I purposely woke up late that day, but not too late. As a newly minted dawn patrol guy, I would have already have been in the water for an hour or more. But I wasn’t going to be in the lineup while it was pitch black, not today. Bill was here, and I was scared. My first hurricane! I wasn’t hurrying out the door, but I was focused on getting to the beach. It was strangely calm when I got my dogs out for a quick game of Frisbee. A light breeze was blowing out of the west, perfect! I grabbed my board “Blue” and strapped her into the bed of my truck. I had butterflies. My wife picked up on it and asked me how big it would be. “I don’t know baby, eight, ten feet maybe.” I knew it wasn’t going to be “the Eddie”….not even close, but for me, at 47, a haole, and surfing just a year and a half, it might as well have been Mavericks. Today there would be waves of consequence, at least for me.
Parking was slammed at First Street, so I drove to a little spot I know. It was still early enough to have a couple open spaces and I slid my truck into the one closest to the fish gut filled dumpsters. It was hot already, maybe over 90 degrees, and it smelled of rotting fish. I clearly remember thinking, “Dead smell, I hope I don’t smell like that in the morning, ” and chuckled. I applied my wax, took a big whiff, “Sexwax”……yeah, enough goodness to override the dead fish smell. Leash secured on the board, wax applied. SPF 50 slathered all over my melon, rash-guard…..OK, we go. I could see Croatan in the distance across Rudy inlet. It was big and glassy. Beautiful lefts as well as rights. As I got closer to 1st St, I noticed the wave spray (Ehu kai) and how it made the beach hard to look at with the water refracting the low angle sun. Wow that’s bright! It was crowded on the beach with many people watching the waves and surfers. Beyond the white water, the sea was so glassy, you could see two suns until a wave would rise out of the glass and the resulting wave and whitewater would block out the sun. The jetty channel was closed out, and the inside looked like a meat grinder.
North of Waterman’s Grill, the natural break between sandbars created a sometimes passable channel. I decided that would be where I paddled out. With a ten foot board, there is no duckdiving, so you really have to pick your spot and wait for a lull. Then you go like your life depends upon it. I took my time. I watched and waited, and oddly, I saw no one I knew. I was a little north of where we often surf and everybody was pretty far outside. Finally, after ten minutes, a large set started building and I could see guys scratching for the horizon. That is when I noticed how big the waves really were. Looking more towards the jetty, and not as much into the sun, I picked out Franky the body boarder, and he was minuscule and way beyond the end of the jetty. It would be quite a paddle out. The set looked like it was ending, the inside was still going off with 6 foot tubes, body boarders and short boarders all taking their chances. Some guys scoring tubes, and some scoring a beating. It’s always amazing to me to realize the inside waves are really just reforms, leftover energy from what just broke 200 or 300 yards outside.
Time to go, here was my chance. I was leashed up, but I checked it, took some deep breaths, and edged down to the water…..last shorepound, off we go! Paddle! Turtle roll, paddle! Turtle roll. I’m not getting very far, but I’ve already drifted 50 or 100 feet north. Get out and try again. Still a lull,(this is a sucker play), I should wait! But I went anyway. Paddle up and over, schmacka! Paddle, turtle roll, paddle hard…..making it out. The foam gives way to glass, it seemed harder to make way in the foam. As I get outside, there were still no set waves. I see someone I know, Hammer! He’s looking outside and he starts to paddle out, I need to follow. Get down and Paddle! I know if I stop or get caught inside, I’ll get drilled, so I dig in and motivate towards the rising sun for all I’m worth. Shoulders are burning, it’s been 8 to 10 minutes so far, my heart rate is soaring…..The set is coming, Hammer turns, one, two, three strokes and he’s up on his big wave Nolte and dropping in. Dude, now that is a bottom turn.
I’m still digging outside, but I’m going to make it. I glide over the wave and freefall, schmacka. That was the biggest wave I’ve ever been in the water with. It had its own zip code. Yep, 8, maybe 10 feet. It’s glassy out here and the side rip is diminished. It’s crowded but not too, 10 or 15 dudes. Then I see the guys inside…20 or 30 more, a minefield of scorn and greed. I watch people I don’t know take off on wave after wave, 30 minutes or more go by. I finally get the nerve, and, looking around (no one is here right now) , I see the opportunity to go for a wave and not get crushed, or screw up someone else’s ride. I paddle but I’m too far outside, the wave rolls harmlessly under me. I had to be 15 or more feet above the guys paddling back out. Man, I was not even Close. That is pretty humbling.
Another 10 or 15 minutes go by, and I’m just watching and waiting for the good guys to get theirs, the lineup to clear out, and there to be just one more good wave for me (too many consecutive miracles). A set on the horizon starts to build. The thinnest little ribbon, darkish water rising, just above the swell in front of it….barely perceptible. I’ve been in the water almost an hour. The ribbon becomes a dark ominous A-Frame 50 yards wide and rising before me. Here it comes, first wave….off they go, a left and a right and a surfer going each way. The left is short, the right goes on for some distance north. Second wave, two more surfers left and right, this repeats until I realize I’m alone. There it is! One more wave. I have to say, maybe the biggest wave of the set, and still building. The interval must have been 15 or 18 seconds because I turned, adjusted myself to the perfect position (I have a mark on my board, actually a sideways wax void I scratched in, and I align myself fore and aft off that), and calmly start paddling, I also hedged my bet and started breathing deep and repeatedly (just in case). I glanced back and the sun was gone, feet lifting, I hear Hammer screaming “Paddle DUKE!”
Until that point, I figured I’d paddle calmly, start to plane, or stall out the back. I wasn’t going to paddle like a madman only to pearl or worse. But Hammer’s urgency surprised me, scared me (the phrase “shot of cold piss to the heart” comes to mind) and I started scratching like I had stolen something. My feet were now two or three feet above my head, rising, and I felt that sliding, surging, lifting sensation. I’m moving forward now, faster and faster and I knew if I didn’t fire the standup mechanism very soon, I would not be able to. I stopped paddling, Holy Crap, I’m still accelerating! Hands to waist, push up, wait, look right, oh yes….quick look left, no one there…….feet under me, stay low, SMOOTH drop, lean back, more, more! There is a maelstrom of noise behind me, and I dare not glance back. Shuffle forward (cross step my ASS!), bend knees, lean into the right, drive for Waterman’s Grill! I hear the Hammer again! DUKE!!! Hoot Hoot!
The face is smooth, I reach out, feeling the silk passing beneath my outstretched hand. I’m fast now, as fast as I’ve ever gone on a wave…..go straight. I’m Climbing, no, not yet, crap! I’m over the lip! Now I’m paddling to seaward again like my life depended on it…..legs and arms feel weak. I’m shaking, quivering really. I need to throw up…..no, I’m good. Holy crap, I’m alive. “Nice Wave dude.”
I stole a few more waves that day, as the swell continued to build. It was dawning on me, time for me and my limited skills to get out (while I safely could). I rode my last wave inside, got taken out by a white water explosion (I can’t imagine Waimea), and bellied it victoriously in on the next white water to come my way. My first “Big Waves”.
I’m sure surfers from all the places we revere will chuckle as they read this, but it’s been a year since Bill made its way up the Atlantic, I’ve surfed every chance I could since then. But nothing I’ve surfed since that day has made my heart race like that first “big” wave. Maybe my area will get a couple storms this summer. Storms that glance off the mid-Atlantic region not coming ashore, slowing their northward progress just long enough impart enough sweet energy across our sandy, protective, power draining Atlantic shelf and deliver us the goods.
Aloha, thanks Bill!