Surfer’s world: how to get thrashed (and make friends)

This story…  I want to tell it so badly; as much as I want to be a part of it.

All good storytellers know that the best way to tell a story is from within. But to get that kind of access, you either have to have been there for years (an insider’s story) or you must get there… fast.  And that is pretty much where this story begins.

130118_0392_lowresAIt’s a mixed bag of Filipino surfers I am hanging with these days: an adrenalin junkie with a hard plan to earn a million pesos before the year is out, a couple of extremely hot surfer chicks determined to have fun and make their mark in retail sponsorship, a mom and daughter film crew, a playboy investor scouting the high life for the next big gig, a pair of tourists and a wannabe journalist. We’re a team of comic relief waiting for disaster by boarding a rented banca, determined to hit swell on the open water side of Zambales, Philippines.

Armed with a Canon G15 and WP-DC48 housing, I clamber aboard the single stroke engined boat with bamboo outriggers to an uncertain future.   Waves are tossing our crew fore and aft and the worst lies ahead, but we’re all shits and giggles at this point.

The reef is not 6 feet below the keel and there’s a strong sentiment among us all not to disturb it with an anchor.  As global waters warm, reefs are dying across this latitude and it’s critical to respect the living, so the boatman keeps the boat in a slow circle on the shoulder of a skull crushing break off the western open water side of the egg-shelled crater of an extinct volcano called Camara Island.

130118_0352a_lowresNear as I can figure, Paolo of the Philippine Surfing Academy is the only one aboard who has surfed this break because of the 1000 questions directed at him from all parties – including the boatman.  Me, I’m so scared, I can’t even think of an intelligent question to ask – no mask, no fins, brand new underwater housing – I forgot to mention to anyone aboard that I’ve never done this kind of thing before – but ignorance is bliss.  I figure the best thing to do is to let the crew go ahead and try to learn by observation.

Splash!  Splash! Splash!  There are those who are eager and those who are shy, but everyone tosses their boards in and heads for the break that is thundering 200 meters off the port bow.

It turns out that waves are measured in different ways, depending upon where you come from.  In Zambales , they measure waves based on the height of the back of the wave – the front can be double, or triple height depending upon the swell.  Today we’re looking at 10-foot waves – peaks are a good 20 foot in height.  This is the stuff that I’m watching from the bow of our banca knowing full well that if I don’t dive in to get photographs I will never be able to live with myself.  In younger years, I might be concerned with what the others might think of me if I chicken out, but at 50 I couldn’t give a rip.  I know now that I am my own worst critic and I don’t want to have to deal with the inner conviction – splash, I’m in.

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Paolo, God love him, sees me swimming into the line up wearing sandals instead of fins and assumes I know what I’m doing.  Hilarious.

“Dude! Let’s do this!”, he hollers above the roar of ocean with a grin that beams white teeth and reckless abandon.

130118_0412a_lowres“Oh and dude…”, he says, “Be careful… Mara’s mom just got stuffed into a hole and is recovering on the beach and Bri  got her leash caught in the reef.”

“Thanks man!” I shout back, completely oblivious to the peril I am now in.

A fresh set of large waves come in.  Off shore winds peel the tops of the waves off in a misty spray that gets my visual juices flowing, but there’s still this thing about being crushed into the reef that I just can’t seem to shake out of my lizard brain.  It’s a frustrating set of lessons as I watch surfers – Aisa, Jay-Bird, Bri and finally Paolo catch waves that sweep them out of sight toward an idyllic shoreline that I have no plans to visit lest I get stuffed into a hole or ground over the reef without the aid of a surfboard for safety.

Crap!  The backs of surfers on great waves is not what I’m after and I’m suddenly very nervous because the only way to improve my vantage point is to get ahead of the line up and let them charge me.  What have I got myself into?

No choice.  I’ve got to get ahead of the pack and let them come to me.  Paolo yells one last bit of advice,”If you get stuck on the inside, just dive down and grab hold of the reef and let it pass.”  Sounds simple enough.

Twenty, thirty, fifty feet toward the shore and I’m now on the inside; waves are towering above, crashing overhead and I quickly make the connection between a rolling wave that passes under me and a breaking wave that lifts me airborne and throws me to the gnarly bottom.

130118_0552a_lowresI spy Paolo catching a wave and lift my camera to shoot his pass-by; get a great shot of his legs (note to self: fisheye, fisheye!) and am promptly dropped from the top of a 20′ wave down into the reef.  Is this where I cracked my rib?  I really don’t know.  There are two other massive waves that follow, both hell-bent on smashing me to bits.  On the second I dive for the reef, grab hold of a large knob I find below but my sandals, which float (who knew?) put me into a headstand and I get caught up in whitewater that rips me from my hold, cutting my fingers with living creatures that are determined to live in the cuts for days afterwards.130118_0494a_lowresA

Wave number three threatens to steal what oxygen I have left, but mercifully, I am able to swim laterally to the shoulder of the set and make my way back to the boat in a last-act of desperation that inevitably involves partially dislocating my shoulder. But honestly, I am so exhilarated by the entire experience, that I don’t actually realize any of this for a good 24 hours.  They call it the STOKE, and it’s entirely addictive.  Seriously. 130118_0721a_lowresA

The sad fact of this tale is that the best photos from that day did not come from the trip to Camara.  I was too busy trying not to drown on my first day in big swell.  No, the best images came from an evening set of gorgeous waves blessing the beach overlooking that island.  Still, I lived to see another day and am deeply grateful for the one I experienced – and when it comes right down to it, never mind the photos – this is all about experiencing life, not recording it – it’s doing it, not watching it, that really counts!

So, get out there people and LIVE the STOKE!

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