Being There: Surfing the Big One

Book excerpt from `Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life and Catching the Perfect Wave'

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I paddled out with my eyes closed most of the time against the burning spray. Squinted them open every few seconds to gauge the incoming walls so I wouldn’t get annihilated. A flock of terns swarmed a bait ball. They cried and wheeled and dove. The buffeting and rush of the wind competed with the tear of the waves. It was kicking up foaming whitecaps. I sat, bucking on the chop, and watched the swell shatter against the farthest rocks thirty feet away. The wind drove the spume far up into the broken boulders, drove spray into the arms of cacti, and the bent and shivering brush. It seemed very wild out there. The waves, when they formed, heaved up from far out and reared dark and sudden and the size of houses.

Suddenly I found myself with just two other surfers.  I’d been watching them for days and they were both world-class. One was Anglo, one was Mexican, neither wore a rash guard, and they both had tattoos. And they were sitting inside of me. For the first time, I was the farthest one out, the one poised for a set.  Nobody between me and the horizon but birds. The next one rolling in was mine.  It was a set wave, eleven or twelve feet high.

“Go,” one yelled. “It’s yours.” They’d been watching me, too. They knew I was a beginner who was trying hard.

I started to turn the gun. “I hope I can catch this,” I shouted.

“You got it. You got it.”

I paddled as hard as I could. I angled right, the way my buddy Leon had been coaching me, and I thought, Chest up, pop up fast!

That moment when the wave overtakes you and the speed of the board is no longer from paddling but a force greater. Thousands and thousands of times greater. And the board accelerates. And it’s faster than you can imagine. And the wave drops away like a cliff.

I pop up, amazed. I was standing and the wall of a wave lined out ahead of me, blue and clean. Without thinking I laid in a bottom turn and rocketed to the lip and came off it in a wide arc. Wow. I did it again. When I hit the lip the G force shocked me and buckled my legs. The board skipped down the face. I crouched. At the very bottom I looked up at the wall. The double sense of speed and stasis. It blocked the sky. It was and it ever shall be: mountainous, dark, quivering. And charging with breathless velocity, accelerating over me in a folding rush. Set the edge and swoop to the top, sheer flight, onrushing sky. Turn back. Another, tighter this time. The speed of it, the sense that the bay, the beach, the hills, flew to meet me. One more cut, try a more radical tighter turn, maybe a cutback, and – I lost balance. I wiped out. The break caught and tumbled me and rolled under and past. It didn’t matter. I came up into the spangled sunlight yelling with pure joy. Looked back. I was a long way from the takeoff.  Months of work and frustration, car breakdowns, broken boards, bruises, none of it mattered. I lay my arm over the gun and drifted in the whitewater. I could see the swarming birds in the blue air. I could see one of the two pros taking off on a steep wall.

The rip carried me south.  I’ll drift, I thought. Rest. Let the current take me opposite the restaurant. Then I’ll get out.

Did I do it? I did it! Rode the wave. I loved it.

I loved the wave, the pros, the birds, the wind, my girlfriend Kim, the world, Leon, omelets, the wind, my arms —


Sudden tumble. Inside shore break. Underwater and I heard a crack like pool balls. A sear, a blow. Back of the head. Explosion of black and light like cartoon lighting. Do not black out! I yelled at myself. Do not faint. That’s death. Nobody out here. Nobody can see. Struggled. Lunged for air. Breath. Reeled in the board and held it while feet kicked and scrabbled for the bottom. Stood, braced against the wicked current that tore down the shore and staggered out onto the damp sand. Phew. Reached back, back of my head, and pulled my hand away covered in blood. Fin must have sliced it open. Stung a little, but mostly the torn scalp was shocked to numbness.

I laughed. I was alive. What a dumbass.

About: This except from Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life and Catching the Perfect Wave is used with permission from author Peter Heller. The book chronicles Heller’s adventures as he advanced from kook (slang for beginning surfer) to shredder in a single year, traveling from Huntington Beach and Orange County down the coast of Mexico.

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