Anxiety and Ecstasy in the Age of Online Surf Forecasting
by Gerry Lopez
Yesterday I scored big. It was one of those rare days which left me so pumped up when it was over I knew I was going to have trouble falling asleep last night. [Editor's note: This story was originally written in November 2007] I figured I better write it down before the afterglow faded, and later I could savor it again. One of the sad things about surfing is that the best memories are fleeting. Before one knows it, they have all but disappeared, erased like they never existed. Sometimes when the focus is so intense, the concentration so great, it seems as though they don't even get recorded.
Many times I have finished a wave to find a blank space in my mind about what just occurred during that ride. Although peculiar, it happens with great regularity. By carefully recalling the few moments of actual thoughts, like the decision to catch that wave, or maybe an incident like someone in the way or a person yelling, I may be able to piece together the whole ride. But often as not, should there be some distraction, like another set coming, or just not having that momentary space to reflect back, then that ride may as well be gone. It did happen, and how it unfolded possibly went into one of those many file cabinets of the mind, but the key to access that drawer is lost. Even as I sit here and write only a day afterwards recollection of those waves has begun to go hazy.
The easy part to remember is what got me there. In the build up of most surf stories, the foundation is usually the waves. These days, with Internet surf forecasting, checking the surf has taken on an entirely new meaning. In the beginning several decades of my surfing career, I simply looked out at the sea and decided whether to paddle out or not.
Modern satellite imagery, storm information as well as sophisticated marine buoys that monitor swell direction and heights, wave intervals and wind speeds make amateur forecasting pretty simple. Of course, there are also professionals who make a business of doing the same thing. For a fee or even for free, one touch of the keyboard and the information to make that same decision days in advance is quickly available.
A big swell was coming, that much all the various forecasting services had agreed on. A storm out of the Gulf of Alaska had made that a certainty. The wind and surface conditions forecast also looked favorable. Web cams make it even easier, an instant and current picture of exactly the same view I used to have from shore. Whether I'm on the beach or 200 miles away, the decision is as it always was: Do I go or do I stay? This time I pulled the trigger, loaded up my stuff, and hit the road.
Less than four hours later, I had my first real look. My expectations were slightly deflated, but still the surf wasn’t bad. It had size and the wind was enough offshore for the wave faces to be clean. The spot I was at, although the closest from my home, was my second choice. An early morning call from a friend at my first choice reported an unfavorable wind. The wind I was seeing was perfect for my first choice spot, but that was another hour or more away and I was already here.
I wrestled into my wetsuit and paddled out. The waves were well overhead, but mushy, with an ill-defined lineup and hard to catch. On my stand-up paddleboard, I had better luck than the surfers on regular boards, but the session proved lackluster.
Three hours later, I had changed back into dry clothes and was ready to go somewhere else but couldn’t decide where. I finally got through to my friend up north, but his report was not encouraging.
Plagued by indecision, I ran through my options. The surf was coming up more even though it was already head-and-a-half to double-overhead on the big sets. The wind should continue to come from a good direction, although the approaching storm would increase it dramatically. What the heck, I had nothing more important to do, and all the next day to do it. I headed north.
The next morning, in the predawn grey I strained to see what the waves were doing. First indications looked small. As it became lighter, it was obviously very small. Hoping the swell would be coming soon; I suited up, trudged up the beach, and paddled out to join the other dawn patrollers at the outside lineup.
Six or seven surfers were already clustered in the lineup, but the only waves I saw were chest-high at the biggest and not very consistent. The anticipation was high and the crowd amped up, but there was nothing to spend their pent-up energy on. Every once in a while a single wave, or maybe a set of two, would roll in, but that was it. Definitely not enough to go around for the growing number of surfers with expectations of a lot more than was available. Two hours later and only three weak waves to my tally, I surrendered. As I walked back with several of the guys who live there, they all spoke of the buoy readings that morning of 30-foot waves with a 15-second interval, significant indicators. We were all puzzled by the lack of surf.
I changed out of my wetsuit and put away my surfboard. Driving out of the side street I had parked on, I started to head away, but on an impulse, swung into the parking area facing the break for one last look. It had started to drizzle, but the wind was still lightly offshore. Some guys were surfing the inside on longboards and fishes, and as I watched, I saw a few of them get some nice long rides on waist-high waves. My morning had not gone as I had hoped, but with my stand-up paddleboard, I figured I could salvage something from the day. I wear a thinner wetsuit when I ride the stand-up board since I’m mostly high and dry, and the suit was dried out from the session the day before. I slipped into my fresh wetsuit, unlimbered my big board, grabbed the paddle and headed out.
The few surfers in the lineup were friendly and curious, having never seen a stand-up board here before. It was perfect for it, most of the waves hardly broke, but they stood up enough for me to catch and rolled a long, long ways. I began to catch a lot of waves and have a lot of fun; the dismal beginning to the morning was brightening up. The entire time, I kept one eye on the outside spot where one by one, the surfers there gave it up and got out for lack of waves.
Finally, the outer lineup was empty and I saw a nice looking wave come through. It was probably only chest-high and there was only one, but it wasn't far to paddle on the stand-up board. I started to head that way, but just then, the wave I had seen on the outside moved inside and it was the biggest one yet. I turned my board, paddled hard and caught it. I hung around after that, but every once in awhile, one nice wave at a time, would roll into the outer spot. About a minute later, it would hit the inside and be a little bigger in there. It was good inside, but I thought sooner than later I should take the half-mile paddle out to the outside break for a closer look.
Either I was getting bored with those mushy, weak inside waves, or some unconscious feeling arose within me, but again I aimed for the outside break. While the lineup I was headed for was mostly empty of waves, it was also devoid of surfers. It was also a nice morning for a paddle.
Just as I got close enough to really see what was going on, I noticed a single surfer who must have just paddled out. It let the wind out of my sails a bit as the local surfer's reputation here is very protective of their precious spot. I didn't think they would take kindly to a stand-up board in their lineup.
Right then, a significant looking set loomed up outside. We both paddled to intersect it. The first wave was a solid 5 feet and nicely lined-up. The surfer was too far inside and had to let it go, but there was another just like it behind. I waited and let him take first pick; I could see there was a third wave out the back. He caught his wave and I swung around for the next. Both were awesome waves, the best of the day by far. I rode mine for a long ways until it petered out to nothing along the rocky shoreline. There was a long lull afterwards with nothing showing on the horizon.
I paddled out to where the other surfer sat waiting, said hello and asked if he had seen any other sets like that one. I figured he would probably either ignore me, or tell me to get the hell out of there with my big board. But he surprised me with a friendly greeting and shrugged in reply to my question, saying it was the first set he had seen. He went on to suggest that maybe it was indeed coming up, and we might be lucky enough to enjoy a brief window of good waves with no one else out. From my standing vantage point, I saw another set approaching and pointed it out to him.
The next set was better, slightly bigger and with more waves. Again we both caught great waves. As I paddled back out, another set loomed. And so it went, one set after another in rapid succession. It was like a feeding frenzy and the waves were increasing in size with each new set. A very nice double-overhead wave showed outside and I paddled hard for position.
Well outside of any of the previous waves, I did a quick turn around to set up my takeoff. It was the biggest wave so far and not one to take chances on. The wave here breaks very close to a rocky shore. One mistake on the big board and I would be caught inside. A single wave could very quickly wash me on to the rocks.
I glimpsed another surfer joining our twosome; it was my friend whom I had called the afternoon before. He had passed on the early morning session, using better judgment than the rest of us, and had shown up now, at exactly the right moment. I was going to shout a greeting as I paddled into my wave, but something told me I had better pay close attention to what I was doing. I carefully caught the wave from deep, turned hard at the top and drove down the line. The wall reared up ahead of me threateningly, but my line and trim speed were both good, and I flew down the line close to the curl but safely in front of it.
I paddled back out to my friend and told him his timing was impeccable; the waves had just begun to come in after a long, flat morning. For the next hour, we all got as many excellent waves as we could ride. Those two paid some dues, taking off late and getting pitched, then eating the waves behind. But the interval between waves was long, even and predictable; the sets and lulls were very definite. The wind continued to puff lightly offshore, combing the wave faces into perfect texture. I kept thinking I should go in and exchange by stand-up board for a smaller surfboard, but that would necessitate a 45-minute round trip. I was having the time of my life right then, and wasn't sure I wanted to sacrifice any of it for a surfboard and wetsuit change.
Other surfers came out, but everyone was friendly and more than a little awed by the growing surf which continued to sprout taller with each new set. Now some of the sets began to take on a serious demeanor. Ten foot, top to bottom, is about the maximum the place can hold. After that it starts to break on an outer reef and loses its form. But at the moment, it was still in top shape and without let up.
The sets were lasting longer than the lulls. I would pick what I thought was the best and biggest one, well outside the surfers, ride it a long way in, and watch wave after wave peel through as I paddled back out. If any surfer looked interested in any of the waves I paddled for, I yelled for them to go and pulled back. There were plenty more waves coming.
My friend had to go to a meeting for his job and caught one final wave in. As he was climbing out on the rocks inside, I took a huge one from way outside. It peeled perfectly through and I just stood tall in the curl, dragging my paddle slightly to slow down. I pulled out even with where he was standing on shore and he let out a hoot.
On the paddle back out I passed another surfer paddling in. I could tell by the look on his face that he wasn’t comfortable. I asked if he was okay and he answered that he was in over his head.
“Are you going to try and go straight in over the rocks?” I asked.
“No,” he replied, “I’m going to paddle all the way in.”
I told him to keep a watch over his shoulder so a wave behind him didn’t pick him off.
For another hour the waves continued to increase in intensity. I was amazed that the big board I was riding handled the waves so well. Of course, the waves were smooth, peeling and pretty doggone flawless. Then a set showed almost on the horizon, much bigger than any so far. I looked at the surfers, but only one of them, a guy near my age, saw what I saw. We eased over towards the shoulder and moved outside. The younger surfers finally noticed the set and our outside position. They put their heads down and paddled hard for safety.
The first waves were good, but inside of us. Outside of where we waited, bigger ones danced, masked by the waves in front. Several waves went by, and we were finally confronted by one of the big ones. It had broken on the outer second reef, but I was far enough outside to make a move for it. I spun around and just managed to stroke down the face. The drop was endless and very bouncy. I hung on, using the paddle for balance and finally reached the bottom. I thought I had dropped down too far as the wave ahead started to break above me. I leaned into a turn, slicing the paddle deep for leverage, and swung around the section. Once back up on the wall, I could easily chase down the looming sections ahead. Far down the line, I pulled out and found myself shaking as though I had a fever.
I paddled back out. More sets kept coming; it was nonstop. With the paddle, my takeoffs were clean, early and easy. The clean surface conditions let me read what the wave would do, and I had plenty of time to react. A dark thought of what would quickly happen should I fall tried to creep into my consciousness, but I continued to push it aside. If I got trapped inside, I would be dragged along the rocky shoreline into a very dangerous situation where my only hope would be to abandon both board and paddle. I didn't want to even go there in my mind. I knew the board was maxed out, the fins were humming like crazy and although it had gone plenty fast enough to make all the waves, I had it redlined and could ask no more from it.
The waves still came and from each set, one would beckon to me like the Lorelei, and I would be drawn to ride it. Four hours had gone by quickly. The first hour at the inside break and the last three went by like a blur on the outside. The surf had grown faster than I had ever seen waves come up before while still holding perfect shape, even on the North Shore. I guess all those surf predictions and buoy reports had been right.
I began to think that maybe it was time to call it a day. But of course, just when those thoughts went through my mind, the set of the day appeared far out to sea. Suddenly outer reefs were breaking where none had shown before. I looked at the other old guy and we both had the same thought at exactly the same time. This was the end of it. The surf had surged up in hurry but managed to hold its form up until now. Even at a glance we could see this set, still far out to sea, would be out of control when it reached us.
Once again we eased towards the shoulder and outside, the other surfers followed our lead. The inevitable was upon us all. The storm forecasts had called it: The surf was expected to reach the 20-foot range and it looked like it was doing just that with this approaching set. The wind suddenly increased and rain pelted down. Poseidon had stuck his trident into the sea and the storm exploded.
The set moved upon us, but we were safely beyond its grasp, well outside. The waves had lost all their previous good form. These were stormy and rough, full of boils and bumps. I wanted no more of it. Up until now, my big board and paddle had been an advantage over the small boards of the others. But I quickly realized as the unruly set came on, the tables had turned and my advantage had just become a severe liability. I had an idea and paddled inside of the group. A smaller 12-foot wave in the set came within reach and I paddled hard to get it. I just managed to pick it up and rode down the face, away from the rest of the set and the danger – if I could just keep my feet and wits about me.
As I rode down the line, it came to me that this was the biggest wave I had ridden at this spot. It kept going further in and when it started to hit the deeper water and wanted to give up, I used the paddle to stay in it. I realized I was far enough inside that I would be entering the in-between break. Here the wave hugs the rocks closely but peels along the rugged shoreline for another several hundred yards. I glanced over my shoulder and just about fainted when I saw a wave twice as big as the one I was riding right behind me. I hung on and paddled harder, to lose it at this point would put me right on the rocks.
All the surf on the inside releases its energy in a strong rip that runs back out along the shore. I noticed several surfers as I streaked by but I also was running into the riptide. The chop coming up the face of my wave was horrendous. The big board went airborne a number of times but somehow I managed to stay on using my paddle for balance.
Suddenly, I wasn't going forward any longer. The wave had met its match against the rip and just stopped. I looked toward shore and saw I was actually going backwards with the rip, back toward where I didn't want to be. On the other side of the rip, the inside break was completely out of control. It was breaking much further out than where I had been happily and safely surfing only a few hours before. Fortunately, the set had just about run its course and the last waves rolled through.
I paddled across the rip, hoping to catch a smaller wave before the next set came in. Luck was on my side, a small wave popped up and I paddled into it. I rode straight in towards the sand and knew I better not think this was over until I was safe, sound and standing on the dry shore.
I made it up the beach and then it was over. I put my board down next to my car and walked over to the public hot shower the city had provided for the beachgoers. It was raining cats and dogs, but no one was around, so I stayed under that hot shower for 15 minutes. Finally I got changed, loaded my board and was ready to go. The ocean out the front looked like the beginning of the old TV show “Victory at Sea,” stormy and completely out of control. Not a place anyone would want to be.
I was just making a U-turn to head for home when I noticed a surfer walking up from the beach. He had that thousand-yard stare that many of the Vietnam War veterans had acquired after some very heavy combat. It was the same guy whom, two hours earlier, had said he was in over his head and was going in. I asked him if he was all right. He seemed to shake and nod his head at the same time. He said he was from British Columbia, and it was his first time at the outside break. He said he was totally freaked out by his experience and would just stick with the inside spot the next time. I told him I was a little freaked out too.
He said the fear had almost overwhelmed him, and he had to reach down inside to something he didn't know he had. Even then he had almost given up. The rip had nearly defeated him. Then he had seen me cross the rip and catch a final wave in. He had followed my lead and had finally made it.
We smiled at each other, both of us having had an extraordinary experience that day. I knew I had to write it down or it would soon blur into nothingness. Maybe he did too.
If you're interested in more stories from Gerry, check out his new book Surf Is Where You Find It – a hardbound collection of 38 stories with new and vintage photographs. Choose from the regular edition or the boxed, limited edition that has extra photos and is signed and numbered by the author.
This concludes our incredible week with Gerry at the helm. Many mahalos to Gerry for sharing these stories with all of us. If you still haven't gotten your fill, check out the videos on Patagonia.com of Gerry and Jock Sutherland "Talkin' Pipe" at our Cardiff surf shop.