I’m in the process of writing a book. I’ve been thinking about it for years, and finally started typing out the words, one story at a time. It’s fiction. Names, timing, and some details have been changed to protect the innocent (and not so innocent), but overall it is a relatively true account of the stories that have made me the person I am today.
In order to practice getting those stories out there, I figured I’d post a couple on this blog. Below you will find the story of my first tow-in session in Tahiti. From the photo shot by Jim Russi that became a two page spread in Surfer magazine and poster as an advertisement for my then sponsor OP, you can see that the story is true. Although, to make it fiction I have changed the names of the other characters. Comments welcome.
This morning’s orange soda feels like a bad idea and the water bottle at my lips isn’t soothing the boat bumping or my excessive internal carbonation. I’m trying to absorb the shock with my legs, ten tan toes spread wide on the white fiberglass floor. Elbows on knees, noting the scrapes and scuffs from the reef that pulled skin from my shins. Not as bad as Jaqui at least. We’re all wearing headphones. Each of us plugged into our own soundtrack for this ride through the most beautiful water I’ve ever seen. It’s ‘golden hour’ and John’s freaking that we’re missing it. The sun is adding gold to the green of the dramatic mountains behind us, and I don’t really want this ride to end.
The wind in my face warms as the boat slows and gives us a first look. There’s a big wave breaking fast. Without any reference, it’s hard to judge size, but it’s easily bigger than any other wave I’ve ever considered surfing. Teva is driving the ski with Kelia sitting behind him. They’ve been watching it for a while already. They see us and jet over. I’m trying to read her face but she’s already waxing her board. Chris asks if she wants to wear the lifevest, just in case, but she declines. John has already discouraged it. “Won’t look as good in the photos,” he said. I still haven’t made up my mind.
The biggest wave I’ve ever seen is exploding in front of us, sending an invisible wall of energy straight through me. I can do this. I’m scared, but I can do this. Kelia is up on her feet now, holding the rope. They’re circling outside, disappearing from our view as a wave stands up and folds over unto itself, reappearing, still circling, then disappearing again. A blue wave detonates into white. There’s another blue lump behind it and their circles have stopped. The ski is moving fast now from left to right. Kelia is about 15ft behind, holding the rope as the wave grows. It’s still a lump but it’s starting to feather at the top and she lets go of the rope, takes a quick pump for speed, leans down with her back to wave, looking ahead, right hand to outside rail, left arm straight in front as if reaching for an invisible line that will pull her through to safety. The wave starts to fold over her, I hear the rapid-fire clicking of John’s shutter, feel the collective intake of breath of Jaqui, Megan, and myself. The wave is pitching and she’s leaning forward, looking for more speed, I can’t quite see her face, but in slow motion I think I see her eyes, big, and then she’s gone. The wave turns white and there’s another behind it. We’re on our feet now, looking for a head to pop up through the soupy whiteness as the second wave detonates. Megan points and the ski darts in, but can’t get to her. We see her take a breath and her head go below just as an avalanche of saltwater steamrolls through. There’s another wave on her head before Teva picks her up. She climbs into the boat still coughing up water, big eyed, red faced, visibly shaking, she has just started telling the story in short bursts between breaths when someone says it’s my turn. I look at Jaqui and Megan and neither are volunteering. Chris asks if I want the vest and I don’t even think twice. Yes. I grab it and my 6’4”, attach the leash to my ankle, and step from the safety of the boat to the back of the ski. We ride to the outside during a lull and I tell Teva firmly, “I want a small one first”. He laughs as I jump off into the water and tells me to “get ready!”
I sink the board with my hands, balance on my feet while holding the handle of the rope as it goes taught and pulls me to a stand. We circle a few times, let a few lumps pass, and I’m trying not to think. I can do this. He turns back, says, “ok, this one,” and starts pulling faster. I see the lump and smile, maybe. It’s not that big. It’s ok. I can do this. The lump is getting steeper, it starts to break behind me, but ahead it’s a gentle blue slope, a sunny safe bunny hill. I let go of the rope and drop down easily, I can feel the power on my back but I’m safe. It drops me in the channel and there are cheers from the boat. I did it! A rush of energy tingles through me, and now I really want it. I want another one.
I grab the rope and Teva pulls me to the outside. We choose another lump and I let go a little earlier this time. The adrenaline is better than any I’ve had before. I’m in the channel again safely and both arms are up in the air as I yell at the sky. I want another. This time at the bottom, I look over my shoulder at the gaping hole behind me, a vortex of energy. It’s perfectly open. I want to be closer to that. And I don’t need this life vest. I haven’t fallen. I don’t want to be the only one wearing the stupid vest. I take it off and throw it into the boat. John smiles and gives me a thumbs up. The girls nod encouragement.
We head back outside and I tell Teva I want to get barreled. He says I need to let go of the rope a little earlier, do a deeper turn at the bottom to slow down, then pull up into it. Ok. I can do this. I can do this. There’s a lull and I sit back down on my board. It’s peaceful through my jittery excitement. The water is deep blue and calm. The mountains are a gorgeous lively green. The energy infuses me. I feel strong. Alive. I can do anything. I can definitely do this. This is my day. I’m about to get the wave of my life. There are photographers on the boat, my heroes watching. And Teva looks back and says, “get ready”.
I’m on my feet. We make a circle and I see the lump. It looks good. We’re in position, I’ve got plenty of speed and as the lump starts growing I let go a little earlier. The wave is steeper from back here but I get to the bottom and stall a little, draw out the turn, then point back up slightly, I bend my knees and lean forward into a crouch as the wave starts to fold. I’m connected to the blue on one side and a crystal clear blanket of water is up over my head, then falling onto the other side, until I can see the boat framed by an almond-shaped porthole. It’s the most amazing view I’ve ever had. A fantasy realized. Perfection. And then the hole closes and I’m underwater.
I pop right up and the ski picks me up immediately. No problem. I’m safe. That wasn’t bad at all. I can do this. I want another one. I want to make it. I need to see that view again! I tell this to Teva. He says the smaller ones are pinching. I need a bigger one if I want to make it. “Just do the same thing you just did, that was perfect,” he tells me, “we’ll wait for a bigger one now.” Ok, I can do this. I’m imagining the photos, the video, the high fives. I’m about to get spit out of the biggest tube I’ve ever seen in real life. I’m about to get a wave I’ve never even dreamed of. Teva is sitting side-saddle on the ski, relaxed. He’s lighting a joint. I can smell the sweet smoke and I wonder why he’s doing that now. And then suddenly, joint between lips, he turns and grabs the handles, says, “ok, get ready.”
I’m on my feet again and I’m looking at the lump approaching. Not just one this time, but four or five in a row. We start to circle and I figure we’re gonna wait for one of the last ones but he’s already turning and starting to pull in a straight line. He looks back and yells, “this one, go!” I’m looking at the lumps approaching. So much energy stacking, inevitably approaching. If I don’t make this one, I’m taking the rest on the head. If I don’t make it, it’s not going to be as easy. If I don’t make it….
I let go and drop down. It’s bigger than any of the ones before and I’m further back. I’m doing the same thing I did last time but this one isn’t the same. I get to the bottom, slow down a little, then pull back up and the whole ocean is bottoming out, rearing up, folding over me. The entire Pacific Ocean is swallowing me whole. I see the boat again in front of me, but it’s too far away. The wave is jacking and I’m inside the barrel of my life, but there seems to be a bend in the wall in front of me. If I don’t make it…. I panic. I freeze. I’m not thinking. A misguided instinct pushes me off my board and into the wave face. For a split second I’m motionless in soothing warm water. It’s peaceful. It’s quiet. I unreasonably think I’m safe. Then I’m being lifted up slightly, moving laterally maybe, and then falling, falling, falling. Falling for a really long time. Falling long enough to actually think, “wow, I’m still falling!”
I don’t remember the impact. I do remember feeling strangely calm. I was underwater, deep, spinning, but strangely relaxed. I wasn’t sure which way was up, but felt for my leash and then pulled myself along it, the buoyancy of my surfboard leading me up towards the surface. I broke through the foam and took a big breath, which somehow totally ended the relaxation. Maybe it wasn’t the breath but the next, bigger wave, breaking right in front of me. I looked for the ski. It was right there in the channel but that wave was surely on a path to get to me first. Teva yelled at me, “take off your leash and dive!” But, my leash was what brought me to the surface on the last one. I ignored his advice and dove. It hit me suddenly and spun me upside down, sideways, and in ways I can’t recall. I tried to relax, tried not to fight it. When the turbulence slowed I grabbed for my leash and climbed it to the surface again. By this time I was pushed a litter closer to the channel but there was another wave coming, Teva yelled again and this time I listened. I reached down, un-strapped my ankle and dove. When I came up, the ski was right there. He pulled me up behind him and I wrapped my arms around his broad back, shaking. “That was a good one huh? What happened?” he asked, laughing. We picked up my board and he dropped me in the boat.