The Founders of Dungeons: Sending it into the Unknown at the 'World's Most Terrifying Wave'

Craig Jarvis

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Updated 26d ago

The two surfers sat on Chapman's Peak, the narrow, circuitous and hazardous mountain path joining Hout Bay to Noordhoek in Cape Town, built by convict labour. Across the bay they could see the huge right hander spinning off in the distance. Even from that far away, a few miles across open water, a giant barrel was rearing up. And they considered it.

Without a quick rubber duck ride in to the line-up, without rescue skis in the channel, ready to haul them out of danger. Without cellphones and beach linkups and the whirring of cameras and videos. Without any safety in the event of an accident, and without the knowledge that the solid slab of heaving water was actually rideable, they considered it.

Spot guide: Dungeons

Of course, what came before helped pave the way for now. Documented in upcoming film Satori.

The only thing they knew was that they would be the first to surf it, and that there were great white sharks harbouring in the deeps. The thousands of seals on Duiker Island were testament to this. Yet despite all this, and the mammoth task of accessibility into the line up, they weighed their options.

They watched the wave for awhile, as did many other Cape Town surfers over the years. One day, on a whim, they decided to give it a go, and so began the Dungeons Quest. Pierre de Villiers and good friend Peter Button were the first guys to surf Dungeons, then simply known as The Sentinel, from the description of the rock structure overlooking the wave, all those years ago. One day, on a whim, they decided to give it a go, and so began the Dungeons Quest

“We started surfing The Sentinel in about 1984,” remembers Pierre. “We checked it out for about a year or so first, trying to suss it out. At that stage we were obviously pretty nervous.”

Back then, surfing big waves was such a different ball game. It was harder and grittier. There wasn’t a big wave renaissance in the air yet. No media hype. There were just people, surfers, feeling an inherent pull towards these giant waves. The equipment wasn’t very refined like it is today. The depth of knowledge with regards to big-wave surfing was still limited.

"There used to be an old rubbish dump at the top of the settlement on the base of the mountain there in Hout Bay, and we used to park our car there, climb over the mountain, paddle out and walk back,” recalls Pierre. "It was an all-day mission. The climb was a good hour and the paddle was a good twenty minutes. I wouldn’t do it now. No ways. I think the first time we surfed in was probably the winter of '84. I was working for Jonathan (Paarman), spraying boards at his factory at the bottom of town, and we didn’t know of anyone surfing it. People had checked it out. There wasn’t any real story of people surfing. It was all very vague.”

Dungeons is synonymous with names like Frank Solomon (pictured) and Matt Bromley, two legends who have made it their mission to be on those XL pulses.

Dungeons is synonymous with names like Frank Solomon (pictured) and Matt Bromley, two legends who have made it their mission to be on those XL pulses.

© 2019 - Ant Fox.

Peter, who now lives in Manly, Australia, remembers those hazy days with fondness. “I remember going up to the mountain ridge over looking it to check it out a couple of times. The wave looked exceptional, and awesome,” he said. “We decided that it looked possible.”

So they gave it a go, and paddled out for the first time, straight into the history books. “It was a Tuesday afternoon, grey, misty and a little glassy, probably about 12-foot plus, and a very light offshore. I remember us working out the best place to leap into the unknown from the boulders, paddling across the deep gully, and the powerful stench from the island teeming with seals. We carefully paddled around the peak to the south of the reef -- and then realised that our boards, which were under six feet, were not appropriate. I think I had about a 5’8” thruster and Pierre, I think, had either his 5’ something twin-fin or a four-fin number.”

Not ideal for the waves considering the equipment that is used today for paddling the big stuff. Needless to say, Peter and Pierre experienced some difficulties.

"I remember scratching over a dredging large set wave, as we got out there, and looking down at Pierre about to get swatted -- which he did, and then not seeing him for 10-15 minutes, so sure, it was a little scary. I remember that it was not so easy to get in again -- timing it right to come up the boulders again and then a huge buzz for a couple of days after.”

The duo continued their mad ways around Cape Town. Hunting down the bigger stuff, attempting Dungeons a few times, and working on big wave equipment. In these heady days of big wave surfing in Cape Town, there was very little going on in the global big wave arena apart from Hawaii. Jaws hadn’t been surfed yet, Teahupoo had yet to show her face and Jeff Clarke was still keeping Maverick's under wraps.

“Subsequent surfs became easier as we became familiar with the setup,” recalls Peter. “We always got waves, but the equipment we were using always made it difficult to take-off deep. I think it was usually in the 12-15-18 foot range. I remember surfing Sunset bigger, but Hout Bay better. Sunset did get pretty good though. And we still had difficulty convincing anyone else that there were these top quality large waves in Cape Town.”

Jump forward to 2000, and the first Dungeons event, the Big Wave Africa event. Three weeks waiting period and all are waiting for one perfect day. It comes, the day after the waiting period, and the contest is run off in twelve to fifteen foot waves. Just a tiny peek at what the wave could produce.

There is excitement and exuberance and an undercurrent of the thrill of discovery, of climbing Everest. Pierre and Peter are not around. Pierre isn’t into contests, and Peter is in Australia. Their influence is primary with regards the evolution of Dungeons as a surf spot, yet their involvement is negligible.

Twiggy fully committed at the inaugural event.

Twiggy fully committed at the inaugural event.

© 2019 - Red Bull

”There is a whole world of surfing out there.” said Pierre in an interview at the time. “Contests are just a very small part of a bigger picture. I think that people really shouldn’t lose sight of this picture, you know. There are a lot of people out there who surf and who don’t really bother about contests.”

Yet still, if it wasn’t for guys like Pierre and Peter, we might not have recognised the wave, might not have seen it as a world-class big wave spot, until a later stage, and for this we should all be truly grateful.

At an event in 2001 great whites were spotted in the line-up for the first time. They made quite a debut, with the first one being a twenty-footer, cruising around and having a look as some crew were towing into wind-blown twelve-footers, getting to know the wave and just practising. Jaso Ribbink from Durban locked eyes with a big boy during a free surf. Mike Parsons also spied the monster and decided then and there that he wasn’t into the whole paddle-only event.

In the words of Hawaiian kid and Waimea standout Jamie Sterling, “Dungeons intimidates me the most out of any wave in the world.”

Greg Long won the ride of the year for a huge paddle in barrel in 2009, and Dungeons has been in the submissions for many years.

Eyes are still firmly trained on big wave spots across the globe, with Jaws and Nazare being the stand outs. But Dungeons will always be there too, forever threatening some of the heaviest waves around.

Cover shot; Fabian Campagnolo on a bomb as uploaded to MSW's photo library by Mark Harley.