Opening Day: First NW Swell of the Season

Opening day is here. At last the first significant NW swell of the new season. A slight SW in the mix has jacked up the waves to overhead proportions. After a long flat summer, I’m sure I’m not the only one exhilarated by the chance to finally surf waves taller than Gary Coleman.

I’m nearly foaming at the mouth because last winter was the first time in my brief five-year surfing career that I confidently dropped in on overhead faces, executing effortless bottom turns, giving the trough a low-five slap, climbing back up the wave face and ultimately speeding down its line.

Double overhead waves? Cool, no problem. I successfully tapped into their source last winter, so I’m excited to improve my winter surfing today.

I decide to wait till the tide drops later in the afternoon. In the meantime, I spend some time with a well-known and respected surf journalist, Steve Barilotti. He has traveled the world writing about both the best surf destinations and unexpected locales (Madagascar, Nova Scotia). His articles are superbly written, combining the surf scene of a particular destination with a history and cultural lesson thrown in. When he writes, he really makes you feel like you’re there with him.

Steve is the Michael Jordan of surf journalism. He gets paid to travel all over the globe, writing for the most influential surf publications, such as Surfer. In exchange for the promise of a free lunch and because he’s a sincere person, Steve came over my apartment and shared his time with me, providing valuable knowledge about pursuing a career in surf journalism.

Lesson #1: Don’t quit my day job; it’s tough paying the bills exclusively writing for surf publications.

Lesson #2: Learn to be a surf photographer to increase the chance of being published. More than anything, including solid writing, the backbone of surf publications is the professional photography. At the very least, hook up with a photographer that will agree to go on assignment.

I wanted to treat Steve to a burrito at Swami’s Café. We took a detour so we could check out the swell from the J St. overlook.

“It looks fun out there,” said Steve. “We should go surf.”

The swell at Swami’s looked like it was building and needless to say very crowded. South Boneyards from 100 ft. up on the cliff looked like it was fairly consistent with manageable intervals and occasional head-high sets; North Boneyards on the other hand looked like a washing machine on crack, totally frenetic with no let up in the impact zone.

“Let’s go surf,” said Steve. “I can eat later.”

Steve grabbed his 7’6″ and I my 7’0″. We walked around the point and decided to paddle out where Boneyards begins, just past the broken down white staircase.

The paddle out was easy enough except for a couple sets that necessitated a strong duck dive. I guess I lollygagged my duckdives this past summer, because the paddle out consisted of me drifting back several yards on a couple of the inside rolling hills of whitewater. I wondered how Steve managed to duck dive his board like it was a potato chip. (“Brute strength,” he would later tell me.)

Still, I managed to reach the outside approximately the same time Steve did. While Steve caught about a half-dozen waves, I mostly watched. I realized my timing was completely off and I wasn’t ready for opening day. It dawned on me that it might take two or three of these steam-rolling NW swells for me to get my timing down and rediscover last winter’s magic.

I’m scanning the horizon when all of a sudden a monster of a clean-up set builds up with astonishing speed. I’m set up almost outside of everyone else and still, I feel like the incoming set wave is a mile away. I paddle with every ounce of energy I can muster.

The almost double overhead wave lifts me up and I barely make it over.

The second set wave also looks like a cab ride away and again I paddle with maximum effort. The light of the horizon is blocked as I’m hoisted up the face. Again, I make it over with maybe one second to spare.

Set wave number three approaches and thankfully I still have some juice in my arms. Same result, I narrowly escape a harrowing descent down the falls. The impact of the landing down the back side of the wave, however, causes my balance to be off by an inch. I adjust and look up.

Holy ****! Set wave number four and it’s bigger than the previous three. After adjusting my board, which I pray doesn’t result in a pounding, I claw my way toward the biggest wave of the set. It looks double overhead and angry, charging at me with a velocity I haven’t seen in months. I try to paddle to the outside but I realize I’m not going to make it if I paddle laterally. A couple surfers in front of me negate any progress to the shoulder.

I aim straight ahead and am now only 10 feet from the wave. I’m not going to make it. A mach-10 sounding plume of white water crashes down on me and I try to duck dive. I didn’t get very far. I get tossed off my board and get held under. I try to grab the base of my leash so my board won’t go flying.

I feel an intense pull on my ankle. Suddenly my right leg feels very light. I reach my right arm down to my ankle just to make sure this nightmarish scenario is in fact reality. My leash has broken.

I realize I no longer have a board and I think to myself: 1) Oh sh*t; 2) I’ve never been this far offshore without a board; 3) Stay calm; 4) Be like a true waterman, one who doesn’t surf with a leash and has to fetch his own board.

Attempting to emulate the watermen of decades ago, I bodysurf what is probably the sixth set wave. I don’t get very far as the steep face buries me deep under and holds me under in the spin cycle.

I’ve been in this situation before so I know to let my body go limp and relax mentally. Still, I entertain mortal thoughts. While submerged and not knowing which way is up I think, here I am with the Michael Jordan of surf journalism and the irony is that the sage advice I received from the surf writing guru won’t matter; I won’t need it because I’ll be dead. I also contemplated my family’s grief that my drowning would cause.

I resurfaced, gasped for air, turned around and thanked God that there were no more massive set waves. I started swimming for shore which still looked like an hour swim away. Steve saw me swimming for shore and caught his last wave and waited for me, peeling off the top of his wet suit and setting my board down away from the shore break.

I must have looked like The Blob walking back to shore, all disheveled, and awkwardly navigating the rocky reef section of boneyards.

“This isn’t how I pictured my session with the Michael Jordan of surf journalism,” I said to Steve, when I finally stepped on sand, tired and humbled.

“Don’t worry about it,” Steve countered. “I’ve made a fool of myself many times in front of the pros on surf trips.”

And with that, I remained humbled but not embarrassed, and eager for another date with Mother Nature’s next monster NW swell.

Steve: I still owe you that burrito.


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