Thursday, August 25, 2005

Eight Feet at Sixteen Seconds (Mexico, Part 3)

So there I was, side skipping down the face of a six-foot wall on nothing more than a piece of blue plastic, thinking, “What happened to my little Waikiki dream?” I did a wheelie at the bottom of the wave and the tail slid out from under me. Imagine Wiley Coyote’s expression the moment he realizes the lower half of his body’s already long gone off a jagged abyss. That was me. Blink ... blink ... POOF! How did I get here?

The sun hadn’t risen yet, but eleven surfers already had. I scrambled downstairs, snagging the tiny Hogfish off of the rack in the hotel lobby along the way. I got to the beach just in time to see the first set roll through. The swell that I had been tracking for the last week was finally making its presence known: Eight feet waves at sixteen second intervals. A guy on a longboard dropped down the face of a six-foot peak and did an artful bottom turn, the nose of his log pointing upward, spray fanning from his outside rail. From there it was a straight shot 75 meters down the line and I noted that the glassy blue crest was three feet over his head. And he was standing straight up.

Feeling the cool sand on my feet at the water’s edge, I stretched a little, waiting for a lull. With long intervals between sets, timing your paddle out is pretty easy. When you no longer see monster waves undulating on the horizon, go for it.

That’s what I did. I launched myself out to sea on the receding backwash, landing squarely on my stomach and paddling like hell. But pain shot up from both points of my ribcage where a rash had formed from “trunking it” the last few days. It felt like I was lying on two red-hot cigarette lighters. With every stroke, I winced. The smaller board had less float and plowed through the water slowly. It took me a while to get outside and when I noticed some whitewater rolling toward me I decided to duck dive under it. I went so deep that I hardly felt the turbulence of the broken wave above me.

A quick sidebar about the line-up at Old Man’s: There are four kinds of surfers you’ll find out there on any given day. First, there are obviously the Old Men. These are the leathery expats on longboards who sit farthest outside and to the south of the main peak. By positioning themselves halfway across the Sea of Cortez, they insure that they will catch all of the largest set waves and milk rides all the way to the sand, getting a few minutes of open face time. My favorite Old Man was a guy who looked like a short version of Nick Nolte who always paddled inside of me and snaked me no matter where I was positioned. I ran into him at the airport on the way home and actually told him he should cut in front of me in line, “Just like back at Old Man’s,” I said. He thought that was pretty funny.

Next, you have the locals. Let’s call them The Locos. These surfers can be guys or girls, and aside from their mocha skin are instantly recognizable by their boards shaped by local hero and Costa Azul surf shop owner Alejandro Olea. Many wear trucker hats in the lineup and sit a little closer in to catch the more consistent, slightly smaller waves. Some give surf lessons. My favorite Loco was Sergio, the jazz-whistling surf instructor who worked at his family’s taqueria, Hangmans.

Closer to the beach, catching the steeper inside reforms that broke over the rocks, are the shortboarders, The Rabbits. They are in constant motion - bouncing up and down and side to side to build speed on the mushy leftovers. Some of these kids were adept at getting speed and could execute amazing maneuvers before pulling out at the last second as the waves thumped on dry sand.

And then there are The Rooks: First-time surfers of all ages and sizes scattered throughout the surf zone, flailing around on 3-inch thick longboards. Any surfer who has gone out at Old Mans knows how to slalom and weave through the network of panting Rooks, and fully expects to be dropped in on by them several times in a session. On one occasion, I couldn't avoid an errant board from a rookie wipeout and my legs were knocked out from under me by a red foam torpedo as I sped down the line. As I hurtled through the air, all I could think was, "Will my trajectory land me headfirst on that urchin infested rock?"

And then there was me, somewhere between a Rook and an Old Man, paddling into my first six-foot set wave on the smallest board I'd ever had under me. As I popped up, something immediately struck me. These glassy conditions weren't exactly as marble smooth as I had imagined. The little blue board skipped down the face of the wave and I tried to turn right but instead spun out in the trough. I got tossed like a ceasar salad under the water, but quickly found my bearings, slid up onto the board (ouch), and ducked deep under the next waves.

I realized quickly that I was undergunned. “Undergunned” in this case meant that I didn’t have enough board for the conditions and my skill level.

In a lineup of decent surfers who are all hungry for large set waves--and when 10 minutes can pass between each large set--a surfer is only allowed one or two screw ups. If the other surfers peg you as a kook after seeing you blow a perfect wave, nothing will stop them from dropping in on you for the rest of the session.

So I had already blown one wave. I paddled further south, hoping to position myself in a place where I could grab a less popular left off of the main peak. I also wanted to go left so that there would be more chance for me to actually make the wave on this minnow I was riding. The second wave I attempted, I couldn’t get into. The third wave was slightly better. I dropped in and stayed as low as possible, holding on for dear life. I managed a few pumps and recognized the “skatey” feeling so popularly used to describe riding fish. I quickly kicked out over the top of the crest before it closed out. Did I mention that the lefts at Old Mans break right into a cluster of boils and rocks? I guess that’s why it is the less popular direction to ride.

When I returned to the lineup, I looked in to see if the surf shack’s door had opened yet. It must have been 8am, because people were milling about the entrance. I bellied a small wave all the way back to the shore. Inside the shack, I spotted a board that I had seen another hotel guest having a blast on over the previous few days. It was an 8’ baby blue Haut hybrid shape. I grabbed it and paddled straight back out.

I have to jump right to my first wave on the Haut. It was around 9am and the swell had picked up even more since dawn. I sat farthest outside and waited patiently for 20 minutes before the biggest set wave I had seen came rolling in. I had position. It was mine to take. I paddled as hard as I could and caught the wave early. After the epoxy M10, the longer board moved fast and felt safe under my feet. I made the drop easily, fading right, and rose to the middle of the wave. Then, I noticed an old longboarder dropping in ten yards in front of me. It was this 70-year-old dude who I had watched dominating The Rock on the previous day. He had a young Mexican wife with big boobs who helped him carry his board. Anyway, he dropped in on me and for a few seconds we were both on the same level in the wave, one right after another. Then, he rose up a little higher and gracefully cross-stepped to the nose. He hung ten casually with his arms by his side before backpedaling and regaining control of his board. I couldn’t help myself. I hooted and cheered at him as he kicked out and gave me the rest of the wave. I rode it all the way to the sand.

As I paddled back out, I asked a Mexican kid who had seen the ride who that old guy was. I expected him to say “Senor Doyle” or “Roberto August,” but he just gave a look of disapproval and said, “He’s nobody. Fucker always drops in on people!” I still was stoked. It was the biggest wave I’d ever ridden. More than that, it was the fastest, the smoothest, and the most fun.

I paddled out and waited my turn to catch one more that was close to that size. I was all alone on the next wave and as I flew north toward nirvana I had to avoid a guy on the inside, almost running over his feet. When I paddled back out again, past where he was still perched inside, I was grinning, saying, “Sorry, man. I almost clipped your feet there!”

He just smiled and said, “Nah! You were just beautiful!”

When I had my fill, it was only 11am. I had been surfing for almost five hours and the waves were still huge. I ran up the steps of the hotel and jumped into the swimming pool where my wife was chatting to a woman she had met the day before.

“Did you see that?!” I gushed.

“Honey,” she laughed, “I can’t see anything out there. You all look the same from here. This is Heather.”

It must be Murph the Surf’s Law that my wife had been patiently taking pictures of me for the last three days but finally decided to take a break on the biggest swell of the week (and perhaps of the summer, judging by how stoked The Locos were). I wasn’t really disappointed, though. I was still buzzing with the pure joy that only surfing can bring and even more so because my beautiful wife was having a great time too.

O Povo Canta - "O Telefone Tocau Novamante"

PS: I did grab the camera and snap a bunch of pics at lunch to record the day. The two pics of the left above are from my first session in the morning before my wife threw in the beach towel.


Connie said...

Once again, I find myself entralled by your story telling, living the experience through your words. It really makes me want to get out and surf! Not that I know how, but I actually had a dream last night that I did. Wild! Your blog was in my head, I guess, while I was anxiously awaiting your sequel. May is a doll. Glad she was having a great time, too!

Patch said...


The left at old mans can get real fun, they call that call it "Mikes Hole" as Señor Doyle has that peak wired. The left is fast and hollow (as you mentioned the rocks creep up quick and there's no room for error on a big day. The great thing about the quick lefts is not many people go on 'em.

Sergio and his sis Ale' are super nice and great hosts, I'm stoked you had a chance to meet them and experience the vibe at Hangmans, did you try the sauce they call "you try, you die'? Just a pin drop on your tongue and it will send chills down your spine and sweat on your forehead as you plead for aqua.

You timed that swell perfectly, stoked you and your wife had a great time, that place can be magical.

Music: Orishas—A lo Cubano
Patch AKA Flotsam

Whiffleboy said...

Awesome report, Chum! Great looking waves!

Diane said...


Chum said...

Patch (Flotsam),

Thanks for all the great info before our trip. It really helped make the experience even better. I totally tried the white sauce at Hangmans:

"The first sauce is death. The second is murder. And this white one is suicide! Are you ready to cry?"

I am going surfing tomorrow up here again. Looking forward to applying some of my newfound skills to our waves. Not looking forward to the cold.

I hope that Sergio checks this blog out. I gave him the address. He said, "My home is your home," and it sounded like he meant it - I'll return the favor if he ever gets up to Portland again. I guess he visited a few years ago.


OS said...

Bait and hook...what else would you expect from a guy called Chum. Que bueno! A killer series of blogs dude.

Gosh-I'm-Cold-G said...

Yeah, yeah, yeah...Cabo's great and all, but you must admit it doesn't have anything on that tasty break we discovered yesterday. A half-mile hike to what would have been a surfer's paradise had it not been for the rain, the cold and the mushy slop posing as waves. Time to pull the blinders from the public's eyes and let'em know what we've know for at least the last year or so - surfing doesn't get any better than the frosty NW.

Chum said...

Seriously, I'm sitting here contemplating if I should even bother updating my blog. It looks so purdy with the new design and all of the nice Mexico pics...