Hurricane Swell… Sheesh. I actually bowed, in thanks, to the ocean last night after Stu and I were back on dry land. Not that we were ever truly in danger, but we did come out completely unscathed, which is pretty cool.
Stuart and I paddled out after work at about 6:45 PM on Friday. It was an endless battle, constant paddling and duck diving, for over 35 minutes (I was wearing my watch) and 1/2 a mile of lateral drift, before we finally managed to poke through to the outside. And by outside, I mean OUTSIDE. We were easily 1/4 mile offshore, well past the outer bar, well well well past the end of the pier. And there were still macking cloudbreak sets breaking on the horizon and fizzling all the way in to the bar we were *trying* to sit on…
One’s mentality can change many times over when you’re constantly barraged by endless piles of whitewater. And by the time you think you’ve finally made it, well, you most certainly haven’t. That’s tough to swallow. I nearly gave up, two particular times, but Stuart was persevering and I wasn’t going to let him go at it alone…
There’s a very distinct line between the aerated water and constant struggle of the inside, and the solid water and powerful strokes one can achieve once you finally break through to the safety of the outside… The moment you cross that line, you realize that there is actually a chance that you might make it. The bummer about crossing that line is that you are now smack dab in the crosshairs of the true impact zone for the bigger sets. Right where the majority of wave energy is expended… There was no relaxing.
The majority of the time I spent in the water, I focused on inhalation, exhalation, and heart rate control. Staying calm in big surf is paramount.
How big was it? It’s impossible to put a number on it. I’ve windsurfed in over mast high waves (~15 foot faces), and this seemed to be regularly at least that height, with occasionally much bigger sets. My 6’3″ squash tail board seemed impossibly small for the speed and height of these waves.
The more time we spent out there, the more used to the rhythms we got. And we got comfortable just looking at that size of wave, watching it stand up, learning when and where to scratch towards to make it through. If it had already broken, we’d paddle to the spot that had broken first, as that had already expended the most energy. If it looked like the shoulder was in reach, we’d paddle like mad to get there before it broke. Confidence built, a balance was reached.
I paddled for a few, but couldn’t move nearly fast enough to get into them. Stuart got worked, taking off just a yard too far inside, but he got spit out with minimal harm and made it back out without much issue. Then…
…We’re already out in the middle of the ocean. The pier looks like it’s made of matchsticks, the water tower is a speck on the horizon. And a wave starts to stand up, impossibly far on the outside. Cloudbreak, when you’re already in the clouds… The white water is fizzling towards us, 15 feet high, just to the right, while the wall that didn’t break on the outside starts to jack up, tall and steep, to the left. It looks like we can make it, we start scratching, fast, out and to the left. We’re gonna make it. We’re gonna make it. We’re gonna make it.
Stuart, 10 yards to my left, made it.
With one last, *calm*, breath, I watched the lip start to crest, many many many feet above me and 5 yards outside. I pushed the nose under with all my strength, then followed suit with my foot on the tail. I didn’t get nearly deep enough, and knew it right away. First, the impact. Then, as I got pulled back over the falls, I bear hugged my board with all the strength my hands, arms, and legs could muster. Yes, I had my ankles locked around each other on the board, hanging on like one would hug a violently swaying tree from 30 feet in the air. There was no way that I was going to lose that board.
Eventually, I was spit out of the mayhem.
I caught a glimpse of Stuart as we both crested a wave at the same time, and gave him a wave. All’s good! I had been pushed impossibly far to the inside, Stuart later estimated 50 yards. My sesh was over, there was no way I was making it back to the “outside” again. So I sat in the relative calm of the trough and waited to see what Stu had in him.
I pondered: Had I ditched my board, I probably would have been able to get under that wave, but certainly would have snapped my leash or broken my board in two. By holding on, I also limited the chances of random impact with the board or fins while getting tumbled. Yes, I spent a long time underwater, getting pulled along inside the wave, but it wasn’t so long that holding my breath was challenging, and it deposited me well inside of the impact zone, meaning consecutive hold downs were pretty much out of the question. I’m happy with my decision, and will probably do the same thing if a similar situation presents itself in the future.
Stuart eventually paddled for another macker, and I watched the lip envelop him, and then saw him get pulled back over the falls. He came up with big eyes and a big smile, got back on his board, and got immediately worked by the next pile of whitewater. Again, big eyes and a big smile as he regrouped and made his way to the trough.
The shore break was HUGE, so getting out was a bit of a waiting game, and then a sprint to the beach. But, we both made it, unscathed, and joined the masses of people watching the ocean from the stronghold of dry beach. With zero waves ridden, but massive experience gained, and renewed joy of the beauty that life can bring, I gave a humble bow of thanks to the ocean, for she had shown her power to me with the authority, yet gentle grace, reserved for the uncontrollable forces of nature.