Your standard personal watercraft is approximately 6-feet long — about the size of a motorcycle.
Like riding a motorcycle where your body is exposed to other hazards, so too are big-wave surf photographers who ride personal watercrafts to capture great moments in surfing.
When an unexpected towering wall of water rises up from the seas toward growling motors and ecstatic surfers, chaos ensues.
Skiers can smash into one another throwing riders into the water, engines can fail in whitewater and people can get stuck on the inside of a set and held under.
Slow moving powerboats, unable to maneuver out of the way, may capsize.
And those are just a few of the things that can go wrong. Fog thick as pea soup can roll in, cutting visibility to 10 feet, leaving everyone in a blanket of white.
This scenario is made even worse by the haunting sound of heard-but-not-seen waves crashing nearby.
Over 10 years of rushing out the door — and away from his family — at a moment’s notice to chase world’s biggest waves, Los Angeles pro surf photographer Fred Pompermayer has seen many of these situations play out. And it’s through these experiences that he’s learned how to avoid the worst-case scenarios.
“But I can only plan for so much,” Fred explains. “It’s hard to think about everything. The ocean can turn in a second, a set can come in that is different from before, and you have to make decisions super fast — go or not go.”
This is why he wears a life vest, packs fins in case he has to swim, carries a radio and keeps a GPS handy to navigate in low visibility.
Growing up in Piracicaba, in the state of São Paulo, Brazil, three hours from the closest beach, Fred spent his youth obsessively collecting surf magazines. “The beautiful beaches and lineups went to my head and drove my passion for surfing, even before I tried it,” he says. He sold his bike for a surfboard at age 12.
At 20 years old, in 1995, he saw a double-page spread in a magazine of (the late) Jay Moriarity dropping in on a giant wave at Mavericks, near Half Moon Bay in California, about 30 miles south of San Francisco. “This photo was a classic wipeout that made the cover of SURFER and others,” Fred recalls.
Five years later, Fred flew to California and saw Mavericks on an epic day. He was instantly hooked on capturing images of the world’s biggest waves.
Since then, he’s won numerous awards and his images have made it on the cover of surf magazines all over the world.
Below, Pompermayer shares a couple of horror stories from the field and gives tips on how to avoid getting tossed into the drink while capturing big wave surf photos.
In 2014 Fred, and a gaggle of others, lined up during the first big swell of the season at Maui’s most famous big wave surf spot on the North Shore, Jaws.
“The first set of the morning was about 50 feet,” Fred recalls. In addition to the memorable waves, Fred also took note of the great number of jet skis and boats that showed up that day.
Soon the excited peanut gallery nudged closer and closer to the action and competed for space. “It was overwhelming, especially when I began to realize that some jet ski drivers didn’t belong in the water that day and it looked like they didn’t know what they were doing.”
With photographers snapping wildly at the big waves and big wipeouts, everyone was distracted. Then a big set, much bigger than before, came in unexpectedly and from a new angle. Skiers scattered to safety but a lone powerboat remained.
“I don’t know if the captain of the boat had been to Jaws before,” Fred says. “So maybe inexperience is to blame. The boat was too slow to get out of the way and got caught by the wave and flipped. We had to stop everything and go to the rescue."
All available hands came to help pull people from the water. Fred’s driver, a longtime lifeguard from Maui, Alfredo Villas Boas, was able to save a drowning woman. Luckily there were no fatalities that day.
“I’ve seen dangerous situations like that several times before in places like Teahupo’o, Tahiti — places that get very crowded when the swell gets big. Spectators on the big boats don’t realize what can happen. One moment it’s beautiful and everyone’s having a good time. Then, boom! Something happens and it’s a nightmare,” Fred says.
Also, don’t get blinded in the fog without a GPS. Anyone who’s ever seen a photo of the Golden Gate Bridge knows how thick the fog is when it rolls in from the west. This same situation occurs 30 miles south of the Golden Gate, at Mavericks.
Fred’s been caught out in the fog there twice over the years. Once he was with four other jet skiers and only one member of the group had a GPS.
The day started out clear but slowly a thick glob of fog rolled in from behind them.
“We couldn’t see anything,” Fred says. “We were driving in 20-foot swells with no way of knowing which direction was shore or the ocean. For 45 minutes we huddled near the one member in our group who had a GPS and tailed them all the way to shore.”
To learn more about Fred Pompermayer, follow him on Instagram.
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