Friday afternoon I was checkout-chicking at the IGA in Merewether. The usually dull and subdued store was abuzz with talk of the huge swells pounding the banks just a five-minute walk away. You could hear the monsters roaring in from the registers.

“See the surf today?”

“I heard it took Mick Adams 45 minutes to paddle out!”

“Sposed to be bigger and better tomorrow.”

When I got home that night I could overhear the neighbours on the phone from the driveway. As I darted inside, seeking shelter from the cold and harsh wind, I heard mention of a 5AM start and a jet ski.

When the sign says it all.

I woke up early on Saturday morning. Out the window I could see trees shaking violently in the wind as clouds covered every part of the sky. Stepping outside into the elements, it was hard to tell if it was offshore or not, though the forecast had predicted it would be. It was easily one of the coldest days of the winter so far.

There was no easy way out on Big Saturday.

Around 7AM my girlfriend and I bundled ourselves into the car. I didn’t even consider grabbing my board – today was a day for the hellmen of Newcastle. Those brave enough to paddle out would be carving their names into the upper echelon of Merewether’s proud surf history. As we hurtled down Ridge Street, the car felt like it might roll over from the raging winds. Traffic was heavier than normal as we ambled down Ridge Street towards the ocean. Passing the Beach Hotel and hooking it onto Frederick Street, you could hardly make out the horizon as the ocean and sky blended into one grey monochrome canvas.

The crowds line the promenade for the big Saturday swell at Merewether.

There was a palpable sense of tension in the air as we pulled into the packed Dixon Park carpark. Hundreds of people lined the stretch from Merewether to Dicko, braving the unforgiving conditions to catch a glimpse of the monsters peeling off third reef at Merewether. The huge southerly swell was pumping eight to ten-foot screamers all the way past MR’s house and down to the boat ramp at Dicko. We clamoured out of the car, shrouded by spray and sand, and joined the gaggle of onlookers waiting for the show.

Ryan Callinan relishing the opportunity to ride big, clean waves at home.

With no more than 15 guys sitting out the back, the paddle out looked dastardly. Over the next few days, we’d be hearing stories of multiple attempts at hour-long paddle outs. A family friend had tried paddling out off the rocks at Merewether, getting washed two kilometres down to Bar Beach where he finally gave up. Trudging the walk of shame back to his car parked at Merewether, he noticed the jet ski on the sand at Dicko. He wandered down the ramp, still out of breath from his previous endeavour, and within five minutes was being whisked out to sea by the two legends giving people lifts out.

Rhys Smith on the run from an avalanche of whitewater.

Another blessed surfer was Tim Dickson, who was just about ready to give up on his third attempted paddle-out. When the Jet Ski Gods offered him a lifeline, he found himself sitting out the back, oblivious to the fact that he was about to pull into the wave of the day. Taking off deep on a 6’6 MR Bushranger Pin, Tim nearly lost it as the offshore winds tried to rip the board out from under him. He steadied himself and tucked into a beastly barrel. The crowd went wild as he was fiercely spat out. Niche Novocastrian surf reporter ‘Taxi’s Stretch Report’ dubbed it the ‘Wave of the Winter’ then and there.

Tim Dickson on the tail end of a magic ride.

As the day drew to a close, we went back down to catch one last glimpse of the action. Armed with a few beers and a bag of chips, we sat on top of Janet Street as the last surfer waited to catch a final wave in. The atmosphere was like being at a Newcastle Knights game, with spectators in camping chairs dotted along the escarpment. The crowd became nervous as the lone surfer was struggling to pick a wave. Another ten minutes and he’d be stranded out there in the pitch black. Finally, he jagged one and rode it all the way in. Everyone cheered, finished their beer and went home.

Big Saturday was officially over. The old boys will tell you it wasn’t as good as it got in 2001, but that’s just old boys for ya, isn’t it? History seems to enhance the legend of swells like these, and whether or not you reckon these were the best waves Merewether has ever seen, there’s no doubt that the 23rd of May will be remembered in Newcastle’s surfing folklore for a very long time.