A south-coast carpenter has built a reputation as one of Australia’s gutsiest surfers.
An astute observer once described riding big waves in the following manner: “It’s like jumping out the window of a three- or four-storey house, only to have the house then chase you down the street.”
Scott Dennis builds houses for a living, but he lives to ride big waves. Based on the south coast of NSW, the wiry-built carpenter doesn’t have to venture far to find the sort of bone-rattling waves he thrives on. The region around Ulladulla plays host to a number of noted big-wave spots. Some break over sharky, deep-water bombies a kilometre offshore. Others implode so desperately close to land that every ride seems like a game of chicken with razor-sharp rocks.
None of this seems to bother Scott, who revels in the challenge of conquering waves most mortals want nothing to do with. As one of his friends and fellow surfers, Brett Burcher, puts it, “He somehow sees something attractive and peaceful when looking at waves that are undeniably ugly and angry.”
Scott acquired his taste for menacing lumps of ocean at an early age. Like many teenagers he followed an older brother into all sorts of scary situations and became psychologically stronger as a result.
“As my brother is three years older than me, the age difference pushed me a little harder than I maybe would have gone without motivation from him. The fear factor is always there, but it has become second nature to be out there.”
Scott vividly recalls following his brother and his mates out on a huge day when he was only 12.
“I just paddled out and sat in the channel and watched these guys getting fifteen footers.”
It was around that time Scott realised he had the right psychological make-up to deal with huge seas.
“Some wide fifteen footers charged through the channel. I sort of felt scared but at the same time quite comfy,” he remembered.
It’s worth noting surfers measure waves from the back, which makes them sound considerably smaller. When Scott says it’s fifteen feet, that means the wave face could be as much as twenty-five-feet high.
The scale, magnitude and steepness of many of the waves Scott takes on means that many can only really be ridden with the assistance of a jet-ski. This involves holding on to a
towrope behind a jet-ski, which in turn gives a sling-shot entry into the wave once the rope is released. The jet-ski assist ensures the surfer takes off with maximum speed and therefore has a much better chance of outrunning the collapsing wall of water behind or over them.
While the whip in from the ski makes it possible to catch incredibly big or hollow waves, it still offers no guarantee the surfer will handle the ride.
The speed can be both a bane and a blessing. A fall hurts more because the surfer is travelling much faster and, when bolstered by all that artificial acceleration, surfers tend to take more risks.
One of Scott’s scariest moments came after he’d let go of the rope on a big wave.
“I felt myself go weightless as I got sucked over and felt myself go down with the lip,” he recalled. “I was travelling head-first and the side of my face and my shoulder took first impact…it’s kind of a blur and I was a little unconscious until I got washed around in the Bay.”
On another occasion Scott witnessed a friend, Mark Mathews, take a hideous wipeout after being towed into a south-coast wave while working on a film project for Red Bull. Mark’s leg was so badly maimed doctors could barely avoid amputation. The incident was a telling reminder that although the cocktail of adrenaline and endorphins big waves induce is addictive, things can still go horribly wrong.
While a few close calls have made Scott hyper-aware of the dangers associated with his quest, they haven’t slowed him down. Like many extreme sportspeople who push themselves into zones few people venture, there is an imperative to capture the action. One of Scott’s favourite ways to document his exploits involves convincing a photographer to tow in and ride the wave behind him.
Scott regularly works with Simon Punch on these daring photographic escapades. Simon is a plumber by trade, but has a passion for surf photography and knows Scott will consistently put himself in situations that create great photo opportunities. To get the shot you see opening this article, the two surfers were towed into a wave on the same rope, with Scott letting go first and Simon following him a few seconds after.
“He’s got to time it and follow my line and be in synch with what I’m doing,” explained Scott. Simon points out that mimicking the skilled adjustments of his mate isn’t easy “I don’t necessarily surf so good, which makes it hard.”
Once he has hauled the camera up in front of his chest, Punch has a few precious moments to nail the shot before the liquid roof collapses.
“There’s a lot going on in a very short period of time and I just shoot off as many frames as I can,” insisted Punch.
It’s a bitter-sweet challenge for the photographer who usually gets hammered by the wave, while the surfer rides out the other end.
“Once I know I’m going to wipeout I pull the camera into my chest and hold on tight,” explained Punch. For his part, Scott freely admits that he has the better role in the double act. “I get the glory and he just gets lit up,” he said with a hint of guilt.
Simon made four kamikaze runs on this day and was rather pleased to come away unscathed. “I hit the bottom a couple of times but I didn’t damage my gear or my camera…I probably should have worn a helmet though,” he chuckled.
While Scott is content to work and surf around home on the NSW south coast, sometimes the call of big waves takes him further afield. Hawaii, Fiji, Tahiti and Melanesia are all on his hit list, but perhaps his craziest trips involve a helter-skelter dash across the continent to the coastal fringes of the South Australian desert. There, in the Great Australian Bight, lies a selection of shark-riddled breaks where some of the thickest and hollowest waves in the world break over shallow, unforgiving reef. This is of course Scott’s idea of a holiday. While the desert coast does have a stark kind of beauty, the whole setting is far removed from a major town or medical assistance.
“I love South Aus as it produces some of the best waves in Australia, potentially even the world,” he suggested.
Scott admits he occasionally pushes things a little too far when chasing swells on the other side of the country. “There have been heaps of trips that I’ve driven two days straight and surfed the next day. Which is stupid, you’re so fried from the drive you start making bad decisions and you don’t have the session you could have. If we’re on a mission I try to give myself a day to recoup before I get out there.”
Given Scott’s insatiable appetite for waves you might wonder how he ever gets any work done.
Fortunately, chasing swells is a more exact science these days and Scott has a reputation for being a very meticulous and accurate predictor of what the waves will be doing. Like a sailor who must carefully follow wind and swell charts to stay safe and travel at optimum speed, the surfer who wants to be at the right place at the right time has to become a diligent student of meteorology. “I know what to look for, like the angle of swell and winds for most spots. I use Buoy Weather, which is amazing for swell and direction and Wind Guru is the pick for weather and the wind. It is the ultimate buzz when you’ve called it and driven days to get to a location. When it’s firing, it makes it all worthwhile. It’s good to back yourself, take risks and just go for it.”
As his own boss, Scott can look at a long-range swell forecast and plan his work around what the waves are doing. He admits there are also a few other tricks to the trade, so to speak.
“The best story is: ‘We have started a new job this week, see you next week.’ Clients don’t know where you are.”
Whether he’s on the job or in the water, Scott Dennis is working hard to pull off a good result. His daring double act proves it’s possible to be a profitable tradesman and pursue interests outside of work. All it takes is a little planning and some solid commitment.
When it comes to setting an example Scott’s life ultimately screams one thing: don’t be afraid to go big.