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
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 lineup. I 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.
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.
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