On You Tube – the Verizon Wireless big wave wipeout awards. For what it’s worth, Ross Clark Jones gets my vote.
Funnily enough, the worst wipeout I ever saw didn’t involve a surfer at all. I was travelling north through Latin America and had stopped for a week in Puerto Escondido. The last two days the swell got huge – long lines of menace heaving in from the unending Pacific. Grinding top to bottom closeouts exploding sand-saturated water into the sky. Evil rips snaking out to sea.
I quit while I was ahead and, along with everyone else, sat it out in my hammock. Safe on the hill, yet still swallowing adrenaline with each set that thundered in.
On the second afternoon, cooled by a gentle sea breeze, I was sitting watching, scaring myself with thoughts of actually going for a surf, when I saw the Pelicans. Just beyond the breaking waves, two of them, feeding on a school of fish.
Pelicans are actually amazing surfers. You’d see them in the morning at Puerto, riding the offshore breeze, skimming along the tops of the steepening swells, sailing to safety on the updrafts above the breaking waves. But these two were concentrating on the fish – caught up in a feeding frenzy. And, as any big wave surfer can tell you, when the surf’s huge it really pays to keep your eyes fixed out to sea. They’d been feeding for maybe 15 minutes slowly following the fish in, when a giant set groaned in out of the green and blue. Tripping on the shallower sand, the waves stood up like apartment blocks. And the Pelicans figured it all out too late. Desperately flapping, clumsy in take off, trying to get above the rising swells. The first bird made it, just squeaking over the top of the biggest wave. The second one didn’t stand a chance. By the time it was flying properly, the wave – at least five times overhead for a human, impossibly huge for a bird – was on top of it, a giant, barreling righthander.
It was hopeless but, in do or die-mode, the bird did everything right. Rather than try and fly over the beyond vertical breaking wave, it banked off the wall and sped south, heading for the shoulder and a chance of escape. It’s exactly what any surfer would have done. And for a moment I thought it might win the race, gathering speed in the mouth of a cave-like barrel, desperately aiming for unbroken water.
But it wasn’t to be. Not quite fast enough, it got winged by the upwash of the exploding lip and in an instant was gone, engulfed in detonating water. Unaware, the wave steamed on in but I was on my feet now, shouting at the wind.
Caught right in the heaviest part of a huge set wave, on a maxed out day at one of the world’s most dangerous surf spots, the bird had to be dead. Ripped wing from wing, I figured. Sitting back down, I stared out over the stella white sweep of foam that followed in the set’s wake, looking for a body. Nearly a minute went by. Then, all of a sudden, there it was! Way on the inside, near the beach, flopping around in the water. Alive, but broken surely. It tried to take off, but got hit by a whitewater, and washed further in. And then, in a gap between waves, the impossible happened. It steadied itself, flapped its wings, built up speed, got gliding, made it over the next whitewater, and soared to safety out to sea.
Up on the hillside, the witness to all this, I stood back up out of the hammock and started to clap and cheer.