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Surfing Baja Malibu, 1976

It was nice of George to loan me his place for the week.  I was going through a rough patch and needed to clear my head out, reduce the noise level and get a better bead on the road ahead.  A few days in Mexico was just the thing.  Baja, the name alone has a nice ring to it, filled with desert rat visions of dirt roads and saguaro cactus, Cerveza Pacifico, and surfing.  This wasn't that Baja, except for the surfing part.  George's place was in Baja Fronteriza, northern Baja.  The Fronteriza extends from Tijuana to just past Ensenada, separating the urbanized northern part of the peninsula from the more sparsely inhabited state of Baja California, Sur down south. Baja Sur is a miracle of desolation and deep wild beauty, Baja Fronteriza is a shabby urbanized kaleidoscope and for me it was just what the doctor ordered.

I arrived in the evening, with my spotted dawg Joshua, a few bags with beer and groceries in the VW van, some D.H. Lawrence for school, and a surfboard.  Surfing wasn't really part of the agenda, but Baja Malibu can get pretty epic under the right conditions and my stick lived in the van anyway. When I woke up the next morning I could tell something was different before I even got out of bed.  It took me a minute to realize that a dull pounding roar, thunderous white noise was filtering through the house like dust.  In fact dust, or something like it, was also wafting through the air and making the morning sunlight sparkle.  

Really big waves

Josh and I wandered outside to investigate. The source of this growling fairy dust was immediately obvious, there was surf!  Real surf, big powerful surf, slamming into the beach at the end of the street like a barrage of cannon.  The air was full of water vapor that spread in a fine mist over everything. As we walked down to the sand, we were both covered in it and I could see it beading up into little droplets on the fuzz of my sweater.  It was clear enough to see though, and what I saw was impressive and scary.  I've surfed most of my life, and hope to keep it up till I get too old to paddle.  But like most surfers, I've never had the time or circumstances or the cojones to get comfortable with really big waves.  Big wave surfing takes a level of skill, and commitment that's beyond the reach of most people.  To surf well in really large waves, say double overhead, you have to be in excellent physical condition, master your fear, and live in a place where sizable waves are available on a frequent basis.  None of those conditions applied to me. 

I'm not saying I didn't surf big waves on occasion, just that I wasn't particularly good or comfortable with it. I lived in the UCSD dorms just above Black's Beach, a place known for large powerful surf. I surfed out there often. When it was huge and gnarly I always gave it a shot anyway.  That's pretty much the approach I was considering as Josh and I stood there with the ground rumbling beneath our feet, breathing the salty vapor of pulverized water.  Hey, I'll go.

So I went. After a cup a jo, I slipped into my wetsuit and tried to suppress all thought as I headed back to the beach.  Waiting for me at the water's edge was a moment of truth.  It's really hard to tell how big a wave is from the beach.  The closer you get, the larger they usually look and when you paddle into one and are suddenly falling down the face, even small waves can surprise you.  These were not small waves.  I could tell from the beach that these were at least as large as any I'd ever been in before.  They were also perfectly shaped hollow pipes that pitched their thick lips out into space leaving a tube you could fit my Volkswagen van comfortably inside.  I started to have second thoughts, but realized that if I hesitated, even the slightest bit I'd talk myself out of it.  I saw a lull between sets, threw my board into the foamy water and started paddling for all I was worth.  

I made it about half way out before the next set arrived.  A fairly small wave started to peak about twenty yards ahead of me, darkening in color as it began to feel the bottom and jack up before breaking.  I was already tired, paddling is surprisingly hard work, but I dug deeper and faster as the first wave approached.  If I made it past this one, I might make it all the way outside without getting creamed. It was a race, and I lost.  Not by much tho, the wave steepened and I paddled and we met each other half way.  It broke just as my board began to rise up the face and I was caught in mid stroke with the full face of the lip slamming into my back. I was pushed down into the swirling chaotic water as the wave passed over me.  I surfaced and quickly found my board to resume paddling.  The race was on in earnest now.  I'd lost some ground and the next wave was going to be bigger and more powerful.  

If you don't surf you may not realize that even paddling out on a big day is an immense undertaking. Some people spend a hour or more sitting on the beach and psyching the pattern of the sets, and the rip currents and channels before even trying to paddle out.  That's what I should have done.  Now I was in the middle of it, and my only goal was to maintain my position until this set passed so that I could make it outside before the next one came.  If I didn't make it now, I'd be too exhausted to survive the third set and it would wash me back to the beach like a chunk of flotsam.  After that I'd have a really hard time gathering up the gumption to try again.  A total humiliating shame spiral that could be avoided if I could just hold on.  

On the outside

I did hold on, but it was ugly.  The waves were breaking top to bottom, meaning that the first contact of the breaking wave was when the thick lip that it pitched out into space smacked into the flat water below.  The amount of force generated is unbelievable, I've seen estimates in the tens of thousands of pounds per square foot range.  The waves around me were breaking so hard that they were actually dredging up chunks of sand and gravel from the bottom.  Each wave tumbled me down into that gritty mess as it parted me from my board and squeezed the air from my tortured lungs.  The only reason I was still there after the last wave in the set passed was that I'd gotten lucky and strayed into a channel.  The slightly deeper water made the waves break a little less forcefully, and the rip current helped me regain the distance I had lost.  By the time the last wave had rolled by me, I was utterly thrashed.  I was seeing those little brown spots you see right before you pass out, and my arms felt like lead.  But I dimly realized that I'd made it and I pressed myself to paddle the last fifty yards to safety before the next set appeared.  

I must have sat out there for at least half an hour before I even thought about what to do next.  If anything, the waves appeared to be building in size and I had to paddle out further to avoid each oncoming set.  At first I'd felt lucky to have made it out there, but now I was beginning to wonder how the hell I was going to get back in.  This is not as uncommon a situation as you might imagine.  Whenever really huge surf rolls into Hawaii's North Shore, or Maverick's up by San Francisco, there's always someone who manages to get out there then realize that they are, literally, in over their head.  Usually there are some other surfers out there who can help, or a professional surf rescue team, or at least some spectators on the beach.  The only ones on my beach were my spotted doggy and the seagulls that he was chasing.  I wasn't really worried though.  I'm an excellent swimmer, and I was sitting on a floating chunk of foam and fiberglass.  And hey, I made it out here didn't I?  

Where waves come from

As my muscles recovered, my confidence grew.  A big perfect wave is a beautiful thing, one of the most miraculous sights on this earth.  I wondered where these waves had originated, a typhoon off Japan maybe.  Powerful winds somewhere whipped the ocean into a deep water swell marching indomitably across several thousands of miles of open ocean to crash on this Mexican shoreline.  A very beautiful thing. A brown pelican skimmed along the water past me, and I smiled at the thought of being in the middle of it.

I was happy, but I also knew I was going to get thrashed.  These waves were completely outside my range of experience. I had no illusions about suddenly rising to the occasion and being transformed into a surfing legend en route to the beach.  I knew I was going to eat shit and die, but I was still smiling.  I wasn't going to drown, I wasn't going to actually die, and it was going to be one hell of a ride.  This wasn't a theme park, this was really real.  I remembered something George had mentioned the last time we talked about surfing this place.  He'd said it was, "Hawaiian style," meaning that the waves jacked up really fast and that a lot of water was moving up the face, so you had to take a few extra strokes to make sure you were completely in it.  Otherwise, you just sort of hung there at the top until the lip pitched you out into space.  I took my time getting positioned in the lineupI knew I'd only get one chance.  When I was satisfied, I took a deep breath and made that little cross the heart sign that Catholics do.  I'm not religious, it just seemed like the right thing to do.  When I'd finished my absolutions, I looked over my shoulder and saw the wave that I wanted.

I started paddling, slowly at first, gauging my position.  If I was too far out, I'd never catch the wave, if I was too far in, the wave would be too steep to take off on.  Everything looked good so I began to paddle as fast as I could, trying to match my speed to that of the wave.  As I felt it lift the back of my board I heaved everything into a final burst of speed and began sliding down the face.  I started to get up, but then remembered George's words and paddled another couple of strokes.  This was really scary because I was staring straight down at what looked like a two story drop, counterintuitive in the extreme. One stroke, two, then I'm up and free falling as if my board isn't even touching the water.  For a split second I thought I wasn't going to make it to the bottom without coming unglued from my board, but then the skeg and rail bit the water and I was instinctively swooping into a long bottom turn.  I could hear the lip explode behind me as I pulled back up the unbroken face and trimmed down the line.  There wasn't going to be any maneuvering on this wave, just set an edge and go.  I went into a crouch and grabbed the rail of my board for balance then glanced back for an instant.  The wave had formed a huge barrel that was advancing slowly towards me.

In the green room

I experienced the strangest sense of calm at that point.  There wasn't anything I could do except hold on as the wave caught up to me.  The closer it got, the steeper the wall became until just a few inches of my rail were touching.  The sense of speed was intense.  They say that time stands still when you're in the tube, and as that thundering emerald cylinder engulfed me I realized that they are right.  It was like watching a movie one frame at a time.  It became silent and calm and dark as the lip of the wave flowed over my head.  I suddenly felt like I had the leisure to look around me. I could see the morning sun, as if from behind a waterfall.  The frames of the movie ticked by one by one and I didn't feel any sense of urgency or concern.  What would be, would be and in the meantime I was surrounded by crystalline beauty.  

Then I noticed that it was getting darker in my little tear shaped room.  The wave was faster than I was and it was slowly eating me up.  About the time I formulated this brilliant insight, I hit the back of the tube.  Time kicked back into gear and I was sucked up and over the falls in the blink of an eye.  I remember seeing the sun again, and the beach, but they were upside down.

I won't bore you overly much with the impassioned details of the wipeout.  Like all of them it really sucked.  The lip carried me all the way to the bottom then squeezed every molecule of air out of my lungs. I scratched my way to the surface, sucked in a mouthful of foam and was dragged back down to the bottom again.  When I finally got to the beach I threw up on the wet sand.

Then I rolled over on my back and started to laugh.  

Only a surfer knows the feeling
- Billabong Surfboards ad

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