From the dry-haired beginner to the John Johns of the world, waves endlessly tantalize surfers all over this rotating blue orb. Each locale teasing photographers and wave riders alike with each wave’s unique attributes: Pipe’s ferocity in both stature and crowd, Mavericks’ icy cold waters and equally icy boneyard, Skeleton Bay’s endless tubes and impossible accessibility. The list goes on.
For the bottom half of the surf world’s totem pole, these waves are aspirational and mostly untouchable. However, another set of waves beckons those who began on a lowly, pink foam top, slowly graduating from longboard, to fun board, to short board, to finally having some consequential idea how to surf with a inkling of precision and wanting expertise. This is how I found myself standing in a windswept Peruvian desert, overlooking what could be the longest left-hand point break in the world. Peering over Chicama, the view is breathtaking yet desolate. Waves break, and yes, they go on and on and on. A lucky few can enjoy one wave for hundreds of yards, the wall of water mutating, changing, expanding and retracting along the wave’s journey. Claims of half mile rides are the norm and local surf hotels will have you believe it’s even further. So yes, the rides are long. And yes, is it pleasant.
Chicama is an accessible wave. In the water itself there’s no crushing, almond-shaped tube, crashing over a blood thirsty, barnacle crusted reef. There is no crew of enforcers and there are no sharky vibes to occupy your worries. Aside from the travel to actually get to Peru — a country full of excellent waves and surfers alike — the wave is within reach for us mere mortals of the surf world. Something for us old guys, intermediates, the timid, but the aspiring. The beauty of this wave has only one blemish. It’s not the crowd or an urchin infested walk or war-torn politics. No. The ugly sore at Chicama is a rash of boats filling the lineup. Zodiacs shuttling happy faced gringos from the end of the wave, back to the point, to go for another ride. But it shouldn’t be a surprise that boats took over. Chicama is a wave that demands stamina. The point that forms the wave is under constant attack from the wind and current, and the moment you dip into the chilly lineup the paddling never stops. Staying in one spot requires treadmill like persistence. Slow and steady, but always deliberate. Catching a wave, or simply holding your position, requires serious effort.
These details of the Chicama set up were given to me unceremoniously on the 45 minute drive from Trujillo, by a Huanchaco local named Oswaldo, who has been surfing there since the early days. He’s been up and down all of Peru and he was surfing Chicama before it was called Chicama. He’s watched the wave slowly develop, grow with surrounding surf centric hotels and hostels, and install its small armada of capitalism fueled zodiacs. And thus, the discussion was presented to me in that car ride: to boat or not to boat?
Boats at Chicama don’t function like boats in Indo. They aren’t used to reach an inaccessible area where roads simply won’t take you. Here, they’re more like a chair lift. Catch a wave, ride back to the point, get out of the boat on top of the take-off spot (ahead of everyone who has been endlessly paddling to stay in position) and go. Simply put: Climb out. Drop in. Take off. Climb in. Repeat. If you get out of position, ride back to the point. If you are tired of paddling, ride back to the point. It’s worth asking if this is even surfing. It takes away the paddle, the search, and reliance on knowledge of the lineup, rather than the gas powered zodiacs that whistle, squeeze and elbow their way to the peak for paying customers. Is it disrespectful? Advantageous? Understandable? Oswaldo would have you believe that hiring a boat is heresy. As a local, his point is valid. The boats are noisy. They stink. The captains may or may not be trained, reliable, or honest. But, if wave count is your goal, these boats will triple your output. They’re also tools for cutting in line, for saving energy, and for offering accessibility to the highest bidders, so to speak.
Should you choose the boat, you’re going to have a good time. You will catch more waves. You will come home with better videos. Better photographs. If your trip was going to be skunked by bad swell, the boats can resuscitate a sad, lonely week, with a single, astonishing, leg-burning day. The boats will keep you together with your mates – something impossible to manage while paddling. It is a smart parlay if you are gambling on swell. If you choose not to boat, your day is quite different. Going the traditional route means not only reading the waves and current, but also battling the gringos and tourists reaping the advantages of those zodiacs. Not boating may only allow you 2-3 waves in a session, despite the endless paddling, jockeying, and strategizing. To boat or not to boat?
For me, it was easy. No boat. Not because I felt bad, but because I knew I could come back, and also because Oswaldo hinted that I’d be walking home had I chosen the boat. Would you take the gringo advantage? What would burn more – your arms, or your conscience?