I am comfortable, based on my experience surfing at Ocean Beach, describing myself as a big wave surfer. While I haven’t surfed at Waimea Bay or Mavericks (with a litany of excuses for not surfing Mavs), those who have caught OB when it is big know that while it may not have international notoriety as a big wave spot, it certainly packs a punch. I’ve caught OB when it is maxing out in the 20-25ft range, and pretty much paddle out as long as I see that at least one other person is going for it somewhere along the beach.
Big wave riding is not necessarily all that fun to watch. It’s basically just guys who look like ants go straight on waves that look big, but their size and power is truly incomprehensible from the shore. Many writers far more talented than me have described riding big waves, and many surfers far more talented than me have discussed riding waves much bigger than I have ridden, but the truth is that “20ft,” “30ft,” and “50ft” are just numbers. You can’t understand it until you are in the water, paddling out into a wave face that eclipses the horizon, or getting monsooned by the spray coming out the back and the whipping wind that the mere movement of all that water creates. It’s unfathomable, and in fact, so unique that I often forget the power of big waves when I’m on land, watching them break.
I’ve posted the picture above on this blog before. It is not of me. It’s of a friend of mine…I grabbed it from his facebook page. It was taken over a year ago around Taraval Street, and is the biggest wave I’ve seen caught on camera at OB. I can say with pride that I was out there the same day, actually close to the same time, and caught 1 1/2 waves. It was the biggest I’ve ever ridden at OB. The 1/2 comes from a harrowing wipe-out….I dropped into a really macking set wave that must have been over 20ft in the face, and as I got to the bottom to dig my fins and rail into the face to turn, my board skidded out underneath me and I found myself sprawled on my back, bouncing down the face of the wave as I looked up and saw the lip unloading onto me. It was terrifying.
If the tone of this post so far seems a bit arrogant, that arrogance come from the defensive stand-point of a big wave surfer who knows he has lost his mojo for the big stuff.
Surfing is a physically demanding activity, but when the surf gets big, it becomes more of a head-game than anything else. The basics are about the same: you paddle out, you see a wave, you turn around and paddle into it, stand up, and then ride it. The variable that changes, obviously the size and power, is what makes big wave riding so mental. When you make it through into the line-up, you are physically and mentally tense, like a sprinter at the start of a race, anticipating the starter’s gun. Any minute a set wave could come through, catch you inside, and give you a pounding. Any minute the perfect wave could come right your way, and the stage is set for your big leap down the face. There is no relaxing in the line-up…I can only compare it to the mentality I have read described by soldiers as they wait for battle. After a session, it’s not necessarily my arms that are tired, but my whole being, as my brain finally relaxes from its relentless existence in fight-or-flight mode.
The waves are cyclical and pattern based, and I’ve noticed that my mental preparedness for big waves takes on a similar nature. The summer at Ocean Beach is flat, and when fall shows up with fun little glassy waves, the surf community goes into party mode and surfs a ton. It’s pure fun, minimal consequence. The first big swell shows up, and I dust off my big wave board to go get some bigger action, and my adrenaline is firing so hard in anticipation that I hardly hesitate. As the seasons shift into winter, and the waves become more consistently big, that adrenaline balances out, and sessions are peppered with epic waves and disastrous wipe-outs. The deeper you get into the season, the more you remember some of the wipe-outs, and the harder it becomes to mentally sharpen yourself to the situation. And eventually, just like the waves die out, you find that you’re not game for it anymore. You can’t shake the hesitation to take-off, you can’t talk yourself into it anymore. You’re done for the season.
I hit my big-wave stride in early December, and surfed the crap out of a swell that will forever be memorable to me. (The picture above is from that swell, posted on stokereport by a rad local photographer who goes by the handle vonstanger.) I had no hesitation, I was in physical and mental shape, and I felt completely in sync with the ocean. This season I have grown to embrace the spirituality and mysticism of the ocean, and I felt my spirit was willing and able to serve me some of the best waves I’ve ever caught.
Since then, I feel that I am losing, or have already lost, my mojo for big waves. I learned that phrase from a buddy of mine who surfs Mavericks regularly. He says he lost his mojo relatively early on this season, over Thanksgiving. You can see the wipe-out in the video that follows (his wave starts at around 0:45). He hits a phantom chop, and then cartwheels down the face. As he tells it, that first wipe-out was the easiest part. What followed off camera is a six-wave set that pounded him worse with each wave, and eventually got his leash tangled around his legs so he couldn’t move them. He was dangerously close to getting dragged through the rocks when a lifeguard on a jetski puttered through and saved his ass. Understandably, an experience like that would haunt you, and going back out at Mavericks might not be as thoughtless as it was before.
For me, I think I lost my mojo when I went to New York City for Christmas. I had been surfing with so much regularity before the trip, that a 10-day interruption threw my rhythm off in an irreversible way. I came home, and got heavy into bodysurfing, and didn’t ride a board much.
A new swell hit two days ago, and I paddled out with a friend of mine. Inside my head I was a bit cocky as I was suiting up, already counting the waves I had yet to even paddle out to catch, and was welcomed by a brutal pounding in my paddle out. It took me close to 40 minutes, and actually is a cool anecdote about the spirit of the ocean. At about minute 35, when my arms were screaming for me to quit and my pride was sufficiently stuffed down into my booties, I began to accept that I might get denied. It would be the first denial I have ever gotten at OB, and I was trying to figure out why. Why today, on a day that wasn’t nearly as big as some of the biggest days I had surfed, was I unable to paddle into the line-up? As I kept churning and thinking, I finally admitted that it was my arrogance, and lack of respect and humility, that had screwed things up for me. No sooner had that thought crossed my mind when the waves settled into a lull, and I snuck through.
Even though I got out, I got skunked. Badly. My first wave, a right, I spent most of the time tentatively making sure my feet were securely placed on the board. I had no control over the situation. Then my second wave, a left, popped out of nowhere and without fully thinking, I turned and went for it, on a wave that was way too steep. I somehow got hung up in the lip for a second, before my board slid out from underneath me and I free-fell 15ft down the face. I popped up, my mind scattered, and I whimpered my way back into shore.
I surfed big waves again today. It was bigger than I had thought, and the whole time I was out there I kept toying with feeling like I had lost my mojo, all the while trying to remind myself that I had surfed waves this size dozens of times before, so what the hell was I so scared about. The mind is a difficult thing to control, but your mind needs to be in control to ride big waves. I let about 5 perfect ones pass me by, waves a month ago I wouldn’t have thought twice about and would have loved riding. I ended up catching a decent right, followed by a decent left, but that was after pulling back from countless waves bigger and more perfect than the ones I caught.
I had been out about an hour and a half, and was drifting over into a rip, and knew I was ready to get out. I had mentally written much of this post while out in the water with my thoughts about losing my mojo tormenting me. I noticed that the rip was created some ugly surface chop to the wave faces as they were breaking, and wanted to just get out safe and sound. I finally got a beautiful peak served up to me, I turned and stroked to get into the wave, and as I felt its power surge beneath me I jumped up to my feet. I flew down the face, constantly gaining speed, and just as I was getting ready to hit bottom I hit one of the bumps I had been observing. When a turkey is done, that little thermometer thing *pops.* I basically did the exact same thing. I was popped off my board, as if Ocean Beach seemed to be the oven telling this turkey – “Sorry brother, you’re done.”
I will paddle out for any other big swell that comes through this season, but I don’t know how well I’ll do. I need to accept that my big wave riding mentality has peaked, and I’m in the lull that inevitably follows a peak. I don’t want to accept it, but I think I need to.
Sorry folks, I’m done.