We all have that one time when we almost died…
Sometimes we really did almost die, other times it was perceived but either way — any time we almost die it leaves an imprint.
In this particular instance I believe I was pretty close but I’ll let you decide…
My friend Junior was visiting LA from Sao Paolo on a surf trip. Junior is a surf friend. Someone I met while surfing in Ecuador. We had also met up and surfed Barbados (that story later!). Junior does one major surf trip a year during his vacation and this was going to be his first trip to Southern California which has been so influential on world surf culture.
I wanted to really treat him to a great trip that left a lasting impression.
We surfed everywhere — South bay, Ventura, Malibu… but the swells were small and for the first two weeks of his trip we were really just splashing around.
Then the news broke. A huge swell heading down from Alaska was going to hit Baja hard.
I informed my clients that I’d be gone for a few days, recruited another surf friend for the trip and off we charged down across the border in search of the perfect wave.
Unfortunately things didn’t go as planned — despite the fact that we charted the swell direction, and researched which spots would supposedly be firing, everywhere we went was flat. Not like tiny waves flat, lake flat.
There we were in Baja, with the season’s largest swell on the forecast, and we were getting skunked! We bounced around for two days and simply couldn’t find the contact point. So we did what any swell starved surfers would do in that situation — we drank.
We went from town to town drinking, eating late night tacos, ceviche — I mean it’s Mexico after all, right?
It was the day before we were supposed to leave and we had one more stop on our trip. It was our last hope to catch the swell. We shaved our beards down to our mustaches. An offering to the Mexican gods to bring us waves.
Robert’s motel is right at k-46 on highway 1. Roberts is what most would refer to as a total shithole. But it’s cheap and only about a walking mile away from an amazing point break that’s been sequestered by a fancy spa resort that’s denied access to anyone not staying there. From Roberts, you can walk that mile over painfully large rocks, then swim another half a mile around the breakwater. But once you’re there, K-48 is one of the best point breaks on the peninsula IMHO.
We arrive at Robert’s in the evening. The waves aren’t anything to speak of. But other surfers staying that night are talking about the swell arriving in the morning. Great. We’ll have to see it to believe it. That night, exhausted from all the partying, we call it in early.
We wake up on that fateful tuesday to an eerie calm. It’s 6 in the morning. They skies are grey and ominous.
The sun is hiding behind a thick blanket of grey clouds that also seem to drown out any ambient sounds. Except, that is, for the far away thunder of epic bombs crashing in the distance.
Alongside several other surfers, we stand and watch as several dawn patrollers get worked in the lineup in front of the hotel.
We don our wetsuits in silence. It’s the swell we’ve been waiting for but now that it’s here, can we face it?
We try joking around a bit as we make our way over the rocks toward the point. But the joking is only half hearted. We’re all nervous. Especially me. Here’s the thing, I’ve been surfing for a long time, but I’m not a pro by any means. I can hold my own in a regular line-up. But what was going on here was creeping into the extreme sports territory. Wave faces were about 10 feet, and the water around was just churning with froth. And the darkness didn’t help the feeling that we were going into some sort of war zone or a natural disaster just for the fun of it.
But I had promised Junior some waves and there was no backing out. These were the waves we had mustached up for.
When we get to the jumping off point I start to get cold feet. I’m feeling really anxious and my nerves are getting the better of me. My heart is racing. I stall.
Niles jumps in. “Fuck it!”
Junior and I watch as he paddles into the darkness.
Junior looks to me, this isn’t his local break.
I need to shake the nerves.
We watch the peaks rise and fall for a bit and finally I get my breathing under control. “Let’s do it.”
We get out past the break relatively smoothly through somewhat of a channel — this is an area of deeper water where the waves don’t quite break. Through the storm, we paddle down to the break. Mentally I keep telling myself that it’s going to be ok but I’m having a hard time believing myself.
Just as we arrive at the backside of k-48, two surfers paddle up and over a breaking set. Their eyes are wide and glazed over. I yell at one of them, “How is it?” He just looks at me and shakes his head.
What the fuck am I doing out here??
Niles is nowhere to be seen — he either drowned or road a wave to shore — we don’t know.
Junior takes the first wave, a small one, maybe 8 feet and paddles out smiling. I force a smile back — I got him some waves. Then he takes another one, a larger wave that takes him even farther. He’s having a good time. Great. Now I just gotta get my nerve up. Hyperventilating in the ocean is absolutely the worst thing. The only thing you have out there is your breath and your stamina. But here we are in the middle of January, the water is near freezing and I’m hyperventilating. Not good.
I scan a small set coming. I let the first waves go by and take a small one on the back end. My board is way too small for these suckers but i catch it and ride it about 50 yards. I get off quickly before I get too far from the break. My footing was good and even though i didn’t try any turns, i felt good on the wave. I paddle back out a little out of breath but feeling better about the situation.
Junior snags another.
Then I see a nice set approach. I think one of these is mine and I’m going to take a big one. I take the second wave, make the drop and start cutting across the face. It’s about a 10 + footer. The biggest wave I’ve ever ridden. My feet are planted and the face is super smooth. I haul ass as the top of the wave towers above me. Shit. This is incredible! The wave just keeps peeling so I don’t stop… 50 yards, 100 yards, 200 yards…
I get to the inside section, kick out over the top and sit on my board for a minute. I look back at the distant lineup, so far away now I can’t make anything out. I gather myself and start paddling back through the froth. The entire time I’m thinking, “Please let me get out there without getting a beating. Please!”
I’m only about 50 yards away when I see it. The biggest set of the day.
If this isn’t just how it happens it wouldn’t be surfing. But I’m out of my element with these crushers. The water is freezing, my energy is depleted, I’m short on breath and it’s clear as day that this set is going to crush me. I know if i get held under I may not make it. I’m sure of it. There’s no way I can hold my breath right now for the 20 or 30 seconds it might take to come up. I see the entire thing in my mind in a flash. My brain mentally preparing for the lip of a 12 foot wave smacking me down at the impact point.
If you’re wondering, this is where I almost die.
I have a few seconds to decide my course, paddling toward shore is not an option, I’ll just get sucked back, Paddling out won’t do any good, I’ll just go over the falls.
I point my board to shore and bear hug it wrapping my arms and feet around it bracing. The chance of my retaining a hold of it are slim but if I can, it will be the quickest way to the surface.
I promise you this is not the thing to do in situations like this. There are protocols, techniques–none of which I intend to use. I’m just going to hold on to this thin piece of foam for dear life.
The wave crashes right on top of me as expected. The lip hits me square on the back and pushes me down underwater.
Then, a miracle.
The force of the wave pushes me down below the surface and shoots me right back up through the froth into the air. My legs ragdoll, my hands lock down trying to retain a hold of my board. I get whipped around in the washing machine only to quickly find myself bodyboarding on a 5 foot wall of white water toward shore.
My heart is pounding.
I’m fucking alive.
The wave deposits me near the shore and I just sit there thanking the universe for not wanting to put my light out that day.
And that’s the day I almost died.
We found Niles later. He’d taken one wave and got out, then got stuck walking for miles back because the spa resort wouldn’t let him access the highway.
The moral here? I don’t think there is one, really.
Maybe it’s the fact that sometimes, you just have to jump in. Sure I almost died. But if I hadn’t jumped in, the story would have simply ended with Junior not getting any waves in Southern California.
Instead, it became a story of fear, near death experience, and some sort of triumph over the elements.
I guess we only regret the things we don’t do…