We spoke with 2016 Red Bull Cape Fear winner Russell Bierke about one of the most historic days in Australian surfing history.
Just over a week ago, Australia's east coast was rocked by a powerful storm that created some of the most spectacular waves in recent memory. While sensible residents ran for cover from the 40-knot winds and 15-foot swells, a hand-picked group of some of the world’s best big wave surfers took to Cape Solander in Botany Bay to compete in the annual Red Bull Cape Fear competition.
This invitation-only event welcomes 16 hand-selected surfers each year to compete in head-to-head heats at the famed “Ours” break, and conditions have to be just right before the green light is given at this fickle break. On the morning of June 6, 2016, competitors were greeted with waves of over 12 feet and what unfolded will go down as one of the most historic days in surfing history. And even more impressive, the event was won by a teenager.
finder.com.au sat down with the champion of the 2016 Red Bull Cape Fear final, 18-year old South Coast charger Russell Bierke, to find out just what went down.
Interview by William Eve
For those out there that don't know, can you provide a quick breakdown of the Red Bull Cape Fear competition and why it's such a unique competition?
The Red Bull Cape Fear is an invite only competition that takes 16 surfers Mark Mathews (event organiser, Maroubra local and big wave surfer export) has handpicked and puts them into eight one-on-one battles, matching up surfers of similar strengths. I was in a heat with my good friend Riley Laing and we were both the youngest. They pretty much tried to make the best rivalries possible. [The competition] is on Cape Salander on the southern tip of Botany Bay and the competitors are basically just on standby until there is a swell big enough to give the competition the green light.
How long before the actual competition were you told that it might go ahead?
They give you the orange light four days out that there is a swell coming so you can be on standby. It was confirmed about two days out [we'd surf]. Conditions were constantly changing, so pretty short notice really. It takes so much to get that wave to work well, but it was pretty much the best it’s ever been.
Had you surfed “Ours” many times before?
I’ve surfed it a few times and had fun waves there, but never at the level we got it at for the competition. This was my first time towing into it and surfing it over six feet.
Did you get a chance to get towed into a couple before the comp kicked off on Monday?
We had the choice to free-surf it before the comp started, but none of us wanted to! We didn’t even know if it was surfable. Then it just started getting better and better and we got the green light that it was on. As the competition progressed and the tide got lower and lower we actually had to call it off and postpone to the next day. It just got too dangerous.
Watching the opening heat and seeing how hard the guys were going, it seemed almost certain there would be an injury. Can you describe the atmosphere in the competition area?
I didn’t find it at all competitive; the swell was just too crazy. Very heavy conditions. It was like any other day out there with those guys. We all surf together a bunch and just wanted to keep pushing each other. Jughead (Central Coast-based competitor Justin Allport) is an absolute animal, he was having an absolute ball out there. The safety team did an amazing job keeping us all together and looking out for us.
Day two saw competitors both towing and paddling in, how did you prepare for the competition in terms of the boards you used?
I towed in on a different board than I was paddling on. I’ve had it for years and years. It is just magic in those conditions. It was nearly impossible when paddling to get yourself in the right spot; it was cat and mouse out there for the first half hour.
Talk us through the final with Ryan Hipwood and that 10-point ride, we can now see at redbull.tv?
After watching Koby (Abberton) and Rooster (Ryan Adams) get bomb after bomb, it was Ryan and I who had a turn to tow. Neither of us were that confident, but the swell kept building and we just pushing and pushing – my legs were about to collapse.
My 10 pointer I thought I was gone! The whole time I was thinking, "please don’t land on me, please don’t land on me." Then it just opened up and turned perfect. Such a good way to cap-off the comp. I’m still so mentally drained from the competition – the huge audience, preparing yourself for those conditions. On the second day I had to ignore it all and just stop watching the wave as the more I watched it, the more scared I got. I pretty much just had to go and sit in the board room.
How does the wave compare to other slabs you have ridden on the South Coast, in West Oz and at Hawaii in terms of difficulty, power and danger?
Cape Fear is just as heavy and dangerous as any other wave I have surfed. They might get bigger in Hawaii, but Cape Fear is breaking on a cliff making it just as dangerous, if not more. When you fall out there you feel like you're getting rolled by a wave twice as big as what it is.
Was Koby cool after the dust had settled seeing the mantle go to an 18-year-old and not one of the local Maroubra crew?
I could tell Koby was a bit jealous (laughs) trying to steal the trophy back at the hotel. But I know everyone was stoked to just come out of it with no serious injuries or deaths. (laughs)
With this win under your belt, what does the future hold?
I’d like to try and get a wildcard into a big wave world tour event. I just want to keep chasing swells and hopefully a few more events like this one. It has to be one of the most watched surf events of all time from what I’ve heard from everyone and seen online. It’d be nice to have a few more of these for sure.]
Is this your biggest accomplishment to date?
This is my biggest accomplishment to date by far.