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Solving For X

Empty perfection is out there. But in the Bering Sea, the higher the branch, the greater the wind.

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December 2021

Just minutes from touching down at our destination, a mysterious patch of land in the Bering Sea known as Island X, a broadcast comes through the intercom of our small prop plane. The pilot’s message is short and cracked, but everyone on board hears it loud and clear: Due to worsening weather conditions—in particular, ice that’s rapidly accumulating on the plane’s windshield—we have no choice but to turn back. 

It’s hard to stomach. Between research, logistics, six figures in funding, multiple scouting missions, and one prior mission where we “almost” scored, this trip has been four years in the making. And now, after coming about as close as it gets to scoring one of the North Pacific’s best-kept surf secrets, it seems as if our only window of friendly skies has completely closed before it ever really opened. 

Inside the cabin, there’s a solemn feeling amongst the crew: surfers Josh Mulcoy, Pete Devries, and Noah Wegrich, filmmakers Ben Weiland and Mike Nulty, and me. Head in my hands, leaning over, bouncing back and forth in my seat: I’m heartbroken, in a word. The plane climbs through turbulence and above the clouds to make its way back to Anchorage. 

To watch Island X in full, click here.

On the ground again, at least for a moment, that palpable feeling of defeat continues. But as the rest of the group heads back to the hotel, Ben and I take stock of the situation. It’s looking grim. The small Alaskan airline doesn’t have flights scheduled for the following day, which appears to be our last chance at promising weather. The best they can do, they say, is to put us on a flight a week later, but that’s well past our swell window. To top it off, with no flights out, we’re stranded in Anchorage. 

Ben and I soon realize that the only thing we can do is push on. We decide, with the clock quickly running out, that failure’s not an option. It’s time to do some hustling. Somehow, we are getting back to Island X. 

September 2017

I’m at my home in Oregon when Ben sends me a message. Attached is a single photograph of three right-handers marching along a craggy headland in ruler-edge unison. Both the foreground and background are devoid of even a single geographical clue. No structures. No trees. No volcanoes. Just a fresh wash of snow across the tundra and those freight trains rolling flawlessly down the tracks. 

I immediately press him for details, and he reveals a few hard facts: The shot was taken on an unnamed island in the ill-omened Bering Sea. Over the years, it has been inhabited at various times by native Aleuts, Russian fur traders, the US government, and, more recently, commercial fishermen looking to capitalize on the region’s abundance of halibut and snow crab. After pressing him further, he reveals his source: Jeremy Sterling, a Washington state–based scientist who, while performing seasonal research on the island, happened to notice the many and totally empty setups that populate all sides of the island. 

Walking the dunes each morning was anxiety inducing. You can’t see the ocean from where we parked, so we trudged toward the shore, fingers crossed, hoping for another go at an empty world-class setup. 

Naturally, Ben and I start to dig into the island’s surf features and possibilities nearly right away. Jeremy makes the pull especially difficult to resist, pestering us with image after image of points, slabs, and beachbreaks—each and every one of them offshore, not a single surfer in sight. 

Frankly, it all feels a little too good to be true. It’s easy to think that, in today’s world, every discovery has already been made. Within surfing especially, the only regions that remain unknown are that way because they’ve been carefully guarded by those who’ve ventured out, found them, and locked them down tight. 

But as we learn more about Island X, and as Jeremy sends us more evidence, we begin to believe that we might actually have one of the rarest birds falling right into our laps: a coastline abundant in swell and blessed with miles of setups that are almost all easily accessible—one that’s never been pushed into surfing’s public consciousness.

December 2021

Back in Anchorage, Ben and I are down to one solution: charter a private flight. In order to do that, though, we need to convince the trip’s backers to give us even more money than they already have, an ask that’s always uncomfortable. Still, it’s the only move we can make to salvage all the work we’ve put in. From the tarmac, our brains and thumbs go straight to work. 

The text reads, “Hey everyone. We are in Anchorage with the crew for the Island X film. Unfortunately, we’ve been delayed for four days due to weather maintenance issues with the airlines that service Alaska’s remote outer islands. At this point the entire project is in jeopardy. If we can’t fly out tomorrow, the next flight won’t be until the middle of next week, due to a storm that is tracking for this weekend. Right now, our only option is to book a charter for tomorrow morning. The cost is [redacted]. Curious what your thoughts are and if between the three brands, we can round up the extra financial support to make this happen. Otherwise, the reality is we might not be able to return until next fall. This is incredibly urgent and we need to decide in the next couple hours. Thank you for your help. We appreciate your support, and are so thankful for the opportunity.”

Ricardo’s family cabin, on the bluff above the left. It felt something like fate that his grandfather had built the home so far away from the main village on a perfect pointbreak, and that Ricardo would later become the island’s first surfer.

Ben and I deliberate if it was the right move to make. We know that if just one sponsor bites, it will pressure the other two to commit as well. It feels ambitious. It also feels sleazy. But it’s now or never.

For 28 minutes, we anxiously await a response. Then the phone pings. The message reads, “We’re happy to pay half from our end, if the other two brands can split the second half.” The other two brands quickly agree.

Our flight back to Island X is booked for 11 o’clock the next morning. 

August 2019

After a year of convincing, Jeremy hosts Ben’s first trip to Island X. During his weeklong stay, the sun doesn’t set. 

One afternoon, Ben walks into the island’s lone bar. There, he meets a born-and-raised local named Athena. In conversation, he reveals that he’s on the island looking for waves. She, somewhat surprised as to his intentions, offers to take him to meet her brother, Ricardo Merculief. Athena then explains, much to Ben’s own surprise, that Ricardo is a surfer. 

After 45 minutes by quads down a bumpy, makeshift dirt road, Ben and Athena pull into a clearing in the tall coastal grass where Ricardo and his girlfriend, Brooke, are rebuilding a family cabin that had burnt to the ground earlier in the year. At first, Ricardo seems to find it a bit odd that Ben has shown up on his land, looking for surf. 

Josh and Noah, two Santa Cruz hotshots separated in age by nearly three decades, but cut from the same exploratory cloth. Whenever they surf together, Noah always sits inside of Josh. That’s respect. 

As it often happens when strangers meet in places off the beaten path, Ben and Ricardo soon get to talking. Ricardo explains that he and Brooke have been surfing the island for 15 years, entirely on their own. He also tells Ben a bit about the spots on the island, and it turns out that there’s even more on offer than Jeremy has seen and shared. Among those spots is a long left-hand pointbreak, which just happens to be on Ricardo’s property. 

Ben looks up the coastline and notices a headland off in the distance. At present, however, it’s completely flat. So, too, are the rest of Island X’s setups on this trip. Part of him sees no point in returning. The other part? It’s telling him to see things all the way through to their end. 

December 2021

The words “private charter” quickly conjure images of sinking into big leather swivel seats while drinking champagne on the way to Paris, New York, or Milan. 

Our 14-seat dual-propeller Raytheon Beech 1900C begs to differ. It feels more like a coffin with wings, a decaying hunk of metal that’s supposed to take us across the deadliest sea on the planet. To top it off, our pilots are a pair of 18-year-olds right out of flight school. Later, we’ll each exchange stories of our own internalized panic attacks. 

It feels more like a coffin with wings, a decaying hunk of metal supposed to take us across the deadliest sea on the planet. 

But the draw of Island X is too heavy. And, as with most flights, our worries vanish after takeoff. The plane flies smoothly through clear Alaskan air—a rarity—and the scenery is incredible. Vast and rugged snow-capped peaks fill the frame of our small windows. As the mountains give way to the Bering, we all settle in for a sunny, easy three-hour flight. 

We take it as a good sign when, upon descent, the pilots remove the sun blinders from the plane’s windshield and start pointing down. We rush to the front of the plane and watch as our destination comes into view. The feeling of relief is overwhelming. Island X is covered in a fresh blanket of snow that reflects the winter’s low light.

October 2019

Our full crew of six touches down on Island X together for the first time. It’s early afternoon when we land. The sun is low and casts long shadows on the island’s barren landscape.

The ground crew unloads our supplies. It immediately paints us as outsiders: 300 eggs, 20 packs of tortillas, 20 cans of beans, 8 pounds of cheese, 5 pounds of coffee. And that’s not even counting the number and weight of the rest of our gear—clothes, camera equipment, laptops, surfboards, and wetsuits, among other items. We then pack everything back up and slide it all into the beds of the rental trucks. 

We arrive the day after an enormous run of wind, and swell is pouring in on all sides of the island. Little time is wasted in getting to Ricardo’s land. Unlike when Ben was here in August, the road is now a perpetually slick nightmare of mud and tall grass.

Josh prepares to tuck and run at the chip-in slab. Note the vastness and volatility of the playing field down the coast behind him.
When the right-hand slab turned into an Indo-style left, Noah owned it. This turn would’ve been after a multi-second tube. The only thing that made him finally get one in was the coming dark.

We reach the bluff and see the point in the distance—a long, rippable left breaking over cobblestones, with the occasional almond-shaped tube. Everyone says something to nobody in particular at the exact same time.

For two days, we surf Ricardo’s private left point, and we begin to finally understand just what Island X has to offer. However, the swell is small for the rest of the trip. We go out looking anyway, to at least map out the rest of the island’s offerings, and spot a beachbreak on the northern part of the island that appears to have tons of potential, as well as a few other locations we’d previously seen in Jeremy’s photos.

Then, toward the end of our stay, the wind begins to blow again. It lasts for several days and stirs up a swell so big that it wraps around the entire landmass. As it passes, it flips offshore for a specific sliver of sand. The waves are better than expected, a shoulder-high beachbreak with spitting barrels. 

Much is learned about the island during our three-week trip—about what’s on offer in the water, about the allure of desolation and isolation and potential. But we don’t get to surf or see that flawless right point that brought the island to our attention two years before.

December 2021

Once again, and as planned, we arrive just after a massive wind event. We head straight for the left point, and the road is much more manageable now that the ruts and grass are covered in snow. 

Out at the clearing, standing in view on the edge of the bay, is Ricardo’s finished cabin. He and Brooke had completed it the year prior. Below the structure, lines are funneling into the cobblestone cove. The swell is raw, almost out of control. But the wind soon picks up in intensity and switches dead offshore, and in no time the jumbled slop becomes the clean, reeling left point we remember from two years prior. 

 Pete, keeping things loose amid frigid conditions.
Josh, who’s scored empty surf across continents for decades, paddled back out after this wave shouting, over and over, “Can you believe this?

Driving home at dusk, Pete radios back that he, Ben, and Mike have just seen a legit wave break over a reef we hadn’t previously known about. By the time Josh, Noah, and I arrive, it’s too dark to make anything out. We decide to keep the spot in our back pocket. 

The following morning, the wind flips the other way. The left is not rideable, so we head over to check a beach farther south. The trucks split up, and within 30 minutes our truck is calling out over the radio to explain, between screams, that we’ve found a half-mile strip of sand spinning off long, hollow rights at breakneck speed. An all-day affair. 

On day three, we wake up in the dark to find that the wind has clocked back around. We go straight back to the spot where Pete, Mike, and Ben claimed to see that wave spit two nights earlier. And as they make their way up and over the ridge again, Pete’s voice comes across the radio in an indecipherable riot of hoots and hollers. The radio then goes silent. I floor the F-150 and get to the top of the cliff just in time to see a picture-perfect A-frame suck up, ledge over the cobblestone reef, go square, peel to the right, and puke its insides out. As the tide rises, the right starts to shut down, but the left turns on—a barrel off the drop into a long, steep wall for railwork. 

On the way home that night, Josh and I end up alone in one of the trucks. We both have to hold back a few tears, as the emotional toll of everything that’s gone into scoring Island X is overwhelming. It feels like redemption.

Loading rigs before dawn during snow flurries ensures the day will start wet and end wet. Weather posed a continuous challenge in all respects.

Over the coming days, we surf many more waves. Different points. The beachbreak. All of them, waves you’d draw in your schoolbook. In total, we surf seven of the nine days we spend on the island. Unfortunately, due to an approaching storm that could potentially keep us grounded for an extra week, we are forced to move up our flight out. 

And what of the freight-train right point that brought us here in the first place? The closest we get is watching a few sloppy, triple-overhead waves go inside-out far off in the distance on a day that’s too unruly to even give it a try. I’m sure it has its moments. The evidence exists. But as I now know, it’s just one of many options on this small patch of tundra in the middle of nowhere called Island X. For now, we’ll leave the right for Ricardo and Brooke to enjoy, entirely alone.

On Island X, the way the wind blows determines how the swell wraps. Due to its location in the Bering, the wind and swell are unpredictable. Case in point: The day after the beachbreak reeled long, point-like rights, it was dotted with A-frame peaks. The day after that? Wide-open lefts. A strange land indeed.
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