Feature

Regrets Only: Dirty West

Bad decisions and alphanumeric survival tactics at Cloudbreak.

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.