A hundred feet underwater with a boiling ocean above driving him even deeper, you think this would be the perfect place for Ryan Hipwood to contemplate some of the life choices he’d made that had brought him here. Instead, of course, at that point he was dwelling on some more pressing matters… breathing being top of the list. He’d just wiped out at a secret offshore reef in a remote corner of Western Australia, a wipeout that would shake him to the core and re-engineer his thinking about big waves and why he’s dedicated his life to riding them.
Well, most of his life, anyway. “There are guys who just seem born to surf big waves,” offers Hippo, “but I wasn’t one of them.” I was shitscared of big surf as a kid,” he happily admits. It’s been a journey from that wide-eyed grommet to today, where he’s regarded as one of the most fearless and savvy big-wave surfers in the world.
“Hippo” was just another Gold Coast kid, a good surfer who grew up through the system, surfing contests with stars in his eyes, aiming for a career as a professional surfer. It was his first trip to Hawaii as a 14-year-old that opened his eyes to a bigger world in bigger waves. Surfing Pipeline on a big day the kid almost drowned (not for the last time) and was washed up on the beach afterwards looking like a dog after a bath. “I realised it was a men’s club out there and that I was a boy.” He picked up his board and paddled straight back out. “I had to develop as a person at a very young age.”
When someone asks him today what he does for a living, Hippo smirks. “I tell them I surf for a living, but it’s a little more complicated than that. I explain I’m scouring swell forecasts every day to look for the biggest waves I can find… then I go and surf them.” Hippo has earned his rep the hard way, travelling the world for over a decade chasing huge surf. He’s tackled giant Jaws, caught trophy waves at Cloudbreak, pioneered a handful of the world’s most dangerous slab waves, and twice been a finalist in the XXL Big Wave Awards.
His near drowning in Western Australia was a catalyst for him to reinvent himself. “After I nearly drowned, that really shook me up. I was so rattled. I tried to put on a brave face but it got to the point where I questioned whether I really wanted to do this.”
When I was younger I fed off energy that was negative. I was surfing to prove a point or beat someone or beat the ocean. I realised with big wave surfing that wasn’t the point. I went from that to realising clearly why I do this.
What he did instead was reinvent the way he approached big waves. “When I was younger I fed off energy that was negative. I was surfing to prove a point or beat someone or beat the ocean. I realised with big wave surfing that wasn’t the point. I went from that to realising clearly why I do this.”
The irony of big-wave surfing and its inherent danger is that it’s also been the key to Hippo’s longevity. “The best big wave guys are in their early 40s because there’s so much more than just the surfing and physical component. There’s the mental aspect, there’s equipment, and there’s knowing a wave and a location. It’s one of the sports where you have to keep evolving with it.”
More than anything, the wipeout taught Hippo to learn about how his body worked under stress, underwater… and under a hundred feet of water. He works with specialists like Nam Baldwin, a master in breath training, and Taylor Cecil who specialises in the Chek training philosophy, to create a customised program that prepares him for whatever the ocean can throw at him.
But Hippo is more than simply a one-dimensional big-wave surfer and has been instrumental behind the scenes in bringing big wave competition to Australian shores. He finished runner-up in the 2016 event at Cape Solander, an event that was labelled “the most dangerous surfing contest of all-time.”
Hippo’s surfing continues to evolve and find fresh challenges. He recently caught one of the waves of the season at Pipeline, and has his sights set on waves where the big-wave performance boundaries are being set. “Good sessions and good seasons at Jaws and Teahupoo would be huge for me, and I want to focus on paddling into waves people think can’t be paddled into.” Competitively, the WSL Big Wave World Title looms as a huge goal, the prospect of being the first Australian to win it making it even more enticing.
But beyond that the road is wide open. “There are still so many waves out there and I’m keen to just get off road and find them and have a bit of an adventure doing it.” He pauses for a second. “It’s all a journey, mate. I just want to keep it going.”