Chris Lougher and the story behind the life-changing wave he rode at the notorious Deadman’s.
For many surfers on the east coast of Australia the autumn/winter season of 2020 was one to remember. While COVID-19 cast its dark shadow over the world, the waves never stopped. Confronted with lockdowns and let-downs in every other facet of life, surfers turned to the ocean to wash away the ’Rona Blues – it was the only place where real freedom still seemed to exist.
However, amidst all the unforgettable waves ridden in Oz over winter, there was one that stood out – and it didn’t belong to COVID refugee Kelly Slater or any other pro surfer. Instead it was Chris Lougher’s heroic ride at the break known as ‘Deadman’s’ (off Manly) that had everybody talking.
Lougher, a chef, lifeguard, and former handyman, became a legend overnight after he rode deep inside a gaping right barrel at the aptly named Deadman’s, a wave notorious for taking giant chunks of swell and twisting them into heaving, spitting, terrifying beasts.
Why Was It Such A Special Ride?
Well, as is often the case with surfing, the pictures tell the story. But this ride has a backstory which makes it all the more meaningful.
How It Began
Chris Lougher’s obsession with Deadman’s began when he was a young teenager. From his North Curl Curl home he could sit with a pair of binoculars and train his sights on the distant right ledge that would lurch and chuck violently at the base of the Ferry Bower cliffs. He also went to school at St Paul’s, on the hill at North Manly. There was slim tolerance for surf-inspired truancy at the strict Catholic college, but the playground was near enough to hear the rumble of a set at Deadman’s. Back then Chris was a bodyboarder, and if he didn’t have school and Deadman’s or Winkipop was on, he’d take the bus or ride his pushie 7km from home.
The bodyboard was eventually ditched after a fateful session at Deadman’s in 2005. While kicking flippers, Chris watched his QS-chasing mate, Sam Paige, paddle into a couple of bombs. When Chris went in, Kelly Slater, who was in Sydney between contests, made a cameo appearance. Kelly famously lost his back fin and tackled the girth of Deadman’s on an unintended twinny set-up. After witnessing Sam dominate the early session and then watching the footage of Slater masterfully negotiating the unruly lineup, Chris decided it was time for an equipment change.
“I was on my booger and I just wasn’t getting the speed on any of them. And I just thought, ‘This is stupid,’ and that’s the moment I really started surfing.”
Fuelled by a desire to really conquer Deadman’s, Chris picked up a board and never looked back. He began surfing every day and was soon comfor table riding fibreglass in waves of consequence. As his skills and confidence grew other waves beckoned, and as he entered his 20s he felt the pull of a life that was moulded around surfing. For four years straight, every cent Chris made went towards an annual, season-long pilgrimage to Puerto Escondido. Chris funded his Mexican adventures by working as a lifeguard on Sydney’s Northern Beaches and cooking in fine dining eateries. He may play down his culinary skills, but over the years he has plated up at some of Australia’s best restaurants including; Gaia Retreat, Paper Daisy, Cabarita (a two-hat joint under Ben Devlin), Three Blue Ducks, Byron, Allure Currumbin (one hat), Garfish and Elements of Byron.
At the wave often referred to as Mexican Pipe, Chris rapidly earned a rep as the gung-ho, underground Aussie guy. He became a regular on the 15-foot-plus days and made his presence felt amongst an ultra-competitive crew.
Of course, no extended stint in Mexico is going to be without its moments of high drama. At Puerto, the wind typically goes onshore by lunch, but occasionally it swings back around delivering uncrowded conditions to those who have eschewed the ritual of afternoon cervezas. It was a day such as this Chris snuck out with friend, Will Dillon. “I paddled for one of the earlier waves,” explained Chris, “not knowing there was, like, a 10-15 foot wave set out the back and they were, like, double the size. I didn’t get into my wave and I just got sets on the head. It kept me in the impact zone, and I was swirling around. My energy was really starting to get sucked.”
As a trained lifeguard, Chris is typically reluctant to call on assistance, but he conceded he was pleased to see the ski arrive that day. “Yeah, I think a few guys started freaking out, so they threw the ski in…I was pretty happy to see Gordo, one of the main lifeguards, coming to get me…by that stage I was already starting to think about having to swim the 1.5km down to the harbour to come in.
”Close To Home
On land, Chris fashioned friendships and entrenched himself in the Puerto community, but Mexico’s drug-related violence casts a perennial shadow over the country and one naïve slip can easily put you in a precarious situation. Chris vividly recalled being thrown into the role of reluctant mediator on behalf of two well-known pro surfers from back home who had been trying to score cocaine. “They definitely got themselves in a hairy, hairy spot one day,” he stated emphatically. “They were prodigies and they thought their shit didn’t stink, and these guys were gnarly…I knew who they were dealing with by face and by reputation and they were the guys you don’t want to fuck with. They (the young pros) definitely owe me a lifeline …”
After multiple trips to Mexico, a season on Hawaii’s North Shore and a decade dedicated to chasing big waves, Lougher had earned his stripes as a legitimate, underground charger. Sure, he didn’t have the backing of big sponsors or wasn’t on the invite list for big-wave contests, but if the waves were up he’d back himself in almost any situation.
When the forecast predicted a giant south swell would collide with the east coast in early June, Chris knew he had a rendezvous with his favourite local wave – Deadman’s.
However, despite feeling like he was in the best shape of his life, things initially didn’t go to plan. On the first day of the swell Lougher had a horror wipeout and came in concussed, then the next morning he was forced to come in after coughing up blood in the lineup.
Perched on the cliffs above Deadman’s, Chris had the taste of blood in his mouth, his 8’0″ Dylan Longbottom by his side and unfinished business on his mind. He’d spent more than a decade chasing waves of consequence around the world. Surely he could do better than this in his own backyard?
“I was like, ‘For fuck’s sake. When am I going to make one?’ I’ve put myself in position so many times in swells prior.”
After pulling himself together Chris waited for the tide to turn and made his way to the jump-off at the base of the cliffs, calculating there would be enough water on the reef by the time he waited for a lull and paddled back to the lineup.
With his position firmly established Chris let one big set go past, deciding that despite the size and appeal of the wave it wasn’t going to barrel. “You can definitely pick and choose the ones that are really going to hit the reef and wind down,” he emphasised.
When a second set lifted on the outside ledge, offering a small knuckle to chip-in on, Chris committed. “It had more water behind it down the line, so I knew it was going to throw more,” he explained. “It was like a raging bull going down the face…it had heaps of side wonk. It was just step, step, step, and it was going foamy and I remember holding on as hard as I could and then the thing just started throwing and I ended up getting barrelled and coming out.”
Chris was overcome with elation when he kicked off the first wave and vividly remembers the reaction of the surfer who had watched the whole thing from down the line. “He said, ‘Oh thank you so much that’s the best thing I’ve ever seen.’ It’s pretty weird when people say thank you to you for your surfing.”
The roar of the crowd on the cliffs further confirmed it had been a screamer. “That was the best wave I’d gotten out there,” commented Chris. “I was stoked that I’d finally gotten one after all this time.”
Reassured by the success of his first ride, Chris returned to exactly the same position in the lineup. Around 15 minutes later another promising set flexed on the outer reef.
Such moments of adrenalin-fuelled concentration can inspire mental blanks or crystalise as vivid memories. Thankfully, the latter was true in this case and Chris does a good job of recounting ‘the wave’ that enthralled surfers around the world. The same wave he had been waiting a lifetime for.
“No one really looked at it and I was like, ‘No way’. It looks like it chips me in, but I had to really put my head down and paddle for it…it was drawing really hard off the bottom. There’s a little rivet going across the face, but it didn’t really step out, but it was to the left of me…so I just picked my line where I felt it wasn’t going to foam over and create that gnarly boil. Because I’d just had a wave, I stupidly had all this confidence and I got to the bottom of the wave and that’s when I tried to do that thing where you paint the walls. I went to stand up and put my hands out wide, but I was thinking consciously, ‘You F#$^ing idiot, what are you doing? Why are you trying to stand in it? You’re getting too cocky.’
“I could feel it really drawing off the bottom and that’s when my stance kind of changed and I was like, ‘C’mon. Please make this thing.’ I had the big-bowl view when I stood in it but then it kind of waterfalled in front of me. There was one moment where I was just kind of holding on…I was thinking, ‘Just go high. Just try and go high’. I tracked high and the thing waterfalled in front of me and I just held on for dear life and came out of it. It kind of spat a little bit. I was just elated. I was like, ‘Oh my God. I just got another one and it was better than my first one…”
Right Place At The Right Time
Once again, the headland erupted with a chorus of cheers and whistles, but curiously Chris found himself craving a moment of solitude. “I’d finally accomplished what I’ve been trying to do for so long and I just wanted a little quiet moment to myself…”
While the life-changing ride was captured from multiple perspectives, it was one particular angle that really did the wave justice.
As an army of camera-wielding hopefuls huddled at Deadman’s, award-winning filmmaker, Spencer Frost, decided he wanted a point of difference, so he posted up over a kilometre north of Deadman’s, from the headland at Freshwater, on the other side of Manly Beach. Fortunately, he had the equipment for the job.
Spencer’s Red Camera shoots 240 frames per second, which means it can deliver glorious, richly saturated, slow-mo-style footage of intense, action moments. Used in the right way the Red can help elevate the stakes in what is already a magic moment. When Spencer shot Chris’s wave from way over on the Freshwater headland, he instantly sensed he had captured something special. “I was actually on the phone to my mate when the wave came through. I was just like, ‘Oh my god. I think I’ve just shot the best wave I’ve ever seen’.”
Eager to see if his instincts were right, Spencer hung up on his mate and immediately replayed the footage back on his camera. He was delighted with the results but felt even more reassured when he sent the frames to a couple of close friends. “Everyone was saying that’s the best wave they’ve seen ridden in Sydney,” reflected Spencer.
Spencer was happy to send Chris the actual footage of the wave, but the clip’s delivery came with strict instructions he couldn’t yet share it on social media. The professional filmmaker had schlepped it out on Freshwater Headland for hours and wanted to sell the footage exclusively before it was gobbled up by an insatiable social media.
Chris remembers being at his parents’ home in Curl Curl when the clip came through on his phone. After marvelling at it for a few minutes he was desperate to show someone. Aware he couldn’t pass it on to his mates, he showed it to his mum and dad. “They said something like, ‘That’s nice Chris’,” he recalled with a chuckle. “It made a bit more sense to them the next day when it was in the ’paper. Dad loves his footy too, so when the wave popped up on Fox Sports while he was watching, I think he understood.”
Good To Know
Chris may have had his 15 minutes of fame, but he is well aware that joining the ranks of the big-wave elite who get paid to chase swells around the globe is a different thing. “I know that a Nathan Florence is way more marketable than a Chris Lougher,” he commented pragmatically.
In the absence of sponsors, Chris also appreciates the fact he has to resolve some hard questions about where his life is heading. “I’m 34 now and I’m not getting any younger. Do I want to get married and have kids? Or do I want to throw all my eggs into spending a season on Maui trying to chase waves?”
Like many who answer the call of big waves, Chris views Peahi on Maui as the ultimate challenge. “I definitely want to paddle out at Peahi once in my life. Maybe I’ll just sit out there and watch it from the channel. But to get out there and get a big one would be a box ticked before I’m 50.”
While he concedes he wouldn’t reject an offer from sponsors to help him pursue his goals, Chris ultimately belongs to a section of the big-wave tribe fundamentally governed by intrinsic forces. “At the end of the day we’re still out there when it’s onshore with howling 60-knot winds. We’re not doing it because there’s cameras focused on us. We’re just doing it for the challenge,” he explained. And whatever may come of his quest to surf Peahi, Chris Lougher can hitherto be comfortable in the knowledge that he rode deep at Deadman’s, on the kind of wave he had dreamed about since he was a 14-year-old staring into the belly of the beast through binoculars from afar.