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Treading the line in Morocco.

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Just Say Go

For how much attention riding massive surf gets, the big-wave community is actually a pretty small group of ultra-focused participants. And there are very few people more embedded and involved in that community than big-wave world champion and four-time Jaws event winner Billy Kemper.

Near the end of last winter, I received a message from Billy. He said that it had been small at his home in Hawaii, that nothing was shaping up on the forecast, and that he wanted to make the trip over to Morocco to have a go at the right-hand points. The only problem, I explained to him, was that there wasn’t much happening on our forecast either. There was just one swell on the charts, and it didn’t look like it would be anything out of the ordinary. Still, I told him to book his flight anyway, and to not book a return ticket just yet. You never know, and I had a feeling something special might happen in the northern Atlantic.

By the time Billy landed in Casablanca a few days later—with Hawaiian Koa Smith and Californian Luke Davis in tow—not only had that single little swell on the forecast grown substantially, but there was an even larger pulse just behind it.

Southern Surprise

Compared to the northern part of the country, southern Morocco is sparsely populated, bookended by mountains to the east and ocean-facing cliffs to the west. Between the small towns, the highways are mostly empty except for the numerous military checkpoints. Surf-wise, its most famous attraction is a little stretch of coast that’s recently become somewhat of a destination for beginners and longboarders. 

In the 30 years that I’ve lived and surfed here, from Tangier at the north end to Tarfaya at the southern tip, I’ve spent lots of time studying and searching much of the coastline. I’ve found that, despite its reputation, the southern region has a lot to offer in terms of surf, including a series of slabs and a certain outer reef.  

So when the first swell landed and was focused farther to the south than expected, I made the call to take Billy, Koa, and Luke down the coast. We left most of our things at the hotel in Safi, packing light to try to time a fast and early arrival with the best possible combination of size and conditions. In three cars carrying the crew and boards, with jet skis on the trailer, we made the 200-mile drive in just around two hours. When we got there, we saw two waves break perfectly out at the reef and were convinced that we’d pulled it off. Then the wind picked up, and we knew any chance of surfing that day was gone.

The next morning, though the swell had jumped in size, the ocean was still a mess. We nearly made the call to abandon the whole plan and head back up to Safi, where the points are sheltered from the breeze. But just before we packed it in, the wind suddenly died and the Atlantic turned to glass. We gave the outer reef a try, but eventually all of our attention turned to one of the slabs. It’s a heavy, shallow wave, and I’ve taken lots of well-known professionals there who quickly decided they didn’t want any piece of it. But our crew, which  included Frenchman Justin Becret and a few of my friends, surfed without a wave going unridden through the afternoon until near dark. The road back to Safi was driven at a much slower pace.  

Interlude to a Mountain Holiday

The initial forecast showed a week or so break between the first swell and the larger one behind it. I thought I’d gotten lucky, as those days in between happened to coincide with a trip I’d planned for my family to go skiing at Courchevel in the French Alps

We left Morocco as scheduled and weren’t even in the mountains a full day—hadn’t even clicked into our skis—before I started getting updates that the second swell had moved in sooner than expected. And that it had grown. The next day, I began receiving pictures and video clips of all-time surf that was by then wrapping into Safi. 

I knew the waves were only going to get better in the coming days. I was torn up inside, but really didn’t want to leave my family. Fortunately for me, my wife took one look at my face and told me to go back. I was in Courchevel for less than three days.

Rare Sand, Rare Form

It was a Tuesday night when I landed back in Morocco. I arrived at the hotel in Safi around midnight and, through the darkness, could see waves slamming into the shore at the bottom of the point that were larger than I’d ever seen break there. The swell was that big. 

The next morning, two hours before dawn, we began prepping the boards, the jet skis, and the rest of our gear. We launched from the beach and got to the top of the point right at first light. It can get extremely crowded on a good swell at Safi. But on that morning, while there were probably close to a hundred people watching from the cliff, there wasn’t a single person in the water when we motored up. It was just too huge, too heavy. But it was flawless, the ideal combination of size, angle, and wind. Most of all, the sand was groomed down the point as perfectly as I could remember.

Certain places around the world, even the most famous setups on their day, might only be really pumping for a short period. Often, it’s just an hour or two. But when Safi is on, it’s on around the clock for days at a time. That morning, we surfed completely alone for close to five hours. 

The sky was clear and blue, with a certain haze that feels specific to North Africa. The sets felt like they were coming in nonstop. We were lucky to have multiple skis to ferry us back out to the lineup after each wave. The current that sweeps down the point makes it nearly impossible to stay in the right position and catch more than a few waves in a day by hand. It’s the difference between getting 50 barrels and two. All of us got closer to the former. 

Towards noon, a small number of other surfers paddled out, including a couple of locals and some professional tube hunters who’d flown in at the last minute. Still, Billy, Koa, and Luke put on a show. Between the three, they pulled into and made close to a dozen of the best barrels I’ve witnessed at Safi in the last decade.

End Game

As morning turned into afternoon, the tide got low to the point where I started telling the crew not to go on certain waves that were just too gnarly and ridiculous. Coupled with how tired our arms and legs were, and even with ski assistance, it got downright dangerous on certain sets. Nevertheless, our plan was to surf until there wasn’t enough daylight left to see.

Deep-rooted Moroccan local looks.

Safi is a sand-bottomed pointbreak that runs for nearly 400 meters on its main section. But there are two or three large rocks—boulders, really—scattered throughout that section. One of them is situated right where the wave loads up to barrel for the second time. Over the years, I’ve seen maybe three or four guys hit it when they don’t make a wave in just the wrong spot. Each time, it’s been disastrous. 

In the late afternoon, Billy and I were sitting out the back by ourselves when a bomb swung wide, just a mutant of a wave. Billy dropped into it without hesitation. He made the first barrel, but it bottomed out on him as he set up for the next section. He hit the rock almost dry. 

From where I was in the water, I didn’t know Billy had been hurt until one of the skis throttled out to pick me up. Billy was on the sled of the other ski, in so much pain that he couldn’t talk. 

We immediately began making our way back toward the harbor. Strangely but luckily, not a single wave came through as we slipped through the impact zones down the point. But with every little bump on the water’s surface, you could tell by the expression on Billy’s face and by how tightly he was gritting his teeth that something was severely wrong. 

Major surf injuries are, nearly always, the product of a combination of unlucky factors lining up in the worst possible way. Kemper, pre–pelvis break, showing that his bagging of a week’s worth of standup tubes was anything but a matter of chance.

I managed to call an ambulance from the water, and they were waiting for us when we pulled up at the dock. Billy first went to the local hospital in Safi, where they performed an X-ray that revealed he’d broken his pelvis. Needing more extensive care, we arranged a transfer for him to a bigger, better-equipped hospital in Casablanca, where he rested for the next few days until we could find a flight for him to get back home to Hawaii. At one point, by his bedside, I found a mussel from the rock jammed into his ribcage. That’s how hard he slammed into it.

The swell continued for almost another week, but we didn’t even think of going back to Safi with Billy in such a state. There will always be more waves, but in the big-wave community the most important rule is to always look out for each other.