Makes all the sense in the world really.
May 2007, cliffside, pitch black, 7’2” under arm and nothing but the sound of thumping surf as a guide to where the ocean might be.
“I figured it was gonna be pretty big ‘cos the swell charts were showing a bit of size, so I thought I’d hit it pretty early and beat the crowd.”
What Sean Woolnough didn’t know as he gingerly made his way down the stairs and out through the cave at Uluwatu that fateful morning was the crowd would soon be the least of his worries.
Actually, it never was. But, more on that later.
Somehow, Sean punches through the water rushing into the cave and navigates through the darkness to what he figures is the line-up.
With enough light starting to filter in over the cliff tops, Woolnough gets his first look at what he’d gotten himself into as the first massive sets start to pulse across The Bombie and head towards Outside Corner where he’d positioned himself.
And unlike about 90 to 95 per cent of the surfing population, when the shit hit the fan the lifeguard from Narrabeen couldn’t have been happier.
“Judging by what I could see in the dark, I figured it’d be about 10-12 feet,” he recalls.
“But it really starting pumping and it was more like 20 to 25 feet, but just…perfect. As good as I’ve ever seen waves that big at that stage.”
Sean snags a handful of bombs over the course of four hours before it dawns on him he was still the only one out.
“I was kinda thinking, where is everyone? But I didn’t know it at the time, but the tide came up and just filled the cave with water,” he says.
“It would’ve been impossible to get out through it anyway.”
Undeterred, Sean continues on his merry way until a thick dark shape start to grow upwards as it angles its way towards him.
Like he had all morning, Sean whips the 7’2 Aloha around, digs deep and starts to paddle till he feels the familiar sense of the tail engaging and the board beginning to lift as the wave continues to jack.
It’s at this juncture where the physics of volume versus mass become a problem.
“I felt really good as I was paddling into that wave but I think because it was such a small board I got held up just a split second to long and had a real late drop,” he says.
“I actually got it down the face, around the first section and managed to travel quite a way but I had to go out into the flats to outrun it a bit and that’s where he got me.”
And got him good. A couple metric tonne of Indian Ocean came down on Sean oddly send him skyward for a short eternity before a rapid downward descent.
“I think because it was so perfect I’d managed to get away with such a small board all morning, but I guess I ran out of luck,’’ chuckles Sean.
“I felt the leggie ping and then I got a good flogging, the hold down itself wasn’t that bad, but yeah, it was a good flogging…arms legs everywhere. Top two for sure.”
A quick look around assures Sean attempting to swim back through the cave ain’t an option, so he hedges his bets, puts his head down and begins to swim towards Padang.
It’s also around this point, most of the crowd assembled up on the cliff figure the unknown Aussie who’d ventured off to tackle macking Uluwatu in the dark was probably dead, or at least likely to show up dead, much later rather than anytime sooner.
The thought, as macabre as it seems, causes Sean to chuckle, as most of this recollection has.
“Everyone thought I swam to Padang, but I came in at a little spot between Ulu’s and Padang, I think it’s called Thompsons,” he says, still chuckling.
“The swim actually wasn’t that bad ‘cos of all the water washing down the point but it was a bit of a mission to get in and then I had to walk all the way back to the warungs. I was pretty rooted by the time I got back.”
Sean is given a hug by the warung’s owner upon his victorious return and settles in for a refreshing drink before heading back out.
The onlookers, still not quite sure what to make of the situation, begin to circulate rumours of the crazy white man who’d braved the giant surf, swam the entire Bukit Peninsula before scaling a tree and sculling the contents of a coconut.
It’s a rumour Sean has heard countless times and one he probably could’ve hung on to if he were that way inclined.
“Everyone said that, but nah, no coconuts,” he says once again with a self-depreciating chuckle.
“The funniest thing about that day was I wanted to get some food in me before I headed out to Ulu’s and the only thing open was Maccas and it was before they had a breakfast menu. So I scoffed down three cheeseburgers on the way out there. Not exactly the breakfast of champions, but, you know…you gotta eat.”
Sean surfs the remainder of the day before calling it quits and heading back into Kuta for a night on the town…alone.
“Once the tide ran out, it dropped off a bit, not much though and I saw Andy Campbell get the best barrel I’ve ever seen out there,” he says.
“It was a pretty epic swell, real west and I think the swell period got to about 26 seconds. But anyway, that night, I ended up cruising by myself thinking, “Yeah, that was a pretty good surf.”
Since then, Sean has continued to make an appearance whenever and wherever the conditions turn black including Fiji and a maiden voyage to Jaws this year.
“I work on Namotu. I’ve been there for the past 10 years,” he says.
“That spot…easily the best for size and quality. I was there for the Volcom swell but the swell before, the one Bruce Irons and Hippo got those massive barrels…I still think that was a better one. It went for three days and the waves were just so good and so big, it just looked fake. Kohl Christensen got the best wave I’ve ever seen.”
But for now, the crazy white man who headed out to sea under the cover of darkness that May day in ’07 is on the beach at Narrabeen, where it all began.
“Gotta pay the bills,” he says, still chuckling.
“Those trips don’t come for free!”