Joe Surf: Who are these 'hell men?'

Let's be honest.

As good as you might be on a board, as great a day you might have had, as unforgettable that one ride was when you felt you were on top of the world, there's always someone better.

There's always someone who had a better day. There's always someone who took that very same wave you took and made you look like a surf school dropout.

Such is the way of surfing, and such is life.

Anybody who's ever zipped up a wetsuit, waxed their board and dared to taste the salt of the ocean — more than anybody else — can appreciate those who do it best. When they come by the thousands to Huntington for the U.S. Open every summer, they come for the surfers, the surfing.

OK, I know. Most come for the party.

But there wouldn't be a party if these guys weren't so good. Think about it, these surfers can make magic out of mush, and unfortunately they've had to do that in Huntington at times.

But when these guys and gals are challenged by Mother Nature, what they can do will blow your mind.

So if you've ever had trouble bumping your way through the crowd lined up along the rail on the Huntington Beach Pier for a chance to watch some of the world's best, fret no more.

The Newport Beach Film Festival begins Thursday, and one of its features is the Action Sports Film Series. From now through May 5, the series will showcase the world's best surfers in some of the world's most challenging and visually appealing locations.

"The Action Sports Film Series will celebrate athletes pushing the limits in some of the world's most challenging and spectacular outdoor playgrounds and give filmgoers an opportunity to experience breathtaking cinematography, cultural journeys, in-depth portrayals and compelling stories that explore the physical, emotional, historical and spiritual realms of surfing, skateboarding, skiing, snowboarding, stand up paddle boarding, cycling and motocross," according to the festival's news release.

Sounds good to me.

The showcase film of the series, "2010 XXL Global Big Wave Awards," will be shown at 8 p.m. Saturday at Triangle Square, 1870 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa. Paul Taublieb and Sam George directed the 48-minute film.

Billabong has been sponsoring the XXL contest for 10 years, but this film is a documentary about the surfers who dare test such a powerful force of nature and live to tell about it.

"Billabong has collected great footage and gives out awards, but our film takes you deeper, looks at the human side and the stories behind the wave," Taublieb said. "Surfers tend to be understated about things. 'Yeah, yeah, it was bad, but, you know ….'

"But we didn't want a quick comment, we really wanted to know, so we spent hours with these guys."

Taublieb told of the interview in the film of big wave surfer Shane Dorian, who wiped out at Mavericks in Northern California and was held under water as a second wave came in. Observers said the tip of Dorian's board stuck out of the water looking like a tombstone.

"He was practically in tears," Taublieb said of the interview. "What got to him was here he is at the bottom of the bay near San Francisco, and he had a flash of his son, and he questioned what he was doing. It's heartfelt, in depth, insightful."

The film also takes a look at Sebastian Steudtner, who won the contest category for riding the biggest wave, estimated at 66 feet at Jaws in Maui.

"He was a German alpine skier and moved to Hawaii," Taublieb said. "He was adopted by a Hawaiian family (at age 16) and became a tow-in surfer. We spent time with him and the Hawaiian family that adopted him."

The film includes footage of all 10 years of the XXL contest, something Taublieb calls a "visual feast of waves."

But this winter's contest might have been the best yet because of El Nino conditions, Taublieb said. The waves were huge and there was little to no wind, which led to more surfers being able to paddle into the big swells instead of relying on tow-ins.

"They say it's so different when they can use their own hands, their own energy and claw their way into a wave," Taublieb said, adding that Dorian paddled into a 60-footer at Mavericks which resulted in his brush with mortality.

Besides the footage at Mavericks, there is footage from Jaws, Maui; Todos Santos, Mexico; Shipstern Bluff, Tasmania; Puerto Escondido, Mexico; the Outer Reef, Oahu; Belharra, France; and places in Scotland, South Africa, and all over the world.

"The film underscores the global nature of big waves," said Taublieb, who added that the surfers themselves do share some common traits.

"The No. 1 thing you come away with is their preparation and dedication," Taublieb said. "They may be 'hell men,' but they do it with measured respect and great knowledge. They're not daredevils. They are athletes that assume tremendous risk and prepare for it."

The film includes an interview with Sion Milosky, who died surfing at Mavericks in March.

"He talks about his passion and dedication," Taublieb said. "He paid the ultimate price."

For a complete schedule of the Newport Beach Film Festival, go to http://www.newportbeachfilmfest.com/2011/.

JOE HAAKENSON is an Orange County-based sports writer and editor. He may be reached at jhaak922@aol.com.

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