It’s rare to find surfers striking out on a true adventure. Being willing to go the extra mile and risk getting skunked is a big ask when one can just as easily book a spot at a surf camp in Indonesia and pretty much guarantee to score good waves.
That’s exactly the reason the trailer for the film Savage Waters caught our eye. Rugged, individualistic, and fully committed, the project portrayed in this film appears to be adventure for adventure’s sake — with the hope of finding a new, incredible wave, of course. At the same time, it is pretty obvious that the filmmakers are just as interested in delving deep into the human psyche as they are about scoring good surf.
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All in all, the trailer was a breath of fresh air — a two-minute taste of adventure that got us frothing for the full film and thinking about all of those dream trips and projects we’d let slide over the years.
The Savage Waters team is currently touring the film on the international festival circuit, but we managed to sit down with filmmaker Mikey Corker for an hour to learn more about the film and the project in general.
Words by Mikey Corker.
My history with both Cotty and the Knights pre-dates Savage Waters by a number of years. I began filming surf with Cotty around 2012. I went to Ireland to film him and Lyndon Wake charging crazy slabs, but quickly realized it was the backstory of what their missions entailed that was the real interest.
They were getting up in the freezing cold and dark every morning to go hunt really heavy waves, with almost no coverage and only a small group of committed locals to share it with. I was super impressed with their commitment and thought that the story of how they went about these missions added context to the images that we were starting to see.
I also met Matt and Taz Knight around this time, as we all lived in North Devon, in England, and surf the same waves. Matt and Taz would always be out in the water super early in the morning, paddling out in the dark. Taz used to wear a white helmet and surf waves much bigger than any other kids his age. He was a frothing little grom who was just starting to compete, even though he had a wetsuit full of holes and a beaten-up board.
I was impressed with his attitude, and sponsored Taz through the surf shop I was managing at the time. He used to hang out at the shop after school once a week, and even though he was only 14 at the time, I realised through his stories that he’d had a crazy upbringing that involved gnarly adventure travels with his family.
I soon met the rest of the family, including Matt’s amazing wife Suzanne and Taz’s three sisters, Jemima, Harriet, and Peony, and realised what an amazing, close-knit bunch they are.
Fast forward a few years, and Cotty partnered up with Matt to help him access a mysto big wave off the Irish coast using Matt's boat. I shot that story which became Beneath the Surface in 2015, and it was during this project that the idea for Savage Waters was born.
Matt had been given a treasure hunter’s journal published in 1891 by his old sailing buddy Chebs, who found it interesting that the author of the journal had the same last name as Matt. In this journal, there is a fantastic description of a wave breaking off these relatively unknown islands out in the Atlantic, and Matt was immediately consumed with the thought of having to go out and find it.
I think it’s really important that adventures like this one are still being pursued. It is getting harder and harder to find empty, uncrowded waves, as information is shared so quickly now and unknown spots can quickly become crowded. At the same time, most people only have one to two weeks per year to travel for surf, so they are likely to go to places like the Mentawais, where you are almost guaranteed to score.
But, if you really want to find something special — something that might have never been surfed before — you have to be willing to take a risk. The gamble is higher, but so is the payoff, and either way you are going to have a great adventure.
Even though it may seem like the film is mostly focused on the Knights, Cotty is integral to the story on so many levels. For the Knights, the stakes were quite different, as they are not professional athletes. For them, it was all about the experience. Cotty is in a very different situation. Surfing is not only his passion, but also how he makes his living.
He needs to be productive, so heading off on a wild goose chase is a big risk. It could be amazing for his career if he finds something incredible, but on the other hand, he might miss a record-breaking swell at Nazaré, which could negatively impact his career. He has to find a balance that works for him.
I think many people see big wave surfers as living the dream, which they are to a degree — but it is also a tough way to make a living. You are under constant pressure not only to survive, but also perform in waves that could literally kill you. In addition, you are competing against a whole bunch of other people trying to steal some of your limelight.
It’s complicated, and although Cotty loves it and has devoted his life to it, what makes his story so compelling — and why I think he is so incredible — is the way he deals with adversity along the way. He broke his back at giant Nazaré.
Most people would have quit after that happened, but he came back and clawed his way to the top, to be one of the best out there. He placed third in the last WSL event there, competing against the likes of Lucas Chumbo and Nic Von Rupp. Cotty’s is an incredible story of grit, determination, and staying true to your purpose.
Being out in the Savage Islands is daunting, to say the least. The whole area is super sketchy, full of barely submerged reefs and rocks. It’s a sailor's worst nightmare, especially with swell running. It is so dangerous that no one has properly surveyed the region. You cannot rely on any available charts — in fact, all of the nautical maps just say to avoid the whole area. It may be a bit less scary when it's flat, but going into this zone when there is a proper swell running is a different story.
Working with the Knight family was amazing. If they set their mind to something, they will give their all to make it happen. To stay committed to the project over such a long period of time, especially when you factor in all the setbacks they experienced along the way—I feel really grateful that they adopted this project in the way they did, with full commitment and a willingness to see it through to the end.
Although it wasn’t part of the original plan, we ended up going quite deep into their personal lives, and that takes a lot of trust. And they are still helping by coming to all the film festivals and getting the film out to the audience.
There are a lot of other people who played a part in helping make the film happen, but one person who deserves a lot of credit is our producer, Ghislaine Couvillat. from the independent French production company Whipped Sea. Ghislaine provided the energy, support and structure to take this project from a wild idea to a finished film.
To be honest, the project was a logistical nightmare to execute — especially when you factor in how slow a boat moves compared to an airplane. There is no such thing as a quick strike on a boat. In addition, good conditions for sailing are usually different than good conditions for surfing. But that’s all part of the story. Matt was instrumental in making the project a success, as he has an acute understanding of swell and wind prediction, which was crucial not just in finding waves, but also keeping the boat and crew safe.
I think there are loads of places and new waves left to explore — it just takes a willingness to go a bit further off the beaten path. Taz and I have spent many a night on Google Earth, getting excited about potential all over the place!
That being said, I’m hoping that the audience sees this as far more than a surf story. Although surfing is a big part of it, the heart of the project lies in the examination of the human stories, the balance of risk versus reward, the ability to deal with adversity, and ultimately staying true to what’s important to you as an individual. Hopefully these themes come across strong enough that people who don’t know much about surfing can still enjoy it.
For more info, keep an eye on the Savage Waters site here.