Behind every epic photo there is usually an equally epic story. Rising star Ryan Craig, shines a light on what it takes to capture that perfect shot. Every year, the Mavericks contest sees more and more media boats in the channel and this year was no exception. There’s no guarantee of getting a jet-ski ride due to the ban on personal watercraft and the contest’s overwhelming jockeying for best in-the-water viewing position. With such limited and challenging access when Mavericks breaks, I try to photograph from a body board to get as close to the break as possible.
This photo of Tyler Fox was shot in the semifinals of the 2013 contest when the swell was peaking. I was maneuvering around on my bodyboard and was caught off guard by how large this set was. Due to an ACL tear, I was kicking with only one leg and was not as quick “on my feet” to get into position. With an unsteady hand, I aimed the camera over my right shoulder to snap this photo of Tyler while I tried to steady myself on the board. Consequently, it’s a touch out of focus.
After this frame, having stopped shooting, I kicked over the wave only to see another impressive attention-getting wave behind it. It was the first and only time to date at Mavs that I’ve been caught inside. With limited kicking power I knew I wasn’t going to make it to the shoulder. Without a leash on my camera or my board, I tossed my board to the side and attempted to dive under the whitewater. I was wearing a dry bag, which prevented me from a deep dive. Fortunately, I only cartwheeled, lost one fin, and escaped a major pounding. My bag remained sealed and thankfully I was able to keep my water housing in my hands. My bodyboard, how- ever, was never to be seen again.
It was a really big and chaotic water day in Mexico, but I wanted to swim. Although there was the option of getting a lift out to the lineup on a PWC, I chose to make the swim.
As soon as I started out, it became immediately apparent that the rips and shifty peaks were no joke. I drifted quite a ways out of position before I accepted a ride from someone on a jet ski. Even with their assistance, I was only able to stay in position for a few minutes before needing another ride to get back in the sweet spot.
I would see great waves and the occasional great ride, yet I couldn’t get in good shooting position fast enough. After an hour of constant swimming, Brian Conley happened to catch this wave right in front of me. I love how much whitewater is in the tube and all the turbulent water on the inside. It really represents how messy this morning was. Sometimes the long swims are worth it, even if only for a single image.
Hawaii, and specifically Pipeline, has and will always be the Mecca of progressive surfing and the proving grounds for a surfer as well as a water photographer. The first time I visited the North Shore as a photographer was 2004/2005. I was intimidated, to say the least. There were swarms of photographers on the beach and in the water. The waves were massive. Photos don’t do places like Pipeline justice. After a few swims during smaller days at Backdoor and OTW, I finally gathered the courage to swim out at Pipeline on a good-size day. Things were going well until I got caught inside on a solid eight-foot set. I remember the point where I knew I wasn’t going to be able to swim through the wave and had to brace for impact. The water was boiling all around and I dove, only to see the reef about five feet below. I hugged the reef, keeping my eyes open and watching as the lip detonated 10 feet in front of me. I was slammed into the reefs. Although I was wearing a helmet, I wasn’t wearing a top and I now have scars to show for it. Luckily, Pipeline is not live coral and I wasn’t torn to shreds. But it was really scary. It’s only a matter of time before every water photographer or surfer experiences this situation. I tried taking it in stride. After a few days off, I continued shooting. I was shooting film back then and it wasn’t until I returned to Santa Cruz that I saw this frame of Spencer Skipper riding this Pipe beast. It was later used as the cover of Riptide Bodyboarding magazine, fueling my love affair with surf photography. I took a small break from Hawaii for a few years following that season. But I’m back there every year now. Pipeline still absolutely scares me but it is extremely rewarding to nail a great image while putting myself in dangerous, adrenaline-pumping situations.
Traveling is always an adventure. I was down in Chile with Kyle Thiermann and to be perfectly honest, we were, at best, winging it. Neither of us spoke much Spanish, but we luckily met a handful of Chileans who spoke English and wanted to show us around.
We were bound for a break a few hours north of where we were staying. We grabbed an overnight bag and took off. On the ride, I absorbed the countryside sights, eager to see where we were headed. Open roads transitioned into narrow dirt roads but our speed didn’t change. Our 4-by-4 slid left to right as we accelerated in hopes of catching some surf before dark. Both a great surfer and good driver, it was clear that Leon Vicuña knew these roads, but he misjudged a turn and we nearly rolled the truck. We slid almost out of control as Leon tried to stay straight. We recovered from the skid and, afterward, everyone’s adrenaline settled and we arrived at the last stretch of road and saw a beautiful coastline with swell lines at consistent intervals. Leon was excited but focused. He said we have to lock our hubs and change the all-wheel drive to low to make it down the last part of the road called “The Knife.” At first it looks nearly impossible to drive. But Leon ensures us that it’s all good as long as we go slowly. With the car full of camping gear, boards and five people, I’m a bit skeptical. Our near accident earlier had us a little wary. As we start down The Knife, we slowly roll down a 20 percent grade with switchbacks as far as I can see. The drivetrain rattled as the tires briefly locked and slid in corners. There is no safety railing. If our truck goes off the road, then we’ll drop hundreds of feet into a canyon. As we slowly inch down the road, we see the epic conditions and, although my adrenaline is high, I know that Leon is taking this road cautiously. After a long afternoon of driving, Leon put on a show in the water and threw a few beautiful airs like this before sundown.
After a few trips to the tropics and some trial and error combos, my swimming attire now includes a wetsuit top and neoprene bottoms under my board shorts. It’s always nice to tan but way more important to be comfortable when swimming for a long periods.
I was in Nicaragua with the Gudauskas brothers and cameraman David Malcom at an isolated slab. We all swam out pre-sunrise to take advantage of the good conditions. The waves and weather were both perfect.
Close to the moment of this shot of Pat Gudauskas, I heard Dave shouting about something on the inside. I could tell it was urgent because he was swimming in circles and his commotion was intensifying. My first thought was “shark!?” Dave was wearing a cotton T-shirt and he kept pulling at it violently while frantically trying to paddle away from the threat. I swam to him and realized it was jellyfish. A few had managed to find their way under his shirt and made a statement about being trapped. The next few days, Dave was the itchiest human alive. It’s a
testimonial for my new habit of wearing a snug top and bottoms when in tropical waters.