Surfing Dungeons - the Story

Wednesday, 15 February 2006 17:43 | Written by 
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dungeons surfski

The "surf ski rocketing down huge wave" photo posted earlier on sparked plenty of interest. Here's the story behind the shot.

It was taken in 2004 on a Big Day at Dungeons outside Hout Bay here in Cape Town. Someone at SA Paddler magazine thought it might be interesting to take some photos of surf skis catching runs at Dungeons, and looked around for some truly insane paddlers to take up the challenge. Four intrepid surf skiers answered the call: Greg Bertish, Richard Kohler, Richard Sutton and Johann van Blerck.

Oh, and the photographer was in a little 15ft aluminum "tinny" with a 15hp outboard... No rubber duck or jetski; just a fast ski boat as a makeshift rescue craft.


Dungeons Reef is where the annual Red Bull Big Wave Africa surfing competition is held and that year Greg had been part of the Big Wave Safety Jetski Rescue crew. He'd smashed his jaw on his surf board and had knocked himself out, being lucky to escape with his life. "Yeah, I was concussed and spent a night in hospital," admitted Greg, "I nearly drowned."

Greg Bertish

The spray was blinding... Greg Bertish - extreme surf skier!

Greg has spent plenty of time around Dungeons and knows it intimately. "It's not like a point break," he said, "there are about three or four different reefs there and the waves can break anywhere over a 100m stretch." This makes Dungeons particularly dangerous. "There's no take off point," Greg said, "The waves might break for two hours consistently on the second reef and then suddenly a set comes from a different direction, breaks on the third reef and you're on the inside. You're never safe. That's why Dungeons has the reputation that it does."

"It was really difficult to catch the waves," said Rich, "they come through with such incredible speed. To catch a wave, you either sit behind it and have to go like hell, or you sit further in front, start going down it and try not to think about what's behind you."

Johann paddled within 50m of the shoulder but found the conditions unsettling. "The whole horizon tilted when the wave came through," he said, "Imagine an area the size of half a football field - that whole plane tilts up. You lost your perspective, and it was highly disorientating."

Conditions were far from ideal. Earlier that day, a group of surfers had been doing tow-ins - the waves were bigger but cleaner and the wind wasn't so strong. By the time the surf skiers got there, a strong northwesterly had arrived. "The wind seemed to strengthen up the face," Rich said, "and as the ski accelerated, the spray from the bow wave was blown so strongly into our faces that we couldn't see where we were going. We were there for an hour and half and Greg and I caught about four waves each"

Greg estimated that the waves had 15-20ft faces.

Greg Bertish extreme surfski

Going, going... Greg sets off again

  Greg Bertish extreme surfski

...that whole plane tilts...

Then Greg was caught on the inside of a set. "The wave I was on didn't take me out," he said, "but when I turned around, there was a 15ft broken wave coming at me. I stood up on the ski, threw my paddle away and dived." He was trapped for 5-10 minutes by a series of waves. "I wasn't in the impact zone," he said, "so I wasn't badly beaten."

The Dungeons waves lose energy abruptly when they get to the deep water channel behind the reef and Greg's ski was bobbing about undamaged in the foam. "We lost him for a while and had to rush in to look for him," said Rich. Remarkably they even found Greg's paddle.

Greg and Rich caught a last wave together. "I remember that I was on the inside and had the rudder hard over to the right but the ski would not pull off the wave. We managed to ride it all the way to the deep water and just looked at each other and said.... ‘That's more'".

Dungeons Surfski more! (Greg and Rich contemplate the waves)

Would Rich do it again? "It was by far the most stupid thing I have done on a surf ski," he said, "and on a borrowed one at that, but given the chance and an offer of a replacement ski if we fluff it then maybe give me a call..."

He grinned, "The things we do for fun!" 

As for Greg: "I definitely wouldn't do it again without proper safety. There are many better places to catch big waves that are not as unpredictable."

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