Something Wicked This Way Comes
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Outside magazine, May 1998
Something Wicked This Way Comes
It walloped Hawaii, uprooting palms and swatting aside men who thought they could surf it. Now the biggest swell in 30 years was barreling across the Pacific, aiming for the coast. Anyone feeling lucky?
Unlike any other athlete, a big-wave surfer never knows when, exactly, his marquee game will come. Keeping packed bags by the door and an open plane ticket ready to go, he might wait months — even years — for that once-in-a-lifetime moment. And when it happens, he has to drop everything and move. On a Thursday late last January, Evan
Outside Hawaii, only two places in the world reliably turn waves like these into high-quality big surf — “rhino waves,” as they’re known — and choosing between them requires both water knowledge and good judgment. The westerly direction of the swell that Thursday coupled with a sloppy local storm seemed to rule out the first, Maverick’s, a deepwater reef near Half
The tom-toms usually start with someone like San Francisco’s Mark Renneker, a 46-year-old big-wave-riding oncologist and surf-meteorology obsessive. Calculating wind speed and direction for the far-off storms that generate waves (the one behind this swell, for example, got started off Japan), and then factoring in wave heights gleaned from ship reports and buoy readings,
In surf parlance, the term “big wave” means a wave of at least 20 feet. The word “feet” in this usage, however, bears only a mystical and as yet unrevealed relationship to dozens of inches. Developed in Hawaii as a way of sandbagging visiting haoles, this traditional wave-measurement scale rigorously underestimates actual surf dimensions — such that “20-foot” actually
But however you look at it, the surf generated by that Thursday’s swell was enormous. Even as it began to build, professional surfers were flying into Hawaii for the invitation-only Quiksilver big-wave contest, held at Waimea Bay in memory of Eddie Aikau, a Native Hawaiian surfer who drowned in 1978 while sailing in a storm. The event requires at least 20-foot surf; by Tuesday
By Wednesday morning, 40-foot waves were overwhelming Waimea every ten minutes, prompting comparisons to the legendary swells of surf history — most tellingly, to the Swell of ’69. That was the year Greg “da Bull” Noll, a big-wave pioneer, caught what everyone was content to call the largest wave ever ridden, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the lack of photographic
The contest organizers held the surfers at bay all morning, waiting for the waves to get small enough for this, the world’s premier big-surf event. Aside from the sheer power of the swell, something else may have been weighing on their minds. For years, big-wave surfing had seemed curiously safe; despite its aura of lethality, nobody had died since the 1943 drowning of Dickie
In the end, the organizers called off the Quiksilver at midday Wednesday. Walls of whitewater were rolling across Hawaiian highways, uprooting palm trees, and blowing furniture into backyards, sending Oahu’s Civil Defense to Code Black. Haleiwa Harbor and all North Shore beaches closed. But before the clampdown, a few surfers jumped on jet-skis and headed for distant offshore
Now buoy and ship reports showed that same swell roaring across the Pacific, holding speed and size unusually well and promising what Thursday’s SurFax called “a rhino stampede.”
At dawn friday morning, huge waves poured over Ensenada’s mile-long harbor jetty. Fishermen — who knew well that rich gringo surfers would need boats — crowded the docks shouting, “Big boat! Big, fast boat! Come with me!”
Crawling out of a white, surfboard-loaded Suburban, we breathed urine, fish, and desert grasses riding the morning breeze. In addition to their almost comical taciturnity, there’s a loose humility to young big-wave surfers, their eyes more quietly distant than aggressive. There was big, blond, easygoing Keith Malloy, a 24-year-old professional surfer and friend of the late Todd
An open fiberglass outboard puttered into the dock, and the nine- to ten-foot boards went in first. Rounding the end of the huge black jetty, the boat began to skip and pound, bouncing off chop and climbing open-ocean ground swells. From the wave peaks, Todos Santos Island appeared hazy on the horizon. Running well outside the island’s shoals, we motored into sight of Killers,
“Hey, that’s Taylor,” Slater said quietly, referring to Taylor Knox, a successful pro from Carlsbad, California, “and Snips,” meaning Mike Parsons, the unofficial mayor of Todos. Mike Stewart, the best bodyboarder in the world, was out there, too.
A good-size wave rolled over the reef then, but never quite broke. “Tide’s still kind of fat, huh?” Malloy said.
“Yeah,” Loya responded. “Wind’s offshore, though.”
A jet-ski driver circled, ready to pull guys out if they got in trouble.
“I like seeing him here,” Malloy muttered. Foo, Solomon, and Chesser had all died in conditions no more dangerous than those before us.
Slater peeled off his sweatshirt and pants, pulled on his wetsuit. Loya checked the knot on his ankle leash and touched up his wax job, not wanting to risk the slip of a foot.
As they got ready to go, I brought up the K2 Challenge. Late last year, K2, the ski and snowboard manufacturer, offered $50,000 to the surfer who got photographed riding the season’s largest wave, wherever that might be. I was wondering where these surfers stood on the matter, how much it motivated them. After all, the Challenge forbade jet-ski tow-ins, and if ever there was a
Malloy just dropped his huge spear in the water and jumped after it — no comment. Slater tried to be polite, but was too focused on following Malloy. Only Loya had anything to say. “I’d rather move to Oregon and grow dope for a summer,” he offered. “The odds are a lot better.”
The topic seemed to make all of them squirm, and as they paddled off, I thought about why. For one thing, the Challenge, due to end March 15, had the potential to lure unqualified surfers out of their depth. But probably more troubling to guys like these was the way it clarified the blurry lines between the purity of the surfer’s pursuit and less noble aspirations. In other
Soon after Slater, Malloy, and Loya reached the other surfers, the wind at Killers went completely slack, and the surface took on the character of royal-blue oil. Parsons caught a “smallish” 15-foot wave, but mostly the guys just floated in a small pod, waiting. Looking out to sea. Perhaps wondering what was happening at Maverick’s, wondering if they’d picked the right
As it turned out, about 20 surfers were paddling in circles at Maverick’s at the time, trying not to get killed. Offshore wind usually improves waves, but Maverick’s heaves over so brutally that wind coming up the front slows down your entry, stalling you right where you least want to be: in the lip, which can drive you to the rocky bottom 25 feet under. A westerly swell like
Conditions at Todos looked much better, though when the tide finally began to drop at noon, I felt a faint onshore breeze. Nothing spoils surf faster. It picked up even more in the next few minutes, and I could feel the tension in the water: If the swell didn’t hit sometime soon, and if that wind kept building, this whole mission would end up a colossal waste of time.
Suddenly, Killers turned on. Loya lay on his board and paddled for the horizon as two outsize sine curves bent out of the benthos and bore down on the crowd. The others followed. Malloy wheeled first and caught one, absolutely free-falling for perhaps ten feet, somehow landing on his board. Loya took a high line on the next, cutting fast along the wave’s summit ridge. The tide
And then the biggest set yet appeared, and something extraordinary happened. Slater turned and paddled with one wave. The bottom kept dropping below him, blackening into a wall of shadows as Slater pulled and pulled, trying to get his board sliding down the thing’s face. Just as a thick lip bounced into being, Slater hopped to his feet in one motion. Halfway down, as the floor
But the moment soon passed. First, a beast broke far outside the crowd and blew everyone off their boards, putting them through a serious rinse-cycle and dragging them 50 yards deeper into the impact zone. When they’d all clawed back up to daylight, a ripple of fear came off the foam. The wind had kicked up yet another notch, cross-chopping the surface in a way that can buck
That’s when a wave of another order of size appeared and did something quite different. Instead of breaking in the usual place and peeling to the right, it broke like an avalanching cornice and rumbled left, which meant that as our boatman yanked frantically at the engine cord, the guys in the water had some serious thinking to do. This kind of reversal — a wave normally
As that backward mountain of foam rolled toward the already tired men in the water, our boat’s engine engaged. We shoved up the face of an incoming berm, down its back, and then over another one. When the waves had passed, the surfers fought their way back to the surface, panting. Lying on their boards, they breathed awhile, shook it off, noticed that the wind had turned on
In the end, you just have to trust that there’s nothing else in the world like pushing your board off the edge of a heaving 30-foot wall of water, harnessing all that titanic impetus, and doing something beautiful and pointless with it. Far from a man-versus-nature showdown, it’s an utterly wild kind of play. Timothy Leary once said that in the far future humans would attain a
When all their boards were piled in the boat and we had started for home, the guys sat down and actually talked for once. About what? Maybe the fact that they had just done everything Solomon, Foo, and Chesser had died trying to do, and had come away unscathed? To the contrary. In fact, the chief issue was whether they should change back into their clothes now or leave their
Wondering if this could really be it — the total occupancy of their minds after several brushes with death — I remembered something a friend once said to me. I’d remarked at the unflappability of a particular big-wave rider on a similar day. With a knowing smirk, my friend had said, “Just ask how he slept last night.”
So I did.
Slater smiled his egoless smile. “You want to know the truth?” he asked. “I thought I was driving to my death this morning.”
And then he turned to Malloy. “You really leaving your wetsuit on? Won’t that be kind of clammy?”
Daniel Duane’s novel Looking for Mo will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in June.