There are plenty of surf spots where you’ll spend time waiting for the surf to pick up; there are a few where you’ll spend as much time again hoping it goes down.
For three days the waves in front of the village had been huge. Somber green-grey lumps of North Atlantic that focused on the point. To catch them you’d take the largest board you could find, put yourself in their way, turn, and paddle with all your might. If the wave was feeling kind, and if your frantic arm-strokes summoned you enough momentum of your own, at the critical moment you’d be at right place with enough speed to tap into the sweeping wall of energy. You’d leap to your feet as gravity pulled your board underneath you and speed away from the exploding peak towards the shoulder and down the point.
If you got it wrong you’d fall and be steamrolled by endless tonnes of whitewater that tore you to bits and pushed you down into the deep black below. Sometime later feeling bruised and bedraggled you’d be let up for air.
It was fun, I guess.
Some surfers thrive on the adrenaline that comes with riding big waves. To be honest the thing I enjoyed most was the weary, elated relaxation I felt at the end of the surf. It was the relative absence of adrenaline – the pleasant after-glow once it was gone – that I got off on.
Anyway, three days of oxygen deprivation and adrenaline inundation was about enough for me, and so when I woke on dawn on the fourth morning to the sounds of a calmed sea I was actually excited.
Maria and Lydia were already awake and into their chores, their conversation bursting back and forth in strongly accented Portuguese. I said good morning, grabbed some bread and wandered onto the patio to check the surf. Even in winter dawn was barely cold. It was dead calm and the only motion to sea was that of the swell that still wrapped and rolled down the point.
“Smaller”, I said.
It was still there but definitely smaller. As the waves bent and broke the glassy sea they looked nothing so much as fun. I was still sore from the day before but wasn’t about to waste any time. Give it an hour and everyone would be out – making the most of the change in conditions. And I didn’t fancy hassling for waves. So I pulled on my wetsuit, told my big wave board it could have a rest day and grabbed my 6’6″ – the board I used on the fun days.
There wasn’t a surfer in sight when I got to the boat ramp where you start the paddle up the point. “Keep sleeping guys,” I thought cheerily as I watched four waves, double head high max, roll down the point. This was going to be fun.
Such was my hurry to get a few to myself that I didn’t bother to try and time my paddle out from the boat ramp. When the swell was big waves broke right in front of it washing around jagged, barely submerged boulders. But the swell was small I figured, and the other surfers waking any time now, so I skidded hurriedly down the mossy concrete and sploshed into the sea.
I’d made it out about 10 yards – enough to be safe on a small day – when I found myself desperately paddling over the low tide shallows trying to dodge a wave that came from nowhere and which stood bigger than it ought to be, draining water off the rocks. There was no way I was going to make it past it, so I tried to duckdive. Caught right where it was breaking. Whump! The whitewater hit me and, while it wasn’t huge, it was strong enough to tumble and drag me back to the shore. By the time I got there my knuckles were bleeding from bangs on the rocks and my board had another ding.
More carefully the second time, I waited for a gap and paddled out. The swell might be smaller, I figured, but it still had a kick.
It takes about ten minutes to paddle from the boat ramp to the part of the point which you surf. You can actually paddle round from the back of the point too – it’s shorter, but I always prefer the paddle from the ramp. It gives you time to watch the waves as they break, and figure out where to sit and what you were in for. Even on a small day it’s worth doing.
This morning, though, the main thing I was learning was that it wasn’t actually that small at all. Wave after wave rose out of the deep and along the lava rocks. The surf still looked amazing, but I was kind-of disappointed: fun and small was what I wanted. I was also beginning to worry whether my 6’6″ was up to the job.
There was only one way to find out.
So I got out to the point and sat there, just off the shoulder of the main peak, marveling at how quick the waves were getting bigger again. Behind me, perched on terraces above the point the village was as peaceful as sleep. But twenty metres to my left oxen-like waves were rising out of the ocean, steepening and growing as they hit the shallows before plummeting into broken white.
There’s no point watching surf like that for too long. If you do, fear takes hold, and you’ll fall for certain. You just need to get a wave. And so when a slightly wider set stood up in front of me I swallowed, turned and set my arms spinning. Big waves travel fast and you need to be doing the same if you want to catch them. The trouble is, even with the best of intentions, once a wave gets big enough, you’ll never get a 6’6″ moving with speed sufficient to hop on board. I was in the wrong place too – away from the first peak but because this was a wide set, sweeping in from the west, the wave was busy redoubling its efforts right where I was trying to catch it.
I caught it, I guess you could say, although it would probably be more accurate to say it caught me. I jumped to my feet but I was never going to get clear of the falling lip. So, continuing the motion, I lept – clear of my board and out into space. When things go wrong in big surf leaping isn’t such a bad idea. If you’re lucky you’ll land ahead of the wave. Like a leap from the high diving board at the pool, you’ll hit the water with a bang at the bottom, but if it all works out you’ll penetrate and the worst of the wave will wash over you.
I didn’t penetrate.
Instead I hit the water with a thump that knocked the air out of my lungs and then skidded under the breaking lip. An instant later the falling whitewater found me, tore me in several directions at once and finally settled on dragging me into the depths.
Once the worst of the turbulence subsided I opened my eyes. If the water’s clear enough after a wipeout, this is a good idea. You can get your barings and figure out which way is up. The water was clear alright, off that sandless lava island. But I opened my eyes to find my self surrounded by black. Even if the water is clear, if you’re deep enough, you still won’t see much.
Surprising myself given the circumstances I didn’t panic. It wasn’t the first time that winter I’d found myself in water deep enough to be inky. The trick then was to use your own buoyancy to give you a sense which way up was and start swimming in that direction. Pretty soon the sun will appear, a floating orb guiding you to the world of the breathing.
Except this time it didn’t – after a couple of strokes, with the water as black as ever I started to feel afraid. Maybe, disorientated, I wasn’t swimming up at all?
With an intensifying ache my lungs pleaded for air.
I paused for a moment. And finally saw it, like a dim light wrapped in green cellophane above me – the sun. I was swimming up, I’d just started from somewhere awfully deep.
By the time I got to the surface I was my lungs were screaming and I felt faint. I burst panting into the air.
Things could have been worse. There could have been another wave breaking on top of me. My board or leg rope could have snapped. But the ocean was calm again – it was a one wave set, and my board bobbed happily, and in one piece, next to me.
I climbed on, paddled limply away from the point and any other breaking waves, and lay for a while gulping down air. Eventually, I mustered the strength to catch a little one down the point to the boat ramp.
Back on land I stood dripping for a while and then figured I couldn’t give up. The surf was big, but it was breaking perfectly. And if I quit now I’d beat myself up about it for days.
And so I went and grabbed my big wave board, waited for a nice long lull, leapt off the boat ramp, and paddled back out.
By the time I made the lineup again it must have been well over an hour since dawn. I knew everyone else was awake, I’d seen other surfers watching from the village as I paddled for my ill-fated wave. But, all of a sudden, no one seemed to be in a hurry.
So, long after first light, as I guided my 7’4 into it’s first set wave of the morning, I did so, in an empty sea, still on my own.