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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Surfing Big Waves | Pride Comes Before You Wipe Out...

By Rick Bickerstaff

They say pride comes before a fall...but they didn't mention anything about the washing machine tumult after the fall, followed by gasping for air and a long swim in.

A large storm swell has been hitting Southern California, with waves in the 20+ foot range at some breaks. My friends and I shared bloated surf reports through texts and social media the week leading up to it, excited for the potential glory ahead. But deep down, a tiny nagging worry was there in the pit of my stomach asking if I could handle it. Of course I could handle it...right?
Photo courtesy of Brian Esquivel.
Surfing is a progression, and so calling a wave "big" can be a relative thing. That being said, I've been paddling into progressively bigger surf over the last 6 months, and as I've been thrashed and also conquered, my sense of what I can handle has grown. And as it's grown, I have to admit that a little pride has creeped up in my water-logged brain....

After checking out a couple unsurfable spots (huge closeouts on shallow sand), we back-tracked to a break where some other guys looked like they were having a good time. We suited up and paddled out, only to immediately be swept into a current and carried down into a cove and back to shore. The humility began.  This happened three more times as I'd head for the break, only to get carried away and pounded by the ten foot waves. All the while I was watching guys shred these beautiful right-handers, snapping the tops of overhead sets and then paddling back for more.

After the fourth thwarted attempt, I decided I wouldn't be kept down and, hitting a rare lull between sets, I made it out. I rested for a quick minute before going for a wave. I paddled and caught it, but that's when things get hazy...I'm still not sure exactly what happened, except that I was soon falling down a steep drop with no board.

I hit the water and found myself in the washing machine -- a recently frequent friend of mine -- I stayed calm and made it out, catching a breath before the next wave hit. I made to the surface again and then reached for my leash...gone. I looked ahead to find my board being tossed and carried off to shore.

I back-stroked my way in while praying to not die, and God must have heard because after a little swim I found my board parked about halfway in, caught on some kelp I think. When I finally hit the shore, I didn't go back.  For the record, my friends didn't do much better than me, so we all chalked it up to experience and a little extra duck-diving practice, and headed to Jack in the Box for some self-indulgent fast food.

Well, fast forward a few days and my friend Russell tells me he went out again, not able to make it to the break. "Really Russell? You couldn't even make it out?" I haughtily thought to myself. "What a wuss...."  And then today happened -- I pulled up to what is normally a fairly docile beach and the waves are breaking 30 yards past their normal spot in huge sets. Fear sets in.

I watch the waves as I approach the beach, thinking to myself, "your daughter is due next week, Rick. Don't die." The middle waves are heavy closeouts, unless you can make it to the huge sets in the back, so that's my goal. I look for my spot, eventually finding a little lull, and go for it.

I then get slapped by some incredibly handsome whitewash as I watch the only other surfer out today catch a beautiful right-hander and ride it with style. Eventually, I make it pretty far before I realize I didn't put nearly enough wax on my board because I'm sliding all over the place. So I go back in without catching a single wave and wax up.

Humility is often found in experiencing something bigger than yourself.
Try #2: more of the same -- pounding and never ending sets. As soon as I think I've made it out to the break, I peek over the crest of the wave I'm paddling over and a wave twice its size is crashing in front of me. I got a lot of duck-diving practice today...a lot.

Well, a man can only take so much. For some reason, I was also getting spooked paddling in the white after-wash of the larger waves. So after biting my lip on a duck-dive-gone-wrong and feeling like a shark hit my foot, I paddled in.

Defeated and dejected, scared and bleeding, I perform the walk of shame back to my backpack on the beach -- all the while watching awesome waves roll in, one after the other. Soon the other surfer came in and told me about how wonderful the waves were at the break. I sheepishly tell him I never made it. "Oh," he says, with a little consolation in his voice, and nothing more.  After he left, I stood there for a long time, watching the water and wondering if I should have paddled back out. I wanted to. I'm not one to quit easily. But the reasons to stop (bleeding lip, responsibilities back home, the "shark") kept popping up, so I left.

As I walked to my car I decided that this would not be a defining moment in my life. I won't be the guy who gives up after half-an-hour of paddling because he's tired, and sharks can smell blood up to a quarter of a mile away. It was just an off-day. A day counted as experience and a good workout. A day to be forgotten, save the lessons learned. A day for humility.