Home BreakM. Stanley Bubien
"Nicki! Nicki!" Rick, one of my North Shore surfing buddies blurted from amongst the judges, "It's huge!"
I nodded at the obvious, for I had never seen waves this big in my six years on the Islands, especially not here at Sunset, and especially not during any surf contest I'd ever heard of---and just my luck, the very first contest I'd ever entered.
A half-smile formed. For the first time this week, I felt that I actually had a chance at winning.
What seemed like a mile out, a six-wave set was thundering inward. Two spectators beside me took perceptible steps backward, as if this afforded them that much more safety.
Remaining still, my grin solidified---but only briefly.
As I studied how each wave formed, along the shoreline, forty others stood watching the selfsame spectacle, yet none shouted or hooted encouragement at the force of nature laid bare before us.
My smile faded. My breath fled in a single sigh.
Size was certainly one thing. I'd cut my teeth just down the road at Waiamea, the largest wave in the known world. I spent most of the early seventies being pitched and pounded there, choking through two minute hold-downs, and even once being nailed by my ten-foot board. Yet after all that, I always paddled in alive---more so than when I'd paddled out. Yes, I lived at Waiamea; it was my home!
This, however, was Sunset.
"Man, it's walled off," Rick broke the morning quiet.
Size, as I said, was one thing. Form, on the other hand, was another story.
"That's not even surfable. No way," Rick shook his head and pointed, "I mean, look at it!"
I did as he commanded, and the last waves of the set peaked up and collapsed in one gigantic roar of whitewater.
Rick suddenly disappeared. Searching for him, I spotted Reno Abellira, another semifinalist and compatriot of mine, so to speak, who withstood huge surf. His attention remained directed oceanward, wearing a frown while arms crossed against his chest.
"Change the contest!"
I turned. Rick addressed several judges in a loud tone. "All they'll be able to do is drop in and dive for the bottom. Don't make the surf this junk!"
One judge replied, inaudible over the distance. Rick repeated himself again, though with a bit more color. The conversation grew in heat, but waned just as I considered grabbing Rick. They broke up; a few headed toward the parking lot, while one shuffled into a circle of photographers.
"Man, I'm glad they listened."
"What's up?" I asked.
"They're checking a few other spots, to see if it's makeable."
"Other spots. Which ones?"
"Pipeline for sure. I think Waiamea too."
I blinked, reflexively conjuring an image of these huge waves barrelling into Waiamea Bay.
My half-smile returned.
After a half hour, the announcement came. Every break up and down the coast was completely walled-off.
Everywhere but Waiamea. And the contest would relocate there.
Photographers frantically tore equipment down, for this was going to prove to be a historic contest, and they would not want to miss a single shot of the action.
Action that I, myself, would be providing.
"You gonna drive?" Rick asked. "Or you wanna cruise with me."
"I think I'll hit it alone," I replied.
Rick grinned. "Sure, dude. Not even hiding the stoke!" He slapped me on the shoulder. "See you there, then."
The drive went by in what seemed like an instant. Obviously an illusion because several photographers had beaten me there, scoring prime vantages for their oversized, telescopic lenses.
Funny that I'd noticed them first, before even the surf, and with board under arm as a reminder! I turned seaward.
At Sunset, the giant waves stunned the crowd. But here, Waiamea was taking the swell full-force. They rushed in, and upon reaching the reef, they seemed to hesitate there, draining the bay before them in their hunger, growing like a suckling child until they capped off and broke in an avalanche of whitewater. By heartbeat, I counted the seconds it took for the first wave to collapse from crest to trough. At six, I stopped.
No way---my heart must be beating faster than usual.
I suddenly noticed the gaze those I knew on the beach falling upon me, an experience I shared with the other contestants---each of our friends were searching for our reaction.
My facial features remained fixed, but to escape probing eyes, I wiped my brow and glanced down. My board lay sideways in the sand, the rail having created in indentation, while the deck leaned against my leg. Had I set it there? I couldn't remember. It looked like I'd dropped it, but that I did not recall either.
"My home break," I reminded myself.
"Dude, I'm sorry," Rick said at my side before I noticed him there.
"Huh?" I replied.
"I'm sorry. These waves, man. It's my fault. I got them to move the contest. Now you're all gonna die!"
"What?" I asked, half hearing him, but quickly replied, "Shut up. Okay?"
With a frown, he said, "Came to tell you the judge wants you." He pointed at the shore-break. "Bring your board." The apology he'd offered remained on his face. I almost said shut up again, but decided against it. Picking up my board, I strode toward the ocean.
Greeting the other contestants briefly, I joined their ranks. Suited for surf, we formed a line, shoulder-to-shoulder, each with surfboard at his feet. A fifth man, clad in cutoff shirt and shorts---obviously a judge---paced before us. Stopping to face us from the center, he said, "I guess we're ready then," and peered briefly backward to check for another incoming set. Only the shore-break, however, threatened.
"I'm going to be honest with you guys," he yelled over the crashing insiders. "These waves are big. Too big! But you know how hard it's been to get these contests taken seriously." He flicked a wrist at the photographers still frantically setting up. "Everyone thinks that if we postpone the finals, it'll damage whatever credibility we've gained. We need the exposure. And this is it." He indicated the huge waves that were not yet visible, but would soon be pounding against the island. "Officially, the contest is on."
My heart leapt into my stomach. I swallowed hard. I recalled my mental image, but this time added myself paddling into the set wave, hopping onto my board, knees bent, poised for the free-fall. But the vision left me poised atop the wave, stuck in the lip as it curled over, pitched out, me going with it, airborne---
I shook it off.
"Waiamea," I breathed, "my stomping grounds."
The judge stepped closer, "I tell you the truth, there's no way in hell I'd paddle out on a day like this. No way in hell." He shook his head as if his words weren't enough. "The photographers want you out there. The sponsors want you out there. But if you refuse, they'll have no choice but to postpone the contest." He looked each one of us in the eye. "There is not one person on the beach who would paddle out in conditions like this. And not one of them will blame you if you refuse to go yourselves."
A gust of offshore wind brushed over me. A four-wave set was marching its way in, each peaking up, arcing its way toward the sky, and the wind chopping them up as the morning sun reflected off them. Four brothers of liquid platinum they were, charging toward whitewashed destruction along the reefs of Waiamea. Four waves at sea, a reflection of the four men upon the shore.
We held our own council long after the set passed. Finally, the guy at the far end from me said, "I don't care what you guys decide, I'm out."
Following his lead, the contestant beside him slapped hands together in a scrubbing motion and dropped butt-first into the sand.
Without moving, the judge said simply, "Reno? Nicki?"
"This is my home break! My chance! I'm not giving it up." Those words I said to myself, but not aloud. No. For those awaiting my decision, I remained silent.
And so did Reno.
"Okay, then. You two it is." the judge shook his head, but went on as though this was standard procedure. "Your heat starts when the first one of you catches a wave. It ends a thirty minutes after that.
"But, if you get out there and it's too hairy, paddle back and we'll postpone the contest."
With this, Reno spoke the only words I'd hear him say that day, "What if only one of us goes for it?"
Grimly, yet matter-of-factly, the judge replied, "To win the contest, someone has to catch at least one wave."
We had no other questions.
"Good luck," the judge stated and gathered the two ex-contestants up, leaving me and Reno alone on the shoreline.
Our surfboards were comparable, both long guns made for huge waves---though I somehow doubted they'd ever been tested in conditions of this caliber. I picked mine up first, and Reno followed suit.
Before us, the shore-break sucked up, pitched out, and pounded so hard into the shallows, I felt it thump in my chest. Fifty feet out, these breakers reigned supreme, but over that distance, they expelled all their power so that upon reaching us, only a caress of water remained, lapping warmly over our toes like a deception.
I quick glance at Reno told me he was transfixed upon by the ocean. I took a breath, and yelled, "Let's do it!"
He looked at me, and returned his gaze to the ocean.
I swallowed, "C'mon! Follow me!"
The last of the shore-breakers had washed in---our chance to get past. I took a step. Halted. Reno strode into the water.
Forcing myself after him, I went over home-break advantage yet again.
Once up to his waist, Reno slowed and dragged a hand over the deck of his board. I mimicked him as he turned toward me. Our eyes locked. In that moment, somehow the sea, the sand, even the spectators dissolved from my perception. Only the two of us existed. Separate, yet one, our thoughts passed each to the other.
In cold orbs, we reflected the same vision: hanging atop a crumbling mountain, prepared to drop, the wave cresting over, either of us going with it.
My muscles froze like the ice in Reno's eyes. He, however, cocked his chin gracefully upward. A signal of understanding.
The ocean surged about my legs. I inhaled the salty air; it spread from my lungs outward, melting my muscles. I flexed, slowly, furtively toward Reno, I presented hand up, palm facing him.
At that, he slid chest-first onto his board and began the long paddle to the outsiders. I watched from there until the shore-break threatened once more, forcing me onto dry land.
Reno rose and fell along the swells like a steamer, eventually passing from sight in the distance. With back to the ocean, I marched up the sandy incline. Upon the crest, Rick stood, as if awaiting my arrival. He lips seemed poised on another apology, but instead, he quietly pointed seaward.
Before twisting round, I nodded.
A tiny dot, Reno was, free-falling down the face of an outsider, a trail of white shooting behind like a jet. Down he dropped. I counted heartbeats, slowly, deliberately, so that this time, when I reached seven, I knew I was right.
The audience erupted when Reno finally cut safely out of the beast. Cameras continued clicking as the announcer declared him winner.
It was, by all accounts, the largest wave ever ridden. And at my home break, no less.
And not by myself.
"Awesome," Rick whispered by my side.
"Yeah," I sighed.
His eyebrows raised, for he had not intended me to hear.
Staving off another apology, I indicated Reno, paddling inward, growing larger as he approached, resolving from a speck in the sea to a flesh-and-blood human.
"You know," I said, "I bet by tomorrow it'll be surfable."
"Mellow enough for regular guys like us?" Rick asked, and nudged me with a sudden grin.
Without willing it, a half-smile formed on my lips.
Based on a true story.
Copyright ©1998 M. Stanley Bubien. All Rights Reserved.
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