Of 'Hell and High Water'
As a 11-year-old growing up in Great Neck, Long Island, Paul Taublieb never gave much thought to the surfing possibilities 17 miles south in the Rockaways until a chance viewing of the iconic 1964 documentary "The Endless Summer." Bruce Brown's simple, honest portrayal of two California surfers paid to travel the world in pursuit of hypnotically perfect African and New Zealand point breaks and bone-crushing winter swells on Oahu's North Shore changed how Taublieb viewed the world.
From that day, Taublieb says, "I decided 'I'm gonna be a surfer.' That's been the driving force in my life."
A few years later, Taublieb left Plattsburgh State University to surf and hitchhike through Africa. Journeying through the Congo, he met a witch doctor and came to the aid of a pair of guys dying in the jungle of malaria. The only way to reach help in time was by paddling the raging Ubangi River in a canoe so rotten, he had to patch its hull with bubble gum.
"Then I hitched across Zaire to East Africa," he says. "Took a freighter to the Comoros Islands, Madagascar and then Mauritius. Went back to the U.S. via Israel and finally went back and graduated from the University of Buffalo."
It was during that journey when Taublieb realized he was not only driven by surf, but the stories of those he met along the way. He became a writer for Life magazine, Sports Illustrated and The Washington Post before segueing into film. Today, as producer of the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary "Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau," Taublieb is hopeful that a pending three-episode World of X Games adventure series, "Hell and High Water," co-produced by "Hawaiian" cohort Sam George, will change how the world views big-wave surfing.
The show will air this fall on ABC and follows the fortunes of Hawaiians Shane Dorian and Mark Healey, South African Grant "Twiggy" Baker, Californian Greg Long and Australian Ryan "Hippo" Hipwood. Another Hawaiian, Jamie Mitchell, joined the production once it started.
Long, Baker and the Hawaiians are veterans, largely credited with turning the surfing world's focus away from a decade-long obsession with tow-surfing -- in which a surfer is whipped onto a wave by a jet ski -- and back to the far more dangerous proposition of catching a giant wave barehanded. At 27, Hipwood is the younger upstart. He's made a name for himself by paddling and towing into slabbing underworld waves like Australia's Ship Stern Bluff.
To anyone with a finger on the pulse of the big waves in the last decade, news of Taublieb's show came as a surprise. Not so much because a "Deadliest Catch" of big waves is a bad idea, but because a show like this has been talked about for years. Numerous such projects have been proposed -- and nearly produced -- but this is the first time a major network has been willing to shoulder the risk. Taublieb calls it a dream come true.
"I got into discussions with [ESPN]," he says. "We asked if it was possible to do a big-wave series and why it hadn't been done yet? Well, to those guys' credit, even though surfing is not in the X Games, they recognized that it's an integral part of action sports culture."
"It's so hard to get your head around this TV world," says Mark Healey, who was instrumental in putting the deal together among the surfers. "This was the first opportunity where someone has come to us and said, 'This is going to air on a major network and we have a producer and director with a history of making it happen.' That's what we've been waiting for."
Principal among the challenges, say Taublieb and Healey, are dealing with the vagaries of the ocean. In 2011, Taublieb produced a film about MotoGP racer Valentino Rossi called "Fastest." He would stack up the athleticism and dedication of Healey and crew to Rossi or any Formula One racer, but while races are planned months and weeks in advance on a set playing field, big-wave surfers are subject to the whims of weather forecasts that may not pan out. They are also paid a fraction of what racers make.
"It's like being at the starting line every single day," says Taublieb. "But they have to be ready to drop anything to go anywhere on the planet at a moment's notice. They have to be incredibly organized; jet-ski backups, safety gear, wet suits. And their paddle surfboards are 12 feet long and weigh 30 pounds. They're traveling around the world, eating bad food and coordinating with locals, which means they must be diplomats. Then they paddle out at dawn, jet-lagged, into moving Himalayas."
The surfers are all intersecting at different points in their lives. Last year, Grant "Twiggy" Baker, 40, lost his title sponsorship with Billabong and was faced with the loss of his livelihood. In response, he sharpened his focus and has gone on to become the most on-fire competitor in this year's Xpreshon Big Wave World tour, winning the year's inaugural events in France and at Maverick's. In 2012, Greg Long, 30, nearly drowned, only to be resuscitated after being held down by four murderous waves at Cortes Bank. Healey, 33, and Mitchell, 37, are not only renowned as a big-wave surfers, but as freakishly talented endurance athletes and divers. Despite Olympian fitness, each often questions his sanity when faced with a six-story wall of moving water, or in Healey's case, a hitchhike on the fin of a great white shark. Shane Dorian is a husband and father of two, who wonders each time he paddles out if this will be the day he gives up big-wave surfing for good.
"Most of the time, Shane's a normal dad," says Taublieb. "He trains while the kids are at school then has time with them at home and leads an ordinary life. But his countenance totally changes when the blobs show up on the weather maps. His wife starts freaking out and gets worried. His kid asks him, 'Why can't you have a normal life and be a fireman or a policeman? He's trying to fulfill his obligations and is torn between the Little League game and the swells. These guys, they're not heroes in the traditional sense, they're not in Afghanistan or Iraq, but they're facing their fears and showing that you can wipe out and come back and find courage in your life. They're heroes of the human spirit."
"Hell and High Water," a three-episode World of X Games adventure series, airs throughout November on ABC.