Wax On, Wax Off: Remembering the Big Swell

Friday, 24 July 2009, Crystal Cove State Park

Low clouds hang like a blanket. It's stormy and choppy out, but warm. The wind smells rainy and salty, thick and equatorial. It carries the memories of other swells from when you were young. It reminds you that you're standing at the very edge of western civilization, that in your soul you are a sun-and-wind-burnt, half-crazed refugee from America, standing on a rock that sticks out at the edge where the whole continental dirt mass falls into the sea.

You jog into the knee-deep surge of foam and kelp and rolling boulders on the shore. You stub your toes on some rocks and leap over a rushing pile of whitewater, pulling your board to your belly, arms paddling before you even hit the water. The water is warm. It feels comfortable on your bare skin. You paddle faster, harder than normal, but controlled. The adrenaline makes your frantic movements precise and methodical.

You waited for the set to end before you paddled out, but the intervals are less than twenty seconds. You can't get outside before the next one comes. There's no way. Not enough time. You paddle, paddle anyway with big methodical strokes, shaking off the heavy branches of kelp that cling to your arms. The foamy mass of swirling whitewash is so filled with air and debris that you're not floating well. You're a foot underwater, moving slow while you work your way to the outside. You furrow your brow at the place, just a few yards away now, where the dirty, churning pit turns into calmer black water. You fight through the searing burn in your shoulders, and a few powerful strokes propel you out of the pit and into the deep, dark waters offshore.

But it's not enough. Already the horizon wrinkles with a row of black, greasy swells, each one bigger than the one in front of it. The last set, the one you watched from shore, was not this big. Earlier today people told stories of eight-to-ten-footers. This was a lot heavier, maybe fifteen or more. At least triple overhead. The set waves are here, and you're right in the impact zone. Nowhere to go. Every muscle tightens with rage and adrenaline and the will to live. Your heart pounds hard enough to feel in it your face. You push your board underwater. Just before you go under, you glance to your right, where your buddy smiles wickedly and ditches his board. As your head slips underwater you laugh a crazy, death-defying laugh at the thrill and sheer danger of what's about to happen. And you push down, down as deep as you can go. But your board is ripped from your hands by the swirl, and for a split second you feel the sting of lumps of wax cutting into the flesh under your thumbnails. All light and direction is lost. All your limbs thrash and beat against each other. You try to grab your ankle and find the leash, but you can't. Out of air, you swim for the surface. But it's not the surface. You bang your head on a rock, turn around, push off hard with both feet. You ascend for what seems like twenty feet and finally break the surface, ready to gulp in life-giving oxygen, but before you can open your mouth, the next wave, even bigger, presses you back into chaos. You find the rocks again. You realize your leash has snapped. No board. No more air. You push off. You break the surface, seeing black and white spots. But you take three full breaths before going under again, and you know you'll live through the other eighteen waves of this set. You smile and swim, swim, swim through the biggest waves you've seen in years...no board, just a half-naked, half-drowned, half-crazed human being looking for something out there in the sea...

This is one of hundreds of stories from the big swell that hit out shores last week. Surfline has posted some awe-inspiring photo series that really capture the essence of the swell in a beautiful way--churning hurricanal rip tides, lines of rolling monsters stretching to the horizon, crowds of spectators huddling. Check out these truly awesome photo sets at Surfline.com. And PLEASE feel free to comment here at Wax On, Wax Off. Share your stories from the big swell. It's the biggest one we've had in a long time. Certainly worth dwelling on.


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