INTERVIEW: The Man Who Has Documented Every One Of Surfing's Most Messed Up Wipeouts

Jason Lock

by on

Updated 5d ago

Everyone loves watching a wipeout. The adrenaline pumps, especially after you get that sudden hit of 'I'm thankful that wasn't me'. We enjoy gluing our eyes to screen when a particularly nasty flogging crops up and we cannot help it.

And we're sure you'll recall these vids that dropped on MSW recently; 15 messed up minutes of people getting obliterated (see HERE) and the inevitable follow up, 13 (more) messed up minutes of people getting obliterated (HERE) Well, they're all down to big wave documentarian Tim Bonython who has been at most, if not all, big wave sessions that have thrown down over the past few decades. Yes, decades.

So if anyone is qualified to say when something is (or isn't) heavy, it's Mr Bonython. Anyway, we wanted to touch base with Tim about those vids, which kinda broke the internet, unlocking his terror vault and some of the heaviest scenarios he's ever seen.

How did you come up with the idea of releasing the Terror Vault?
Terror Vault series is an idea that came up due to the COVID-19 isolation. We had plan to work on our next ASMF (Australian Surf Movie tour) and the momentum was cut short as ASMF requires sponsorship, venue bookings and a budget. 

So sitting in the edit suit watching our RAID running 24/7 - we thought that we needed to look at all the edits we have done in the past that had never been published. As I have issues focusing on one task, watching all that footage made my head spin. 

On YouTube there are so many people ripping our footage off, so we thought it was time for us to beat them at their game and make our own legit best of videos including the new Terror Vault series. Those thieves don’t shoot nothing. They steal and get away with it. 

Anyway, I know one thing for sure is the public love wipeouts.  Over the last 20 years, I have focused my attention on mostly big waves, big waves with consequence. When we are on the road with our ASMF showing our films on the big screen, you can feel the energy in the room, the wipeout really brings home how crazy the sport can be.

Simon Anderson's quote on our last tour featuring The Big Wave Project said: “The Big Wave Project didn’t disappoint. The reaction of the people at the premiere screening said it all. I’ve never heard so many ohs and ahs in a cinema. A great insight to the inner sanctum of just about every big wave charger and big wave destination from around the globe. 5 Stars Tim.”

So while supposedly isolating we created a edit with my home break, Cape Solander, in Sydney, then the right in Western Australia and the next one will be with Teahupoo, then Shipsterns and the rest of the world.

Bruce Irons locks in here.

Bruce Irons locks in here.

© 2020 - Tim Bonython.

Some of those wipeouts are super nasty, which was heaviest to witness from behind the lens?
It’s weird because some of the worst wipeouts I have documented,  the surfer ends up being ok. I am thinking, for example, about Niccolo Porcella at Teahupoo during the Code Orange swell in 2015 when he went head over the falls straight into the reef on a 25 footer.

We all thought he was a dead man after that. Just incredible because 20 minutes later, he had an even more horrific wipeout getting launched from top to bottom which will obviously be in the next Terror Vault edit on Teahupoo

Then there’s that mental moment of Myron Porter going over and down the hole at the Right. Just watch it and you’ll know what I’m talking about. And then there is James Hollmer-Cross at Tasmania’s Pedra Blanca which was used in Point Break 2...heavy.

Mark Mathews on The Right, Bonython on the ski.

Mark Mathews on The Right, Bonython on the ski.

© 2020 - Russell Ord.

And what was the unfortunate victim’s reaction? 
There’s no doubt that these guys get rattled but most of the time as long as they come back to the surface, I am focused on the next moment or wave.

What else have you got lined up to keep us all entertained?
Being forced to stay put and not being able to travel... it got me somehow to look back on all my shoots over the years. I guess isolation has been a good thing in that regards. But what I find difficult to work on, is the 40-years of data to log and organise millions of tapes and film.

That is quite challenging. It is also very costly to store the data, continually updating the storage equipment and backing up. But it is not just the digital recording done on the past eight or so years but all the video tapes beyond too.

So while I am at the edit desk creating new edits for YouTube, I have the tape machine downloading the hundreds of cassettes that have been recorded over the years on Mini DV, Video 8, DVCam, DVC Pro tapes, Betacam... It's endless data to be transcoded to video files onto the hard drives. 

But answering on what’s getting created for your future entertainment, we have a bunch of new projects we are currently working on. 

First up we have a TV series of shows called Swell Chasers for FOXTEL here in Australia. We are so grateful to have their support especially during these times. We still need to get further funding to complete the production but that is another story. But answering on what’s getting created for your future entertainment, we have a bunch of new projects we are currently working on. 

In essence it is to get an insight in to what I do and how I get the ultimate shot chasing the world’s craziest big wave locations with the world's best big wave surfers.

So far our first episode focuses on Shipsterns at Tasmania featuring Kipp Caddy from Sydney, Jughead from the central coast and bodyboard legend Mike Stewart. We have also shot on location two more episodes at Nazare, Portugal and Mullaghmore in Ireland. We would have one more episode to do in this series, either Teahupoo or The Right in WA. But that’s when borders open up again.

Then we have our Australian Surf Movie Festival which we would normally tour around the Australia into pubs, clubs and cinemas.  Due to coronavirus and the consequences of isolation, we won’t be able to tour until venues and patrons can freely open and congregate. So we are planning to streaming it online.

And 2021 we would come back with a live tour, hopefully get back on the road touring around Australia with our next film which will be The Big Wave Project 2 but more on that later. For now  we are continuing releasing youtube videos ie Terror Vault wipeout edits

In the future i have a dream to create a Surfing Symphony, a live theatrical film musical presentation. This is a project of mine close to my heart that I've been thinking about for years. It is a long term project but it's very intricate and costly.

WATCH: Live cam at Nazare

Perfection.

Perfection.

© 2020 - Tim Bonython.

So incredibly busy then! But back to the Terror Vault and the wipeouts. Those first two vids went wild on MSW, internet breaking! Was that the reaction you hoped for?
You know the whole YouTube thing wasn’t something I was fond of. I saw it as something for the masses without the quality that you would get watching it on the big screen. In fact it was the opposite considering most of my career was putting bums on seats.

But my partner Sandrine in the background for years was loading up our films with some edits getting now millions of views!

Then COVID-19 comes along and you look at what pays the bills and you think...wow, maybe it's only YouTube. It took some convincing but I get it. As independant producers and surf film makers, our revenue options are quite limited. 

What strikes me most with YouTube is that so many channel use my footage, actually ripped off my footage to create their own edit and cashing on my work -- and there is very little we can do. We made a few claims, but it's time consuming and two months later, they are at it again. So we are focusing on what we can do for ourselves and deliver rightful content, great quality.

Seems that wipeout videos are what the masses like to see. So when you look at the viewing figures, it is quite pleasing to see and we appreciate everyone's support. 

But once again, it has a lot to do with Sandrine building up the subscriber base on our Surfing Visions channel that creates the solid foundation to get the viewing up to like half of million in a couple of weeks. It’s actually pretty crazy really for me to see. So now, we will challenge ourselves to grow our YouTube subscriber base and keep adding more great content for all to enjoy. God, I have 40 years of data so it shouldn’t be too hard.

Kalani Lattanzi.

Kalani Lattanzi.

© 2020 - Tim Bonython.

Famous last words? And Cape Solander, it can be such a warped place – but it is also a thing of beauty. Where does it sit for you in the heaviness scale?
The Cape is actually really amazing. I mean ten-to-twelve years ago, no one would surf it. So it actually took a certain breed of human to take it on as it looks so heavy.

So you have the Bra Boys, with fearless Koby Abberton... says it all, 'that pound for pound Ours or Cape Solander is the most dangerous wave on the planet' due to how close it breaks to the cliffs or rocks. The actual place, I don't think it’s that gorgeous compared to other big wave spots but yeah, it sure creates some amazing barrel rides and wipeouts. But then it's probably the smallest big wave spot on the planet as it rarely gets above 12 feet.

Seeing as you’re big wave surfing’s most noted and dedicated big wave documentarian, what are some of the top moments you’ve witnessed?
What I have learned is historic big wave events don’t happen a lot. For 30-years I shot everything in surfing and then to-to-15 years ago I said bugger it, if it's not over 10 feet then I won’t bother. So I concentrated on only big wave locations. For 30-years I shot everything in surfing and then to-to-15 years ago I said bugger it, if it's not over 10 feet then I won’t bother

Chasing ASP and WSL events was over. It was great, and loved every minute of it, from sunset to dawn. But I guess it was time to move on and the industry changed anyway and my services weren’t required any longer.

So my home base in Sydney i found that I had the southern hemisphere covered. Teahupoo, Fiji, Western Australia with the Right and Cow Bombie. Tasmania with Shipsterns and Pedra Blanca and Sydney with Cape Solander. 

Then I discovered Nazare and thought that place is too hard to chase from Australia when there’s a monster swell forecast. So I decided that I’ll have to live there during the Northern Hemisphere winter and come home in early March to continue my endless winter here in Australia.

So with that, I get to cover the world so I don’t miss anything. But I definitely had issues with big swells heading to Hawaii when based in Nazare. So I’ve started to realise that i can’t be everywhere. But it still gets me anxious. In Portugal I have a “FOMO” reputation! The fact is I hate missing swell events of significance. 

But yeah I’ve seen some incredible days. As I said before, they don’t come all the time. 
1) Has to be Code Red at Teahupoo. 

2) 1981 Bells which was my first paid surf shoot. It was the biggest Bells ever during an event plus Simon Anderson showed the world the future in both surfing and design riding on three fins, the Thruster.

3) Shipsterns Biggest Day back in May 2011. 

4) Fiji’s Cloudbreak from May 2018. 

5) The Right when Mick Corbett bagged that bomb in June 2015 and then his brother Dan in April 2018. 

Dan Corbett at The Right.

Dan Corbett at The Right.

© 2020 - Tim Bonython.

6) Nazare when Rodrigo Koxa got his world record bomb in November 2017.

7) Would be the last monster swell in February when Kai Lenny rode that right. So there’s been a few that’s for sure.

How are things in the world of Tim Bonython right now? 
I suppose it’s been good to look back at my library. So we are editing away. It is now all about creating the best documentary from the footage I shoot. 

Although I continue to keep looking at the charts every day, hoping in the back of my mind that I’m not going to miss a significant swell unfold! [laughs] My FOMO side ain’t going away! I’d hate to miss it.

But I have plenty to do here in the editing and directing space with all these projects that need to be completed by later this year. Plus I get my filming fix by packing the Red Camera into my water housing and go shoot the locals groms here at my home beach Avalon and hopefully inspire some future big wave surfers.

Kai Lenny being Kai Lenny out at Nazare.

Kai Lenny being Kai Lenny out at Nazare.

© 2020 - Tim Bonython.

  
What do you think the big wave landscape could look like post-COVID? 
That's...hard to say. Hopefully still earning a dollar in the job that I love. But if I get to Nazare this year, I feel that the whole surf thing is going to be different. Not as many big wave surfers flying in as we would normally see. Less camera crews... But the good thing is, Nazare is in a great place compared to other parts of the world, so hopefully I’ll see lots of happy faces because they’re beautiful people. And guess what, it will be pumping and I don’t want to miss it. 

Overall, due to COVID-19, we had a wake up call to look after each other differently and pay attention. Focus on what's important and leave unnecessary things behind. Sandrine is focussed in keeping our lives in order and to a minimum. As long as you can function and be happy, it is all good. 

Tim staring into the eye at Cloudbreak.

Tim staring into the eye at Cloudbreak.

© 2020 - Guy Mac.