After catching what some are saying is the gnarliest wave in South Bay history, wild card entry Alex Gray took down 23-of the World’s best big wave riders.
Breaking ½ mile out to sea, Nelscott Reef is a bombora with a shorebreak that requires the assistance of a watercraft to take on the 12-15 foot faces and the crunchy shorepound. Even with a 4 stroke top-of the line PWC, competitors in tow behind a seasoned driver who also most likely competes on the same Big Wave Tour in other events, takes a beating. Perfect example: by the later rounds, heats were delayed as the lower tide intensified the inside.
The line-up is tricky with no landmarks to determine where the exact take off spot. Surfers battle the current and the ever shifting swell that collides on various parts of the reef. The larger sets that break further out on the reef make it more interesting. Combine all these variables with 50 degree and below water temp, wind changing to victory-at-sea white caps in a moments notice, it’s easy to see why this big wave spot wasn’t attempted until 1995. The rugged nature of the reef just off the coast of Lincoln City makes it the perfect wave to test 24 of the world’s best big wave surfers.
With Big Wave Tour Events only running if the conditions are ideal, 30 ft plus preferably 50 ft, each contest has a four month window during their respected big wave season for the event to be called “on.” Once the “green light” has been given, competitors are informed 72 hours prior to drop everything and get to the event. March 12th, the Oregon Pro was to happen, and the South Bay’s Alex Gray was invited to surf his first Big Wave Contest as a wildcard for event title sponsor Dive N; Surf.
Photo by Richard Hallman
Gray’s first heat was stacked as can be. His draw included: current points leader South African Grant “Twiggy” Baker winner of the last two events, the Body Glove Mavericks Invitational (where Gray was manning a PWC as member of the Water Safety Team) and the Arnette Punta Galea Challenge: Basque Country. San Clemente’s Greg Long, the only surfer to win the Quiksilver Big Wave Invitational: In Memory of Eddie Aikau, the Maverick’s Invitational, and the Red Bull Big Wave Africa event was the other big name. Grey would end up catching five waves in the glassy conditions. With the top score being doubled, he scored a 22.83 from a 7.83, and a 7.17, just a few points below heat winner Baker.
Photo by Richard Hallman
By Gray’s Semi, the lowering tide increased the unpredictability of the take off spot. He followed Baker into a heat that included Santa Cruz’s Shawn Dollar. Dollar, a big Maverick’s local, caught one of the bigger bombs out the backside for a 9.50 and won the heat. Grey made one of the more critical drops for a 9.00 landing him into second place finish for a final’s birth.
With being broadcast live from Universal Sports, Contest organizers knew that by the finals the increasing swell combined with peak low tide would make the most challenging, yet exciting heat of the day. The swell took the more exposed reef head on, jacking up the set waves. Any ripple would break causing more opportunities for the contestants to get stuck inside. The wind picked up out of the north west adding a nasty choppiness. The chop could quickly turn a drop into a wipeout which could easily be followed by a two to three wave hold down. For his third heat, Gray again went against Baker who needed the victory to seal winning the Big Wave World Tour. Also in the finals, a red hot Dollar, who had won every one of his heat. Dollar drew first blood by catching his biggest wave of the day, going sideways on the drop only to recover on his bottom turn and outrun the exploding white wash.
Midway through the heat, Gray stroked into a suicidal set wave. While the wave began to feather, he needed a outboard boat motor to even come close to getting enough momentum to jump to his feet. Gray got to his feet only to realize that there was nothing but air below his 9’6” Channel Islands gun. And so with the bottom being continually ripped from underneath him, Gray free fell down the face into a pretty “oh shit” situation. Once his fins decided to grip the face, it became a “oh shit,” he pulled it situation. From there, the smooth style that’s been a part of his surfing since summer days at Torrance Beach took a hold of the wave. Drawing beautiful lines among the turmoil of chop, Gray effortlessly stayed in front of the avalanche of white wash connecting all the way to the inside for the only “10” of the contest. With 15 minutes or so to go, Gray caught a 7.17 comboing the field. Baker made an attempt at Gray on a ginormous left, but it was the criticalness of Gray’s drop that gave him the victory. Final Results: Alex Gray 27.17, Shawn Dollar 24.17, Grant Baker 23.673, Kohl Christensen 23.67, Will Skudin 23.49, Anthony Tashnick 22.66
After hearing of his first victory, Gray descended back to shore on the back of PWC giving fist pumps and hollers seen and heard all the way from the South Bay. He was greeted with hugs and “yews” by fellow Body Glove Team rider Cheyne Magnusson and Gray’s mentor, Greg Browning.
Photo by Shannon Marie Quirk
“Im so stoked to be here for for my first time at Nelscott,” Gray said in a post contest interview. “My first wave I rode here was with a jersey on in my first big wave world tour event.”
As for his first heat, Gray was just happy to be a part of the event especially with two of the world’s best big wave riders in Baker and Long.
“Nelscott is a good paddle wave, for the first heat and peak high tide, I knew it would be slow,” he said. “ I had to have a contest mentality, to go inside and get a back up wave, then paddle out for a big wave for my double highest wave.”
Through out the event he rode a little of of a shorter gun that paddled fast and got him into waves that didn’t appear to be breaking.
“I had my 9-6 and 9-9 back up board,” he said. “My channel island’s board was my winning factor, having foam under my chest.”
Underneath his singlet, all competitors were given free life saving vests courtesy of Patagonia. Each vest included four Co2 canisters, so you could pull just one, or four if you were in a hairy situation.
“Vest are the future of big wave surfing safety,” Gray said. “It allows us to push our limits.”
Gray went ahead to thank Body Glove for his custom 5 mil red wetsuit.
“This suit kept me from freezing in Alaska,” he said. “Even though I may look like Santa Claus with all this rubber.”
On a final note, kudos to Body Glove for stepping it up and sponsoring three of the Big Wave Tour Events. During the live telecast, seeing Dive n’s Surf’s logo flicker on the telecast after a commercial featuring local South Bay surf spots and surfers, followed by a Redondo Beach tourism commercial with clips of the Redondo Beach Pier and King Harbor, made you feel stoked to live in the South Bay.
The next event is the Dive n’ Surf at Todos Santos with the waiting period ending March 31st. DZ