SURFERS WITH ALTITUDE

posted by / News / August 26, 2004

One-hundred foot waves. Jet Skis. Odysseys. And now this: the Billabong Clipper. When the surfwear giant recently announced they’d be using a 50-year-old sea plane to reach the world’s most isolated waves, we could only nod in agreement. Of course they’d been roaming the world’s airstrips for the past few years, searching for the perfect bird. Of course they have the world’s most promising atolls mapped out and are debriefing a hungry crew of surfing stuntmen at this very minute. And of course one of surfing’s most ambitious projecteers is helping to get it all off the ground: Bill Sharp. It’s the next logical extension of extreme surf travel, and we figured Sharp himself should give us the pre-flight debriefing.SURFING MAGAZINE: First the {{{Odyssey}}} and now the Albatross. Are you going to be hitting all the literary classics with your big-wave ventures?
BILL SHARP: [laughs] Yeah. . .we’ll see. I have to say that this was not something that I spearheaded. It was something that Billabong’s Paul Naude wanted to do for years. And I’m just using my experience to manage the project. It’s different from a number of the high-profile things I’ve done recently because it’s. . .I’m not taking full credit for it.Will this be a part of the Odyssey?
It will overlap from time to time. There’s certain places the Odyssey will be able to go if everything comes together. But at least {{{80}}} percent of it is going to be about chasing waves that the average surfer salivates over. So this isn’t a search for the world’s biggest wave.
A lot of the rapid deployment ideas and techniques we’ve developed with the Odyssey are going to come into play. And there are a list of places with big waves where — up until now — we haven’t been able to get to fast enough. And we will put the Albatross to use for that. But it isn’t just meant to support the Odyssey. It’s a whole nother deal. It’s about getting to where the reef passes and atolls are just waiting to be discovered. How did you track the plane down? You can’t just go down to your local army surplus store.
When Paul decided he wanted to do it, we immediately went to our designated pilot, Mike Castillo. He helped tremendously in helping us find what we needed. There’s a number of planes out there that might have been suitable, like the Catalina PPY or the Grumman Goose, which is a smaller version of the Albatross. So it was a matter of just working out what’s out there and what’s available. And it took several years to narrow it down. Finally, we found the right plane at the right price and it’s suitable for all the upgrades this project will require.

What do the upgrades entail? Is this like an Indies Trader with wings?
In some ways. It’s being gutted and rebuilt with a surf trip in mind. You gotta have seats obviously, and they come with things like stretcher bunks. We’re going to need plenty of room for surfboard storage. And then the key: the Jet Skis and Zodiacs, finding a way to store those. Because you can’t just go land at some atoll in the middle of nowhere and have to paddle the last two miles. Those are some of the key modifications. It’ll be painted, too. Something a little less military.We initially heard you were going to be attaching Jet Skis to the wings of the plane. Is this true?
[long pause] That. . .rumors to that effect may turn out to be true. [all-knowing laugh]Are you keeping that one classified?
You know, we’re just. . .we don’t want to expose everything all at once. There’s so many components to this plane, and it’ll be much better when people just see it in action. There’s a lot of reluctance to pre-claim here. Are you ready to fly on the next swell?
Not quite. It’ll be ready for this fall, though. It’s ready when it’s ready, but I’m confident we’ll be prepared that first good winter swell.So, conceivably, this plane could fly anywhere in the world?
It can fly 3300 miles. There’s no place on this globe that it can not reach. OK. So if you saw a giant swell heading toward the South Pacific, you’d just jump in start exploring?
Yeah. That’s something I’ve been doing the past few months, just learning everything about where in this world can we replenish the consumables on the plane. What kind of fuel does it need? Where is that fuel available? Certainly you can get from California to Tahiti. You just have to spread it out, and pay attention to what’s underneath you. Are you going to be double duties here? Is the Odyssey still a priority?
I’m doing double duty. The Odyssey is going to shift to being more about being there for the biggest day of the year. No matter what, for ever and ever, the Odyssey is part of our mission, but it might not be about going on four or five trips and posting up each year. The Odyssey’s still there and we’re still in pursuit of the biggest wave, but that only happens a couple of days a year. That still leaves 363 days a year to do other things. We know you had to brush up on your Homer for the Odyssey. Been reading a lot of Samuel Taylor Coleridge lately?
The only difference here is, I didn’t call it the Albatross. That was someone at Grumman 50 years ago. But there is something there in the romantic notion of this project, whether it’s Coleridge rhymes or that sort of glamorous era of the ’30s and ’40s, Indiana Jones and the China Clipper and all that stuff. Here we are, all these years later, and with all this technology at our fingertips, and we’re flying a 50-year-old airplane. One that has big, loud engines, and operates in the same way it did a long time ago. You and Billabong are becoming synonymous with unveiling the next big thing. First it’s the world’s biggest wave, now it’s the world’s most inaccessible waves. Where can you go from here? Got any calls into NASA?
Well, I currently don’t have any plans to look for surf in Uranus. But when I do, you’ll be the first to know. — Evan Slater

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