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Occidental Drift

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The marina sports club is situated in the bowels of a restaurant bearing the same name, overlooking the sluice of this ramshackle harbor town. An inauspicious place to start a trip—avoiding eye contact, drinking tiny stubbies of beer, and listening to the broken dreams of a soul mired to his neck in this remote corner of the seafaring world. 

“You owe me 10K, Daniel,” says the sailor into the payphone across from us.

“I know. I know you are in deeper than me…No, I’ll pay your man once you pay me…Stop that, I told you…Don’t you dare bring my son into this.” 

He hangs up and downs the last of his beer in a combined flourish, a true pastiche of the washed-up seaman stereotype. He returns to a circular tabled lined with a scattering of bottles, paperwork, and half-smoked cigarettes. 

We sit surrounded by macabre aquatic trophies hoisted from the apparently bountiful waters. Fins and appendages of unknown fish species dunked in thick varnish hang incongruously on the walls next to American baseball memorabilia.

I grab another stubby and return to our table for a detailed route-planning discussion with Greg Long and Al Mackinnon. All of us have been on our own arduous journeys to this point. Months of planning have morphed into a blur of nights and days spent under the unremitting glare of airport LEDs and barked announcements. 

We still have a fair way to travel, primarily overcoming the significant hurdle of organizing a boat transfer to a stretch of coast impossible to reach by any other method. Hence our presence near the docks. Unfortunately we’ve found a different, rougher scene than expected. The transit season has long passed. Only salty strays and wounded yachts are left.

We clutch our beers and poke at our phones, discussing in hushed detail the screenshots that have brought us here. It’s a promising Google Earth setup. The handful of pictures we found online, unwittingly taken by a group of intrepid hikers, appear to show a pumping righthand point in the background. 

I notice the bar girl never looks up when polishing glasses. I guess this kind of conspiratorial talk is par for the course here. She simply clangs a fresh set of stubbies onto our laminate table. 

Since Greg has come onboard, our modest ambitions have been elevated from mere adventure to serious big-wave exploration. With a booming swell forecast and offshore depths just off the point, there is serious potential. Greg is also packing real heat in a quiver of Christenson guns, which he brought with the specific intention of pioneering new parameters in this remote zone.

After a few more beers and a handful of forays down to the wharf, we eventually wrangle a boat that suits our needs and leave the port town behind us. Looking to stern I study the place from the water. All things look less scurrilous from the sea. 

*

Climbing away from our landing we navigate a series of scaly, cobbled switchbacks. The 4×4 we’ve organized is stacked with gear and a fallen tree, which we’ve appropriated from the side of the road and hope to burn for fuel. Through the dust-laden air, we can make out the boat that brought us here exiting the harbor and reentering the wind-lashed channel. 

Open vistas of contorted gullies and ravines speak of incomprehensible geological process and time. A bend in the trail reveals a solitary, sleeping road worker sheltering from the sun. Tightly bound in taut fabric, with only his eyes showing, he leaves us with no illusions that the pace of life is altogether slower and more austere in this barren landscape. 

Our slow crawl upward continues for hours until we reach a plateau, where we finally catch glimpse of the village that has been the focus of our surf plans. It has an air of familiarity about it, the view merging into my memories of the photos I’ve seen and the research we’ve conducted. The comforting sight of trees is welcome after the desolate beauty of the mountain steppe and extended journey on our way in.

This outpost owes its existence to the rare presence of freshwater, hemmed in by barren desert on one side and the open ocean on the other. A small natural spring gives the precipitous valley a verdant appeal, allowing humans to cling to this remote and inhospitable slice of coastline. 

*

Approaching the wave from the back of the point, we quickly see how critical swell direction is to the quality of the waves running down it. The swells rise powerfully out of deep water at a 90-degree angle to the takeoff, causing the occasional wave to be defined by a marauding foamball that angrily compresses across a carefully laid carpet of urchins. 

Greg isn’t nervous. Or he’s doing a good job of not giving the game up. “Looks fun,” he says. “Looks big,” I say. I’m nervous about a lot of things—the sketchy rock jump, the urchin-infested reef, being more than four hours from the nearest medical facility. 

Of immediate concern is the unimpeded violence of the ocean lifting out of unfathomable depths and unloading onto the exposed side of the point. I wear boots and still get speared by an urchin. Greg doesn’t of course, bare feet and all. The water is warm, a glutinous spread of inky black over the basalt reef. 

Despite the compound and vehicles (where the washes meet in the middle ground), Long’s ant-like, midface trail seems to be the least deceptive indicator of both the true size of the pulse and scale of the swell.

We slowly work our way down the point until we reach a more conducive hip in the reef, some 200 meters from the top, which is focusing the swell into a tubing section that exhales into a rippy trough.

Down at the camp post-surf, a handful of inquisitive goats inspect us and our surfboards splayed under the tarp in the midday heat. They turn their heads away in disdain of our sheer pointlessness, our indelibleness, our waste of precious moisture. 

We’ve had to carry all our supplies over a plain of rocks and through a long-dried riverbed to this advanced base camp. Our research had shown the presence of a dirt track nearby, upon which we hoped to gain vehicular access. Once on the ground, however, we realize that it is little more than two-foot wide and impassable. So forward and back we travel, each item imbued with purpose and utility by the sheer effort required. Water, food, fuel (our firewood) and shelter are elevated with an importance that we are all guilty of forgetting in the “normal” world, surrounded by creature comforts.

A volcano sits close to the wave. We surmise the reef was spawned from the guts of the earth during its eruption. What surprises me most about this place is that there is little transition from land to sea, as if the cinder-like desert trips unexpectedly and headlong into the ocean. 

Long, picking through the intertidal zone, hoping for a bloodless launch from the volcanic rubble.

The intertidal zone is barely ten-feet wide. A varied array of flotsam and jetsam sits upon the line. A large proportion of the waste is comprised of flip-flops in every color and varying states of decomposition—man’s contribution to the landscape, an almost comedic spread of toxic footwear laid to rest like shoes on a porch. Above the high-water mark, we find ancient shells pitted by years in the blistering heat and unrelenting wind, presumably deposited here by some unknown swell event.

Night is spent under a smear of crystalline stars. I can feel the residual warmth of the parched earth beneath me slowly fade as another day is resigned to the past. The sky, entirely devoid of light pollution, opens into layers of beauty seldom seen. In this empty place, the impossible cosmic scale has the power to paradoxically make you feel small but also, at the same time, large. It seems like I never truly fall asleep. I also feel entirely rested in the encompassing silence and calm of the wild.

*

A new swell arrives predawn. Al is already awake, prepping his camera gear and rousing the fire back to life. This is as much his moment as it is mine or Greg’s. He has a plan to capture a dawn composition of the wave, the vista, and our camp from a vantage point miles inland. 

Greg generously offers me his spare gun but I politely decline, despite knowing it to be the best option. It’s as if an admittance to myself that these conditions require a board beyond my 7’0″ should exclude me from the experience. 

I’ll be okay on a 7’0″, I tell myself. My 7’0″ is enough.

The down-coast setup, alluring for those with a wandering eye and strong legs—at least prior to wind shredding. 

The energy of the dawn and the rising swell meet in a crescendo at the back beach we plan to paddle from. Greg calmly notes the gaps between the sets. In front of the jury of the shorebreak, I finally admit that this surf is on the limit of my comfort zone. I can see Greg recognize that in me, the fear we all know well. I watch as he affixes his hand-tied leash to his gun, checking each inch of its length for wear. Then we enter the water.

In this wild corner of the world, without any instant fanfare and glory, the only thing left is the question presented by large surf: Do you want to go? 

Devoid of the cavalier, gung-ho attitude of pure youth, Greg’s surfing is an exploration of the questions these conditions pose. He seems to employ a considered application of a singular approach—and the understanding that there are no conclusive answers to be found.

Two hours after we exit the surf, as we greedily scoff cereal bars in the welcome shade of the tarp, we make out a speck of white on the mountains behind us. A train of dust trails behind the dot as we follow Al’s progress down toward the camp through the haze of the heat.

When he arrives, we can tell from his wild eyes and reddened skin that he has been above and beyond for his work. 

“Where you been, Al?” Greg asks with the glimmer of a smile. 

“Tierra del Fuego,” says Al in deadpan reply. 

Apparently, he has discovered more than a land of fire on his search for the perfect photograph. His elevated spot afforded him a view of the coast beyond the blinkered confines of our camp. Another wave—perfect in form and previously unobserved—could be seen violently spitting miles away. 

*

A 4 a.m. start on foot the next morning allows us to maximize the cool hours, beginning our chain-gang shuffle through the difficult terrain—conscious of the serious consequences of a twisted ankle. The slow arrival of dawn behind the mountainous terrain gives the landscape the depth of a woodblock print. We know we are close to the coast when we find the skeleton of a puffer fish, flippantly thrown up from the sea and frozen in time. 

At daybreak we watch as the normally reliable winds play havoc on the break we’ve invested so much effort to reach. Amid the vertiginous terrain, the direction of the breeze contorts itself and begins tearing into a flurry of standing waves and chop at the precise spot marked as our likely takeoff. 

We sit deflated as the wave moves through a flux state of onshore junk and kegging, offshore pits. Confined to a hastily constructed shelter, we agree this land is a true expression of elemental brutality, as if each of its separate constituent forms had been individually reduced into their windiest, hottest, hardest, spikiest iterations.

On our last evening I go for a walk down by the point, taking my phone in the hope of capturing some photos of the creatures that call this shallow, transitional shoreline home. Switching it on to film an incoming set, I hear a ping, an artificial noise I haven’t heard for days. 

A message from my father appears across the screen. I look at the signal bar—zilch. A small piece of cellular backwash must have bounced into this specific zone and, with it, delivered this tiny message from the outside world.

My dad says he is currently on Google Earth looking around the remote village that I told him we were planning to use as the base of our expedition. He says he can see a point near a prominent volcano with a solitary tree that has potential for waves. I realize we are currently camped under that exact tree and next to that volcano. We have been surfing along that very point for days.

In this most remote of places, this singular unit of unsolicited communication initially serves to jolt my senses. Then my shock mellows into an overwhelming sense of intimacy. I feel the presence of my father’s gaze upon this overlooked corner of the world as if he is physically sitting in orbit, looking down from the satellite, staring in wonder at the same pointbreak that originally inspired us to make this pilgrimage.

I look up and envision the satellite scouring through the sky as the sun drifts away towards the finality of the occidental horizon. I wonder about the other waves it can see.

A high-vantage perspective of the encampment and its isolated features and amenities.