This past month I had the great pleasure of attending the 2011 Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards, where my good friend’s brother Eric Akiskalian was nominated in the ‘Biggest Wave’ category. If the official retirement age gets pushed back, you might have to blame this man: at 51, Eric is charging harder than men half his age. Although Eric did not walk away with the win this year, his nomination is another addition to his long list of feats and accomplishments in his surfing career. Eric has now become the oldest surfer to ever be nominated in the history of the XXL Awards ‘Biggest Wave’ category, and he is now being credited for riding the biggest wave ever surfed in the Pacific Northwest.
Talking with Eric and his friends I have come to learn that once he makes up his mind to do something–no matter how unrealistic or crazy of an idea it is–he gets it done. This is exactly what happened when he turned 40 in 2000 and decided he wanted to become an extreme big-wave tow-in surfer. Everyone thought he was crazy, including his friends. But they also knew that if anyone could pull it off at his age, it would be Eric.
Eric’s surfing journey however began long ago at a very young age on a surfboard his mother purchased from a neighbor for $30 as a Christmas gift. Ever since that fateful day Eric’s life has been tied to the ocean, and he would surf at every opportunity he had along the Santa Barbara coast. After a short foray into the competitive scene, Eric decided that the competitive scene wasn’t the direction he wanted to go. Looking for bigger and better challenges he started chasing big waves, starting at T’s Point at Jalama in the late 70’s and eventually paddling out for the first time at Mavericks in 1996 on an 18′-20′ day, undergunned on an 8’10” Progressive gun shaped by Dave Johnson. It was then when he decided to train harder than ever, and eventually began to follow the huge swells around the world, creating a name for himself in the industry and earning the respect of his peers. Eric’s journey hasn’t been without pitfalls, however. He has had his share of near drownings and brutal wipeouts, one of which earned him a nomination for Wipeout of the Year at the 2006 Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards.
Today Eric owns and operates Towsurfer.com a website he created and launched in 2000 and continues to surf and chase swells in his quest for bigger waves. He is married to his beautiful wife Sharon and has two sons, Evan (10) and Jake (4). Eric and his family currently live in Gig Harbor, WA.
I had a chance to talk to Eric about his career and this year’s nomination in the Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards.
How did you choose Oregon, and how did everything come together as you tracked the swell for the wave that you were nominated for?
I had been talking to a good friend named Mark Sponslor from Stormsurf.com before the swell slammed the Oregon coast. Mark made it very clear that the swell’s main energy and focus was aiming straight for Oregon, and although other locations would be big, they would not be as big as Oregon. So then the question of the winds came up, and it was a gamble to stay in Oregon or go to other potential big wave locations in California or Hawaii. The consensus between he and I was pretty clear: it was going to be in the 60’ face height range with some bigger sets, and the winds were forecast to go light on the morning of the swell.
So we rolled the dice and that’s exactly what happened on Nov. 2, 2010. Subsequently on that same day the Big Wave World Tour (BWWT) held their Nelscott paddle contest. So, Keith Galbraith who is my tow partner, myself, Dan Hasselschwert and Ollie Richardson did what we do every year during the Nelscott event: we towed South Reef all day. When the buoys finally maxed out at around 24’ @ 17 seconds the tide started dropping and it was going mental.
South Reef was as tall and vertical of a drop as I had ever seen it, and it was throwing huge gaping top-to-bottom barrels. This swell was the biggest swell I had ever surfed in 7 years of going to Oregon, and produced legit 50’-60’ face heights on Nelscott Reef and UPWARD, with occasional larger sets on South Reef. There was so much water, current, and swell moving everywhere that you had to really be on your game at all times. We also witnessed–as others did–the random ROGUE sets breaking every hour or so that could have possibly been in the 65’-70’ face height range on an outer reef which has never broke like that in all the years I’ve been surfing there. This was without any doubt the swell of the decade for Oregon–30’-35′ plus Hawaiian scale.
How did you feel after your rode that wave?
I knew it was big, but I had no idea how big it was until the photos started surfacing and witnesses from the channel and cliff made their claims of seeing me on a 60′-65′ monster set wave. Basically that wave landed me my first XXL Biggest Wave nomination at the ripe young age of 51. Man, that is a huge personal accomplishment even though we did not win. I can honestly say that I’ve earned this nomination after a decade of chasing swells, and that feels really good!
What was the story behind getting the photo that got you nominated?
I had been making some calls a few days prior the swell hitting and trying to get some of the photgs to come up but they all had other plans to go to Maverick’s and other west coast locations. Then I called a local photographer named Richard Hallman but he said he was already committed to shooting the big-wave paddle contest that was going on that same day about 600 yards up the reef at another spot called Nelscott Reef. He said he would love to come over and shoot but he was already committed to the contest. However he said that if he did see anyone riding a giant wave at South Reef he would take the chance, point and shoot his camera and hope for the best seeing that he was going to be 600 some odd yards away or even farther.
Anyway as the session started I got a few solid warm up waves in the 40′-45′ range and then out the back about a mile out we could see this monster fetch building. When it hit Middle Reef, top to bottom, we knew it was going to be one of the biggest sets of the day. Right then and there I was thinking that if we only had a video guy and photographer right here in our zone this could possibly be the wave that would win the XXL ‘Biggest Wave’ for sure. I got two massive waves that day in the 60′-65′ range. As it turned out, Richard Hallman saw someone on a giant wave at South Reef and started firing his camera not knowing who it was and truly hoping it was going to be me. I also had another tow buddy, Craig Spjut in the water who was taking shots off his PWC in-between driving others and doing water safety. He basically just had a little handheld and from a distance he also took two shots of me when he saw that wave.
The shot that Craig took I was able to see right away, and although it looked massive and hollow I knew we would have a problem with it being too far away. Nonetheless, I was super stoked and amped to have had one of my biggest waves that day captured. I was still unaware that Richard had taken some shots and at 11:00 P.M. that night he calls me and says, “Hey Eric, I think I might have shot your wave”. Moments later he sent them to me and the rest is history. Then about two weeks later I found two photographers, Dave Collyer and Scott Blyth, that were on the cliff that same day while shooting the Nelscott Big-Wave paddle contest. As it turned out they also had shot my wave. So in total we had four different angles and perspectives from four very different and unique photographers who were all focused on shooting the big-wave paddle event and just so happened to shoot my wave. Out of the four, Richard Hallman and Dave Collyer both got XXL Photo Nominations with my wave.
The problem with ALL the photos is that although the wave looks massive and you know the bottom is way down there, without seeing how far the bottom goes down you can’t give it an accurate size judgment from just viewing the photos. This is because there is a very large ocean swell right in the foreground of the pictures. If we had just one photo that was taken from the water and right in front of that wave, it is almost certain that the visual size difference would have increased around 15′ or so bigger on the face then what you can actually see. We know from the swell charts and buoy readings how big the surf was and also from eye witnesses which gives us a fairly strong indication how big the wave really was. Next season, if we get one of those massive swells, it will be a different story for sure! We will have photogs ready to go shooting both angles of that wave from the water and video guys as well. That was the only mistake we made this year, not having our own photogs and it could have cost us the possibility of winning the XXL Biggest Wave Award.
Are you going for another nomination next year? Where will you be hunting for the wave that will get it?
I will continue to chase big waves because this is what I love to do, but I will be very selective and make sure that it’s the right swell. I would like to hit Tahiti and Chile again this summer for sure and then start right back up with next fall in the Pacific Northwest. If another nomination comes with that, then great but if not, then I’m not going to even worry about it. The fact that I am able to do what I love to do and have done as much as I have in the past 10 years at my age is a blessing in itself. I have already accomplished my personal goal and best of riding a 60 footer and that alone is an amazing accomplishment for any veteran and accomplished big-wave surfer. That’s not to say I wouldn’t mind breaking my own personal record!
Where else did you travel this past year chasing XXL swells?
I spent most of my season chasing big swells in Oregon and California and I also went to Pe’ahi (JAWS) once for a tow session in January which was only about 15’-18’. I also went to Chile three times during their winter season and scored solid 12’-15’ paddle and 15’-18’ tow surf!
What is the big-wave paddle scene like where you surf in Oregon?
We focused a lot more this season on paddling when conditions permitted. My tow partner Keith Galbraith has been leading the paddle surge up here since the 2009/10 season and getting us all fired up to paddle as much as possible. We probably had 5 solid paddle sessions in the 12’-15’ range, nothing too big, but with really clean conditions. Things are heavy up here with shifty currents, extreme tides, poor weather, hungry sharks, freezing temps, submarine size whales, giant seals, thick wet soup fog, massive beach break closeouts, and wild wind! So you have to be on location to catch the windows of opportunity.
What is rewarding to you about surfing big waves?
The reward is personal satisfaction from the challenge and quest of what I love to do while sharing the stoke with friends and my family. For any true surfer, it’s also a lifestyle and what I call a healthy addiction if there is such a thing.
What is it like to be a big wave surfer at 51?
To me, my age is just a number and I try not to think about it too much! But when I do, it’s pretty amazing that at this age I’m really pushing myself as hard as I am. I look and feel like I’m in my early 40’s and I believe that being a surfer and having two young kids at the moment, has kept me young spirited. I have, however, noticed that my common sense has increased a great deal over the last couple of years and the chances and risks I take are not as bold as they have been. It is still a great feeling getting out there and experiencing the ocean from 2′-60′!
What is your biggest fear and how do you overcome that fear?
Naturally my biggest fear is drowning and those long, dark, and violent hold downs. Over the years I have learned how to come to terms with the fact that this is something that you have to deal with as a big-wave surfer. The only thing you can do is just stay calm, conserve your energy, and shake it off when you finally do make it to the surface. I realize the dangers involved and I try not to take unnecessary risks and chances. If my gut tells me today could be a really bad day, I listen to what I am feeling and thus far this has kept me injury free and alive. Now when I get long hold-downs, I really try not to make a big deal out of it because I do not want to get all tweaked out and lose my focus. Then again, there are those beatings that make you throw in the towel for the day.
How do you train for big-wave surfing?
I do a lot of cross training and sports that consist of stretching, yoga, stair master, biking, snowboarding, wakeboarding, weight lifting, paddling, breath holding exercises and swimming. I usually train anywhere from 1-3 hours a day, five to six days a week.
What is Towsurfer.com, and how are you involved with it?
Having created Towsurfer.com has allowed me to get really involved in the sport, the growth of tow surfing, and the current evolution of big wave paddle surfing. I have helped and continue to promote the elite big-wave riders, their contests, and all the global big-wave sessions that go down via Towsurfer.com. I was the founder and president of APT, The Association of Professional Towsurfers, which organized a couple of successful tow-in events during its 6 year life span and we took great pride in working towards becoming the organizing body on a global level for all tow surfers. But due to lack of funding, difficult logistics, and overwhelming amount of work along with the turn for more big-wave paddle surfing, we decided to lay APT to rest.
I have been very active in taking photos of some of the most amazing big-wave sessions in the last 11 years which have also landed me many photographer entries and one photographer nomination in the XXL Awards. I have also been responsible for establishing tow-in clinics and PWC ocean Safety courses in California, along with organizing the Hawaii State Tow-In License certification course in California. I have had the opportunity to provide my own photos and personal information on tow surfing for many articles, stories, posters, calendars and books. I have produced and documented many tow-in missions with some close friends that were very successful. Towsurfer.com has also sponsored a handful of big-wave videos, some of which I have also been featured in as a rider.
It has been an amazing 11 years, and to really think about all that has happened and all that I have done and witnessed would basically require me to sit down for months and write my own book or do my own documentary. Hey, there’s an idea! I have seen, heard, and done it all. Not bad for a virtually unknown middle age surfer from Santa Barbara, CA that just simply had a dream! My dream was to become a tow surfer, and the rest is history!
“Keep The Dream Alive!”