Surf trips are meant to be fun. Thoughts of crystal blue and green barrels, palm tree lined beaches, empty waves and cold beers after long days in the sun. It’s these dreams that lead us to booking plane tickets on a moments notice.
In late April 2015 a southern hemi swell popped onto the charts. Eight to ten feet it said, perfect double overhead barrels I thought. It was a green light; I was heading to Mainland Mexico with my brother and a few friends.
It’s funny how fate has a way of coming out of nowhere.
In the days leading up to our departure I began reading reports of the swell overproducing. In other words, it was growing in the South Pacific. Meteorologists recorded seas north of 55-feet, a rare sight in the surf world. All of the sudden it went from fun surf trip to XXL big wave trip.
Anxiety hit me like a ton of bricks. I realised that if I wanted to paddle into the biggest beach break wave of my life I had to pack “Lucky Yellow”, my new 9’2” rhino chaser. And although I had never been to this location before, I dissected all the footage I could find of the wave to figure out how to paddle into it successfully. I was optimistic and mostly anxious to see the strength of this mega-swell.
We showed up two days early to get our feet into the wax, to sort of figure the place out. It was back-washy and wonky from the sand berms. The sort of stuff you can get hurt in. Sure enough I jammed my wrist on day 2, but that wasn’t going to keep me out of the water. When we got to the beach on the third day the frontrunners of the swell had showed up, it was a solid 8-12 feet. The big sand berms were quickly smoothing down to eliminate backwash. But it was still wonky so we ventured to another wave. To our delight the alternate spot was a perfect 4-6 feet with ideal shape and nobody out. This was the surf trip I had originally imagined; smiles all around and no sudden death man vs. ocean moments.
But then Big Sunday arrived.
At first light we saw Bruce Irons tow into massive barrels on his new cork/bamboo surfboard. Jamie O’Brien and Shane Dorian were towing into doubles waves, sharing the same barrel more then a few times. The sheer velocity of the moving water was incredible to watch. It was a solid 25 feet and going completely top-to-bottom. Unfortunately my team couldn’t get a ski this day and the rising swell meant hazardous cleanup sets. Not good for paddling. So we went back to our secret oasis from yesterday. It was also heavy, but makeable. A couple throaty pin drops into the barrel and many jellyfish stings occurred.
During breakfast we could see relentless mountains of water marching towards the coast like moving skyscrapers. The peak of the swell was forecasted to be at 1 pm and sure enough around 12:30 the set came in. This was no normal set of waves, these were more like tsunamis; 40-foot waves breaking over a half-mile out to sea. A local expat friend told us he has only seen this one other time in his 25 years living in the region. We sat and watched the surf for hours that day, so much raw energy it was as though the ground was shaking beneath our feet.
It turned out to be too much for the local beach community’s infrastructure. The area was flooded from the rogue waves. Fences and electricity were taken out and the community was evacuated overnight. Days later we would see the community start to rebuild.
I realised from looking at the charts that if I were going to paddle a makeable, big wave it would need to be on Monday. It wasn’t easy getting to sleep that Sunday night knowing what was ahead the next day. At the beach Monday morning were Bruce Irons, Jamie O’Brien, Shane Dorian, Benjamin Sanchis, Ryan Hipwood and Cory Lopez; some of the gnarliest big wave surfers of all time.
And then there was me: a first timer on a swell of this size, a deer in the headlights. The legends were nice though and gave me a few tips here and there. After watching for an hour I waxed up my big board and waited for a jet ski on the shore. Greg Russ, a legend of the area was grabbing Bruce’s tow board and told me to “get on!” with an enthusiastic yell. After a minute of charging through whitewash he dropped me off out the back. I was the only guy paddling, just me and a sea full of mountains.
Thirty minutes of chasing down walls of water and dodging the impact zone and a set lined up in my sight. I paddled over the first two knowing that the third was the one. I whipped around the massive yellow board and put my head down, I was going to paddle into this wall of water racing upwards of 30 mph. To my delight the board glided in and set me up for an early entry and clean drop. I bottom turned gently so to not lose my balance on this hulk-sized board. Once I made the turn it was all about the view and the satisfaction of paddling into one of these mountains successfully. I rode the wave to the beach and grabbed some water and got back out for two more bombs. It was a solid big wave session for me. Nothing came easy that day and to jump those mental hurdles made the cerveza after the session taste that much better.
The next day was Cinco de Mayo and also our tow day! This meant gliding into big barrels on small boards. Manoeuvring through caverns with maximum control. Catching ten times more waves opposed to paddling, just a totally different game than the previous day. It was rad going from yin to yang in those two days.
As I sat in the airport terminal sipping on an ice-cold Corona I thought about the crazy week that had passed. It felt like a month because so much had happened. The anxiety had come and gone. I had accomplished my goals and witnessed some of the craziest rides and ocean conditions of the last thirty years. My idea of a “fun” surf trip has been totally thrown into question. Adrenaline has welcomed itself onto my list of requirements when booking a flight.