Surf Story

Yeah, yeah, I know. This blog’s about medicine stuff. Usually. But hey, it’s a blog. The whole point is to write about stuff you like, right? Other than medicine, I love books and most sports. Of all sports, I love surfing more than any of them. So, if you can stand to regularly read this blog…you’re gonna get lots of medicine, with the occasional odd topic – like surfing – thrown in. So here you go:


surf.jpgIn the sport of surfing, wave size is much less important than wave shape. Even an average surfer can ride waves up to twice his size (termed “double-overhead”) without much problem if the wave is shaped perfectly.

But perfect waves are rarely found anywhere but in surf magazines. The reality is that finding that kind of shape is a long process. It frequently involves terrifying moments of thinking the perfect shape has been found, only to realize the error once trapped in the jaws of an ill-shaped beast.

The best-shaped waves look like a cone laying sideways on the water. One end of the cone is a tube, but the other end is completely open – waiting its turn to become a “barrel” as it follows the rest of the wave. The contours of the sea-floor, coupled with the direction of energy in the water are largely responsible for making these perfect shapes. With so many variables, each wave is different and you can’t predict what you’ll get.

One early morning I went to surf with my two buddies Matt and Greg – on a day that by all predictions would see some huge waves (we tracked all the detailed ocean and weather info thru the Scripps Institute in San Diego). We arrived before dawn; parked on a cliff out of view of the ocean.

It was so cold you could see your breath, and I wimped out – deciding to change into my wetsuit while still in the car. My suit was still wet and cold from the previous evening (a source of pride for surfers – it means they surf a lot), so the warmth of the car was enticing. But I watched my braver, tougher, cooler, more god-like friends dress faster under the street light. By the time I was pulling on my booties, they had already slipped away into the darkness. The fact that they took off so fast was a sure sign that the predicted swell had hit sometime during the night. They probably could hear the surf crashing from where we were parked. When there’s swell – no surfer waits for anyone.

When I got out of the car, I felt the vibration of an exploding wave reverberate through the pavement of the street and into my rubber booties. This day was going to be huge! I shoulda dressed outside, I thought. The spot we’d picked was called “Jelly Bowl” (no idea why), and I had never felt a crashing wave from that break all the way out in the street.

But when I arrived at the cliff overlooking the break – I was shocked. The waves were enormous. Rolling in faster and further off-shore than anything I’d ever seen in this area of Santa Barbara, they slammed back into the water with a boom that was deafening. Even after the wave collapsed, it formed a wall of white-water that was easily 10 feet high.

Matt was already paddling out into it. My other friend, Greg, was just wading in. I was planted on the cliff, wondering how my friends would fare. Today, the size coupled with a horrible shape made things dangerous. I’m not sure if Matt had thought much about what he was doing before he headed for the outer break.

Greg, a strong swimmer, never made it past the whitewater. Due to the extreme swell direction, coming in from a sharp northern angle, he got swept south along the shore, about 100 yards out. Every time he paddled directly away from the shore, he’d move a few feet, and then be met with a wall of whitewater that pushed him under and swept him further down the beach. I didn’t see him again for over 30 minutes – and when he did show up…he was walking.

My attention was focused on Matt. In a slight lull, he had managed to make it past the walls of whitewater, and was actually pushing out past the “impact zone”. This zone is the worst place to be. It is where the lip of the wave that has been gradually building finally flips over and crashes back into the ocean. Getting caught in the impact zone on a big day will carry a surfer so deep into the water that it gets dark. During that time, there is no way to know where “up” is, and no way to decide which direction to swim for the surface. Often the hapless surfer is rolled along an ocean floor that is littered with coral or rocks or hopefully sand, for extended amounts of time – sometimes for over 2 minutes (try holding your breath for that long while at rest…it ain’t easy). Many people caught in the impact zone have blown out eardrums, shattered kneecaps and worse.

Matt was paddling frantically out to sea, hoping to avoid just such a fate. His goal was to find a good take-off spot to ride one of these monsters, if one existed. By that time, he had probably realized that the waves were too big and to misshapen to really ride. But paddling out in this type of surf is a major commitment. Once you wander into the impact zone, it is very hard to get out. As incoming waves build, they suck the water away from the shore, effectively creating a short-lived current moving directly away from land. Any surfer who makes it past the whitewater, must continue seaward past the impact zone – the outward currents on a big day make it almost impossible to paddle back into shore. At that point, they either need to ride some sort of wave in, or be dragged in underwater.

Matt thought he had made it past the impact zone, because most of the waves seemed to be breaking closer to shore, and he quit paddling. Now he just needed one good-shaped wave that would take him far enough into shore that he could quickly paddle to the sand before the wave behind it caught him.

I could barely see him – at least 300 meters off shore – a black wetsuit surrounded by a black, roiling sea. The only noticable thing was the tiny white tip of his surfboard sticking out of the water, the single plaintive beacon that gave away his whereabouts.

The problem was that the impact zone is a moveable location. The zone moves further out to sea with bigger waves, because they crash further out. Deciding where to sit for a wave is an exercise in probability. And Matt had underestimated.

From the cliff I could see a dark line forming further out than any of the other ones had – it was the beginning of the largest wave so far. Matt was still unable to see it because it was too dark and too far out. I was screaming at him from the cliff “Paddle out! Paddle out!” The sky was just turning a shade lighter than black. Too slowly, he turned his head and saw me on the shore. Knowing that only two things make people scream at surfers from shore – sharks and huge waves – Matt did the only thing he could…he turned his board and paddled frantically seaward.

At some point, Matt saw the wave bearing down on him. The goal was to make it over the top of the wave before the lip started its downward motion. As long as the wave was still building, he could theoretically get over it before it carried him with it down to the sea floor.

I watched painfully as Matt paddled. The wave was coming in so much faster than he was moving out. By now, he was paddling up the incline of the wave. At any moment it was going to break, and carry him with it. He was a tiny black spot, poised by this point in a completely vertical position on the face of the wave. Still he paddled. And I knew he wasn’t going to make it. The lip of the wave was forming, still a good 6 feet above him.

And then he pulled a “low-yield” maneuver – he pushed the tip of his board into the face of the wave, and attempted to swim through it, hopefully emerging through the back side. This move is tricky, because the surfer is basically testing the strength of the wave. He has entered directly into the strongest part of the water, and if there’s too much force inside he’ll never make it out. But it was a good idea on Matt’s part, because he would have been toast the other way. It was a last-ditch effort. All I saw before the wave came crashing down was a white spot – like a tiny magnolia flower stuck in the center of an endless black velvet curtain.

And I never saw Matt again.

Nah. He came back. But it would’ve been a cool story to say that. In truth, he made a good choice. Because it was so dark out, I didn’t see him for almost 5 minutes, and was pretty worried that he had “gone over the falls”. But eventually I saw him catch a smaller wave, and ride it through the impact zone, past the white water and into shore.

In the end, I turned out to the loser. I hadn’t gone out at all. I’d sat and worried on the beach. Although unspoken between us, the sentiment was evident. No true surfer does that. A hundred other times, we’d been out in tricky surf, and each of us had tales of danger and near-misses to tell afterward. This time, only the 2 of them did. I could only marvel at their exploits – like a soccer-mom or a T-ball coach.

It was the last time I put my wetsuit on in the car.

5 thoughts on “Surf Story

  1. I used to live in a place close to the Pacific Ocean and I could frequently see a lot of surfers who were practicing hard.
    From your story, I knew how hard it is to ride on really good wave.


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