Rom had plenty of surfing skill: balance, agility, speed. But I think fearlessness was at least half of his talent. Not that he was a daredevil, stupidly throwing himself into any situation to prove his manhood. There were plenty of days when Rom knew the surf was beyond his limits, and he humbly declined the waves. But once he’d assessed the situation and decided to go for it, he was committed with every ounce of his being.
The take-off is arguably the most scary and difficult part of riding a wave. Too far forward or back can be the difference between a smooth glide down the face or being pitched–what surfers call “going over the falls.” It’s best to catch a wave just as it’s setting up, when there is enough incline to catch it, but before the wave goes concave. In the take-off and really throughout the entire ride on the wave the surfer, like the Zen student, must constantly find the middle way.
The more concave the wave, the more difficult the take-off. Skilled surfers, though, can sometimes literally take off as the wave is breaking and air-drop through the C-shaped section. Sometimes they make it. Sometimes they don’t. But once the surfer is beyond a certain point, there is no turning back. Hesitation can make things far worse than complete commitment. And to anyone who has looked down the dredging face of a big wave, especially over Hawaii’s shallow reefs, that commitment is impressive.
Rom took a lot of air drops. You couldn’t surf with him and be lazy. Shacks, Bowls, First Bay, Second Bay, Dead Trees–you had to push. You had to commit.
There’s an old Zen saying that you should practice Zen like your head is on fire. Instinctively, with full focus and commitment, and no hesitation. Rom surfed like it was the only thing that could quench the flames. I did my best to keep up.
There was a bay just south of Second Bay that we had never surfed and I didn’t plan on trying. In fact, many of the local surfers didn’t go out there. Third Bay was a deep-water break that only worked with a large, long-period swell, the type Rom said had exceptional power. For Third Bay to be surfable, the face of the wave had to be about ten feet high, minimum. But it got much, much bigger. And if the raw power of the wave wasn’t staggering enough, Third Bay’s borders were made of razor-sharp lava rock. The wave could toss a 200-pound surfer onto that lava like a crumb flicked off a pinky. When Third Bay was really good, a crowd would line up near the jetty and watch the few local legends pull into the tubes–kinetic vortexes so big a F-150 pickup could pass through them.
I wasn’t ready for Third Bay and I knew it. Rom knew it, too. But I suppose he couldn’t help himself. “I reckon it can’t be that bad, mate,” Rom said one night over dinner. “I’ve been watching it, and on a medium-sized day, even if you fall, you just have to paddle like mad to get out of there so you don’t get smashed.” (Rom didn’t always come off as the wisest wizard.)
“I’m not going out there,” said a bodyboarder from L.A., Ryan, who was also doing a stint in our little eco commune. “I’ve heard too many gnarly stories of bodies washing up on the rocks.”
“Stories, stories,” Rom said. “Every spot has stories. I’m telling you, it’s not so bad. Next time it works, I’m going. You boys can come along if you like.”
I was silent.
Rom had a knack for getting me to do things I would’ve never done on my own: scaling Mauna Loa, a 14,000-foot volcano, in a single day; night-diving into caves and crevices where creepy bioluminescent things twinkled like underwater fireflies; dawn patrol. The latter happened at least once a week, usually at about 4 AM.
“DAWN PATROL!” Rom would shout at the door of my hut. When I stumbled to the door, one eye open, he would be standing there in blue surf trunks, no shirt, a head-lamp strapped to his forehead, grinning and shoving bananas in his mouth. “Rise and shine, mate! Our baby’s calling.”