a bonfire, reveling in the sight.
"Guys on four-wheelers. Hunters with their guns. Children and parents. Everyone was just blown away," Harrington said. "The whole town was talking about it.
After eight days of gray, snowy weather and dark, choppy seas, big-wave surfer Jamie Sterling of Hawaii was out beyond the break line, clasping the handle of a tow rope attached to his partner's jet ski. At Sterling's signal, the pair took off, racing into the fray.
As proprietor of the Icy Waves Surf Shop (with T-shirts that tout its location "on the Far North Shore"), longtime Yakutat resident Jack Endicott often finds himself hosting adventure surfers. Usually they arrive in summer to ride the Southeast coast's decent but modest six- to eight-foot waves.
Never before in his memory had anyone shown up in the heart of winter trying to tackle the biggest waves of the year. Good thing too.
"When you get into the 20-foot range, you kind of need to know what you're doing," says Endicott, who doubles as the town's meteorologist. "With the amount of water that's coming down (off the wave) -- in shallow water -- it could get ugly."
As it so happened, Sterling knew what he was doing.
Earlier this year, the 27-year-old native Hawaiian and professional surfer finished third in the four-month-long Mavericks Surf Contest, an elite competition off the coast of Santa Cruz, Calif. His Web site is studded with sensational surfing shots.
Harrington was a veteran too. As a photographer of extreme skiing and surfing competitions around the world, he'd visited Alaska about a dozen times before, usually in pursuit of the high-country snow behind Valdez. On one trip home, he noticed the surf out the window of his plane.
"There were these amazing big waves just rolling into the point there, and I thought, 'Oh my god, I'm dying to go to Yakutat."
A few years ago, he began planning a trip that would culminate in a documentary film on extreme adventures, including a surfing scene in Alaska.
For expertise, he began corresponding with Endicott, asking about Yakutat's winter weather and wave patterns. For funding he tapped the Red Bull energy drink corporation, which sponsors a team of professional surfers. He invited five.
All he needed now was the wave.
Big wave surfers are part meteorogists, Endicott says. They end up studying real-time data from the extensive NOAA network of wave bouys, which can tell them the height, speed and direction of ocean swells anywhere in the world.
In mid-November, Harrington and team determined that some big sets were rolling toward Southeast Alaska and due in about a week. On Nov. 20 they stepped off the plane in Yakutat with a budget that would last 10 days.
Air temperatures hovered around the freezing point, and the water was only about 10 degrees warmer, Harrington said. That was OK -- they expected as much. But for the first week the waves were disappointing. And sitting in the water in the doldrums made it colder.
At one point Brazilian surfer Maya Gabiera grew hypothermic and was urged back to shore. At another, Tahitian jet-ski driver Raimana Van Bostaloer got hit in the head by a flying surfboard (resulting in a three-staple suture to his skull).
The waves improved on Thanksgiving, but time was running out. On Nov. 29, the day before the group was scheduled to leave, a buoy about 50 miles southwest provided good news: A wave 23 feet high was headed toward Yakutat. Others were nearly as big. Best of all, they were expected to arrive in the middle of Yakutat's brief five-hour window of daylight.
"Then all of a sudden the tide changed, rideable waves appeared before our eyes and the only 20 minutes of sun of the entire trip cast the most incredible rainbows we had ever witnessed," Harrington said.
Sterling and Gabiera had a ball.
"They were certainly the biggest waves ever surfed in Alaska, and they were ridden with style and finesse," said Harrington (who's posted multiple images of the day on his Web site, at www.wheresharro.com).
Endicott agrees with both statements. "It was really, really cool," he said.
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