Editor’s note: The following story was originally written in November 2007. More stories from Gerry Lopez can be found at The Cleanest Line.
Yesterday I scored big. It was one of those rare days which left me so pumped up when it was over I knew I was going to have trouble falling asleep. I figured I better write it down before the afterglow faded, and later I could savor it again. One of the sad things about surfing is that the best memories are fleeting. Before one knows it, they have all but disappeared, erased like they never existed. Sometimes when the focus is so intense, the concentration so great, it seems as though they don’t even get recorded.
Many times I have finished a wave to find a blank space in my mind about what just occurred during that ride. Although peculiar, it happens with great regularity. By carefully recalling the few moments of actual thoughts, like the decision to catch that wave, or maybe an incident like someone in the way or a person yelling, I may be able to piece together the whole ride. But often as not, should there be some distraction, like another set coming, or just not having that momentary space to reflect back, then that ride may as well be gone. It did happen, and how it unfolded possibly went into one of those many file cabinets of the mind, but the key to access that drawer is lost. Even as I sit here and write only a day afterwards recollection of those waves has begun to go hazy.
The easy part to remember is what got me there. In the build up of most surf stories, the foundation is usually the waves. These days, with Internet surf forecasting, checking the surf has taken on an entirely new meaning. In the beginning several decades of my surfing career, I simply looked out at the sea and decided whether to paddle out or not.
Modern satellite imagery, storm information as well as sophisticated marine buoys that monitor swell direction and heights, wave intervals and wind speeds make amateur forecasting pretty simple. Of course, there are also professionals who make a business of doing the same thing. For a fee or even for free, one touch of the keyboard and the information to make that same decision days in advance is quickly available.
A big swell was coming, that much all the various forecasting services had agreed on. A storm out of the Gulf of Alaska had made that a certainty. The wind and surface conditions forecast also looked favorable. Web cams make it even easier, an instant and current picture of exactly the same view I used to have from shore. Whether I’m on the beach or 200 miles away, the decision is as it always was: Do I go or do I stay? This time I pulled the trigger, loaded up my stuff, and hit the road.
Less than four hours later, I had my first real look. My expectations were slightly deflated, but still the surf wasn’t bad. It had size and the wind was enough offshore for the wave faces to be clean. The spot I was at, although the closest from my home, was my second choice. An early morning call from a friend at my first choice reported an unfavorable wind. The wind I was seeing was perfect for my first choice spot, but that was another hour or more away and I was already here.
I wrestled into my wetsuit and paddled out. The waves were well overhead, but mushy, with an ill-defined lineup and hard to catch. On my stand-up paddleboard, I had better luck than the surfers on regular boards, but the session proved lackluster.
Three hours later, I had changed back into dry clothes and was ready to go somewhere else but couldn’t decide where. I finally got through to my friend up north, but his report was not encouraging.
Plagued by indecision, I ran through my options. The surf was coming up more even though it was already head-and-a-half to double-overhead on the big sets. The wind should continue to come from a good direction, although the approaching storm would increase it dramatically. What the heck, I had nothing more important to do, and all the next day to do it. I headed north.
The next morning, in the predawn grey I strained to see what the waves were doing. First indications looked small. As it became lighter, it was obviously very small. Hoping the swell would be coming soon; I suited up, trudged up the beach, and paddled out to join the other dawn patrollers at the outside lineup.
Six or seven surfers were already clustered in the lineup, but the only waves I saw were chest-high at the biggest and not very consistent. The anticipation was high and the crowd amped up, but there was nothing to spend their pent-up energy on. Every once in a while a single wave, or maybe a set of two, would roll in, but that was it. Definitely not enough to go around for the growing number of surfers with expectations of a lot more than was available. Two hours later and only three weak waves to my tally, I surrendered. As I walked back with several of the guys who live there, they all spoke of the buoy readings that morning of 30-foot waves with a 15-second interval, significant indicators. We were all puzzled by the lack of surf.