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Regrets Only: Dirty West

Bad decisions and alphanumeric survival tactics at Cloudbreak.

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Most surfers remember the big day at Cloudbreak in July, 2011, when Bruce Irons got that bomb on Nathan Fletcher’s borrowed pink 10’0″. Well, it’s a day I’m still trying to forget.

At a 19 second interval, the famed outer ledge of the reef was feeling every inch of the swell. But with a “dirty west” angle, making it out of a tube was tough. Idyllic morning conditions gave way to 25 knot trade winds blowing left to right, putting a heavy chop on the ocean. The swell had increased, and the sets were reaching that fabled 20-foot mark. By noon, it was only Garrett McNamara, Reef McIntosh, and myself willing to try our luck paddling.

A set approached. I double-checked my lineups and watched as the current slowly pulled Reef and Garrett about a football field up the reef.

The wind whistling across the ocean gave way to whistles from the boats in the channel. I started a series of deep breaths. After a glimpse of the first wave in the set, the whistles turned to yelling and screaming, and the three of us scratched for the horizon.

I planted my head flat into the deck of my board, and veered my 8’0″ toward the channel. I wanted to position myself for the second wave and was focused on being 100 percent committed when I got to it. I might have been a bit too focused about what was ahead. I was quickly snapped out of it by what felt like the outward pull of the entire Pacific Ocean.

I glanced over my left shoulder and saw Garrett and Reef’s boards unmanned and two splashes from where they pulled their leashes and dove for safety. When I glanced back to my right, I realized I had no chance of making it over the wave. Still wanting catch the wave behind it, and being full of breath and full of myself, I tried to duck dive my 8’0″, midface, while wearing a padded flotation vest.

“I opened my eyes to see the surface on the back of the wave. Two feet from breaking through, I felt a change in the water around me. There was no more forward progress. The water droplet patterns became distant and I realized I had become a part of the lip and was going down fast.”

I punched through the wave, wiggled my rails, and kicked with both legs. It seemed to work—at first. I felt air bubbles exiting my nose and opened my eyes to see the surface on the back of the wave.

Two feet from breaking through, I felt a change in the water around me. There was no more forward progress. The water droplet patterns became distant and I realized I had become a part of the lip and was going down fast. I bear hugged my board and hoped for the best.

Upon impact, my board was vaporized into pieces and my leash was torn from my ankle. A violent series of somersaults ensued—I lost count at six. The deluge of water rushing around me was so loud and powerful, it sounded like a jet was taking off 2 feet from my head. My limbs felt like they were being pulled from their sockets.

I drew myself into a ball, and started reciting the alphabet to calm myself down. I was under for so long I started to visualize it in lowercase. Just as I started to reach the surface, I heard another jet take off.

The water around me was very still. I thought it might be a ski buzzing. I extended my left arm and that’s when I felt it—a force of water that split my fingers, grabbed my arm, and threw me into a second set of somersaults. Seven, eight, nine times. I had no idea where up was. I started counting again—a, b, c…

Physically and emotionally exhausted, I swiped up to the surface, got a breath of air, and dealt with a few more whitewaters. As the set cleared, I rolled on my back and extended my arm upward. I heard the whistles and screams again but they were pointing for a ski to come grab me. At last, I saw Ryan Hipwood pull up. He dragged me onto the sled and out of harms way.

There are very few things I regret in life, but trying to duck dive a 20-foot set at Cloudbreak is at the top of my list.