I recently surfed some of the biggest waves I’ve ever surfed in my life at Honolua Bay, Maui. The deep, thick, and relentless North swells were exploding in clear blue aqua, and the local talent was on it. Sagoi! (Japanese for amazing.)
Driving along the coast from Kihei to Lahaina, I could see line after line stacked across the horizon. I made a brief stop at D.T. Flemming Beach Park. There was nobody out. The lifeguards called it 15′ on the biggest sets. The shore break was posted at 6′-10′ plus. It looked deceptively smaller than that to me.
Soon, I arrived at Honolua Bay. There were already brand new boards with broken backs scattered across the shoreline at the bottom of the cliff. It was huge! I didn’t go out.
Honolua Bay. Outside Point.
I watched it for a full day, and partly into the next. Once again, the near perfect surf looked deceptively smaller than it was, as I stood high above the ocean from the safety of the cliff. I finally made the decision to paddle out.
It was cleaner than the day before, but just as big, if not bigger, and it was just as heavy. The tide was low and coming in. My body was twitchin’. I felt sick in my guts. I tried to convince myself that I could do this. That I had been doing this for 40 years. I was also telling myself that I didn’t have to do this. “You’ve got nothing to prove.” I was making excuses, thinking about my neck injury, and my right shoulder injury that had about 30 percent strength, when I’m in great shape. I kept telling myself that I didn’t have enough sleep. Not enough food. I was too old. Etc. Etc. I then remembered what Greg Noll said when he was sitting alone outside at Makaha, on a huge epic day that remains in infamy, “I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if I let this opportunity pass me by.”
Reluctantly, I waxed up and made my way down the steep cliff with some real concerns. I’ve been down that particular cliff before as a photographer, but I was using both hands to do so. Now, I was carrying a board and it wasn’t easy. Every step was methodic. Any mistake and not only would my board be destroyed, but probably a part of my body as well. Relieved, I made my way down the cliff without much incident. From that perspective the waves were obviously much larger, as I stood on the shore. I didn’t want to psyche myself out any longer, so I quickly made my way to the water’s edge. A wall of whitewater made its way to the shore and I jumped in.
I began paddling toward the deep blue sea. It was super shallow and the waves at Keiki’s Bowl were super hollow, fast and relentless. I was rapidly being pulled left toward The Cave, a place nobody wanted to be when it was this big. I was also simultaneously being pulled out toward the incoming sets. At about 50 yards, I thought I was well beyond the shallow ragged sea floor, but as I was paddling toward the first oncoming wave, my fins began to rake across the bottom and then the board began clunk, clunk, clunking, as it hit submerged lava again and again. It seemed like I was skipping along the bottom. That’s when I realized, I was in water that was less than a foot deep with a thick wall moving toward the shore. Somehow, I managed to scramble over to the shoulder and up the face without being pitched back, over the falls and seriously injured.
Usually, nobody wants their board to scrape along a rocky bottom, but I have to admit, if not for the scraping sound jarring me into a surrealistic reality, I would not have noticed how shallow it was, because my mind and sight was set on the looming horizon. I would’ve definitely tried to have duck dived through that first wave, which was easily a solid and thick 6′ wall.
Ironically, I made it outside with little effort. I sat on the shoulder and watched massive waves explode, one after another. I knew the swell was still coming up and wondered when a huge set was going to sneak its way in, and clean us all up.
Some guys, mostly kids were taking gut-wrenching drops, one after another. Boulders were making a huge rumbling, and sucking sound along the shore. Every wave was boom, booming, and going crack!
Honolua Bay. Maui, Hawaii.
I felt I was way out of my element and then I saw this little kid, maybe 10, or 12-years-old drop in on a holy macker, with quite a bit of ease. It was then that I realized that most rides were being taken by young kids or groms on boogie boards.
I waited for two clean up sets to see where the heaviest stuff was dumping. I was also checking the vibe. I look stereotypical all “American” with my red hair, white skin and blue eyes compared to the very tan locals, mostly with jet-black hair. I definitely stood out. But, I have to admit, Maui has some of the nicest guys I have ever met in a line-up. Suddenly, one local who had just paddled out said, “Man, I didn’t know it was this thick. This is out of my league. I’m going in.” He did! That didn’t help the fear factor element!
When I’m surfing, I don’t mind tellin’ guys where I’m from. I grew up in Miami, Florida, in a sport fishing family, but I currently live in Japan. On that day, there seemed to be this unspoken, collective feeling that, if you paddled out in that thick mass, you weren’t going to get beef from anyone. If you managed to get out there, and played by the unwritten rules of surfing, you deserved to be there.
Suddenly, the outside, deep feathering began to make itself known. The offshore wind was stacking ’em up, and here was another heapin’ helpin’ for those that dared to help themselves. At this point, everybody had that look of semi-fear on their faces and it was every man for themselves. The outside set began to march in. In row after row! And no doubt everybody was wondering how big it was going to be, when it revealed itself.
I felt insignificant as I paddled toward the horizon, hoping that I would make it over the roller coaster and wondering how much of a beating I was going to take if I didn’t. Once again, I reminded myself that I’ve been doing this for a long time. But, somehow that didn’t help. It seemed that I was in good position. I paddled toward a peak that definitely looked makeable (If one chose wisely.) I didn’t get it. That wave raced right past me. A quick look out the back, and another one was well on its way. Looking down from another blue shifting mountain, I saw boards, tombstoning on the inside, obviously those guys had been too far inside, or had gotten swallowed up, attempting to drop in. I counted 18, 19, 20, 21, 22 seconds and finally heads popping up for much needed air. Nobody was ragging or mocking, everybody was in one accord and thinking the same thought. Heavy! And it wasn’t over. Those guys would have to deal with the fact that they were in the impact zone, and being ushered toward The Cave. That plight was even worse than the tombstoning and the beating they had just endured. Especially, when it was already feathering outside. Again! And I, way outside, didn’t feel like I was out of harms way!
Rising And Shining. An unknown surfer catches a big one at Honolua Bay, Maui.
I finally got in position for a wave that nobody else was in position for, and that nobody was in a position to accidentally drop in on me. (And on that day, despite what we’ve all heard about “localism”, nobody would drop in on another guy on purpose. There just aren’t that many surfers that are truly that irrational.)
You knew when one of those blue giants was yours, because it shaped itself, and shifted toward you, like the wall was inviting you in, daring you to go for it, and to give it your best shot. Still, I had to paddle so much harder, than ever before, and be so much further down the face, before attempting to stand up on a wave like that. The offshore trade winds held it up, making it even more towering and dynamic. I began to move quickly and then downward. It was “raining” all around me. Then…
The long drop. The turn. The wall. Keiki’s Bowl right ahead, and already feathering. The pitch. The barrel, and over the top and out the back. The release. That sickening feeling dissipated. The release! I felt like I could take on the world! I paddled back out, hoping hard not to see that row of feathering blue mountains rolling toward shore, until I got back outside, and far from the impact zone. What agony, rush, adrenaline, fear, fear control, feat, elation, release and fear and fear control again. Elation! And again. And again. Big blue water junkies!
In actuality, it wasn’t the wave that I had conquered. It was my mind! It kept telling me that I was in way over my head. Yes, clearly the waves were way over my head. But, my mind also kept telling me that I was too old and too broken to handle it. In reality, the ocean’s power, and the unfamiliar environment, compared to my mind’s deception, and body, which I had lived with for 52 years, was easier to dominate and control. I didn’t get pounded at all.
It was back out again! And those feathering towers lined across the horizon. A clean up set was on its way, and my mind was playing tricks again. I thought I had been far enough out to prevent myself from getting a beat down. But I was not in the right position. How sick I felt when I just barely managed to paddle over the biggest wave I have ever seen, only to find behind it, the biggest wave I have ever seen! And it was already shaping itself and acting like it was going to pitch a mere few yards in front of me. Somehow, it faded for a split second, but reshaped quickly. It was charging right toward me, like it had a mind of its own, and was about to repay me for the debt I owed it, for riding its little sister just a few short minutes earlier.
I clawed at the water in an attempt to make it over the peak as it began to pitch. I was moving with greater speed than what I could have mustered up myself. The speed wasn’t coming from my paddling, and my renewed adrenaline surge. The wave was pulling all the water in front of it up the face at a rapid pace, and me along with it!
I was almost at the top when it pitched a clear, fat lip that was already leaving a torrential downpour from the offshore wind. That mass of water, towered right over the top of me, and jutted straight up and out. I certainly knew I was about to be snapped like a twig, and tossed shoreward in a broken heap, from one fell swoop. I didn’t have to wait long. That lip slammed on my back with the most force I have ever felt from a wave, and I had already been up most of its face when it did. What an amazingly heavy weight I felt from that lip as it crushed me. But, it didn’t grab me and launch me backwards, like some insignificant piece of debris that had been helplessly floating along. Instead, like a giant hand, it pushed me downward toward the ocean floor, and the speed of the surge ushered me through the thick wall and out the back. Thank you Mother Ocean!
Flemming Beach. Huge sunrise shore break at 10′ plus.
Everybody that was inside of me, that wasn’t along the shoulder, was swallowed up. Boom! Crack! Rumble. Tombstones. 18, 19, 20… After that, I was too far out, and out of position for any of the remaining waves that rolled in during that set. I felt good! I jumped off my board, opened my eyes, and swam deep under the water toward the ocean floor. I wanted to see how deep it was. It must have been 50′-60′ deep, or deeper, as I could not make out a bottom at all, even though the water was crystal clear.
It began to rain, and the sun was going down rapidly. I knew I had overstayed my welcome. I wasn’t familiar with the shoreline or the cliffs, and I thought about how slippery it was going down the cliff when it was dry and sunny. Now, it was wet, foggy and getting dark fast! And it continued to rain. Respect the Aina! This means more than being eco-minded. It also means, the land holds many powers and secrets, and for those that are not familiar with a particular environment – know your limitations.
One-by-one, guys were disappearing from the surf and heading up the cliff. It was apparent they were not taking the route that I had coming to the shore. I was wondering how badly I had erred? One of the guys that was out that evening told me he had been playing baseball lately and had not been doing that much surfing. He talked about how he was out of shape, and mentioned that he was trying to catch the right wave to get in. He said, most guys drop in and turn sharp toward the left, and head in on the left side of the cliff because it was much easier to ascend. He said he never took the right side, (the side I had taken, and where I had left my sandals) because it was too difficult and too dangerous to get back up. Especially, when it rained! Almost everybody was heading in the way he suggested. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take that (good) advice and headed in toward the right side of the cliff.
I didn’t catch another wave. Not that I didn’t try. I wanted to catch one, and then belly it on in to the shore. Mistake! A set came in, but I was able to maneuver my way a bit further and down the line. I got hammered by a smaller wave that was pitching on the inside. A mere double overhead! I reminded myself that I was in very shallow water, but before long, I was on the slippery shoreline and out of the ocean. I looked back and watched a guy in position where I thought I could have caught one last wave. He was on the inside and racing toward Keiki’s Bowl. He was in the slot and the bowl began to form and the wave pitched. He disappeared for a moment and I smiled. Way overhead!
The most dangerous part of that evening didn’t turn out to be the huge waves. It was getting back up that steep cliff. In the rain, and in the dark! That jagged and steep cliff was extremely more difficult to ascend now that it was wet. There was also half a board near the bottom of the cliff that I needed to climb. To get up, I had to hold on to my wet board in one hand, and with my other hand, the one attached to my weak right shoulder, I had to maneuver my way up and along the cliff. One mistake, and I was certainly in for a serious injury, and a destroyed board as well. Those cliffs aren’t like the ones I often climbed at Torrey Pines, when I lived in Del Mar.
One surfer forgot his keys and leaped down the cliff like one of those black goats at Los Perouse Bay. He asked me if he could carry my board up for me. I said, “No, but thanks.” I said, “I got myself down there, I have to be the one to get myself back up.” Without another word, he rapidly disappeared up the cliff, and I was left alone to figure out how I was going to get up that cliff. It was now completely dark. Darn it! With great effort, I finally made it to the top, but I was covered in mud! There wasn’t another vehicle remaining at the bay. I was glad I hadn’t injured myself. Who would have known?
Quadruple Overhead. Honolua Bay, Maui.
I wiped off as much of the mud as I could, and put on my sandals. I stuck the board in the car, and looked out, one last time at the sets that kept rolling in. I jumped in, and headed back toward Kihei!
I got back tired, sore, and exhausted. But, I was smiling and realized I had overcome the weakness, we, as people so often lean toward, the weakness of the mind and the limitation of our body. Especially, at over the half-century mark. But yesterday, I felt like a giant. And if I wasn’t… I definitely had ridden one.
Now, I want more of that big, deep, beautiful blue. How can I surf four foot ever again?