"Blind panic turned into stupidity, and the stupidity saw me forget all that I had learned about the ocean. I turned around, pointed my board towards the land and waited for the wave to hit me from behind." Photo: Yoann Segalen.


The Inertia

It was a winter’s day. We didn’t have a care. We were invincible, blinded by the shortsightedness of youth. Our car was going to be safe in the deserted car park and our lives were going to last forever. The ten-foot waves that were booming in over the reef, unridden and unwatched were going to deliver to us. We were going to ride mountains, receive delicious spikes of adrenalin, and we were going to acknowledge this with a few six packs on the hour’s drive home. Call it naivety. Call it what you will, but life was pretty easy back then.

Back then (mid 80’s) a 7’2 was the ultimate gun. Retro boards, full noses and fish replicas were not in fashion. Neither was the current trend of being ridiculously over gunned. A gun was a board that was better than your short board at catching big waves. You rarely used it, only when the ocean was booming. We had burning durries hanging from our mouths as we waxed up, feeling alive in our bubble of coolness.

By the time we got to the slipway the wind had already swung a little to the south, and there was a ruffle on the water, taking away a few degrees of perfection that we had briefly glimpsed before. Still, there were ten-foot walls coming through, and we launched together with the looseness and strength of youth.

It was bigger out there than what we had envisaged. It always is in these retrospective stories – it adds to the drama and the passion and no one can correct you. We felt a couple of giant waves passing under us as we headed for the take off spot, out there in the middle of the ocean. Still, there was not an inch of doubt, not a percentile of nerves. We were there to surf some big waves, have some fun, and then drink a few beers on the way home, before hooking up with our girlfriends, boozy and salty with saline nasal drips. Nothing ever went wrong. We caught a few waves, and my mate charged a couple of big sets and late drops on his backhand. We were bouncing around a bit over the chops and the mid-tide rip that had kicked in, but everything was going to plan.

It was just the two of us, and we saw the big set coming from a long way away. It was wide and deep, moving in from the channel. We weren’t too worried; it was the big sets that came in from the southern side of the reef that were the troublesome ones that could send you in over the rocks. The deep sets would either back off in deep water, or crumble and roll over you as a minor set back. My mate stayed over the reef and paddled straight out to sea, while I paddled wide to either meet the set or deal with it.

The first wave of the set looked like the wave I had been waiting for all my life. Ten foot solid, with a wall stretching all the way to Jeffrey’s. It was also off the ledge, so it was going to give me an easy entry, a sloping take-off. There’s nothing like a ten-foot wall with an easy take off….

I missed it. The wall of water passed underneath me, and the opportunity for the wave of the day was gone. Cursing, I turned around and saw something that really wasn’t so great. The next two waves were quite big, bigger than I had seen so far in my life, and they were going to break in front of me. I started paddling hard, heading out in a straight line to meet them.

With the perfect vision of hindsight, I could have dealt with the situation in many different waves. I could have paddled further into the channel to try and get around them, or I could have paddled in as hard as I could to get away from the eminent explosion of them breaking. Instead I paddled out to meet them, invincible.

I scraped over the first one and fixed my eyes on the next wave. It was that very instant, as I put eyes on it, that something happened. Reading between the lines it could be said that I lost my nerve. I like to think, however, that I had a rare moment of panic. Either way, something changed. Forever.

I had a split second to decide. Stand up on my board and dive off to try and get as deep as possible, or quietly take the biggest breath; hold my nose and slip under water. Either way, to steal a line from an old surf movie, I knew that my eggs were heading for that big omelet in the sky. Panic turned into blind panic. Blind panic turned into stupidity, and the stupidity saw me forget all that I had learned about the ocean. I turned around, pointed my board towards the land and waited for the wave to hit me from behind.

I could have been split in two. I could have died out there that day. My board was thrown aside the instant the wave hit, and I was sent deep and tumbling. I can’t remember what happened, but I was totally fucked when I surfaced. I was breathless, exhausted and in shock, and it was only days later that I acknowledged it as a near death experience.

In a parallel universe I wax my 9’6, I climb over the mountain and I paddle out at Dungeons, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone. At Christmas I go to Hawaii and I paddle out in the dark at Waimea with Andy Marr and Twiggy Baker. I charge Mavs with Washburn. In the same universe I paddle out and have a go at two of possibly the best big wave secret spots in the country. In this parallel universe I am Jeff Clark surfing alone at Mavericks. I am brave, an Alpha male, bristling with ego and machismo and self-adulation. In this universe I rule the bar, the big wave line-ups and I rule on my jetski. In this universe, like Clark, I am waiting for the right moment to reveal my secret spots to the world.

Unfortunately that decision I made to turn around and attempt to prone in on the biggest wave I have ever seen, catapulted me into the universe I am in and writing this story. In this universe I am a sniveling coward. Both the secret big wave spots do exist in this universe, and I look at them often, but I don’t surf them.