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A videographer’s awesomely busy year: The making of Chasing the Swell

There’s no surf in Pittsburgh, Pa. But that’s where I grew up, the daughter of two Southern California transplants. Every August we escaped to Capistrano Beach, where I first fell in love with the ocean. Every December my wish list to Santa began with “an ocean in my backyard.” I’m still waiting.

In 1998, fresh from a trip to Indonesia, I was eager to play with the EOS 1N RS film camera and water housing I picked up while living in Japan. I talked my way into the lineup at the HIC Pipeline Pro and pretended to know what I was doing. The surf rose from 4 to 20 feet in a matter of hours. To my right was Mike Prickett, to my left, Larry Haynes. Both legends behind the lens who made sure I didn’t drown. As the surf rose I watched in awe as a whip-thin 16-year-old hurled himself into a barreling wave over four times his height. That was the first time I saw Mark Healey in his element.

Four years later I was living in San Francisco where I finally learned how to surf at Ocean Beach — the tightest surf community I know. Within that community is a smaller group of surfers for whom Ocean Beach’s wild surf is child’s play. They live by the rise of the tides and the rumor of distant storms. You can see it in their eyes — they’re wired differently. This group introduced me to Mavericks, probably the most famous big wave in the world.

Fast-forward seven years. I’m back in Southern California working with the newly formed video team at the Los Angeles Times. I’m scrolling through microfiche of papers from the ’50s trying to find a seminal photo of George Downing riding a gigantic wave at Makaha in Hawaii. I had just finished an interview with Evan Slater, a big wave surfer and former editor in chief of Surfing Magazine, who told me that the publication of this photo was in part what brought Southern Californian legends such as Greg Noll to the North Shore in search of big waves.

The following year, while visiting Ryan Seelbach, an old Ocean Beach friend, standout surfer and contestant at Mavericks, I meet a posse of South African chargers who have come to San Francisco to give Mavs a go. It became clear that Mavericks was no longer the playground of a select few locals and that Hawaii was no longer the sole destination for big wave riders. Combine this with a rare El Nino weather pattern, and I sensed a story.

“Chasing the Swell”, a three part video, was a year in the making and involved one less-than-24-hour trip to Oahu, two trips to Killers, a big wave off Isla Todos Santos near Ensenada, and several trips back to Mavericks. My goal was to bring the awe-inspiring sport of big wave surfing to every reader of the Los Angeles Times, surfer or not. Enjoy the ride.

6 Comments

  1. November 15, 2010, 11:18 am

    […] wait to get out and do some more world travel. Sachi Cunningham debuted a part of her three-part series on big-wave chasing and riding which was a really innovative look at the sport. Her footage […]

  2. November 15, 2010, 6:47 pm

    thank you for understanding that surfing, and big wave surfing, is not equaled by any other human activity on the planet — man-eating predators, razor-sharp coral reefs, super-strong rip currents, tons of hurled and falling water, and the manifestation in liquid form of severe storm energy vibrations are the medium in which these super mortals express themselves in a gymnastic dance on the most moving perilous stage that, unless seen from your watery vantage points, is unimaginable. the sooner these wave warriors get their due, in recognition of their hyper-human feats and in legal tender, the sooner every surfer will get the respect they deserve.

    By: sambsurfin
  3. November 15, 2010, 8:56 pm

    Bravo, Sachi. Really well done. Those South Africans are, of course, totally insane, as are all the big wave surfers. But more power to them, and it's awesome to watch them at work…from the land. Great video, some engaging personalities, monster waves, and that wipeout and rescue to remind us this is a sport only for a mad band of brothers.

    By: Steve Talbot
  4. November 18, 2010, 9:01 am

    Thanks again, Sachi, for bringing your excellent viewpoint to this incredible sport. For those of us in the land-locked Midwest, you've provided a window to this world like no other.

    By: Phil G-E
  5. January 8, 2011, 9:08 am

    I lived in Half Moon Bay for 15 years and have seen numerous Maverick's contests, with the biggest being a 52 foot wave I think in 1999. I loved the film and the cinemaphotography of this piece, though it would have been nice to have more on camera with Jeff Clark, as he really could have made the Mav's segment more interesting with more background and history behind the wave.

    Great job Thanks to the LA Times for being forward thinking enough to hire their own video crew and to let them work on long-form stories like this. If there was a publishing industry contest for "long-form newspaper video sports feature" this piece would surely deserve an award.

    By: bford@coastside.net
  6. September 28, 2011, 9:39 pm

    […] video “Chasing the Swell” was chosen as a finalist for online video journalism productions by the Online News […]

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