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74# Skimmed by death

Updated: Aug 14, 2022

This is it, 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 overwhelmed me. He watched and grinned, as madness sparkled from his eyes. “Come on, it will be fun!”

Waves come in sets, from ten to twenty per set. We went 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, at the worst possible time. A wall of white water came down on me like an avalanche. That was the first wave of the set.

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

I dove again, and every time I crawled back to the surface another wall was on me. The waves pulled me 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.

I had only a brief window before the next set. Exhausted, I focused on each inhale, on each arm stroke. I paddled around the first wave desperately, but was still in the danger zone. I did not have the stamina for a second pounding. Fueled by fear and a survival instinct I paddled frenetically away. The second wave came too close but did not pull me down. I had made it past the break.

I sat on my board and in a surge of relief and exhaustion, I puked my guts out. Then, terrified and in shock, I watched Nature lash its wrath from afar. For an hour and a half, I waited helplessly on my board. But this was El Salvador. There was no boat, no jet ski, no cavalry for the rescue. I was my own. And now what?

The only way out was a narrow passage down the bay, leading to a small staircase. The current pulled strong, the rocks were sharp, and the waters around it shallow. Missing the exit meant ending up against the port concrete wall. To get out, I had to ride a wave perfectly and use the speed to propel myself through the narrow passage. There was no other way.

The smallest waves do not barrel. They break in a relatively boring way compared to the bigger ones. Consequently, the best surfers tend to abandon them as soon as they stop barrelling. That was my ticket out. I screened the horizon, the waves, the sounds, feeling everything. Failing was not an option. Then I saw it. A surfer rode out of a wave because it stopped barrelling. That was my chance.

I paddled toward it, timed my position and gradually increased my speed. I looked over my shoulder and charged, head down. The wave lifted me and in a blink, I was on my feet. Then began an exhilarating descent, so fast my board was shaking and tapping against the water. I was riding down a moving mountain bucking to get me out. Just stay on the wave, just stay on the wave.

I crouched and drew a safe line in the centre of the wave face. Focused on maintaining balance, I did not realize until a few seconds in... The water under my feet, the rush, the excitement. I was riding a 8-foot wave all the way to the narrow passage. At knee hight, I grabbed my board and sprinted over the sharp rocks, with the current pulling me back. In a last effort, I pushed through. My feet were bleeding and my breathing was heavy. I jumped on the stairs, dropped my board and collapsed on my back. It was over.

Hormones hit me like a tornado. I began weeping. Ensued an intoxicating sensation of power. No more fear or fatigue, just an intoxicating surge of power. I felt I could lift a mountain, take on the world, surf a bigger wave. I was shaking and laughing uncontrollably. It was better than drugs, better than sex, better than anything I had experienced. I soaked it all in, savoring every second, understanding why adrenaline junkies do what they do. Never had death seemed so close, yet I was ecstatic.

That was the day I became a surfer.


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