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.

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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