Memories of Peta

Gerald Saunders on the discovery—and death—of Petacalco from TSJ Volume 8.

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In the early 1970s, the only surfers on the planet who knew the name “Petacalco” were those who had been there. In that pre-Google Earth and social media epoch, The Code was adhered to. It was based on a simple verity: if a locale had been transformational for you, and you had put the hard yards in to get there and to learn it, to know it, why in god’s name would you broadcast the news, thus ruining the future experience not only for yourself, but for future adventurers?

The handful of riders and old Mexico hands who built lives around the wave at Peta did what they could to preserve the essence of the experience, and were successful until the first photos appeared in Surfer magazine under the cover line, “Discovery on the way home from Centroamerica.” It wasn’t named in the article, but an instant and insatiable buzz was created. Soon enough, the rank and file learned that the wave, tucked in the Guerrero Bight midpoint between Manzanillo and Acapulco, was world class.

Poignantly, a massive dam project despoiled the resource, making a Gerald Saunders’ story in TSJ 8.4 politically correct and suitable for this edition of The Archivist. —Scott Hulet

The adventure began innocently enough with a visit from the Beast. It was the middle of winter in 1971, and I’d been back in Ocean Beach for several months following my second trip to France and Spain. Although La Barre hadn’t been nearly as good in ’71 as it was in ’70, the waves we got at Hossegor and the newly discovered Mundaka had more than offset the strange absence of surf at La Barre. I was looking forward to returning the following autumn, but still had to surf my way through another chilly San Diego winter.

The Beast told me he was leaving in a couple of days on a trip down mainland Mexico and, needing some gas money, wondered if I felt like joining him. I told him Mazatlan and San Blas didn’t excite me much and that maybe I’d be more interested the next time he went. He shuffled his feet a bit and said that although where we’d be going was a secret, there were some serious waves down there. This sounded intriguing so I said, “Sure, why not?” Beasty then recommended that I bring the biggest guns I could get my hands on, so I borrowed an 8’4″ Hanley from my friend K-Pie and dug out my old 8’0″ Bradbury Creative Freedom. I figured I was ready for anything. Little did I know!

The Beast, a friend of his named Steve, and I departed San Diego two or three days later and headed south in the Beast’s VW van. Being in a hurry, the Beast drove non-stop to Mazatlan. He didn’t trust either Steve or myself to drive his car, so we spent a day sleeping on the beach before continuing southward. A day or so later we were passing through Guadalajara and I asked the Beast for the thousandth time where we were going. I had this crummy map of Mexico in my lap and was thinking that maybe I’d found his secret spot. He still wouldn’t tell, but did indicate that we’d be driving to Mexico City, then down to Acapulco, before continuing still farther south. The problem was the spot I’d located on the map was over two hundred miles north of Acapulco.

We stopped the car and I showed him this big point near the small town of Melchor Ocampo. It was the only substantial feature on the map for hundreds of miles in either direction
(I told you it was a crummy map). Initially, the Beast wasn’t too excited. But I said, “What if this thing is a ten-mile-long, perfect right point that makes J Bay look like California Street? How cool would it be to be the first guys to surf it?” He started to get a bit pissed off—never a good idea if you knew the Beast—and blurted out that we were headed for this tremendous beach break he’d heard about. It was called Puerto Escondido or some such thing, and he didn’t want to go off in the wrong direction looking for a point that didn’t exist. As I looked at the map more closely, I noticed a faint line running down to the coast near Playa Azul that continued on to Acapulco. When I brought the alternate route to Beasty’s attention, he capitulated and agreed to drive to the coast through the towns of Uruapan and El Infiernio so we could try to find this questionable point.

We arrived at the coast at Playa Azul and proceeded to drive down every dirt road we saw on our way south. All we came across were miles and miles of closed-out beach breaks without a point in sight. The road took us inland, and before long we crossed a large dam spanning the Rio Balsas. We’d pretty much given up on finding any ridable surf and had resigned ourselves to the long drive south when, as we were passing through a small town, one of us noticed that the ocean was visible at the end of yet another dirt road. We drove down to the beach and what we saw caused us all to start hooting in unison. We were at the inside of a small bay and the point on the north side had several beautiful rights peeling perfectly down it. We’d found it! The only thing was, the point certainly wasn’t ten miles long. That was okay, though. No doubt there were several more around the corner. We’d found the Mexican Noosa, except it looked bigger, rounder and more powerful.

Two seasons of surfing perfect French beach breaks should have prepared me for what I saw next. It didn’t even come close. What we were looking at defied description.

A little while later, we were sitting in the van trying to decide what to do next, when these two scruffy-looking characters sauntered out of the adjacent palapa and approached the car. They split up and came over to both front doors. As I was in the back, I couldn’t see them, but I was certainly surprised when they started speaking English. As I recall, the one-sided conversation went something like:

“Hey man, why don’t you start your car and drive out of here!”

“Yeah, there’s lots more waves down by Zihuat. You don’t want to surf here.”

“Go find your own spot. Don’t even think of hanging around here.”

And so on and so forth. The Beast was getting ready to go off on these two soon-to-be unfortunate gringos when the one on the passenger side stuck his head in the window to check out the interior of the van. He looked back at me, paused a beat, and said, “Shit, Gerald, I knew you’d show up sometime!”

He looked over at his friend on the driver’s side and said, “It’s cool, Pat. This guy’s an old buddy of mine.” The vibe changed immediately, and the next thing we knew, we were sitting under the palapa drinking beers with Pat Tobin and my old friend Sandy Roscoe. They told us we’d stumbled onto the best wave in the world. In my ignorance, I said the point looked pretty good, but how perfect and long were those around the corner? Sandy said, “Points, what points?” I replied that the setup appeared to be a series of perfect points, wasn’t it? Sandy and Tobin looked at each other and started laughing. “No,” Sandy said, “around the point is the best beach break you’ve ever seen. It looks like Pipeline, but it’s longer and faster.” We were a little disappointed, but followed along as they took us out to the point to take a look.

Two seasons of surfing perfect French beach breaks should have prepared me for what I saw next. It didn’t even come close. What we were looking at defied description. Several perfect peaks were exploding up and down the cobblestone beach. They were probably ten feet, really thick, and were peeling off so fast it was hard to imagine actually making one. They also seemed to be breaking right on the beach, certainly much closer than La Barre or Hossegor ever did at that size—if they ever got that size.

It’s funny, but until that moment I had no doubt that I would be surfing Europe every autumn until I was old and gray. That changed in the blink of an eye. From that point on, before I even rode my first wave, I knew we’d found the spot. And thus began a three-year-long dream that consisted of surfing the best waves I’ve ever seen. Heck, Petacalco had the best waves there ever were. It’s as simple as that.

We spent probably six weeks down there that first trip. Tobin, Roscoe, Pierre Michele, a couple of their friends from Laguna and our group of three were the only surfers there. The shoreline faced in such a strange direction that the sun rose over the ocean and set into the jungle directly behind the beach. Unlike most places along that stretch of coast, the prevailing afternoon westerly breeze blew offshore. We’d surf perfect glassy peaks every morning, walk back to the village for lunch and a siesta, and then wander back out around the point for the late afternoon offshores. On that first trip, I never saw a day smaller than six feet. When I asked Tobin what the waves were like in the summer, he said it was usually around 40 feet and that he waited until fall when the surf was a more manageable 6 to 15 feet before returning for another season. I rode the 8’4″ Hanley almost every day and became convinced that I’d have to get a much larger board for my next visit.

We’d surf perfect glassy peaks every morning, walk back to the village for lunch and a siesta, and then wander back out around the point for the late afternoon offshores. On that first trip, I never saw a day smaller than six feet.

That summer in San Diego I convinced my friend Jim Hennessy that I wasn’t kidding when I asked him to shape me a 9’4″ gun. Likewise, the Beast got Hanley to make him a 10-footer, so we felt pretty confident when we returned to Petacalco the following October. Pat Tobin, however, was still riding the board he’d shaped the previous year. It was a classic and suited his style perfectly. As I recall, the wide point was about 18 inches back from the nose. Pat decided to complete the outline with a snapline. Consequently, the template was straight as a string from the wide point to a 6-inch squaretail. I think the board was about 9’6″ long and was glassed with a bunch of scraps he had scrounged up from somewhere. He rode that board every day and was untouchable in the water.

Pat rode with a casual grace that defined for everyone how Petacalco was supposed to be ridden. His surfing was all the more remarkable because he is nearly blind. Without his coke-bottle glasses, he couldn’t see the nose of his board in front of his face. I’ve never figured out how he could display such brilliance in the water. I was reminded of a bullfighter, which was perhaps appropriate for a Latin surf spot. Tobin’s surfing was the best display of grace under pressure I’ve ever witnessed. And he did it all by Braille.

An example of Tobin’s mastery is perhaps in order. We were the only two people in the water on a particularly large and gnarly morning. Uncharacteristically, a lot of waves were closing out and you had to be really careful about which ones you picked. A large set was coming and, as we paddled over a swell, Pat asked me how the next wave looked. It was huge and so walled-up no one could possibly make it. So, of course, I told Pat it looked perfect and he could have it if he wanted it. He thanked me as he turned around and took off. I watched the thing close out all the way down the beach, blowing huge explosions of water and sand out the back. The wave was so radical, I was starting to worry that Pat had drowned when, way down the line, a little stick figure pulled over the back as the rest of the wave closed out. I sat there dumbfounded and could only nod numbly as Pat paddled back out and thanked me for giving him one of the best waves of his life!

When the surf got over 10 feet or so, an outside peak we called Insanity’s started to break. It was a beautiful wave and you could ride it all the way to the inside shore break. My friend Rod Smith and I were out there one morning when only the sets were capping over. Insanity’s broke quite a ways offshore, and between sets the glassy water resembled a swimming pool. Rod caught a wave and, since there wasn’t another behind it, I found myself sitting several hundred yards off the beach in a tranquil sea. As I was looking outside for the first signs of the next set, I saw a fin break the surface and begin to move slowly toward me. Did I ever mention how sharky this whole area is? I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring that sobering fact to your attention. Due to the proximity of an extremely deep underwater canyon, which focused the swell onto our little beach, there was an abundance of marine life within spitting distance of shore. The local fishermen from Petacalco village filled their small boats to the gunnels with red snapper virtually every day. Of course, plentiful fish meant numerous sharks. We heard many shark attack stories from the villagers and no doubt a significant percentage of them were true.

Getting back to my little shark story, I wasn’t particularly concerned when I noticed a 6- or 8-inch fin coming my way. But things became a lot more exciting as the fin started rising higher and higher out of the water. By the time at least two feet of the dorsal fin was exposed, I was balancing on my knees and pinching myself, hoping to wake up from a really bad dream. When over three feet of fin had cleared the water, I was on the verge of a heart attack. As I watched in terror, the huge beast slowly descended until there was no trace of it whatsoever. I was sitting perfectly still—frozen with fear, actually—waiting for the monster to come hurtling out of the deep and swallow me whole, when I noticed a shadow passing slowly beneath my board. I focused my gaze downward on the rear half of the biggest shark I’ve ever seen. Through the crystal-clear water, I could see that the shark was at least as big around as the Beast’s VW bus. It gradually disappeared as it continued moving slowly toward the beach. I sat perfectly still for as long as my nerves could stand, and then, using only my index fingers, began paddling shoreward. When I had finally moved in far enough to catch a wave, I lay down on my board and paddled for my life. I probably continued paddling 20 feet up the cobblestone beach before I jumped to my feet and started yelling about the shark. I didn’t go back into the water for almost a week and continued to have nightmares about the incident for the next several months.

Did I ever mention how sharky this whole area is? I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring that sobering fact to your attention.

The season came to a close, and once again I found myself waiting out the summer in San Diego. I could have returned to the Bay of Biscay for the fall, but after two seasons at Petacalco, I’d lost interest. More importantly, friends who had made the trip in 1972 reported that La Barre had quit breaking entirely. It was hard to believe that the spot where Nat and Wayne had ripped beautiful waves in ’68, where Billy Hamilton, Mark Martinson and Keith Paul had performed for MacGillivray and Freeman’s cameras in 1969, and where Steve Bigler claimed he’d gotten the best month of surf he’d ever experienced in 1970, had completely vanished. But sadly, it was true. La Barre sat on the south side of the mouth of the Adour River. Over the years, the French had sought to tame the rivermouth in order to allow large ships access to Bayonne and other cities located upstream. They constructed a pair of long jetties, which ran out to sea from either side of the rivermouth. The people in charge of river navigation were still lengthening the jetties when I first visited in 1970. Although we didn’t realize it then, the completion of those groins would cause the demise of this wonderful surf spot.

As I’m sure most of you know coastal sand migrates slowly along the shoreline, its direction determined in large part by the geographic location of the coast in question. The technical name for this river of sand is the littoral drift. The drift runs from north to south along that section of the French coastline. Consequently, the newly completed jetties prevented the sandbars at La Barre from sustaining themselves. In retrospect, we came to understand that this was why, in 1971, La Barre only broke at low tide. The sand bottom was almost gone, and we were witnessing this surf spot’s final gasps. It’s been nearly 30 years since those last seasons at La Barre, and I think one can safely assume it won’t break again in our lifetime. That’s a shame, since, as the surf movies of the day—Evolution, Sunshine Sea, and A Sea for Yourself—showed, it was a great spot. Little did I suspect that in three short years and thousands of miles from France, history would repeat itself.

As the summer of 1974 progressed, the Petacalco crew planned for the coming season. Once again, everyone had decided that their boards still weren’t long enough! The Beast had Jim Hanley shape him an 11’4″ for those larger days. My friend Jim Hennessy built me a 9-footer and a 10’6″. Geppy, John Amsterdam, Mike Wellman, and several others were also going over 10 feet. The Beast, being the Beast, had the only 11-footer. We all figured he’d need it. You would have gotten a real kick out of those boards. They were designed for just one thing. The waves were so big and fast that the only way we could ride them was to paddle like hell, get in early at an angle, and haul ass. This wasn’t a finesse spot by any means. Hence, the huge boards. Not only were they quite long, they were also very heavy. We were putting multiple stringers in them, glassing them with two layers of 8-ounce cloth per side and making them around 22 inches wide and 4 inches thick. They probably weighed at least 40 pounds. We had made all the necessary preparations for the upcoming season—now all we could do was wait. Fortunately, surf movies and magazines helped us pass the time.

That summer, an eagerly awaited issue of Surfer magazine hit the newsstands, and horror of horrors, the cover featured a beautiful pulled-back picture of a perfect beach break peak with a couple of lucky surfers in the foreground. The caption read: “Discovery on the Way Home from Central America.” By hook or by crook, Craig Peterson and Kevin Naughton had stumbled upon perfect, empty Petacalco. Although we knew we couldn’t keep such a great spot secret forever, we certainly weren’t prepared for the lavish display Surfer presented. Tobin had been of the opinion that the stoked ravings of a few obsessed surfers couldn’t popularize a spot like Petacalco. After all, who in their right mind would believe the seemingly far-fetched tales coming out of southern Mexico? Photos, on the other hand, didn’t lie and thus were frowned upon. In a sad, ironic twist, these turned out to be the only pictures of Petacalco ever published. Although Peterson and Naughton’s article didn’t identify the location of the pictures, we were sure that the cat had been let out of the bag, and it wouldn’t be long before the masses arrived.

The waves were so big and fast that the only way we could ride them was to paddle like hell, get in early at an angle, and haul ass. This wasn’t a finesse spot by any means.

However, the article didn’t deter us from heading south in October for another winter. That season was the best one yet. Although the point where the beach turned and ran into the bay seemed to be losing its definition, the waves weren’t much different. We’d gotten the boards right and were enjoying more success than ever. My wife Mary had quit her job and joined me for the season. There were 10 or 15 of us hanging around full time that winter. The infamous Blondbeard and his brother Baby Blondbeard were renting a small place in town. Geppy, the mysterious Dr. Zephyr, and several other friends from San Diego had the boards and experience to enjoy the season. The Beast, in rare form, along with Tobin, Pierre Michele, and their friends from Laguna were preparing a nasty welcome for the inevitable return of Peterson, Naughton, and friends. Truth be told, we were all eagerly awaiting their arrival. Perhaps they figured they’d wait until things cooled off, or maybe they were still working their way through a long list of places they had yet to visit, but for whatever reason, the season passed without them making an appearance.

Other surfers did drop in. They rarely stayed long since, for the most part, they all seemed to have 6’2″ twin-fins or worse. Usually, one look at the surf was enough to send them on their way, but occasionally, one of the more intrepid surfers would paddle out for a closer look. This inevitably ended in disaster since, after sitting for an hour or two, the visitor would realize that he had to catch a wave to get back in. Usually, all we’d see was a small bit of shrapnel being thrown out with the lip on a very large wave. The surfer would drag himself out of the water, often with the help of his friends, and stagger back to town where they’d get into their car and drive away.

There were a few, however, who arrived prepared. An old friend named Steve Coletta came down for a while with some big boards he’d shaped himself. The crazy dentist Larry McGraw and his beautiful wife Linda drove nonstop from San Francisco to ride a few. Mike Wellman and his band also spent several months camping near the beach. Some of my friends from Ocean Beach also made the trip. One night, one of them, we’ll call him Oz, woke up feeling a slight pressure on his throat. He opened his eyes to see a Mexican holding a machete to his neck and indicating that he not make a sound. The Mexican’s partner got the drop on Oz’s two friends who were sleeping in the van and made off with their cash and a couple of unlikely items. Oz had been working his way through my copy of Conan Doyle’s The Complete Sherlock Holmes, and the robbers, for reasons we’ve never understood, stole it, too. Perhaps they were trying to perfect their criminal technique and felt the book would provide some helpful tips. The crime was reported the following morning. The Federales came, snooped around for a while, and then left. We heard several days later that they’d caught the culprits, lined them up against a wall and shot them. Although we never verified this, it certainly wouldn’t have surprised me.

Once a week, we’d fire up the camper and drive to town for food and water. We’d cross the big dam, which was always heavily guarded, and then cruise into the town of Lazaro Cardenas. On our first trip in 1972, it was known as Melchor Ocampo, but the Mexican government, in conjunction with the Japanese, had great plans in store for the town and clearly thought its old name was not sufficiently worthy. Lazaro Cardenas was president of Mexico from 1934 until 1940 and was one of those rare visionaries who actually wanted to improve the plight of the average Mexican. Considering that the Japanese were financing what was to become the largest steel mill in the third world right there in little old Melchor Ocampo, why not rename the place Lazaro Cardenas? The dam was already complete and work was being done on the rivermouth. Jetties were being extended seaward so a channel could be dredged, allowing large ships access to the steel mill. Sound familiar?

Without a care in the world, we continued to surf perfect waves all day and feast at night on the fresh red snapper the locals cooked for us in their beachside palapas. We also consumed enormous quantities of the cervezas we bought for four dollars a case in Lazaro. At a certain level of inebriation, we were able to converse with the locals in fluent Spanish. Well, maybe not, but we sure thought we could.

Without a care in the world, we continued to surf perfect waves all day and feast at night on the fresh red snapper the locals cooked for us in their beachside palapas. We also consumed enormous quantities of the cervezas we bought for four dollars.

During one of the few flat spells, Tobin, Pierre, Mary, and I were sitting in our camper working our way through a bottle of tequila Pat had brought along. When we finished the bottle and were still conscious, Mary pulled out a fifth of Pernod we had buried somewhere. We polished off the Pernod and someone had the bright idea that we should walk out to the point for a bit of bodysurfing. We’d gone a hundred yards or so when, through my blurry haze, I realized something was attacking my ankles. I looked down—hell—I almost fell over, and there was Tobin crawling on his hands and knees, growling like a dog and biting my feet. We actually got to the point and went for a swim. In all probability, we should have drowned but instead ended up nursing a massive hangover for the next two days.

Mary and I went exploring for a couple of weeks around Christmas. On the way back from the Guatemalan highlands, we decided to take a detour through Puerto Escondido. We drove down the coast from Oaxaca and spent two or three days exploring the little town and adjacent beach break. There wasn’t another surfer to be seen, and although the surf was five or six feet and looked pretty good, it was a far cry from what I was used to. We left and spent the next three or four days driving back to Petacalco. When we arrived, for comparisons sake, I asked how the surf had been recently. The reply wasn’t surprising. It had been 10 or 12 feet and perfect. The size and consistency of the surf there must have had a lot to do with the extremely deep undersea canyon that reaches into Bahia de Petacalco. It diverted the swell from the nearby beaches, especially those to the south, and focused it all on that southeast-facing stretch of coast.

If I had known what was going to happen to Peta, I would have made a greater effort to take more pictures of the place. Lucky for us, John Amsterdam went to the trouble of recording a few fairly average days on film. When I start doubting my memories of those huge, powerful waves, I just look at the pictures and remember what it was like all over again. As John reminded me, on the bigger days the beach would literally tremble when the sets broke.

It’s next to impossible to describe what a rush it was to surf the place. There wasn’t much to it. You just took off, turned high, and stood there. Nine times out of ten, the wave would pass you by, leaving you deep inside a vast rotating chamber. Sometimes you came out, otherwise you took the short swim to the beach. I don’t recall ever seeing a wave crumble in all the time I surfed there. The whole place seemed out of scale. The waves looked small until someone took off. It was only then that you realized how big and powerful they really were. Frontside, backside, it didn’t matter. The waves were so big and round there was no need to crouch. Pat Tobin was the master, but the Beast, Geppy, and a few others were nearly on the same level. I’m not sure it’s possible to really put the thrill into words. That’s where John’s photos come in. Try to imagine those waves ripping down the beach at supersonic speeds, and you’ll understand what I’m trying to say.

May of 1975 arrived and the swell started to grow. We surfed the beach break until Insanity’s started breaking and then took our huge boards and began surfing those big peaks. The surf continued to build daily until surfers began to draw the line and stay out of the water. I think the Beast was the last one to give it a try, but eventually, even he just sat on the beach and watched. And the surf kept growing.

Years have passed, and I occasionally hear some rumor that Peta is breaking again, but I’d say the stories of its resurrection are untrue.

It came up for several more days and all we did was watch in awe. The big peak remained perfect. You could have paddled out from inside the bay without getting your hair wet, but we sat. Too bad we can’t send the tow-in crew back in time. What a show they would have put on! We, on the other hand, watched and waited. Mary was ready to leave, but had considerately allowed me to delay our departure date several times. Finally, even she ran out of patience, and so we left. The surf was still huge beyond belief and had not even begun to drop. I may have seen waves that big in Hawaii, maybe even larger, but I’ve never seen anything even close anywhere else in the world.

We arrived back in San Diego and were killing time waiting for the next season when a huge chubasco swell hit Southern California. This was the now-legendary south swell of August 1975. I remember where I surfed that swell. It was California’s version of Petacalco and it was as good and as big as I ever saw it. Stories came filtering down the coast of amazing waves at Malibu, Cottons Point, and almost everywhere in between. Then came the bad news. The hurricane that spawned these giant waves had made landfall at Petacalco. Fifty-foot waves had charged across the beach and into the jungle. The village had been totally destroyed and supposedly the surf was gone. We’d noticed the slow disappearance of the beach the three previous years, but the chubasco had scoured the bottom clean. Thanks to the underwater canyon to the south and the damming and jetty construction on the Rio Balsas a few miles to the north, there was no way the sandbars could be replenished as rapidly as the surging swell washed them away. What might have taken several more years was done literally overnight. Petacalco was gone.

Years have passed, and I occasionally hear some rumor that Peta is breaking again. Considering that Tobin still haunts that same stretch of coast, but is now known for his elegant surfing at a spot many miles to the north, and that the ever-vigilant Beast is living in seclusion half an ocean away, I’d say the stories of Petacalco’s resurrection are for the most part untrue. I think we can safely assume that although periodically, following a flat spell, a little sand may accumulate and the wave may break for an hour or two, the spot we knew and loved has vanished forever.

Petacalco has been gone now for nearly 25 years. If you were surfing way back then, you might have known someone who knew someone who came back from Mexico telling wild stories of a giant beach break surfed by a bunch of characters on 10-foot boards. Maybe you were one of those lucky few who actually witnessed it firsthand. If you’re a youngster, some old guy may have told you that Puerto Escondido isn’t all that great and that there used to be a place that made it look weak and shapeless. No doubt you wrote him off as some demented putz who’d taken too much acid and wouldn’t know a tube if he saw one. Don’t be too quick to judge. For those of us who were there during that brief, shining moment those many years ago, Petacalco really was the best there ever was.