Around The World In 6 Surf Shots: Curren’s 90’s Backdoor Bomb by Ted Grambeau
As one of the surf world’s foremost photographers for over 4 decades, there isn’t much Ted Grambeau hasn’t seen and shot. From early Mentawai boat trips to Mick Fanning hors piste meeting mountain gorillas in Rwanda, from the unveiling of Cyclops to that historic day at Cloudbreak in 2014, Ted’s been an integral part of telling surfing’s favourite stories.
As a stalwart of Rip Curl’s Search trips following the exploits of a certain Tom Curren, from that historic first wave at J-Bay, still regarded as the benchmark for riding the famous pointbreak, to the Fireball Fish at Bawa, a session that influenced every surfer’s quiver around the world, Ted’s been on hand documenting one of the sport’s all time great’s most iconic sessions.
So when we wanted someone to kick off a new Wavelength series Around The World In 6 Surf Shots, Messrs Curren and Grambeau seemed an obvious combination.
In the mid 90’s, Grambeau finds himself on the North Shore – along with every other professional surf photographer in the world – with an assignment to shoot the recently off tour and on The Search Tom Curren.
Ted picks up the story:
“Tom’s got a wicked sense of humour, more like an Australian or English sense of humour than most Americans have, so he’s easy enough to get on and work with. The only trouble with Tom is, you just never know if he’s gonna turn up.
So I’m in Hawaii working with Rip Curl, and Claw (Doug Warbrick), the boss calls me. Claw gets extremely excited by anything surf-related and Curren related, and he goes, “Tom’s in town, he’s got couple of days on the North Shore… we’ve got these new boardshorts and we’re doing a watch now, so we want you to get a shot of Tom in the barrel, wearing the shorts and the watch.”
I’m thinking, ‘Great. Tom’s in town for a couple of days… and I won’t even see him.’ No one can ever tell you where he’s staying, he’s like… mysterious. So I’m just laughing, ok whatever. Mission impossible… let’s see.
Next morning I walk down the walkway at Off The Wall and the surf is just pumping, 8ft maybe 10ft sneakers and glassy. As I’m walking down I see Tom Curren go through this perfect barrel. I’m like, ‘That was the shot and I’m not ever set up. I’ve missed the shot.’
Everyone’s on the beach, all the photographers, and it’s a little bit hazy, and a little bit big to swim. Chis Van Lennep (South African water photog) is out there, but it’s really hard to be in position with all the current and big sets.
So I set up with a long lens and a polarising filter which cuts through the haze and enhances the colour, but I have to stay at a certain angle.
Tom’s all over the place, so I’m up and down the beach chasing him. Most of the photographers are pretty social, and are all having a chat. There’s Jeff Divine, Brian Bielmann, Peter Wilson, Tom Servais… like 50 of your colleagues. There’re lots of people in the water, but I’m on a mission for Tom.
So he’s alternating between OTW and Backdoor, and I’m chasing him up and down trying to keep that angle, and all I can see is that wave I missed, replaying in my head. And it’s doing my head in.
We’re shooting film, so you’ve got 36 shots with a fresh roll in, every time he catches a wave, I’m pulling that roll out, even if I only shot ten frames, and putting a new roll in.
Then out of the blue comes this set that is way bigger than everything, and I’m thinking ‘oh my god, I think that’s Tom’s paddling…’
So this wave comes in, it’s not just the wave of the day, but probably the best wave I’ve seen come through that entire season, 10ft, maybe a bit bigger. Tom’s in position and goes Backdoor. Backdoor is pretty gnarly if you get it wrong, you end up on pretty much dry reef. Chris van Lennep is almost in position, but with all the sweep he can’t quite get there.
“It’s one of the best ridden waves that I’ve ever seen”
There’s probably 50-100 photographers on land… fortunately I’ve lucked into this position and I just start hammering it. He pulls into this thing, sneaks under a lip. I’m thinking ‘oh my god, please reappear.’ Sure enough I see this nose of a board coming, he’s still there. He comes out, and sort of goes jelly legged. It’s one of the best ridden waves that I’ve ever seen.
Vary rarely does Tom ever show any emotion, but that is about the extent of it, this thing he does after he gets blasted out, which kind of emphasises how meaningful that ride was. I’ve shot 34 frames, I just had 2 left. I knew everything in theory was good… but with film you just don’t know for sure for a couple of days, like, is it gonna be sharp? I’m sweating on it a bit, but I knew technically, I’d done everything I could.
The funny thing is pretty much everyone else missed it. They were either chatting, or couldn’t quite see him from where they were set up… I know John Callahan got shots of it too, but nobody else seems to have got anything.
“A full roll of Tom Curren at 10ft Backdoor is as good as it gets”
Tom was out of there the next day. So I caught up with him and he said something like, ‘Wow, yeah. I wasn’t happy with the board, I was gonna come in and change it when that came through…’ It ended up being the perfect board to get him in position, that deep. Whatever combination of luck, management or karma it is, Curren somehow manages to do things, the seemingly impossible.
It’s the best sequence I’ve ever shot, mainly because of who and where, and that it defines someone’s career, in a sense. A full roll of Tom Curren at 10ft Backdoor is as good as it gets. Tom is one of the great artists of my generation, for sure. The way he’s so subtle and refined, very few athletes have ever been in that calibre, where it’s actually easy not to recognise what they’re doing, because it looks so easy and delicate, in every execution.
The result is a wave that stands the test of time, at a place that’s seen the very best of the best surfers down the years. The fact that it was Tom and what he kind of represents, means it hasn’t aged.
I look at the way that wave was ridden like a piece of art… and with time, it sort of just gets better.”
See more of Ted’s amazing work and order his photography books here