The Greatest Hellman: Charting The Three Biggest Wipeouts of Shane Ackerman

Shane Ackerman is, arguably, the biggest charger to ever grace a bodyboard – a humble, fearless dark horse dedicated to throwing himself into some truly scary situations where even big-wave surfers would dare fear to tread. But when your modus operandi is to throw yourself into the heaviest waves imaginable, a daunting byproduct is wiping out in spectacular fashion. Over and over again.

In fact, it speaks to Ackerman’s legitimacy as an iconic charger by the fact you could recall some of his biggest wipeouts off-hand. The Right. Teahupo’o. Luna Park. Dark, distant bombies off the beaten track and far away from the nearest emergency room. Yet despite the genuine prospect of severe pain or worse, he’s still hell-bent on being the greatest hellman.

But which wipeouts, of all the damning wipeouts, still ring true in his mind? We asked Ackerman to dish on his biggest beat-downs, what inspired him to go big and what it actually feels like to get rag-dolled by a heaving wall of ocean.

MM: Firstly, mate; can you tell us a bit about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get into riding waves?
Shane Ackerman: I grew up in Wollongong, just south of Sydney. Your typical kid who played soccer, touch footy and all those types of team sports our parents put us in. I was actually heavily involved in nippers, and I wasn’t the biggest participant when it came to the water events – I was more of a sand-dancer. One day a mate asked if I wanted to come for a surf on the weekend and that’s where it all began.

You’ve certainly garnered a reputation for yourself as a bit of a hellman. Why are you so drawn to big waves?
Mum always used to tell us, “If you can swim at this beach you can swim anywhere”. She also used to get us to play games when nippers finished, like who could get tumbled the most. We’d always come up laughing along with sand in every nook and cranny. I may have taken that whole a little further than what mum imagined, but it’s something we laugh about. And let’s be honest, it’s her fault I’m here now – she’s the true instigator of these antics [laughs]. Why am I so drawn to these types of waves now? I’m not quite sure, maybe I’m addicted to the adrenaline rush. These days I feel like society is so caught up in posting about their “perfect lifestyle” that we’ve forgotten what makes us truly happy – for me, it’s chasing big swells and being amongst the rawest of oceans that mother nature has to dish out.

You don’t put yourself out in those elements if you’re not confident.

Do you ever ride small waves anymore? Do they satisfy you like the big ones do?
If it’s 6ft and under, that’s perfect cray diving conditions. Unless it’s huge I’m usually trying to find somewhere to dive. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I surfed while it’s was small – it’s not that it’s unsatisfying, I’ve just got different things I’m focusing on at the moment and doing spinners isn’t one of them. Perfecting the cray dive comes first and foremost [laughs].

What’s going through your head while you’re on a heaving slab looking down the line?
That’s a good question. As times gone on, I’ve noticed changes in my thoughts towards chasing bigger swells. It used to be sleepless nights, barely eating and really fidgety, anxious, stressed and nervous. I’d always be thinking the worst outcomes and if i’d be able to handle them if presented, but also didn’t want to shy away from the challenge. Looking back at that now, those times felt really testing – not to say that I’m not still being tested; I just have a different approach to it all. I think I felt more stress back then because I’d set goals that I didn’t ever imagine I could reach. Those goals seemed pretty twisted back then and unrealistic. But we won’t go into detail of what I now think [laughs].

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Similarly, what’s going through your head when you’re being absolutely thrashed?
I’m usually jamming away to the last song I listened to before heading – ‘Strawberry Kisses’ by Nikki Webster – you can’t beat a good banger to get you through a session of ass whooping. You don’t put yourself out in those elements if you’re not confident. There’s no shortcuts; it’s baby steps from the start. It took me years of doing spinners at 2ft beach breaks before I’d even considered surfing a wave with serious power, and in that process I copped some absolute floggings that scared me to the point where I’d ask myself if I even wanted to go out and try that again. Sometimes you’ve gotta pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get back out there and have another crack. Keeping calm is the main focus. The initial penetration of a wipeout is usually where you find out how painful it’s going to be. Once that split second has passed, you’re usually jamming to Nikki Webster and having a pretty good time. Mother Nature has bent me more ways than a professional gymnast could ever imagine. Maybe I’ll be able to teach them some new moves [laughs].

I feel like society is so caught up in posting about their ‘perfect lifestyle’ that we’ve forgotten what makes us truly happy – for me, it’s chasing big swells...

What’s the scariest wave you’ve ridden? Do you have a break that you’re yet to tame?
Luna Park. Partly because the last two sessions I had down there ended after a total of 3 waves. One ended in a corked thigh and the other smashing my knee cap on the bottom; I was crippled for a few days. But that’s nothing compared to some of the hidings the boys have had out there. I’d consider myself extremely lucky. I’m yet to tame The Right, although it very nearly drowned me earlier this year. That session really sparked a big fire inside of me, it beat me but it definitely did not defeat me. I’ve had some wild wipeouts at other waves which made me feel really pumped to get back out there and give it another crack but that session sparked a different type of fire. I’ve been completely obsessed over that place ever since. To be honest I’m not really driven towards any other wave at the moment – my sole focus is on getting back there to try and get what I’ve set out to get. Which I very nearly achieved on my first surf out there. In my eyes the biggest waves are yet to be paddled on all water crafts. I feel like its only the beginning. The Right is definitely one place where, on a boogie board especially, the bar hasn’t been properly set. Give it another 12 months and we’ll see some big things go down. There’s a lot of hungry lions out there and given the opportunity things could get pretty wild. For me “taming” something is by paddling it as well. I’m not against towing whatsoever, but it’s not what I’m into. I thrive on doing things the organic way.

Do you have any goals in mind for surfing bigger, heavier waves? What’s on your radar?
Always. Setting goals each year and even before each session. I’m not out there competing with everyone in the line up; I’m out there to try and achieve my own goals and set my own heights. I don’t feel like I’ve reached them yet and there’s a lot of growth to come. As for what’s on the radar, you’ll have to sit tight on that one. I’m not one to listen to people telling me what I can and can’t achieve. If you tell me I can’t do it, I’ll go out of my way to try and prove you wrong… so don’t test me.

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Who inspires you, or has inspired you, to push yourself in big waves?
I’m not sure if I’m inspired by anything or anyone in particular, to be honest. But I do believe you should never give up on what you really want to do or achieve. The person with big dreams is more powerful than the one with all the facts.

How do your family and friends feel about you taking such risks in the ocean?
I’d never even thought what others thought when it came to my surfing purely because I’m in my happy place, and what I’m doing doesn’t feel like it’s life-threatening to me. But reading this question got me wondering what my friends and family actually think – maybe I should consider what they think? So I reached out to a few friends and family to see what they had to say. Everyone’s opinions summed up, they’re all surprised theres been no serious injuries or death, but are well aware it is what I thrive on and you can’t stop a man who’s driven towards his own goals. They also think I play down my wipeouts and size of waves, which makes them a little at ease that I’m confident in the situations that I put myself in.

Have you ever had any experiences when you thought you should pull on the reigns a bit? When you thought you might need to reconsider you priorities?
No, not at all. Surfing is my escape from the crazy world we live in and its what makes me feel alive. It’s my happy place. When I’m out there in the elements nothing else matters.