The crazy thing is the ocean was flat for an hour before it suddenly tried to drown me.
There were maybe 20 of us in the lineup waiting for a wave, and nothing was happening. Maybe 3 guys caught waves in that first hour. I was starting to think about paddling in a little bit and catching a smaller wave breaking closer to shore and calling it a day. But I didn’t. Like everyone else, I was waiting for the big waves to come.
A couple days prior I’d caught the biggest wave of my life. It was 8 feet, maybe 10, I don’t know exactly because I didn’t see it. I just remember the feeling of being picked up and staring down a massive hill of water as I popped to my feet and dropped down its face, dug in my heels and turned right before hearing it detonate behind me. Then I full-on screamed, I couldn’t help it. I was narrowly avoiding being crushed by a school bus of water. It was the best wave of my life.
Just like all the other guys, I was staring out to sea, watching for the first big waves to come. Then one came. There was a bulge on the horizon, darker than the rest of the ocean. Everyone watched it without much interest because the first wave is usually the smallest. The second, third, and fourth waves have all the power. The shitty thing is because of the up and down motion of the ocean, you only get to see one wave at a time. As one passes below you and lifts you up, you see over the hump and there’s the next one. Maybe it’s small, maybe it’s the biggest wave you’ve ever seen in your life. You don’t know until the last wave passes.
When you’re at the bottom of a big wave you don’t get to see much of anything. This is where nightmares form. I watch the guys at the top of the oncoming wave, and if they go from a relaxed, sitting position to urgent paddling, I don’t even question it. I paddle out like my fucking life depends on it before I’ve even seen the next wave, just based on everyone else’s reaction. Paddling out to sea is how you get over a wave before it breaks. You can paddle over a wave while it’s still forming. But once it breaks, you’re pretty much fucked.
You only have 20 seconds between waves, so acting early is good. When I saw those front guys start paddling as quickly as they did, I knew the time for sitting around was over. I just gave it as hard as I could toward the oncoming waves. Cresting the second wave, I looked over it and was fully terrified. What I saw was a dark wall of water, 15 feet high. The wave was already vertical, and as wide as the horizon. I barely made it over that one and there was another one right behind it. I had enough speed to get over its shoulder without being devoured, but the guys behind me weren’t as lucky. With a loud BOOM and a few seconds of blowback water like torrential rain the wave broke just as I crested it, annihilating all the surfers paddling behind me. I looked back over my shoulder and saw boards everywhere, random heads and harms thrashing in the churning foam. The wail of a jet ski as the lifeguard hauled guys out of the water.
“Look at that!” Someone said. He was off to my right, a bit ahead. He was pointing way out to sea. I looked at where he was pointing and saw a wave far off in the distance to our left, the biggest wave I’d ever seen in my life. It looked 20 feet high and was breaking out on the horizon. It was so far away and the waves around us were so loud we couldn’t hear it, which was terrifying. Like watching an atomic bomb go off and but with no noise.
Seeing a wave that big breaking that far away meant we didn’t have a lot of time before something similar was going to happen where we were. So we paddled, the two of us, like animals. Big waves came, and we got over them. I couldn’t tell how big, but the guy said 15 feet. My eyes were probably pretty wide because he looked at me and said, “We maybe have 10 minutes or so before that happens again, and if it does we’ll get washed back to shore. If it gets bigger though, to 20 feet, we’re not getting in here. We’ll have to paddle to Waimea.”
Waimea was a couple miles away.
“Yup I think I’ll go in then. Are you going in?” I asked.
“Ya we can go together.”
I was pretty fucking happy to have this guy with me. The jet ski was still rescuing people. We paddled for a bit and eventually the jet ski came to check on us.
“IT’S CRAZY OUT HERE!” The lifeguard yelled. “THAT CAME OUT OF NOWHERE!” Then he pointed at me and shouted, “DO YOU WANT A TOW IN?”
“YES!” I shouted back at him. Pretty god damn sure I had never looked so happy about anything in my life.
The lifeguard checked with the other guy, who shouted “I’M A DISTANCE PADDLER, I’LL JUST PADDLE TO WAIMEA IF IT GETS BAD!”
“YOU WOULD!” The lifeguard replied. They apparently knew each other.
I paddled my board onto the raft thing on the back of the jet ski and grabbed the rubber half-rings mounted to it. The lifeguard watched me do this until he was satisfied that I was sufficiently attached to his vehicle, then wasted no more time in absolutely pinning it back toward shore. We were in the air as much as we were in the water.
“WHEN I SAY LET GO, LET GO, OK?” The lifeguard yelled over his shoulder.
I expected him to slow down, but I guess you can let go of a jet ski at a pretty fast clip and you just flop around in the water a bit. Anyway that’s what I did because he didn’t slow down much, and when I surfaced I was only 30 feet from shore. This distance I panic-paddled in no time at all, and was on solid ground again at last.
I found Lia and from the look on her face, she’d been pretty worried. She gave me a big hug. Isla gave me a hug too, but it was her normal hug. She didn’t seem to have noticed that her dad was as close as he’d ever come to not coming back from surfing. I was very shaken up from the whole thing, and was still a bit in shock that evening. I definitely had that feeling of a near death experience where it’s hard to think about much else for a number of hours. I was dazed. Like I didn’t really know what to do next. I still feel that way a bit. Some things seem to matter a lot more, and some things seem to matter a lot less than before. It will probably wear off over time.
Here’s a surfer catching a big wave at Sunset Beach (where all this happened):