THE DOZEN OR SO SURFERS on big-wave boards floating nearby no doubt concluded that I was about to face the classic Hawaiian horror story—caught inside and under-gunned at Sunset Beach.
A set of undulating blue-green swells approached, and I nervously paddled for the first-ever Sunset wave. The gathering peak was maybe double overhead. Such a powerful wave stressed the upper limits of my confidence and ability.
Both arms dug hard, but the board seemed too slow. Or maybe there was a heartbeat or two of hesitation. Either way, I missed the wave.
The board slid back as the wave passed, feathering a pepper of spray against the offshore trades funneling from the mountains.
I turned, panting and puffing and hyperventilating, to face the open ocean. My instant reaction was—I’m a dead man!
The next wave looked twice as big. The peak was 10 or 12 feet “Island Scale,” which meant it had an 18- or 20-foot face (the macho Island Scale is notorious for seriously downplaying wave size).
The sparkling monster turned turquoise, crackling with energy as it stood up on the gray-green bottom of reef. The huge face went concave as spray roared from the crest. I was terrified, trapped squarely in the impact zone of a triple-overhead, certified national disaster.
On Oahu’s fabled North Shore, Pipeline might be hollower and Waimea might be bigger, but a thick peak pushing across the vast Sunset reef has been acknowledged by many world-class surfers as one of the heaviest and most challenging waves in the world.
The thick lip heaved forward, unloading almost in slow motion directly ahead. I went into a frantic survival mode, “turning turtle” by flipping the board and wrapping legs and arms in a death grip.
The explosion of mighty Sunset was nuclear. The earth slipped its axis as I was tossed over, around, up and down. All the while I was hurtled toward the beach by the maelstrom of whitewater. The wave finally abated, and I surfaced, gasping and choking amid a cloud of hissing foam bubbles. I was still hugging the board.
Ken Bradshaw, a legitimate Big Name on the North Shore, learned to surf in Texas. He paddled briskly over. “Doggett! I can’t believe you rolled that wave!”
“I was too scared to let go!”
“You don’t belong out here! Now, dive for the bottom and let your leash take the board! Here comes the next one.”
We dove. The water over the reef was maybe 12 or 14 feet deep. A broken wave rumbled overhead, churning with billows of turbulence, and I was dragged farther inshore by the tethered board.
I climbed hand over hand up the 10-foot big-wave leash, Bradshaw was right there. “Good,” he said. “Stay loose. Now dive again.”
We ducked several more waves then the set was done. We had been pushed all the way to the inside shelf known as Val’s Reef. I was utterly spent.
“Sit here and regroup,” Bradshaw barked, wheeling his board to paddle back out. “Then catch one of these reforms to go in on. I’ll see you later on the beach.”
I did, in fact, catch a “three-foot” wave at Val’s and rode the head-high wall to the salvation of the sand. But that’s not exactly real Sunset.
That day, which occurred about 30 years ago, enforced several important survival lessons. These are rules that can have universal application to all outdoor enthusiasts on open beachfronts.
First, respect what’s over the horizon. The swell that day at Sunset was coming up, with a large west swell filling in behind a medium northwest swell. I paddled out anyway, hoping to pick up a smaller wave or two, and got caught out of position by one of the first of the big west-swell sets.
The same lack of judgment applies to, say—the guys in an open boat brashly running offshore without heeding the warnings of an incoming line of storms. Sitting in an 18-foot center console 30 miles off Freeport is not where you want to be when the sky goes black and the Gulf turns upside down.
When recreating in the surf, if the bottom disappears stay in the whitewater. Calm water looks inviting on a rough day. However, the placid surface almost always marks a drop-off or channel, and the trench usually carries dangerous currents funneling away from safety.
The breaking rows of whitewater define the shallower bottom, and the waves are moving inexorably to the beach—exactly where you want to go. They always have and they always will. Don’t fight that energy—utilize it.
Know your limitations, and understand that all water sports can take you over the edge. Under the wrong circumstances, a two-foot wave can be as dangerous as 20-footer. Do not be tempted to venture into a situation where you are not confident you can get back to shore.
The inexperienced swimmer should be especially cautious; the non-swimmer has no business even being out there. Be realistic in your abilities.
Finally, if things go wrong and the outlook starts getting sketchy, try not to panic. That’s easy to say, sometimes hard to do.
Choking and flailing can drag down even a veteran swimmer. The calming guidance of Bradshaw helped me handle that long-ago pummeling, but a “Bradshaw” might not always be available. Strive to stay within yourself and take it smooth and steady.
Surfing in Hawaii or wade fishing in Texas, or any soggy activity in between, your life can totally depend on keeping a firm rein on panic.
Once you lose secure footing, you have no free passes and no time outs. Gold credit cards count for absolutely nothing. Being able to safely walk away from any outdoor adventure is the most important thing.
Email Joe Doggett at [email protected]