Born in Oahu Hawaii in 1997, Russell Bierke moved to Australia at the age of five and settled in Ulladulla. The son of Kirk, an experienced big wave surfer and shaper, Russell was riding huge waves on big boards aged 10. By the time he was 16, he’d logged tubes at Mavericks, Mullaghmore and a variety of remote slabs across the Australian continent. He was becoming known as a rare, once-in-a-generation big wave talent. In 2018, aged 21, Russell made the finals of the Big Wave Awards which guaranteed him a position on the WSL big wave tour.
He immediately made a mark by making the Final at the Nazare Paddle Challenge, on his first-ever trip to the Portuguese big wave spot. The following year he scored one of the best waves at the Jaws Big Wave Championships. A quiet, thoughtful personality who prefers to let his surfing do the talking, his impact on the sport has already been dramatic. Where he takes the sport could be even more remarkable. O & E caught up with Russ at his home in Ulladulla, as he rested some busted ribs in preparation for his next big wave assault.
What’s the most scared in the ocean?
2018 in Nazare, my first time there. I went over and hooked up with Lucas Chumbo and Carlos Burle. The day after I landed there was a tow swell, and we were straight out there. I whipped the first one, which didn’t break, and was towed straight into a second one, and looked like it would do the same. So, I faded, but then it just jacked. I remember this huge shadow coming over my shoulder and then the lip landed on my tail. I then had three more set waves on the head after that, of equal size, and in between each one, I’d have time to suck in a little bit of air, and then be sent back down. It was the closest I’ve been to blacking out.
How big were the waves?
I had only had a second to clock them, but they were huge. The local surfers were calling them 60-footers, whatever that means, but they looked every bit of that from sea level.
Is Nazare still a focus?
Not really, not since the competition has become tow focused. For me, the risk verse reward isn’t there. It’s not a place I really click with.
What waves have you clicked with?
There are only a few surf spots around the world. One is a left bombie near home. I've been hitting that for a few years now. It’s a place where I feel I perform my best and enjoy myself every time I surf it. Another one is Shipsterns. You feel like you are at the edge of the world, and I’ve probably had a handful of the best waves of my life out there. Whether you walk in or go by boat or jetski, it’s a nightmare. But that adds to the sense of adventure and achievement. And the locals have looked after me. It feels like a second home.
What about Ireland? You have spent a lot of time there too, right?
Yeah, I think I first went in 2017 and try to get back every year. It doesn’t come easy. On the last trip, we had a handful of good days in two months and two weeks when we couldn’t even get in the water. But when the payoff happens, and you score world-class waves, it is so worth it. Like Shippies, it’s such a challenge and so you get a great sense of achievement. You’re battling the elements, not the crowds. And I’ve made so many great friends there.
Any memorable sessions from the last trip?
One stands out, for the wrong reasons. It was at the right, under the cliffs last November. It was the same session when Nate Florence got that crazy backdoor wave. We were surfing that day and there were no skis. There’s only one way in and out, and the current pulls you away from the keyhole. I ended up breaking my board late in the session but had the tail half. I was swept down into this little bay. You can make it to shore there, but then you can’t climb up the cliff. The locals have put a pelican case with an emergency blanket and some food and water if you are forced to spend the night down there. Anyway, I was in that cove with half a board, and either could camp out, or paddle back out and around the peak to come in through the keyhole. I paddled it and I remember thinking I was so glad my legrope hadn't let me down. If I didn't have half a board, I was in all sorts. It took me an hour to get in, and it was pretty much dark when I got to the top of the cliffs and safety.
And what next for Russell Bierke?
I’m just getting over a rib issue, and then I’ll start planning some missions. The aim is to get big barrels, hang with cool people and have a good time. It’s pretty simple really. I’ll keep ya posted!
Writer: Ben Mondy
Filmers: Andrew Kaineder / Clem McInerney / Ben Bettridge
Music: Dead Crow