Welcome To Nobody Town

28 Sep 2015 1 Share

Jock Serong

Senior Writer

Backdoor with Burcher, Photo by Bellett

Backdoor with Burcher, Photo by Bellett

Story by Jock Serong for Surfing World Magazine Issue 364

Brett Burcher lives in Narrawally, which is outer Mollymook, which in turn is outer Ulladulla. It’s a coast he knows intimately – until three months ago, he’d lived in the very place his parents brought him home to when he was born.

It follows that he has his share of local cred in the water (“Mum’s family in particular go back a long way here”), but even then he’s careful, when describing these shots, about revealing too much of the place or its waves. “It’d be naive to say it’s not creating a bit of froth,” he tells SW. “We’ve got ‘community’ waves here – the ones everybody surfs when they’re on. We’ll never shoot those. We shoot the ones no-one goes to, and they’ll never get crowded.”

Burcher’s training to be a teacher, and will probably wind up doing his placements in the very school he went to. Thus the protectiveness – he’s full of affection for the place. “I’ve never been anywhere that compares to here. It’s a great community, quiet but not to the point that nothing’s happening – the city’s within reach and there’s plenty of waves. There’s the mountains, it’s good for kids. And we’ve got the best pie shop in the world.”

Such tranquillity doesn’t sound like the makings of slab-charging hell-men. But as these shots demonstrate, every now and then the conditions turn on in perfect combination. And when they do, Burcher, together with photographer Simon Punch and surfers Whip Dennis and Leroy Bellet, are on it.

Scott “Whip” Dennis” comes from Bawley Point, another haven on this idyllic coast. He’s a carpenter by trade but is focussed right now on chasing swells and making footage. He teamed up with Burcher so they’d have each other to rely on. “We’ve been on the same page for the last four years, chasing the same thing.” Simon Punch, meanwhile, is one half of the photographic department in this loose corporation. He grew up further north in Bermagui, and with the support of his parents, started out chasing a career in tennis. Three knee ops later, photography was starting to look a little more sustainable. So he set about teaching himself, and got in the habit of “hassling other photographers on the beach – if any of you are reading this, I apologise”. He shoots with a Canon in a housing made by “the guru of housing design”, Dave Kelly at Photo Tech.

Home town hangs, Photo by Punch

Home town hangs, Photo by Punch

As with each of these experimentalists, Punch has multiple dimensions to his act – he’s a qualified plumber, “but I did travel NSW writing and photographing a book on historic pubs,” and has made books on camping and four wheel driving with his wife Vanessa.

The youngest of the crew is Leroy Bellet, currently in year ten, and the sort of kid that Burcher could be teaching in a year or two. But he’s on a trip that’s all his own. Raised in a surfing family, he’s got an eye on his younger brother Sonny as a potential shooting partner in years to come. For a comparative youngster, he’s got a strong handle on the tech side of his work, and the financial commitment to back it: “Primarily (I’m using) the Nikon D810 in an Aquatech Water Housing,” he says. “I have a couple of other DSLRs and a bunch of lenses. I work in a local supermarket after school and weekends, but to be honest, it all pays for itself. I don’t mean if everyone goes out and spends 10k on equipment it’ll pay off. It’s very hard work ?and I’ve gotten to a financial point where ?I’m somewhat committed to it.”

Simon Punch sounds a little in awe of the youngster: “It’s hard to believe Leroy is still only a grom,” he says. “He’s already built a solid portfolio and is trying to push the boundaries, putting his body (and super-expensive camera gear) on the line to nail some different perspectives.”

The eight-hour session you see here was an unusual convergence of perfect numbers. The swell was 14-15 seconds, which is long-period for this part of the world, angling from the south and skimmed by a light and persistent westerly. “Even the tide was perfect,” says Whip.

“This particular day was so blue, so sunny,” Burcher recalls. “It was a two-day swell, a groomed four to six foot with straight, straight lines. The water was clear – maybe too clear, because if it was a little more stirred, Leroy wouldn’t have had to be looking at the bottom.” The righthander, according to Burcher at least, is a “glorified close-out”, a pull-in, barrel and exit through the doggy door, followed by a mercifully deep-water run-off. It’s very much an open-ocean environment – there’s usually dolphins out there, and seals on the rock ledge to the south. During a prior session, a bronzy patrolled the channel: “It wasn’t a worry because he didn’t seem keen on us, and the pickup’s pretty quick after you kick out.”

In mono, Photo by Bellett

In mono, Photo by Bellett

The real danger might be as simple as drowning. “There was so much water moving out there,” recalls Simon Punch. “When a set draws off the reef at low tide you can’t swim out and you can’t swim in. You’re just stuck in this vortex.”

What these guys are doing on the reef that differentiates their trips from the unusual tow-surf missions is the photography. Inspired by the well known images of French pro surfer turned photographer extraordinaire Laurent Pujol, the first guy to really nail the ride-behind angle, the ski driver (either Burcher or Whip in turns) pulls both the surfer and Bellet into the slab, where Bellet shoots over the shoulder and out through the barrel, before allowing the wave to take him down, frequently into a below-sea-level hole they call “the closet”. Here’s how Bellet himself describes the method:

“Let me run you through this. I sit on the back of the rope, rope handle in one hand and camera in the other. The surfer sits on the rope with about a metre gap between us, holding a little knot we made for this purpose, while the driver’s up on the ski, scouting for looming sets. Whoever’s driving gives a shout, then we get up before the set comes in. We generally do two little loops if we have time, just so we’re in the spot, up and ready. The driver stands up and decides which wave of the set – one, two or three fingers to signal first, second or third wave (whichever is biggest). We’re off.

“Coming in is a lot easier on a clean day: otherwise it’s a bumpy ride. We need to time letting go of the rope perfectly, the front surfer lets go and I let go just a fraction of a second later. If I go first it can fling and wrap the other guy up, which is funny but apparently hurts. Then the first surfer will fade to the inside a little and I follow into the bottom turn. Now I get that heart-in-mouth feeling and an idea of how much water is behind me and how little below me – more than a few profanities have slipped from my mouth on the bottom turn. I throw both arms above my head, tense my core and pull the trigger. The whole time I’m keeping one eye on the surfer and the other in the trough at the bottom of the barrel, looking for a nice place to bail. If I’m not attentive and the guy in front falls, it can end badly. It happened once with Whip and I turned just quick enough to get the fins in the back of my head instead of my face. I got a nice deep wound and a bunch of staples, Whip lost two fins as well (poor guy).

“Whoosh! The bottom appears and I jump forwards, hug the camera, twist to the right and nine out of ten times hit the bottom on my left shoulder. This is followed by a lot of thrashing over the shelf and usually rolling off the other side, down into deeper water. From here, if I’m struggling for breath I let go of the camera: if not I hold onto it and swim up to taste that sweet oxygen.

Through the glass ceiling, Photo by Bellet

Through the glass ceiling, Photo by Bellet

“This is what happens if everything goes to plan, but majority of the time it doesn’t. Really strange way of riding a wave: the whole time thinking about wiping out and having no intention of making it. The hardest part though, by far, is to keep doing it.”

After eight hours of that punishment on the day depicted here, everyone was destroyed, but no-one more so than Leroy. According to Whip, “The grom must’ve been even more shattered than us. He’s taking six to eight-foot beatings. It’s his call – he doesn’t want the standard fisheye shot. He wants more. I think he’s got a few screws loose.”

The perspective from the ski must be horrifying. “He’s so far back in the tube he’s missing the whole foam ball,” says Burcher. “It gets the surfer in front of him. But Leroy goes hard – he’s putting himself in a position where he gets flogged every time. These are long hold-downs. And he’s only like 16 – the kid’s still in school!”

There’s been some heavy situations out there. After one particularly brutal thrashing Leroy surfaced and said, “I think something in my neck just popped.” According to Burcher, they checked him out in the water and “he had this weird fluidy bit of skin the size of a teabag” near the end of his jaw. “What the fuck is that thing?” someone blurted. It didn’t stop him though. The reward for risking life and limb in a series of deliberate wipeouts is the loading of the photos at the end of it all. “It’s different every time,” says Leroy. “Some of my work grows on me over time, and some, I instantly know I nailed it. I love to look at all the intricate details in the lip and stuff, the kind of things you don’t get to pay as much attention to in the moment.” Punch agrees: “It can feel like you’ve won the lottery when you get a good one (not that I’ve ever won the lottery). There’s plenty of elements which can ruin a frame like water droplets, the surfer’s eyes being closed or pulling a Zoolander blue-steel face.”

All kamikaze style, Photo by Punch

All kamikaze style, Photo by Punch

While they’re describing these shots to us, the boys are in the car, heading for another reef off South Australia somewhere – a punishing two-day drive loaded up with three huge board-bags, swags towering on top of them, and the ski trailing behind. Somehow they’ll negotiate their way through Adelaide airport and the CBD to pick up a mate, before taking on an “even heavier” slab, using the same madcap Kamikaze shooting technique. But each of them sounds as though they can’t imagine life any other way.

“Only boring people get bored,” says Punch. “People should spend a little less time checking their Facebook updates and get out more.”

At a cursory glance, this could all be interpreted as traditional grommet-hazing. Why stuff a grom in a bin when you can watch him getting flogged on a shallow offshore slab all day long? But you get the sense that the grommet’s out in front here, master of his own masochism, and these guys might be capable of anything.


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