Jeff Rowley spent his first year with plaster up to his waist and doctors told his mother he would be a cripple for life. Peter Wilmoth meets the man who grew up to surf 20-foot waves for charity.

Million dollar baby

17:17:PM 02/06/2011
Peter Wilmoth

Jeff Rowley
Jeff Rowley
Walking through Jeff Rowley’s Torquay garage, with its 20 surfboards stacked high, the jet-ski, flotation vests and various other paraphernalia used for big-wave surfing, it’s not what you might imagine to be a headquarters for the raising of $1 million to combat breast cancer.

Rowley, 32, has decided that you shouldn’t wait until you’re rich to give something back. And the big-wave surfer who runs a protein powder business called Mirrabooka isn’t rich – but he is brave. He has decided to pursue, ride and record a 20-foot (six-metre) wave to raise that million. It’s a mission about which he feels passionate. “A lot of people wait until they make a lot of money before they start giving back. I live an amazing life here on the coast. Why wait? Start giving back now.”

Rowley’s idea was inspired by the pregnancies last year of his sister – “She’s now had a beautiful little baby, Jack” – and of “four of my good girl friends”. “There was a period where I was thinking, ‘Women go through so much, I need to give something back to them’,” he says.

“I have business goals, personal goals, and contribution goals,” he says. “(A personal achievement) goal is to catch a 20-foot wave by hand, not using a jet-ski. Another goal was to raise money for charity; to do something, to give back. I didn’t know how to do that. I thought about going to work at a soup kitchen. Then I decided to incorporate two goals into one, do something that I love and turn that into giving back. I’m trying to conquer my fears, because catching a 20-foot wave is a scary thing. But that’s nowhere near as scary as having cancer.”

So far, through word-of-mouth and posters put up in the town, he’s raised $7500. “It’s a big challenge and a big learning curve,” he says. “I think you’ve got to set your goals pretty high. Talking to other people who have raised $1 million for charity – when they said they were trying to raise $1 million they were told they were crazy and it was impossible. People in the street are saying it’s amazing what I’m doing. They’ll tell me a story of how breast cancer has touched them.”

Every day Rowley scans weather websites searching for the massive swell that he needs. When it’s imminent, he and his girlfriend will drive – if it’s on Victoria’s ominous southern coast – or fly if it’s in South Australia or off the south-west coast of Western Australia.

“You start hearing rumours. Someone will be talking about the huge swell coming in next week. And if I haven’t spotted it already I’ll go check the long-range forecast. As I see it getting closer I’ll use a different set of websites telling me exactly when it’s going to hit.”

With surfing defiantly staying with the old measurements, a wave of 20 foot smashes a psychological barrier. “People are very reluctant to say a wave is 20 foot,” Rowley says. “You can say a wave is 15?or 18 foot, but to call a wave 20 foot, ears prick up and take notice. It’s massive. Paddling into a wave like that is probably the most challenging thing in surfing.”

Confirming the 20-foot mark is “up to me”, he says. “I know when I catch a wave and document it, it is going to be scrutinised by everyone everywhere. My girlfriend will video it and I’ll use a professional surf photographer.” Rowley will use the photo to raise awareness and attract money for what he’s calling Charge for Charity.

Rowley has surfed big waves many times, both paddling into the wave and using a jet-ski to be towed onto larger swells that are impossible to catch by hand. He is the jet-ski partner of Ross Clarke-Jones, one of the world’s pre-eminent tow-in surfers, also based in Torquay. Together they have faced massive, deadly swells, often just the two of them.

“One day in Victoria last year it was over 20 feet, no problem,” Rowley says. “It was the ugliest ocean you’ve ever seen in your life. The wind was blowing onshore and there were white caps as big as houses out the back. We both caught a couple of massive waves. There was nobody around. We were on our own half a mile out to?sea.

“Ross has this amazing jet-ski, a giant turbocharged, the Lamborghini of jet-skis. I had to pick him up under a cliff. There were three- and four-metre waves breaking up against the cliff.

“Ross Clarke-Jones lives a life without limits. He’s fit, he’s focused and he’s not scared about what other people think. I get told all the time that I’m crazy and slow down but what you’re doing is putting the spotlight on the person who’s talking to you and making them reflect on themselves.”

Rowley’s daily training involves blending the disciplines of “free diving” with the rigours of big-wave surfing. “Everything about free diving is calm and slow and everything about surfing is extreme,” he says. “In free diving you want to slow down your heart, slow down your breathing, control every environment and you only have to go under water once. In surfing you’ve got waves crashing on your heads, boards hitting you in the head, water going down your throat and you’ve got multiple waves hitting you, so it’s the exact opposite.

“If you can control your breathing, get a lot of oxygen into your blood, your heart can pump slower and stronger, and then when your heart’s relaxed your nervous system stays relaxed. The problem for most people when they see a big wave is that they switch straight into fight or flight – they panic. When you’re in fight or flight you lose all your basic motor skills. You lose your coherence, your ability to think straight … Or if you happen to catch a wave you’ve lost your basic motor skills, so you’ll fall straight off.”

The challenge, he says, is to control emotions and fears to survive a wipeout in huge waves.

“The worst wipeout is 25 seconds (held under water). A two-wave hold-down could be 50 seconds. But it’s not like holding your breath in the pool – it’s like you’re getting beaten up by a football team while you’re trying to hold your breath.”

Rowley has had his own adversities to overcome. Born in 1979 with “underdeveloped” legs, he spent the first year of his life in plaster up to his waist. Doctors told his mother: “He will be a cripple for life and will never walk.” He grew up in Anglesea on the Surf Coast, where his family moved in the 1970s from Melbourne for a sea change. His father, Bill Rowley, was a surfboard shaper and ran a surf shop selling his Springer surfboards.

“My earliest memories were crawling around the floor of my dad’s shaping bay playing in the foam dust, or crawling around the wetsuits in their shop. Or opening the gates at the farm when dad went surfing – got to get through the farms to get to the beach. So my brother and sister and I did all the gates. We loved it.”

The doctors had underestimated him. At the age of two he was on body boards in the shorebreak, at eight standing up on a real board. It was a blissful beachside life until 1990, when the Pyramid Building Society collapsed. “It ruined the business,” Rowley says. “Mum and dad lost everything. We lost our home, lost the business, like so many other Victorians. Everything they’d worked for for 20 years.

“My parents decided to turn a negative into a positive. We got a borrowed caravan and a borrowed car. They put us into correspondence school and we drove around Australia for a year. It ended up being one of the best years of our lives. A year of time with our parents, staying in caravan parks, we learnt how to bait hooks and tie knots, we saw crazy wildlife, snakes, goannas, sharks and turtles, caught barramundi, saw crocodiles.”

At the end of this odyssey they settled on the Gold Coast and lived at Burleigh Heads for five years. Each school holidays Rowley would return to his beloved Victoria. “Every time you surfed at the Gold Coast there were 100 people in the water at the major breaks. It was crazy. And it was really rough. We saw things at a young age in the street, people getting bashed. It wasn’t the lifestyle that I wanted.”

On the last day of school, when all his mates went off to Schoolies Week, Rowley flew back to Victoria and never left. “The whole family followed me back down.”

He surfed in junior surf competitions until he was 20 but was not impressed with the “knee-high” waves in which the contests were held. He preferred big waves, but was in awe of their power and danger. “I’ve paddle surfed into 20-foot waves in Hawaii but I was really scared and I didn’t catch any big ones,” he says. “Now I’m a littler older I want to really have a good crack at it.

“Out there in big surf it’s amazing. It’s almost life-changing. So much water moving around. I remember sitting having a look over a couple of waves there and it felt I was looking down at the whole Hawaiian islands; that’s how far up you are and the view you have. I froze. I looked into a few and it was too much for me. I was 18 or 19 and I wasn’t ready for it.”

Later he did surf waves of up to 30 foot, but always using a jet-ski, which allows surfers to catch swells out at sea. “It’s really wild and stormy most of the time, very inhospitable, howling winds; it’s usually pretty ugly,” he says. “When you’re out there and it’s huge, there’s usually only a few people out in the water and they really want to be there.

“When you’re on a jet-ski you can cover an area as big as a couple of football fields. The jet-ski just drives over there and catches a wave. But when you’re paddling you’ve got to position yourself right where you can catch the wave by paddling. If you’re waiting for a 20-foot set and you see it coming, the whole horizon goes black. You see this black line on the horizon, like a tsunami coming. Every instinct in your body is telling you to go for the horizon, paddle fast now. But you know you’re in the (right) spot and you have to override all your instincts and not move.”

And if you’re wrong? “If it’s a 25-foot set or a 30-foot set you’re history. You come over the first one and if it’s 25 foot you’re going to wear it straight on the head. That’s why it’s the ultimate challenge. It’s your judgment call against the ocean. It is the ultimate test – how calm can you stay?”

Rowley tells an extraordinary story about the wave that nearly killed him two years ago while tow-in surfing with Clarke-Jones and Jeff’s brother Chris. “The biggest wave of the day came through on the biggest swell I’d ever seen. (It was on Victoria’s wild south coast). It was in the middle of winter, one of those ugly, howling-wind days, only a couple of people in the water. We love those days.

“I was in position for where a 20-foot wave would come though. We were on the jet-ski, came over the top of the first wave in the set and knew the second wave was going to be the one. The wave was 30 foot. We were so out of position. My brother Chris was driving the jet-ski. He was struggling to get up and over the top of the wave without getting pitched. As I was holding on to the rope behind him I realised I was already on the wave so I let go of the rope and started to ride the wave.

“It was so much bigger than any wave I’d ever seen. I was deep in the wave with a huge wall a couple of hundred metres in front of me. I thought, ‘This wave is going to kill you, so give it everything you’ve got’. I committed to it and leaned forward. As I watched the thing unfold and barrel over me, I held my line in the barrel and … I had this beautiful view inside the barrel and then it spat, there was all this white mist and I could hardly see. The mist started to clear and I realised I’d come out of the barrel and I’d made it … An instant of elation passed through me. But what I didn’t see was the wave was closing out and I couldn’t see the lip coming down from three (building) storeys above me, and this slab of water as big as a pool was coming down straight on top of me. The wave landed on me. It crushed me flat, hit me into the water and my left shoulder ripped back so hard that my left arm went numb (instantly), knocked all the wind out of my lungs …

“People think you can curl up in a ball and hold your breath, but this thing hit me so hard and fast it was like a rag doll being hit by a Mack truck. You can’t pull your arms and legs in, you are flailing wildly. It held me down for 25 seconds, which when you’re winded and beaten is a long time. About three times I thought it was going to let me back up … but no.”

Rowley knew the next wave was arriving any second, and he probably wouldn’t be able to survive too much time under water. “I got to a point where I became really calm, thinking, ‘You’re probably not going to come up from this’. I thought I was history.”

He managed to get to the surface, coughing up blood, throwing up water. His brother picked him up on the jet-ski. “I learnt a lot from it. I thought, ‘If that’s the biggest wave I’ve ever seen and that’s what it’s going to do to me, I’ve got to go and train for that’. It didn’t scare me away. That wave was the benchmark.”

For 10 years Rowley worked at the surf company Quiksilver in Torquay until leaving two years ago to start his protein powder business. He invites corporates or individuals to sponsor him through his website. All money goes into a holding account for the charity without touching Rowley’s bank account and he is not charging any running costs.

He will not give up on this dream. “If I don’t get the $1?million I’ll keep going. I’ll use everything I’ve learnt this year from it and go again next year.”

After spending time with Rowley, you believe him. If he can stare down a 30-foot wave, there’s little doubt he’ll become the million-dollar baby.

» To sponsor Jeff Rowley, visit www.jeffrowley.com and follow the links


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