74# Skimmed by death

Updated: May 11, 2020

This one. This is your only chance. You can make it. You HAVE to make it.

The storms of the rainy season create big swells, series of waves that propagate for thousands of km. From the eye of a storm in the Pacific, the waves travel until they reach the shore. The most notorious waves can hold a swell, meaning that they keep their shape even when they grow in size. Very few waves can hold a swell. Punta Roca in El Salvador is one of those, a world-class wave.

The forecast was intimidating, 8-10 feet. The biggest wave I had ever surfed was 5 feet tall. I had neither the experience nor the physical condition for that size. Sandra wanted to see what Punta Roca looked like on a big day. Marius was more excited than a kid for Christmas. They convinced me to go “just to check it out”.

Everybody came to watch the show. From where we parked, we could not see the waves, but we could hear them. I followed Marius and took out my board "just in case". Sandra did not. Smart girl.

The waves looked big even from afar. Each one moved the rocks in a rolling thunder. Fear dried my throat. I tried to voice my concern without looking like a sissy but Marius' excitement filled the air. Madness sparkled from his eyes. “Come on, it will be fun!”

Waves come in sets, from ten to twenty per set. We walked around the bay to access the surf spot. The plan was to wait on the rocks for the last wave of the set, jump in and paddle fast around the break. We walked on slippery boulders to get closer. On the last rock, I lost balance and fell in the water. A wall of white water was rushing toward me like an avalanche. That was the first wave of the set.

I dove as deep as I could but the current was too strong. I didn't know up from down. Everything was black. I hung to my leash and pulled toward the surface. The wave had washed me away. I emerged, gasping and panting. Another wave was coming, a bigger one... Fuck.

Every time I crawled back to the surface another wall was on me. The ocean pulled me by the ankle underwater in a sadistic whipping. The next ten minutes were a battle for survival. The last wave of the set left me clinging to my board like a castaway, begging for mercy. But the ocean knows no mercy.

I had only a brief window before the next set. Exhausted, I focused on each inhale, on each stroke. And in a desperate effort, I paddled around the first wave but was still in the danger zone. A second wave was coming, bigger, faster. I did not have the stamina to outlive a second pounding. Contemplating the prospect of my own death, I paddled frenetically away. Fueled by fear and a survival instinct, I made it past the break. I made it past the break.

Out in the water I sat on my board and puked. For an hour and a half, I watched Nature lash its wrath from the distance. I was terrified, unable to move, in shock. But this was El Salvador. There was no boat, no jet ski, no helicopter and no possible rescue. I was completely on my own. And now what?

The only way out was a narrow entrance down the bay where the rocks were sharp and the waters shallow. The current was too strong to drift. To get out, I had to catch a wave and ride it all the way to the narrow passage. It was the only way.

Wait for the smallest wave and when a surfer rides out, go for it. I screened the horizon, the waves, the sounds, feeling everything. Failing was not an option, my life depended on it. Then I saw it. A surfer rode out of a wave. That was my chance.

I paddled toward it, timing my position and gradually increasing my speed. I looked over my shoulder and charged, giving in my last breath. The wave lifted me and in a blink I was on my feet. Then began an exhilarating descent. The wave looked like a moving mountain, bucking to get me out of its back. Just stay on the wave, just stay on the wave.

I crouched on my board and drew a safe line in the centre of the wave face, focused on balance. It took me a few seconds to realize... The moving water under my feet, the rush, the excitement. I was in a trance, all the way to the narrow passage. I grabbed my board and sprinted over the sharp rocks. Terra firma. My feet were bleeding, my breathing heavy. I collapsed on my back and started weeping. It was over.

After the tears came awareness. Adrenaline, gratefulness, bliss. Hormones hit me like a tornado. Ensued an intoxicating sensation of power. No more fear, no fatigue, just power, madness. I felt I could lift a mountain, take on the world, surf a bigger wave. It was better than any drug, better than sex, better than anything I had experienced. I understood why adrenaline junkies do what they do. Marius was right, it was fun.

Never had death seemed so close, yet I was ecstatic. That was the day I became a surfer.


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