Riding a kite at Puerto Escondido in double overhead surf

July 29, 2019 | Kiteboarding
Thomas Nolan: kitesurfing at Puerto Escondido's Playa Zicatela | Photo: John P. Murphy

Gusty winds and kitesurfers are rare in Puerto Escondido.

I asked Godofredo Vasquez, captain of the lifeguards for over two decades: "Have you ever see anyone do it?"

"No."

I asked another guy, older, in his early 60s. Nope.

Then I got to a primary source: "There was a Brazilian guy who did that. I think he's in Hawaii now."

So, Thomas Nolan, an Australian Gold Coast waterman is not the first person to kitesurf Puerto (but there haven't been many).

And probably a lot of kite surfers have passed through. But Tom brought the wind with him. Like magic.

Maybe five times a year, we get 30 knots, which is when the sand starts to sting.

Tuesday afternoon was one of the five when I saw a kite go up in the double overhead surf.

The rider shot out half a mile to sea. I hoped he wasn't a bay rider who got lucky heading out between sets. I hoped he had a knife (he didn't).

Playa Zicatela is one of the ten heaviest waves in the world.

Double overhead will snap your board and your back. And then it will keep you in the impact zone.

Include a tangle of line, and the calculus for survival becomes extremely complicated with most roads leading towards drowning.

Thomas Nolan: a thick-necked, thick-legged Australian kitesurfer | Photo: John P. Murphy

Survival Lines

He went down on his first run into shore, survived and mounted anew. I took my shirt off, wrapped my camera in it and ran to the beach while he took a hard line to sea, and headed back out a half-mile.

There were only three other people getting sandblasted on the beach.

"Does that person belong to you?" I asked her.

She tilted her head and in a Scottish accent and said: "Yes, he does."

Her boyfriend was off the wind, flying hard to shore, triangulating the coming set.

I imagined the Scotsman on the end of that line and how he must be a North Sea coldwater beast, hard as nails and impossible to understand after 10 pm.

Must be an animal. "Is your boyfriend Scottish?"

"No, he's Australian, Gold Coast," she said as if that explained everything. And it did.

Since she was Scottish, I was blunt and said (with great affection): "He's one of those thick-necked (expletive ending in "ERS") from Australia then is he?"

"Yah," she said and tilted her head away from the wind.

Australians are as beastly as they are fun-loving. At least the ones who come to Puerto Escondido are.

Thick-necked, thick-legged, basically thick. They almost have too much muscle, but through careful and persistent evolution, they've developed a thin layer of beer fat that helps keep them afloat - same is true of watermen from Maine.

Thomas Nolan: negotiating the surf line at Puerto Escondido | Photo: John P. Murphy

Something about the work, the water, the lifestyle, and high-protein diet stacks 20 pounds of muscle on their frames.

I met Tom at the waterline after his session.

And he was physically jacked up after five sets in over an hour. Muscles inflated, blood to the skin, a feast for mosquitos.

Consider that boxers can only go three-minute rounds.

They get to lay down if they get tired by choice or because they can't hold their own hands in the air anymore. One way or another, they lay down.

With the exception of bullfighting, mountain climbing, and surfing, you can pretty much just lay down in most sports, and the pain stops.

Even Formula One pilots and Motocross racers just have to let off the gas, just a little.

Twenty four meters of line separated him from ten meters of kite resting in shallow water.

And he made a run to the kite, as fast as he could - a speed merchant he is not - and then he pulled the kite to shore and grounded it.

And the first thing he said to me was: "It's not a knot."

And he started walking the jumble of line and three different times he stopped and said, "It's not a knot."

And I said nothing. I didn't doubt him for not one little second, although it sure looked like a knot to me.

Thomas Nolas: this is not a knot | Photo: John P. Murphy

Horses and Big Waves

Two days later Thomas Nolan and Erin McCann were on my porch. They're in their early 20s. Living. Loving.

She's from Glasgow and jumped horses in her teens in mushy Scotland. She named her first horse Steve, and I liked her just for that. What's it say? I don't know. Something. Everything.

Her parents couldn't believe it. For competitions, the horse was called Over the Hedge, but she never called him that. She called him Steve.

And Erin likes the water but sinks like a stone and is prone to panic (as we are all). Cause in the sea, one minute you're fine. And then you're not.

I recommended Thomas not drown his girlfriend and that they should get her some fins to learn to bodysurf.

I once swam (maybe twice) with a former girlfriend and misconstrued screams of joy for screams of terror and she never really forgave me for that.

"Confidence in the water can't be borrowed," I said. "It's like horse sense, either you have horse sense, or you don't, and you get kicked."

My dad had horse sense. I don't. I'm scared of horses and big waves.

"I got kicked by a horse once," said Thomas.

"Yeah, me and my mate were riding past the race track on the way to school, and my friend hit his bell, and the horse kicked me in the chest, and I flew off my bike."

"The stable lady looked back at me and kept walking. That's Australia."

What surprised me was how much thinner he looked than the day before. He was inflated from the workout - big time.

"You don't have to be that strong," he said. "It's like riding a bike; it's balance."

"How many times have your surfed Puerto?" I asked.

"Just that morning," Tom replied.

"I'm from the Gold Coast, and we have afternoon northerly sea breezes, and there's a culture of the first generation windsurfers. Surf FX is the shop I support there, family-owned."

"So the wind thing was there and growing up we towed into anything. There are a couple of breaks similar to Puerto in that they're heavy. Narrowneck and Currumbin."

"We had a little 50 hp motor on a rubber zodiac."

Thomas Nolan: one of the rare kitesurfers at Playa Zicatela | Photo: John P. Murphy

Don't Drop the Kite

"Ok, so you know kites, and you know tow-in. But you don't have straps, and I saw you fall. How's that work? I'd chuck the rope that's for sure," I said.

"Don't drop the kite."

It was the most serious comment he made since I met him. I wrote that down and hoped I'd never have to use it.

"Don't drop the kite," he repeated.

"And you don't have straps on the board," I noticed.

"No, but a board is a board. It's a board. Snow, skate, surf, foil - it's a board. And if I fall it's probably in a ten-meter perimeter and heading to shore. So you take an angle and swim where you think it's going," Nolan promptly replied.

"While holding the kite in double overhead surf," I add.

"Well, yeah, there's that."


Profiles from Puerto Escondido by John P. Murphy

The Summer Surf Gear Guide 2019