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Legendary big wave surfer Greg Noll contemplating closed-out Waimea Bay in 1969. Courtesy photo
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Big, dirty water

It’s only water, we’d tell ourselves, trying to get psyched up to paddle out on a big day.

What we didn’t realize then, when trying to minimize our fears, was that it was water, plus energy. At times we were facing enough energy to topple a cement pier, reduce a boulder to sand or snap our skinny limbs like matchsticks.

Such vast amounts of energy could have easily taken me out.

Obviously, I survived, wondering during subsequent flat spells what I was afraid of. Why didn’t I take off when a city block of water was about to unload on me? Well, if you’ve been there, you know why.

Big waves are scary. Or, as small wave specialist Miki Dora once said, “I don’t like being hurt, and big waves hurt me.”

I’m sure they also hurt legendary big wave rider Greg “Da Bull” Noll and wonderkid Kai Lenny of Maui. Those guys got worked more than anyone but continued to paddle back out.

At age 14 I wondered if I could hold the line with surfers like Greg Noll at Waimea. If you’re 14 now, you may ponder that too: Can I hold my own when the big north swells march in?

If you are not the traveling type, you probably wondered that until last week, when set waves topped 10 feet at some beaches.

Okay, Encinitas is not Waimea Bay, but if you were out scratching over the sets on the biggest days; if you were thirsty for the biggest sets; if you hoped the surf would jump to twice that size, you just might be a big-wave rider.

I don’t wonder what I would do — I know I’ll drop my board and run for my camera.

I never did like big surf. In Hawaii, I would often pass my friends who were paddling out, considered it big enough to enjoy, while I would be paddling in because for me, it was too big.

For a few surfers though, there is no too big. These one-percenters will take off no matter what — consequences be damned.

Brazilian big wave surfer Marcio Freire, who died surfing Portugal’s Nazaré early this January, was just such a surfer. My respects to the fallen Brazilian, but for chargers like him, that’s the price of admission.

According to Hawaiian-raised, big wave star Mark Foo, “If you want to take the ultimate risk, you must be prepared to pay the ultimate price.” In 1994, Foo paid that price while surfing Mavericks.

Seeing a 10-foot wall of water crease the horizon may make you feel you are about to die. But if you relax, keep your head and get beneath the whitewater, the wave won’t give you much more of pounding than a garden hose turned up full blast. Okay, more than that, but you get the idea.

The big problem with big surf is that it often arrives with rain, and rain means runoff, and runoff means filthy water, and filthy water can lead to severe illness.

By now most of you are doing your part to avoid making water pollution any worse. If you smoke, you don’t throw the butt onto the ground. You’re good about keeping your vehicle from leaking oil. You avoid spraying pesticides on the lawn since they end up in the ocean. Now, if you’re a builder, try not pave everything in sight.

Putting pavement over dirt creates a direct highway for pollutants to find their way into our favorite playground. It also eliminates porous ground, which is good at soaking up rainwater.

It looks like big surf will be sticking around for a while. Go ahead, test yourself in it, but be careful and considerate. Realize that throwing your board away in front of someone paddling out or wiping out in front of a group of surfers is a good way to hurt them and get your butt kicked.

Surfing is meant to be fun, but at times it can also provide a limitless arena for those who choose to take up the challenge of the next big wave.

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