A wave to oneself: What price paradise?

May 17, 2021 | Surfing
North Sentinel Island: isolated from the outside world | Photo: Jesse Vide/Creative Commons

My scalp prickles, and I glance back at the jungle. My mind is suddenly thick with panic.

I'm convinced that Joro is about to explode out of the trees, his bow raised.

Looking down at the clothes and water in my hands, I realize that I have to get rid of them before anyone sees them, and I stash them all in the jungle beside the outboard motor and petrol tanks and pull the palms back over it all.

Then I return to the beach and sit on the sand, forcing myself to take deep breaths until I calm down a bit.

I stare out at the reef, and I know I'm getting my shit together when I start to analyze the conditions.

The softest of southeast breezes ruffles the towering ridgeline of each gigantic wave, but it's a clean groundswell, and I count eighteen seconds between waves.

I tuck the Brazo's surfboard under my arm and set off down the track to Freights.

I have to see if it's working, but my thoughts are fractured and fleeting as I walk through the jungle.

I'm unable to concentrate, unable to process the danger I know I'm in.

Fear comes upon me in pulses, and just as rapidly, my panicked brain gallops away from it.

Images of the two boys curled in their sandy graves flash through my mind.

I'm on autopilot when I emerge from the trees to get my first look at Freights.

The rising sun has found space between the horizon and a bank of low cloud, turning the sky mauve, the ocean indigo.

Giant, tapering walls scream their way across the reef at Freights, and I can see immediately that it's flawless; each wave a rhythmic, frictionless procession along the point.

Every now and again, a great huff of spray is vomited from the mouth of the barrel.

I paddle out. I'm still a hundred meters away when I get a true sense of the size of the surf.

The faces are fifteen to twenty feet.

At the end of the point, they thunder into the channel and subside into the deep, and I'm even intimidated by what's left over; I can feel their power as the hulking lumps slide beneath me.

I'm out of my league by an order of magnitude entirely unfamiliar to me.

I know I should turn around and head back in, but I'm mesmerized, and I keep going.

I need to get a closer look.

I stop halfway up the point and sit and watch, transfixed, at every wave that steams past.

They're each a phenomenon, an event all of their own.

At Snapper, on the big, ruler-edged days where the local chargers fearlessly pull into the yawning sandy pits behind the rock, I've often found myself looking back at shore, at the people walking around, the cars on the roads, and thought, "don't you know what's happening out here?"

They're like sheep, automatons, buying coffee and staring at their phones, while at sea things of great importance are taking place; gladiators are doing battle, and those feats of skill and bravery deserve a slack-jawed audience, lining the shore to watch.

Without conscious thought, I find myself at the top of the reef.

The sight of each oncoming swell, lifting itself out of the ocean beyond the take-off point, seems to defy logic.

They emerge, giant creatures from the deep, and further along the reef to the south, they start to feather and cap, but it's clear where the wave truly begins.

I can see that Freights was made for this size; it doesn't break wide, no matter how big the wave - the playing field is almost as tight as any other day I've surfed here.

At six feet, there's a wrinkle, an imperfection in the take-off, but at this size, there's no sign of it.

The reef has ironed it out, molding each wave perfectly, their concave ramps flawless, as though designed by an engineer.

North Sentinel Island: home to the Sentinelese, an indigenous people in voluntary isolation | Photo: Creative Commons

Building Courage

Because I have no immediate plan to surf these waves, I actually appreciate the beauty of what I'm seeing.

I stare down into the sepulchral depths of each one, mesmerized by the cave being created before my eyes.

But when the lip completes the circle and cracks off the water with a sound like a cannon firing, I'm jerked from my reverie.

It's the beginning of a prolonged explosion, a chain reaction of detonations down the reef.

The whitewater, too, is like nothing I've ever seen.

It looks like the towering head of an avalanche, boiling and leaping and roaring across the surface of the sea in a furious tumult.

I sit and watch for twenty minutes, and a familiar feeling builds. I'm paralyzed with terror and then filled with disgust for myself.

I'm afraid out here, and I'm afraid on the island. I've always been afraid.

My fear, my cowardice, follows me everywhere – even here, to the ends of the earth.

If there was a bottle of whiskey on the beach, I'd paddle in and drink it as fast as I could, for dangerous and self-destructive oblivion.

But instead, I have a tiny surfboard and waves like buildings, and it seems like an appropriate alternative for the impulse to self-harm that grips me now.

I find myself padding into the take-off zone, reckless abandon flip-flopping wildly with cold terror.

As luck would have it, the first wave that rears is the largest I've seen so far.

I scratch for the horizon, and I'm surprised when I clear it easily but looking down, I can see why; the reef drops sharply away, disappearing into the deep blue.

It's the source of the wave's power, the compressive mechanism, the reason the swell magnifies so spectacularly.

I turn and paddle back in again for the second wave, possessed with a heedless abandon, but it passes beneath me like a nuclear submarine.

There's a third wave in the set, and I can't believe I'm paddling for it, but my mind seems to be disregarding any instinct for survival.

I hear my own breathing, fast and ragged, and I feel as though I'm in a dream when the wave rears behind me.

I don't even look back; just put my head down and go.

I rise and rise, backsliding up the face until it seems an impossibility that the wave can actually be caught, but then there's a sudden reversal, and I'm bulldozed forward at a speed that I can barely credit.

Rigid with fear, I manage to scramble to my feet and assume a survival stance as I take the drop.

It goes on forever, and there's too much speed to even contemplate a bottom turn, and when I hear the wave detonate behind me, I know that I'm lost.

I hold my course, trying to stay ahead of the whitewater, but it explodes into my back.

I'm blown clean off the board, and then there's nothing but violence, terrifying and brutal and never-ending.

It's the worst beating I've ever had, but incredibly I don't hit the reef, and for the first fifteen seconds or so, I'm strangely calm.

I seem to be observing myself. But when it doesn't let me go, a panic grips, and I slash at the aerated water.

I claw and kick for a long time before I burst through and get a breath. Looking seaward, I see that there aren't any more waves in the set.

I'm surprised to see that my board's still at the end of my leggie. I haul it in and sprint for the channel.

Mine: a surf novel thriller by James Russell that goes deep into unchartered territory

My Time Is Now

By the time I get to safety, I've already decided to try again. I spend another half an hour watching it, trying to figure out the best approach.

I was too far out on the shoulder, I realize, and it brings a lump to my throat, knowing that I have to paddle deeper, to go further inside.

I play a trick on myself.

I tell myself that I can ride one of these waves, and I repeat it over and over, managing to hold on to that conviction until I'm back in the line-up.

I let three more sets pass, waiting for the one that peaks further inside. I have to overcome a base terror to paddle deeper, and I'm still not where I should be; every cell in my body screams at me to sit on the shoulder.

But when I crest a smaller wave and then see the one that I've been looking for, I stroke in fast and deep and get there in time.

Again, the endless backslide up the face, but there's more calculation in my movements this time.

When the shunt comes, I'm ready for it, and I'm on my feet early and immediately, I see that I've given myself more time.

I get my toes on the rail and set an angle down the face, and as it starts to heave, I'm suddenly charged with its power.

The acceleration is breathtaking, exponential. By the time I reach the bottom, my board seems not to touch the wave at all.

This time I manage a bottom turn, but even so, I've skittered too far out on the flats again.

When I look down the line, the sight is horrifying; a wall the size of a prison's, stretching so far in front of me it looks like it belongs to another wave entirely.

I brace for the crushing impact of the lip as I haul the board around, not daring to look anywhere but down the line. Behind me comes the appalling thunderclap.

I make it around the cascading lip. I'm so stunned that I almost blow it immediately, rising too high up the face.

The wall steepens frighteningly quickly, and I'm almost back where I started, faced with negotiating another heart-stopping drop.

I cling on by my toenails, willing myself not to go up and over and angle down. It has the effect of generating yet more speed, and when finally I set a decent line, I'm supersonic.

But so is the wave. I would have been happy to ride out its length as far ahead of the barrel as possible, but it won't be an option.

The wall is rearing far ahead, and there's nothing more I can do. A slab of water like the side of a two-story house stands vertical in front of me and then folds itself over.

The future is forgotten, replaced by the immediacy of what's happening under my feet, above me. I'm inside the cathedral of its yawning belly.

All is white noise and hissing spray, matching what's going on in my head.

I've become unthinking, elemental. Something releases in my muscles; my knees bend, my shoulders drop, my feet flex, and make minute adjustments to my board.

I'm barely aware of it; my movements are muscle memory, involuntary. Every wave I've ever caught has led up to this moment.

My fear is gone. I fly through the cavernous tunnel for a long time.

Ahead, the wall keeps looming, throwing, looming, throwing. The wave is omnipotent, all-powerful.

Just as it seems like it will go on forever, it comes to an end.

I can't see a thing in the final spit of the wave, and I close my eyes, and it's only when I'm skimming out into the channel that it clears, and I can see again.

I turn and look behind me, and it's like a magic trick; it seems implausible that the wave is no more, replaced by a glittering sheen of foam across the surface of the sea.


Words by James Russell | Writer and Surfer

"A wave to oneself - what price paradise?" is an excerpt from "Mine," a book due for release on June 1, 2021, on amazon.com and dragonbrothersbooks.com/collections/saltwater-series

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