With the sun setting on a winter day 100 miles out to sea, a pair of surfers are still trying to paddle into the two-story waves that crest the endless horizon at Cortes Bank, a rowdy reef pass off the Southern California coast. Jamie Mitchell uses his paddle to pivot his standup board and takes a late drop on a 20-odd footer. He makes it and works to set his rail before the monster envelopes him, sending him into a wash of whitewater.
When he resurfaces his board is in two pieces, almost a badge of honor when riding big surf. Mitchell, a native of Coffs Harbor, New South Wales, has long been one of the world's best paddlers -- see 10 Molokai2Oahu prone paddleboard titles and a number of prestigious standup wins -- but it's his big-wave skills that often fly below the surfing world's radar. Mitchell is working to change that. Last year in Australia, he took Surfing Life magazine's Award for "Biggest Paddle In" thanks to a drop he made at Cow Bombie, an offshore break in Western Australia. Most recently he was named Waterman of the Year at the 2013 Australian Surfing Awards.
An alternate for both the Eddie Aikau and Mavericks Invitational, Mitchell has worked his way into the big-wave fraternity, privy to the virtual chatter that sees him chasing swells around the world on a moments notice. And he's carving a unique niche for himself along the way, slowly bridging the gap between the world's of big wave paddle-in and SUP.
While still somewhat of a fringe, standup paddling has slowly crept into the big-wave playing field. From Jaws to Mavericks to Dungeons off the South African coast, SUPers have started to become part of the lineup.
Standing, paddlers can easily spot incoming sets and get into waves early. Unfortunately, many practitioners haven't always endeared themselves to the traditional big-wave lineup, sometimes crowding the takeoff zone, paddling onto the shoulder with prone surfers already positioned deeper, or generally, being a danger in places with little margin for error.
Mitchell says avoiding conflict has everything to do with manners. "There's a time and place," he says. "I was checking out Backdoor (Pipeline) today and I would have loved to take a standup out there. But it's crowded and definitely not the place for it. It's just common sense. I've had my standup board at Todos and Mavs, but it hasn't been the right time or conditions. At Cortes Banks it was only me and Garrett (McNamara) out there. I wasn't putting anyone in danger but myself."
When Mitchell does want to ride super-sized surf on a SUP, he's earned his spot. Growing up as a lifeguard, Mitchell is a water rescue expert and has worked safety for many of the ASP events, making him an asset to any crew.
"There's no one that doesn't have respect for Jamie's capabilities," says Mark Healey, who finished fifth at last month's Mavericks Invitational. "(It's been presented in the media) that everybody's against standup , but it's more about being against doing dangerous things in the lineup. When you're out there, you just don't want it to be anymore dangerous than it is. But there's a handful of guys in the world that know what's up. Jamie's a very skilled waterman. When he's out there, he's not making your life any harder. He paddled into some bombs at Cortes. How ya gonna knock that when some guys aren't doing it prone?"
Healey thinks that, thanks to athletes like Mitchell, Kai Lenny, Connor Baxter, and other hard charging standup paddlers, the perception of SUP in the surfing world is starting to change. "When the sport first appeared there were some definite growing pains," he says. "But it feels like standup has come out of those growing pains really well. I'm blown away by what guys can do on standup boards now. Guys you've never heard of are absolutely ripping."
Mitchell will continue to prone, and SUP, big surf simply because he loves doing both. "It's just better to have two options," he says. "It's two totally different feelings when you catch a wave."