I want to hear YOUR stories! Share in the comments.
Yesterday, a Colombian man yelled threats at me at Hookipa– my home beach. The only reason: We have different understandings about who has priority on a wave. My understanding is one formed by Hawaiian surf culture. I tried talking with him, but he only wanted to shout, so I unfortunately don’t know where his understanding comes from. (To be perfectly frank, I don’t understand the threats either. Do I need to look out for car bombs? Have I accidentally placed myself in the path of a Colombian drug gang?). No punches were thrown; at least some civility prevailed.
This experience was extremely unsettling for me. Not unsettling because it happened but because it happened somewhere that is a home for me. I’ve come to Hookipa since I was born. I am filled with a comforting wave of familiarity and happiness when I see the rocks, sand, and people there. Shouts and threats from a Colombian break all that.
“Rules” on the water rely on a foundation of mutual understanding from the members of the surf community at a beach. Therefore, the rules change depending on the beach. I don’t expect to know the priorities at a beach in Australia.
And the rules change over time. At Hookipa in the late 80s and early 90s for example, if you weren’t one of the one of the original crew or from Hawaii or really really good, you basically couldn’t sail there. I’ve heard stories from the early 90s of certain famous Hawaiian pro windsurfers beating up other pro sailors, who weren’t from Hawaii, in the shorebreak. The offense? Sailing at Hookipa.
Now days, the pecking order is much more welcoming. Not only are other pros welcome but tourists are welcome too.
My interest today, however, is much larger than the tiny topic that is Hookipa priorities. I want to hear YOUR stories. What are the rules on your waves? Are there fights? Tell me stories about the fights. What is the most outrageous thing you’ve seen or heard of that has happened because of a conflict about waves?
At some point soon, I will write an expose on the topic. But first! I can’t wait to hear your stories.
Traveling with board-bags sucks. Every step is a hassle—it’s basically like traveling with a set of living room furniture. Getting from point A to point B requires negotiation skills and a comfort with the absurd. The lessons learned apply to traveling with any kind of baggage or to any situation requiring negotiation—whether flirting at the bar or freeing hostages.
“You can fly with that?” Is the question I get asked when people see me with my windsurfing bags. Yes, yes we can. (Unless you want to fly British Airways… They don’t accept any kind of windsurf-board so do not fly them.) Note: Sometimes the airline agent behind the counter will say that your bags are too big for the plane—this is not true. But more on that later.
The first rule to learn is that there are basically no set rules on what surf bags are allowed and how much you should be charged for them. Suuuure, the website might be pretty clear on what the airline allows. And the agent’s computer behind the check-in desk is clear too. And so is the book of rules next to his computer. Buuuut, they all say different things.
In practice then, the size allowed and the cost charged depend on the kindness of the agent and how well you negotiate. Both are variables you can change. If the agent isn’t nice, find a new one and hope for better luck (ah! That’s why it’s important to arrive 3 hours before your flight). At first, you might think that newly hired agents are nicer or easier to negotiate a lower price with. This is not always true. Remember that niceness correlates with confidence. Often, new agents are insecure and don’t want to mistakenly allow a prohibited bag or undercharge.
Sometimes, two agents behind the same counter will have different interpretations of the baggage rules. I had an experience in Paris CDG airport 7ish years ago where the agent (~40 years old male) did not want to accept any of my boardbags. He said they were too big to fly on Air France.
I asked the woman (similarly aged) at the computer next to him if she knew about checking in windsurfing gear. She said in a thick French accent, “Yes! We do it all the time. It should be 200 euros.” The man was not happy with this.
They argued in French in front of me for a solid 15 minutes, after which the woman stormed off and the man told me that I could check in the bags but only if I paid 12 euros for every extra Kilo over the allotted baggage allowance. I was 95 Kilos over… That comes to 1140 euros for the excess baggage. All this for a nonstop flight to Lisbon that cost less than 300 euros roundtrip.
He printed the charge, and I was about to pay (what other choice did I have?) when the woman came back with a book of rules. Ah hah! She pointed out that the cost for sailboard bags was 200 euros.
The man was not satisfied (a reminder that logic/reason rarely works against someone who has made his mind up about how matters SHOULD end). The man and the woman argued in French for another 45 minutes. The boarding time for my flight came and went, and the line lengthened behind me.
When it seemed I would miss my flight, the man threw up his arms. Now it was his turn to storm off. The woman apologized to me for his behavior. She hurriedly charged me the 200 euros, handed me my boarding pass, and told me to run. I kept the original baggage charge as a souvenir.
A lessons learned? If the first agent you encounter is not reasonable, find another… don’t expect him to change. Applied to negotiation: 1) reason is not king; work with the person who is willing to make a deal, ignore the person who has already made up his mind.
But all this mess can be avoided in the US by using porters (unfortunately, porters are much rarer in European airports).
Porters are your new best friends. Sometimes adding a middleman is best—as is the case with Porters. Slip them a 20 upfront (or more depending on the number of bags you have). The first benefit is obvious: they relieve you of dragging those coffin bags through the crowds. The second benefit is less obvious but way more important: they can negotiate a better price for your gear. For a 40 dollar tip, I’ve avoided hundreds of dollars in excess baggage fees.
Be up front about it. Show the porter your bags, offer the tip, and say that you only want to pay X amount. These guys check in bags all day long—they’re pros. Mr. Porter knows the agents behind the counter and thus how to score a deal that you can’t.
A strange bit of human psychology: I’ve seen people who are too cheap to tip the porter, so they struggle with their massive bags through the airport, and then end up paying hundreds extra after a half hour hassle with the lady behind the counter.
Enter negotiation rules 2 and 3: 2) Familiarity matters; ie liaisons help. 3) Generosity given (an upfront tip, for example) generally leads to much better negotiations. (Gift giving is a sacred ritual in many cultures. Giving a gift creates an implied debt owed to the gift-giver.)
At the end of the day, persistence wins. On the way to a World Cup in 2009, Alex Mussolini and I were flying from Lisbon to Cabo Verde. We had checked in fine, but out of the plane windows we could see Alex’s bags lying untouched on the tarmac. Alex raised the issue with the head flight attendant. She told him that the bags were too big to take (I believe her… there must have been 20 pro windsurfers on that flight and all with mountains of baggage). He told her he needed the bags for a competition. It took some pleading on his part, but they eventually loaded the bags into the cabin, securing them over unused business class seats. < That is definitely not in any rule book, online or otherwise.
If the taxi or car driver says that your bags won’t fit, politely say, “Let’s just try” and proceed to show him how it’s done.
(And I should add: Playing the airline loyalty game helps a lot. The 3 free bags I get from being Gold status on Star Alliance carriers is gold. A lot of windsurfers find that United is the best option. )
Some Perks to Big Bags
Is there any plus side to carrying such plus-sized bags? Yes! They are a pain to steal.
What thief has the initiative or know-how to get away with the bags that I can barely lug around? If someone manages to carry my bags to a car and then fit them inside that car to drive off, more power to him. I can barely get around with my windsurfing bags and it’s my job.
Some years ago, a friend of a friend had his car parked in Manhattan overnight with all his windsurfing gear in the car. Thieves broke into the car. They stole the contents of the glove box, the stereo, and everything else in the car except his windsurfing gear. Ironically, the gear was probably more valuable than the car!
(However, the Canary Islands seem an exception; there, unwatched boardbags disappear.)
All Bags Aboard!
Everyone has baggage of one form or another. Sometimes that baggage isn’t in bags. I have a friend who learned how to surf before she knew how to swim. In the ocean and amidst swells, not knowing how to swim is as heavy a weight as any bag.
Having grown up in India before moving to America, she did not have swimming culture all around her, as is the case in most western countries. Yet, she was in Santa Cruz on a vacation and wanted to try surfing. And surf she did!
She booked a lesson from a local surf school—never letting slip that she didn’t know how to swim (I don’t advise anyone to try this). Without letting go of the board for fear of drowning, she fell in love with riding the waves and whitewaters.
Upon returning home to Boston, she promptly enrolled in swimming classes and bought a surfboard. She then trekked 2 hours each way on weekends in the summer for a chance to surf.
Eventually she moved to Maui. It’s a lot easier here.
I think of her story every time I grumble to myself about lugging around 200 pounds of windsurfing gear. My bags weigh nothing compared to the weight of not knowing how to swim during your first surf lesson.
“Where’s the helmet?” That’s a question I’m asked a lot lately. Most ask it with a hint of hurt, as if windsurfing lost a role model in my decision to stop wearing a helmet all the time. In answering, I must meditate on death and on an injury to my face last summer. But don’t worry about this serious tone! Next week’s post will look at the comedy that is traveling with surfboard bags. But first: Death.
Well, actually, before we get to Death, let me set the scene for my readers about the helmet. I was the first/only professional windsurfer to wear a helmet. When people asked my why I wore the helmet, I had many responses. “What other extreme sport athletes ignore safety so blatantly?” I’d mention the expert windsurfers who died due to a head injury. And my favorite response: “because it’s cool”. My arsenal of custom-painted helmets helped me stand out on the water. A trademark. A trademark I’ve now given up.
Death and Waves
What is more mortal than a breaking wave? As surfers, we know waves in their last moments, as they break into a mess of foam.
A dying wave explodes with energy. Order becomes chaos as a wave trips to its death, turning white and formless. Just a chaotic mass of energy dissipating into the environment.
At my home-beach, Hookipa, waves come from Japan. They travel across the Pacific Ocean, hit Hawaii, and break once—only once. A journey across the ocean to die in Hawaii.
Ironically, the first dead human body I ever saw was at Hookipa Beach. His death had nothing to do with the ocean; the unfortunate man crashed his motorcycle, lost an arm, and bled to death. I must have been around 13 years old when this happened, and at the time, I thought he looked unconscious, not dead. The dead look so much like the sleeping, making it so easy to imagine reanimation.
Waves seem so tragic, like that body, until you realize that waves are merely energy moving in a physical form, in this case water. New waves are the water of old waves inspired with new energy. The water rises and falls, beating against the shore. Constantly being reborn as new energy creates a new wave.
Last summer, I crashed hard during the AWT event in Oregon. I smashed my face, cut my lip, and broke off one of my front teeth at the gum-line, the nerve fully exposed. I was wearing my helmet when this happened.
I thought, “What can I do to protect my face in the future?” Wear a face guard like in American football? Use a mouth guard like in boxing? These options seemed a bit ridiculous. There was only one sure way to guarantee my bodily safety: to stop windsurfing. Or at least stop trying tricks in the waves or double loops or backloops.
Any form of windsurfing carries a certain danger—albeit a small one. Pro windsurfing magnifies this danger. Wearing a helmet all the time seemed silly and antithetical to my maneuvers on the water. (Also, it should be noted that surf helmets are made to protect mainly against cuts to the head, not brain damage.)
Life is a series of gambles. In choosing to be a professional windsurfer, I choose to live with a certain amount of risk. I bet that I’ll be fine (knock on wood). [Yet, I still think helmets are a great idea for recreational windsurfers. Will I still wear a helmet sometimes? Yes.]
But risk deals with unknowns, like a forecast. And the most important thing to remember about forecasts is that they are always changing. So, to get the best forecast you must look at many forecasts over a period of time and focus on the trends and changes in the forecasts rather than on any single forecast.
So too it is with risk. Maybe I can look at the people around me as an indicator of risk to myself, my peers, and people my age. Despite the large number of my friends who are pro surfers or windsurfers– taking risks in gnarly waves at Jaws and Tahiti, etc– none have died from windsurfing or surfing. In fact, the leading cause of death is suicide.
Unexpected, right? That’s the way it is when risk collapses into impact. Unexpected…
Maybe, the best role model is that of the water, forever rising and falling as the energy enters and leaves, creating waves. The waves may die, but the water of their bodies lives on. So seems a good way to approach life– when everything seems a broken foamy mess, the best thing to do is just wait for the next wave of energy to form you and carry you high.
In January, a good friend and a great windsurfer took his life. The news shook me up, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I still don’t know how to deal with it.
Adventure sports athletes are not supposed to talk about any feelings other than being stoked. This my friend’s father blames for his son’s death. That prison to be permanently happy was a much bigger risk than any other physical risk in his life.
I don’t offer a solution…just thoughts on waves and a reminder that there is no cure-all for risk.
Life, after all, could be defined as taking risk. The moment one stops taking risk, one dies. We can’t control all physical risk– cars crash, waves break. However, we can help those around us by reminding that in every powerful cresting wave is a body of water that will become a chaos of foam before becoming a wave once again. If you’re the crest, expect the foam; and if you’re the foam, take relief in the crest to come.
Next post will be on Wednesday, the 8th of May HAST and will cover funny stories on traveling with boardbags as well as tips on how to make the process cheaper and easier.
People ask me for windsurfing advice all the time. How to pushloop, how to tack, how to taka, etc. But nobody ever asks me how to fall.
“Huh?” I hear you asking, “Why would anyone need to learn how to fall?” Fall equals fail in the internet’s vernacular. Fails plaster the pages of online culture. A collection of oops! that the whole world watches, laughs at, and thanks their stars it happened to somebody else.
But falls are not fails– at least, not always. Falls, crashes, and wipeouts make learning possible and therefore are the opposite of a fail. Knowledge comes from the Falls.
I’m reminded of a piece I wrote for Windsport 3 years ago. Here is an edited version:
“Windsurfing is full of falling. Most people fall ten times before they even travel ten feet. And learning to jibe means falling a thousand times. At this rate, we could call the sport Fallsurfing.
When I set out to learn a move, I only have one plan: fall a lot. The quicker I want to learn a move, the more I have to fall. When I first started trying wave 360s, I’d try one on every wave of my session. This meant that I’d go home without having made a single move that day because I’d only tried 360s. That’s not fun at all.
But each next day, I completed more of the 360 rotation and projected farther in front of the wave before messing everything up and crashing. One day, after millions of falls, I landed my first wave 360 (I was so happy that I literally started laughing on the water). I would never have landed a 360 if I hadn’t fallen first. Each crash gave me a little bit more information on how to do the maneuver properly, so every failed wave 360 I had done was a part of my first successful wave 360. Moves cannot exist without first being wipeouts.
To most windsurfers, this probably seems obvious. They are thinking: “Who expects to land a back loop on the first try?” Yet, most of our culture does not allow for failure. One of my English professors confided in me that the hardest part of his job is getting kids to the point where they can write without expecting it to be perfect. Trying to write a flawless story on the first attempt is impossible and thus crippling. But writing a lot of stories regardless of whether they are good or bad will inevitably lead to improvement, and improvement guides one towards perfection (even if it is ultimately unattainable, everyone wants to get closer). My professor tries to teach falling to his students by assigning them nightly writing in a blog that no one will read. Maybe he should get them to windsurf.
Other sports like skateboarding also require much falling in order to improve, but windsurfing seems to be the kindest to falling. For one, water is a lot softer than cement or dirt. Most often just a splash in the water, a fall in windsurfing rarely means broken bones or deep cuts. Thus falls are mainly ego injuries and not physical ones. Further, the sport of windsurfing has an infinitely large number of moves to learn, so the falling never stops. Even the best wave and freestyle professional windsurfers in the world are constantly falling on new moves. Everyone, from the guy learning to jibe to Ricardo trying to land a triple forward, is falling.
Falling is the essence of life. Science requires multiple failures and trials before reaching an accurate result, and evolution relies on genetic mutations that create a varied spectrum of non-prefect animals, and from this variety only the ones with stronger genes survive. No one wants to write a shitty story and nobody wants to get slammed into the water mid forward loop, but these are necessary steps for getting better. In order to improve, you must fall. And the best way to learn to fall is to windsurf.”
The day you stop falling is the day you stop learning. Yet, HOW you fall matters.
When I was a teenager, I crashed so hard. On different occasions: I broke my left leg, my right wrist, and my right foot; I tore the tendons in my right shoulder; and, I needed dozens (or maybe even well over a hundred) stitches after collisions with rocks, reef, and fins.
I still crash hard–yes, I did knock out a tooth last summer– but I don’t crash nearly as hard as I used to. I attribute this to learning how to fall. Injuries are less likely if you are aware of your body position, the equipment’s position, and the forces of the wave at the time of the wipeout.
Given the importance of falling, maybe the best windsurfing tip I can give is to go out and just crash for a whole session. The more crashes you do, the more comfortable crashing becomes– making wipeouts safer and learning easier.
So, go out and crash.
Next post will be Wednesday the 1st of May (all times are Hawaiian time).
The climb down was harder than I expected. My feet slid on both dirt and rocks. At one moment, my mast began to slip free from the loosely bundled windsurfing gear and I had to hug the bundle tightly to my chest to stop the mast from sliding out from my arms and into the raging sea below.
If the mast had fallen into the water, my day would have been done. With that thought, I realized that I could still turn back. Jumping off the rocks was not inevitable.
But, I could not turn back because turning back would have meant living with the regret and shame of my cowardice for the rest of my life. The decision was already made. In a way, jumping off the rocks was inevitable.
I slid my way to the bottom where the land was horizontal again, and I rigged my Ezzy Elite 5.0 on the rocky peninsula protruding from the cliffs. I wore a Dakine impact harness. On my Quatro thruster, I had a 17cm K4 main fin with 10cm Ezzy Assy thrusters. Base and boom were Chinook carbon.
Then, I watched the ocean. I watched it move and sway, beating mercilessly against the rocks. The spray from the crashing waves wet my face.
It is easy to forget that the Earth is not just a setting but an actor too. We see this agency in natural disasters, like the Lisbon Earthquake or the 2004 Tsunami or even raging forest fires started by lightning. These events happen every few decades—just rarely enough that the Earth seems static.
However, being in and near the sea constantly reminds us that she is dynamic and prone to moods and tempers. Think of the calm, clear day where the water mirrors the bright blue of the sky, marked not with clouds but with playful whitecaps stirred up by the gentle sea-breeze. Next, recall the quick-formed storm—raging grey waves, cresting madly as the ocean seems to boil with anger. Yes, the sea lives.
That day at the Lighthouse, I watched the sea roil and rise and fall. My sail rigged, I readied myself to jump. Patience is key in these moments. Jump at the wrong time and the waves will push you back into the rocks. When a body wedges between the rocks and a sail, the tons of water can press against the surface area of the sail creating more than enough force to snap bones.
I’d chosen the best/safest spot to jump. But even in the calmest seas, safety is not guaranteed. I again felt like Icarus—about to possibly drown unseen off the coast trying to fly on a wing designed by my father. Williams: “a splash quite unnoticed/ this was/ Icarus drowning”
So I watched. I watched the waves surge against the rocks. The water would suck back revealing 10ft (3m) of barnacle-encrusted rocks. Then the sea would rush and rise with white waves beating, climbing, and sweeping over the top of the rocks.
This meant that I could not stand on the edge of the rocks without risking being pushed off when the waves came. I got as close to the edge as I could, crouched close to the rocks like a crab so that the whitewaters that hit me didn’t unfoot me.
After 20 minutes of watching, I felt in sync with the sets. In a moment when the sea felt calmest and most tame, I walked quickly to the edge and jumped. During the ~8ft drop, the winds blew me back so that my mast hit the rocks. Nothing broke, and then I was in the water.
That whole moment—from making the decision to jump to hitting the water—was over in a second. My body was too full of adrenaline to feel the cold chill of the water and I didn’t sink because of the added flotation of the impact harness. And it was time to swim or risk being smashed into the rocks from which I just jumped.
I swam with my gear away from the rocks and into the safe-zone in the middle of the bay, where no waves broke. In the safe zone, there was no wind, so I had to swim farther out about 100ft (30m) until I waterstarted and began the long sail up to Jaws. After 30 minutes of arm-burning sailing that seemed like it would never end, I arrived at Jaws.
In the safety of the Jaws channel, I saw Brawzhino riding a small-for-jaws-but-still-massive wave. After speeding down the line, he steered his board into the end-section, hitting the lip, flying into the air above and behind the wave. At the apex, B rotated into a backloop and almost-landed.
I was impressed but also jealous. I’m embarrassed to admit it—even now—but mixed with my awe was a sting of the most unattractive of human emotions: jealousy. I’m a huge fanboy when it comes to windsurfing, so despite the jealousy, I loved witnessing such an impressive move.
Until that moment, I had been the only person (to my knowledge) to do a backloop off the lip at Jaws (I back-doored the west bowl in 2011).
He and I sailed to the outside together. And I told him I saw the backloop off the lip. He asked if it looked good. I assured him that it looked amazing. He talked about how the strange updraft from the wave shook his sail in the air. And how the mist of spray blinded his vision during the rotation, making it impossible for him to know for sure where he was going to land. I knew exactly what he meant.
All my jealousy slipped away when I realized that I was no longer alone; I was happy that I now had someone with whom I could share the experience of doing a backloop-off-the-lip at Jaws.
I have 1 rule for myself when I windsurf Jaws: I must hit the lip at least once per session. This lip hit does not need to be radical—even an end-section lip tap, flying out the back and into the safety of the channel counts. But even these “safe” airs are scary.
For me, this fear transforms into a sort of anger at myself. I get angry for not pushing myself harder, for not being more radical. I think, “Just hit it, you pussy.” I eventually become so overwhelmed with the self-anger that not charging is risking a permanent self-loathing.
I think fear is like this for many people. The fear is blocked out because inaction from fear is not worth the subsequent regret.
That day at Jaws, though, was not the day for me to be radical. I had no one on a jet ski to offer support if anything went wrong.
I caught the biggest waves I could find, trying to ride as deep as possibly, feeling the power of the barrel’s water crashing head-first into the tightened water below. I did my token airs off the lip. But I did not go for any big backdoor hits or backloops.
On one of these end-section airs, I hit the lip later than expected and the wave tossed me in front (I was at the very end of the wave and near the channel)— I impacted the water so hard that my board skidded out and I crashed in a splash of water. Exhilarated but safe.
Shortly after, the waves quit. And for 30 minutes I stood on my board out the back waiting for a set. Practically everyone went home. Only Rudy Castorina, Manu Bouvet, and I remained.
Manu sat on the ski he owned with Rudy, and I sat with Rudy waiting for a wave. Then it came.
Looming against the horizon, the two biggest waves I saw all day rolled in. A two-wave set: one for me, one for Rudy.
I caught the first swell, but I dropped in too deep, too far behind the peak. Raking my sail back, I went into slalom stance to go as quickly as possible so as not to be slammed by the mountain of water breaking all around me.
After making the section, my board locked into the power of the wave and I flew right in front of the barrel, the massive crashing sound assaulting my ears. I drove the board into a carve and a cutback on the end section of this mountain before jybing out to see Manu looking at me from the ski arms raised and smiling.
We both then turned out attention to Rudy as he dropped into a wave even bigger than the one I had just ridden. He made it safely to the channel where we were all cheering.
The big set ridden, it was time to go home. Rudy and I caught the biggest waves of the day. There were no photographers left, and we only had Manu as our witness. But nothing could tarnish the magic of that moment.
I sailed down to Maliko Gultch and began to swim to the boat ramp. About halfway through my swim, Manu and Rudy pulled up on the jetski and towed me to shore.
Manu then drove me to the Lighthouse through the slightly-sun-dried-but-still-slippery mud, proving his truck’s 4×4 in the process.
Then I was alone at the Lighthouse with my gear beside my truck as the sun set. I could see Jaws up the coast, and the waves looked small. The rocks below–the same ones I jumped off– looked small too. And the whole Lighthouse area, which had been a place of adventure just hours before, was calm. Her energy spent earlier in the day, the Earth there rested.
I drove home to do the same.
Find part 1 here.
Next post: Wednesday the 24th of April.
Fear is a bruise. It pulls you to poke it. Scratch the scab off to see if it bleeds. Test the swollen (broken?) ankle. Can I walk? Is it actually broken? Vertigo is fear of heights, yes. But Vertigoers describe it as a fear that on the edge of the precipice their bodies will jump. Staring into the abyss is the scariest moment of all because of the compulsion to leap into the dark. Riding big waves is looking into the abyss and then jumping headfirst.
February 1st was a small big wave day at Jaws/Peahi. Most waves were between 20 and 30 feet with few sets in the 40+ range. For me, that day involved crashing my car into a tree to avoid sliding off a cliff, jumping into waves surging onto rocks, and sailing up to Jaws for a session of big wave windsurfing.
In the hour before riding these waves, I felt the breath of death so many times that the certainty of a breaking wave—something I know intimately—was calming, no matter the wave’s size.
I will tell the story of that February day and describe my mind and emotions at the time. We all experience fear, and we all must deal with it. This is my experience.
The words “Big Waves” are unfortunately poorly descriptive. To most novice surfers, waves over 6 feet are considered “big”. In standardized surf language, “Big Waves” include waves over 20 feet high.
The biggest wave I have ever ridden measures somewhere around 50 feet. 50 feet is big, BUT the biggest wave ever ridden is DOUBLE that—with a height of ~100 feet (McNamara in Nazare, Portugal).
Clearly, “big” has many meanings when it comes to waves. Despite the ambiguity, though, no one denies that Jaws (or ‘Peahi,’ meaning ‘beacon’ in Hawaiian because of the loud noise of the breaking waves) is a hotspot for big wave surfing; it was once considered to be the largest breaking wave in the world and is still the Mecca of big wave surfing.
Jaws in February, the Morning
On that February 1st, the forecast called for waves big enough for Jaws to be good. I woke up that morning jetlagged from a weeklong-trip New York City. I’d timed the trip to miss a bout of Monsoon-style rain that plagued Maui for the entire 7 days I was gone. Biblically heavy rains pour every few years in the winter when a big Northerly storm hits the Islands, killing the wind and creating rivers and mud everywhere.
The wave at Jaws is a mission to get to. Cliffs surround Jaws for miles in either direction, making a boat the traditional way for surfers to get to Jaws, launching from the dock at Maliko Gultch. (Last year, some paddle-in surfers started braving the boulder-moving shore-break to paddle out to massive waves.)
I don’t own a jetski or a boat, so in the past, I rode to Jaws with other riders or friends like Jason Polakow, Jason Prior, and Kevin Pritchard.
Despite all the phone calls I made the morning of February 1st, I could not reach anyone going to Jaws.
I did not waste any time; my only chance of getting to Jaws (or so I thought) was hitching a ride on a Jaws-bound boat from the docks at Maliko Gultch. After the turn-off from the main road to the normally-dirt-but-now-mud road, my truck slipped, slid, and fish-tailed its way to the firm rock/cement of the dock.
Pro windsurfers Kauli Seadi and Brawzhino were loading their windsurfing gear onto a jet ski when I arrived.
I parked, walked to the end of the dock, and asked Kauli and Brawzhino if they had room on the ski for me. I was like a drug addict jonesing for a fix—desperation surely audible in my voice—feeling like a hitchhiker with his thumb out and only 1 car in sight. You see, Jaws is only windsurfable 1 or 2 (or if you’re lucky 3) times a year, so a session at Jaws is not to be missed.
They said no. They had no room to take me.
I was heartbroken but tried not to let it show. Kauli suggested jumping off the rocks at the Lighthouse and sailing up to Jaws– he had done so twice before. Kauli Seadi’s suggestion was my only option.
The only image in my mind of launching at the Lighthouse was of Robby Naish’s RIP movie. Robby and Don Montegue try to depart from the Lighthouse to sail Jaws; Robby sails off fine, but the waves smash Don into the rocks and he almost dies.
Kauli launched off those rocks twice before, so I knew the spot was not impossible to launch from. But I could only think of the walls of whitewater knocking Don’s body against the black lave rocks. ( 29:00 in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hApWbm_xoog).
It was at that point of the day that I was the most scared. Fear is funny like that. Fear is strongest before anything happens. Once the doing starts, it’s time to do, not time to be scared.
It’s like jumping out of a plane. The scariest moment is when you look out of the open door onto the lego-world 12,000 feet below. The apparent wind rushes loudly by the plane’s door. The whole plane fills with the noise, yet it seems too quiet. You look out over the edge of the plane thinking, “holy shit, am I really going to jump out of this thing?”
And then you do the jump, and the freefall is pretty boring—wind in the face and terminal velocity slower than you can drive a car.
The Lighthouse is only accessible via a dirt road opposite to the Haiku Community Center. This dirt road, for the first half, borders a steep gulch. The area around the lighthouse is remote, making it a common location for both big parties and crimes—and often a combination of both. A few years ago, some guys at one such party rolled a car tire over the head of a 20 year old male they didn’t like, killing him. More recently, a young woman’s car and all her possessions were found there; she was never seen again.
But did I mention that the views from Lighthouse are absolutely beautiful?
On February 1st, the road was muddy from the recent torrential rain and flooding. Directly after turning left onto the dirt road, I knew the ride would be rough. I didn’t worry though—my truck is built for serious off-roading with 4×4, a powerful engine, and a strong low range gearbox. But I don’t have mud tires. In mud, I learned, a truck’s power is all for naught without the right tires.
The week of torrential rain made the Earth weak and sea-like with mud and ruts instead of road. My course through the mud and ruts was careful, doing a ballet with the truck such that the wheels always sought the surest dirt.
As I continued down the road, the downhill incline became more severe and the mud and ruts got deeper. I didn’t want to get stuck in the mud out in the middle of nowhere. The surest way to avoid getting stuck, generally, is to go fast so that momentum keeps the car moving forward. But going too fast is dangerous. To drive in mud, you must follow the instructions given to mythical Icarus by his father as they fly out of prison on wings made from feathers and wax: “O Icarus, I warn you: fly a middle course. If you’re too low the waves will wet your feathers, and if you fly too high, the sun will melt your wax. Keep to the middle then.”
This was my strategy against the mud: go fast but not so fast as to lose control.
The problem: mud is ice without the right tires.
I pushed the accelerator to get past a particularly long stretch of mud. The car slid and fishtailed. Mud flew against the windshield and the truck’s direction shifted to the right, steering me towards the cliff.
I slammed on the breaks but the car did not stop or even slow down in its slide to the cliff edge. Like Icarus, I lost control:
Icarus becomes so comfortable and delighted by flying that he soars higher and higher. He flies so close to the sun that the wax in his wings grows soft. And then melts. As his wings fall away, he flaps bare arms against the air before falling. Dedalus cried, “Icarus! Where are you?” But the only answer came as an echo off the surface of the sea, Icarus’s tomb.
Off-roading “fast” is not very fast at all—maybe 5-10mph, 15 tops. But when you can’t stop, even 1 mph over a cliff is scary.
For the last couple years, I’ve had this reoccurring nightmare where I drive a car that can’t slow down. I can control the steering but the breaks are dead. I steer around the corners the best I can, but no matter how hard I turn the wheel or slam on the breaks, I know that I am going to crash. I wake up at the crash. My Nightmare came to life on that drive to the Lighthouse.
As the truck went over the edge of both the road and the cliff, I steered and the vehicle miraculously slid head-on into a tree. It was not a large tree, but it was enough to stop my truck and me from falling over the cliff.
Upon impact with the tree, many of the lights in the car came on, the windshield wipers started, and my right turn signal flashed. So there I sat, saved by the tree with the wipers squeaking back and forth and the metronomic turn arrow lighting up. Click click click. The orchestra of my car played a percussion soundtrack to my narrowly escaped death.
It was only in this moment that I realized the danger of my drive. But what was I going to do with this realization? Turn back and go up the perilous road I’d just nearly died on? Stay put and wait for the sun to dry the mud? No. There was only one option: to keep going.
The rest of the drive was bad but not as bad as my life-saving tree crash. Some invisible string pulled me forward. Freud talks about the death drive (Thanatos) that leads us to take pleasure in risky behavior—like driving fast or windsurfing in waves. This was Thanatos pulling me forward—risking life and limb while off-roading in order to jump off rocks to ride massive waves.
I arrived at the Lighthouse sweating and pumped with adrenaline. I could see Jaws breaking and the windsurf sails there glinting in the sun. “Now, it is time to jump off some rocks,” I told myself, looking at the white waves of the surging sea beating against the black lava rocks.
Come back for part 2 on Wednesday the 17th!
“LARGE AND DANGEROUS SURF WILL
IMPACT MOST NORTH AND WEST FACING SHORES OF THE SMALLER ISLANDS
TOMORROW THROUGH SATURDAY. ”
Big waves are coming to Hawaii! All the pro windsurfers are getting ready for Jaws on Friday. It’s going to terribly crowded on the water. I hope to return here with some stories.
In other news:
I’m returning to the blogosphere. I plan to do longer, more content-based posts, but I’ll do fewer of them (once a weekish). Next week, surf-matic will run a story about a Jaws session I had in February where I nearly died before I even launched– and the launch was off rocks at the Lighthouse!
In the meantime, here is a sports short that I made with Kevin Pritchard (go to the vimeo page to read the story). And below it are photos from the last months.