It's the loneliest feeling in the world, say Jamie Mitchell and Grant "Twiggy" Baker…
Feel this most dreamy scenario. You and two pals sit atop a clear and very blue sea two miles off the romantically named town of St Jean de Luz in France. It’s January 7, 2014. Winter, sure, but it’s one of those gorgeous Bay of Biscay days where the air is clear and sharp. With the right wind, you can smell bread baking and coffee brewing within the bakeries and cafes that inflate its medieval streets. Today, is one of those days.
Friend one, positioned 50 yards out to sea, paddles for a wave. You detect his inability to connect and proceed to paddle shoreward.
Friend three, positioned 50 yards shoreward, hoots encouragement just as the wave grabs the tail of your board and proceeds to project you forward.
Ok. Now, stop, right, here.
A quick change in the variables reveals thus. Friend one is Shane Dorian. Friend two, Grant “Twiggy” Baker. And you are Jamie Mitchell.
Between the three of you is 30-plus feet of fibreglass and more volume than most have in their entire quiver.
And you, my friend, is about to eat shit.
“We got up that morning and the swell was so big it had sunk our jet-ski which we had waiting in the harbour,” recalls Mitchell of the day that would further catapult him to absolute godliness. “It freaked us out a bit, but we managed to jag a lift on a boat and met up with Shane O and a few of the guys who were busy waxing up.”
The trio are about to paddle out to the deep-water break named Belharra.
Mitchell, once only a mythical character in lifeguarding and paddle-boarding circles, partially inflates the Patagonia inflatable vest he’s wearing beneath a Quiksilver-issue steamer and takes a moment before plunging into the cold ocean and paddling towards the peak.
Somewhere amid the hubbub, videographer Vincent Kardasik mounts the back of a jet-ski and heads off in the same direction.
Dorian, Mitchell and Baker position themselves amid the vast line-up and begin an anxious wait for the tell-tale signs of bumps on the horizon and the ignition of jet-skis way out the back. As each wave passes, the plumes of whitewater being blown off the back shower down golf ball-sized pellets onto the backs of our three heroes.
“That shit hurts,” says Mitchell of the droplets. “But, we were all talking to each other and keeping one eye out to sea at the same time. Talking, but real nervous at the same time. And then I saw Shane O make a move and start paddling for one and I thought to myself, ‘Righto, here we go.’”
Mitchell senses Dorian’s inability to connect with the wave and digs his heels in, swings his 10’6″ around and begins to paddle shoreward as the wave starts to jack.
Further in and to the left a little, Kardasik subconsciously manoeuvres a gloved thumb towards the record button.
“We had been waiting for that wave all morning,” recalls Twiggy. “As soon as I saw that wave, I knew Jamie was in the perfect spot to catch it, so I paddled as hard as I could to get out of his line and get myself over the back safely. All the while I was just screaming at him to ‘Go, go, go'”.
The tail engages and as Mitchell feels the familiar sensation of lift, he recalls hearing Twig’s encouragement, but turns his attention to the task at hand. “The thing with waves of that size is, you get a bit of time to ready yourself for the drop, and I felt like I had a real good stance, everything felt sweet,” says Mitchell. “But I got a bit down the face and just started to bunny hop.”
Twiggy is gifted a remarkable view. “I was worried about what was behind that wave, but at the same time I was so mesmerised by it,” he says. “I was front and centre for one of the greatest surfing moments ever and all I could think about was how incredible it looked and how badly I wanted Jamie to catch it.”
Twiggy, at this point, is paddling skywards just as Mitchell dismounts his board and begins to skim in the opposite direction. “I had a bit of time to think about things and then I just made sure to pull my arms and legs in and braced for impact,” says Mitchell.
And as Mitchell is plummeted downwards, Twiggy is once again gifted a view so few will ever know. “I came over the top of Jamie’s wave and must have air-dropped about 10 feet off the back,” he says. “I couldn’t see anything because of the spray but when it cleared all I could see was a massive wall of water. It was at least 70 feet, blocked out the sky and was about to break directly on my head. I’d never seen anything like that from that angle before.”
Two friends, a long way from home, deep, deep underwater.
“It’s up there with the worst hold-downs I’ve ever had,” says Mitchell. “It gave me a real good work over, but the one after it, that’s the one that really got me.”
Mitchell surfaces just in time to be confronted with the same wave that’d dealt Twiggy a firm hiding. “It the loneliest feeling in the world,” says Mitchell. “I popped up and had a couple seconds to look towards the channel and I could just see no one was coming, no one could get to me. I looked towards the wave and it was just a massive wall of whitewater. I recall not being able to distinguish where the wave ended and the sky started.”
Mitchell takes a couple deep breaths and plunges as deep as his inflated vest will allow. “I actually don’t like going too deep under big waves because I find you get pushed along and out of the way of the wave behind and you’re less likely to have a two wave hold down,” he says. “And this thing must have dragged me a couple hundred metres, easy.”
Mitchell is eventually flushed into the deep-water channel still unaware of the enormity of the two waves he’d just dealt with. “I honestly didn’t think they were as big as they were. Then Shane O dragged me over to the boat to look at the footage,” he says.
“That wave, for sure, is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, ever attempted as a paddle in,” says Shane O.
Loneliness and exhilaration, what strange bedfellows.
(And how about that photo! If you like Timo Jarvinen’s work you can buy his prints just by clicking here.)