Dreams Are Truthful Manifestations
A Meditation on Death, Despair, & Life: Super Bowl Sunday 2006
Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one’s
body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by giant surging waves, being thrown
into the midst of great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku
at the death of one’s master. And every day without fail one should consider himself dead. There is a saying of the elder’s that goes: “Step from under the eaves and you’re
a dead man. Leave the gate and the enemy is waiting.” This is not a matter of being careful. It is to consider oneself as dead beforehand. - Hagakure
“Dreams are truthful manifestations.” So teaches the Bushido wisdom of the Samurai in the ancient text known as the Hagakure. This observation is true enough in my experience. When I have had lucid dreams of catching The Big Blue Wave or even (coming close to) dying, which occurs with some frequency, I find that if I brace myself with courage and calm determination, my frame of mind within the dream changes.
So, too, in life. This story, which took place sixteen years ago, recalls the manifestation of a dream vision that foretold a series of events which took mere seconds to unfold, but (for me) a rather long time to fathom.
It was a glorious, beautiful winter day. Surf was pumping. Light East winds. 20’ plus swell. Super Bowl Sunday. Not that “the game” mattered, other than the fact that it meant that most guys would be drinking beer in front of a television and weren’t going to get in my way, which is fine by me. I have surfed many epic, uncrowded Super Bowl Sundays over the decades, that’s for sure. In any event, I got down to The Bay early that morning to check the surf.
High on the bluff cliffs on the Southwest side of Waimea Bay along the highway, I had a clear unobstructed view of what was going on. It was big, perfect Waimea with about 15-20 guys out. I saw a young Jamie Sterling — who was just coming on as a big wave charger at the time — airdrop (backside no less) a bomb from behind the peak right off the bat. An awesome drop, he made it, followed by a glide across the Bay at full hull speed. I could feel how stoked he was from where I stood.
Then, another young kid (at the time) from Kailua, Dave Wassel (who might not have been a lifeguard yet in 2006), charged another bomb set (easy 20’) right on the peak, his board seemed to stall a little as it plowed in through the ledge, sending him over the handlebars about halfway down. Heavy wipeout. He hit the water hard and got sucked over the falls. That got my attention. It was a potentially deadly moment. Wassel popped up about 45 seconds later 100 yards inside of where he went down.
Next to me stood photographer and longtime North Shore “authority” and “contest director” (as well as a Quicksilver Eddie Aikau Contest judge) Bernie Baker. He was shooting photos. I said: “Looks like an Eddie day.” All blasé, without even looking at me, Bernie replied: “It’s not big enough.” I laughed out loud. It was plenty big enough.
Less than a minute later, a solid 25’ (50’ + face) semi-closeout set feathered across the Bay and shut down the Bay. No one caught it. The entire Bay became a seething cauldron of whitewater and swirling rips. I said nothing. Neither did Bernie, who seemed to retreat into his lens, pretending that what was happening before us wasn’t. Fine by me. I never liked the all the hype, commercialism, crowds, traffic, and pretense of the Quicksilver contest anyway, in fact I despised it (still do). The whole thing was a circus-show designed to promote a company (Quicksilver — now bankrupt) and the surf industry’s chosen flavors of the year. The decision-making process (as to who was invited and when the contest was held, etc.) was/remains mostly political and totally commercial.
It always seemed to me that Eddie (from what I have heard about him from people who knew and surfed with him) wouldn’t have wanted much to do with all the hype either. No matter.
The fact that there wasn’t going to be a contest that day simply meant I could go surfing — without all the hoopla — along with the Waimea Underground who did it for nothing other than love and madness. Word was, later, that Quicksilver held off because Slater (their boy) was out of town. Again, no problem there. I went home to Sunset and got my board.
I parked at the Church and walked down to The Bay. AsI cleared the bushes on the side of the Kam Highway, I saw immediately that The Bay was boiling with whitewater as massive lines of swell marched in from the outside. It was giant.
The roadside and beach were lined with spectators and photographers. Everyone was in awe. I tried not to look out to the lineup and just focus on getting down to the sand, but when I did take a peek (I couldn’t resist) I saw a colossal blue wall rise outside the surfers, who frantically scratched for the horizon, feather across the entire Bay and closeout top-to-bottom. It looked like most of the surfers got over the wave, the remnants of which steamrolled into the gargantuan, explosive shore-break that swept over the beach into the river-mouth and trees.
There were dozens of people along the tree-line. Some of them were surfers who clearly wanted nothing to do with what was going on in the ocean that day. It was obvious that they weren’t paddling out. Staring out to sea, I saw the horizon shift as another set stood up across The Bay. A surfer airdropped backside into a massive double up that went inside-out. It was an insane drop — straight-up-and-down — and the surfer (turns out it was Danny Fuller from Kauai) was fully-extended, on his toes. When he reached the bottom of the wave, in the trough, the wave closed-out behind him, fully engulfing him in a mass of exploding white-water that shot 50’-60’ feet in the air. Miraculously, Fuller made it and shot out in front of the white-water and aimed for the beach. He rode close along the point, just off the rocks, straight through the shore-break, and washed in just in front of the throng of people on the sand.
As I made my way through the crowd, someone said something to me, a question perhaps, I didn’t really hear or understand. I said nothing and stashed my backpack and slippers in the bushes, trying to remain calm and focused on getting through the shore-break. “Just breathe,” I thought. Nothing else mattered at that point as I walked down onto the sand, attached my goon-cord (leash), and prepared to paddle out alone.
It was a moment of truth. Another one, like so many, where and when one is confronted with one’s Fate and Destiny (or whatever it is). In this moment I felt alone and of course I was. I was anxious, to be sure, but not scared — although I probably should have been.
Nevertheless, I felt confident. At this stage in my surfing evolution, I was at something like my peak: just turned 37 years old, with almost 20 years of Waimea Bay and Sunset Beach (and elsewhere) experience under my belt. I had the best board I could possibly have — an 11’7” Owl Chapman Single Fin Pintaill Gun (still have it) — and I knew (or at least thought I did) that I was capable of riding the sets that day. This confidence and self-awareness was and remains fundamental to my approach to big-wave riding: don’t go out unless you are prepared to catch and ride the sets, otherwise forget it.
As I would soon discover, be very careful what you wish for, in the event you actually are confronted with your dream scenario is precisely when your Fate takes hold. Little did I know, but I was being drawn toward a moment of truth that would re-define much of the rest of my life.
I hit the water clean and true and glided over the crashing shore-break, barely got my hair wet, perfect timing. The first several strokes are crucial and set the momentum, I began to pray, as I always do (I think that started for me in 1993 at the Bay on a particularly dramatic day), for the prayer — Hawaiians call it a Pule — serves a myriad of purposes: it focuses and controls breath, calms the mind and heart, and summons the Divine as a guide and protector. Mine was and remains a prayer of awe and gratitude to Mana Kai Kanaloa (the Spirit and Soul of the Ocean). I’m not asking or wishing for anything — it is a prayer of thanks (Mahalo Ke Akua!) and a celebration of the communion of Life with all that is Natural and Divine.
The first objective, in my mind, is clearing the Church Tower (to the right/North), which marks the approximate half-way point between the shore-break entry point and the lineup just outside the point of Waimea Bay. This distance (about 300 yards or so) is a lot farther than it might look to someone on the beach, cliff, or roadside; and when it’s giant like this, with close-out sets coming in at regular intervals (every 15 minutes or so), the paddle out alone is absolutely critical.
Truth be told, the primary reason it wasn’t (and doesn’t get) crowded on days like this is because the paddle-out is so risky and treacherous. It is not uncommon for surfers (including the best in the world — I saw Kelly Slater and Mason Ho, for example, get washed back up the beach and denied entry/access to the Bay in 2016) to get pummeled and swept back to shore repeatedly when it’s big like it was this day. As I’ve reflected elsewhere,1 when Waimea is really pumping, the paddle out (or simply coming in) is extremely hazardous.
Just getting out though the shore-break is a challenge; and coming in can be even more risky. While the chances of getting out through the shore-break are slim, even if one does make it, there is the very strong possibility of getting caught–inside and cleaned-up by a closeout — which makes the shore-break look mellow by comparison. It’s a do-or-die situation and would be overwhelmingly nerve-racking were it not for the presence and clarity of mind that prayer, breath control, and laser-beam focus afford. These moments are the rare, real test of a true Waimea rider. Once you make it out, riding waves is almost easy.
A 20’ set approached as I cleared the Point and neared the lineup. Waimea Hell-Man Brock Little (Rest in Peace) was on the first wave: perfect positioning, vertical drop over the ledge straight down into the pit as the wave threw top-to-bottom and exploded behind him. He glided effortlessly into the channel just outside of me. Clark Abbey — another Waimea regular charger — was on the next one. No cord, just a pair of shorts and T-shirt. Almost a carbon copy of Brock’s wave: fin-out free-fall over the ledge of a drive-in movie screen of a wave that stood up ruler-edged across the entire Bay. Of course, he made it and kicked out right next to me. Clark smiled his pearly whites like only a Hawaiian can and his hazel eyes glimmered with pure stoke. We high-fived and stroked next to one another back to the line-up.
I made it out. Stoke! I took my bearings, looking North, beyond “Impossibles” off the point, up toward Ke Iki Reef, where 40’-60’ faced pipelines barreled down the coast. A mile or so beyond, Outer Log Cabins reef could be seen exploding. To my left, looking Southwest, I could see Outer Alligators Reef detonating like a thermonuclear explosion.
I was surrounded by less than 10 other surfers, most of whom I knew and respected: Nick Nozaki (one of the original Japanese big-wave riders and my longtime neighbor), Aussie Jamie Mitchell, the legendary Brock Little and Clark Abbey, along with several others. Eric Haas paddled out (on Eddie Aikau’s old board no less) soon thereafter.2
Everyone was quiet and intensely focused on the horizon, which shifted as something ominous began to rise in the submarine canyon about a half-mile outside of where we sat. A 30’ closeout set approached. No one wanted anything to do with this monster of water that seemed torn and shredded by the gusty trade-winds. Everyone scratched over it and The Bay closed-out behind us.
It’s strange, lonely feeling to be outside The Bay when it closes out. One realizes immediately that one is in a very precarious position. There’s no paddling in, for instance. That would not only be suicidal but frankly impossible given the massive volumes of water sucking out (9-10 plus knots) in the ferocious rips. Moreover, one realizes that (other than getting rescued by a jetski — which it seems most do rely upon these days almost 20 years later [another story]) the only way back to the safety of the beach is to catch and ride a wave into and through the shore-break. Talk about a self-realization and moment of truth. Anyway, everything becomes crystal clear and the mind and body are totally focused on one thing and one thing only: being in the right place at the right time.
Another giant set approached, not as big as the previous one, probably 25’ (45’-50 face), and marbled by wind and boils. I paddled over it and as I did, I could see out of the corner of my eye that Brock was trying as hard as he could to catch this Leviathan. He didn’t (the ledge was too thick), but not for lack of effort. Eric caught the last wave in the set effortlessly — we could all hear his primal scream echo across The Bay as he dropped in over the ledge.
Then I saw what I was looking and waiting for coming from the Northwest: a perfect 20’ set headed right for me. I was positioned furthest outside and deep. I knew I had it. No one challenged me for it as I stroked into the ledge. I felt my board being lifted and propelled by the mass of water as it rose and peaked, I leapt to my feet in a low crouch, ready for the suck-out pitch and freefall, dragging both hands in the lip a little (like stroking a dragon) to maintain a little purchase and balance, my pintail gun locked in from tip-to-tip, full-forward-trim in the lip launch . . . it felt something like control . . .
I made the drop, kind of at an angle, a little off-center (as Owl taught me) from behind the peak and rode halfway across the Bay — flying! The ice had been broken, at least for me; and I felt a surge of stoke and confidence. I wanted more and pulled hard back to the lineup. Within a few minutes another perfect set approached. I let the first one pass and someone else caught it; and there I was, again, in a perfect spot for the next one, which stood up tall before me as if to say: “Ride me.” I swung, stroked and stood up. This drop was more vertical but still in control. It was easy.
Body, board, and wave felt in perfect synchronicity as I slid down the face into the trough and laid it all on rail, projecting out onto the flats around the cascading whitewater into the channel. I was in a rhythm now. “This how it’s supposed to be,” I thought to myself, as I paddled back out, watching Clark Abbey drop into a bomb, followed behind that by Ozzie paddle-board champion (he won the Molokai Challenge — 33 miles — no less than 10 times) Jamie Mitchell. This was big-wave Nirvana! No doubt, it was definitely the kind of day Eddie Aikau would have loved and it honestly felt like his spirit (along with many others who charged out there before — Buzzy Trent, Jose Angel, Kealoha Kaio, and Tiger Espere to name but a few) was spiritually present there with us celebrating and reveling in the thrill and beauty of this glorious day. It was sublime.
Yet, as long as our personal plight does not predominate, but we continue in aesthetic contemplation, the pure subject of knowing, unshaken and unconcerned, looks beyond . . . and quietly comprehends . . . the sublime. [T]he impression becomes even more powerful, if, when we have before our eyes the struggle of the raging elements on a large scale . . . the roar of a waterfall . . . a sea lashed by storm, where the waves, high as buildings, rise and fall, are driven violently against steep cliffs, toss their foam high into the air; the storm howls, the sea roars . . . . the slightest impact of these energies can demolish, one is helpless against powerful nature, dependent, vulnerable to chance, an infinitesimal dot in relation to stupendous powers; and one feels . . . eternal, tranquil, knowing . . . that nature’s terrifying struggle is only [a]n idea. This is the complete impression of the sublime, here induced by a glimpse of power incomparably superior to the individual, a power which threatens with annihilation. — Arthur Schopenhauer3
The horizon shifted again. Ominous. A giant set approached. I was outside the pack and sitting deepest. Resisting an overwhelming urge to paddle further outside for safety, I held my position and waited for what I felt was the wave of a lifetime. It all became clear. I had had this dream before and could see and feel it all manifesting as in a moment of déjà vu. If I only I could brace myself with the courage and presence of mind and body to meet my Fate and Destiny, this would be the actualization of a lifetime of dreams and aspiration. The set approached and I was fixed on the first wave. I swung and paddled as it rose behind me and picked me up. The wave caught me — not me it. And, again, at least at first, it was smooth and, dare I say it: easy . . . I was calm and relaxed.
I got to my feet and beheld a vision of absolute splendor. What I saw before me at that moment was glorious, beyond sublime: everything I had dreamed about and strove for at The Bay manifested in one wave. I was fully stoked, in perfect position (it seemed), and may have even thought: “You got this” . . . Then, in an instant, everything changed . . . It was as if time stood still for an interminable moment where everything becomes certain as impending doom — the gruesome transformation was sudden, radical, and extremely threatening. At once, I was terrified (I’ll admit it: consumed with panic) by the absolute knowledge — emanating from my spine and bones — that I had bit off more than I had bargained for in that moment. Going as fast as one can possibly go on a surfboard (60 plus MPH?) I went into freefall as the wave jacked, throbbed, and flared with ferocious violence.
The wave mutated as it hit the reef and seemed to double not only in amplitude (height) but in its overall mass and velocity. As the wave went absolutely vertical, a crazy, unpredictable side-wave backwash came off the point and caused the Beast to turn into a seething cauldron of boils . . . I was fully extended, on my toes, and in some serious trouble. Once again, time stood still as my brain processed the unfolding of events . . . I was as late, steep and deep as one can be at maxxing Waimea Bay. I don’t even know how “big” this wave was — does it matter? As Buzzy Trent remarked infamously: “Big waves aren’t measured in feet but increments of fear.” C’est vrai, Buzzy. I was scared and for very good reason. Notice in the photos above and below the boils — a sickening series of boils — on the face, in the pit, surrounding me. The boils formed something like a ridgeline in front of me; and I probably wasn’t going to make it across. The entire wave was, in fact, a boil: the ocean was both exploding and imploding upon itself across this ledge of water outside Waimea Bay.
So, to say I was “behind the boil” is rather misleading and understatement. I was behind a series of boils that defied anything I have seen (before or since) including basic physics and geometry. This wave wasn’t round, it was square, at once concave and convex — the angles and slopes in this Beast seemed to pull in opposing directions — as I felt myself both free-falling and getting sucked backwards at one and the same time. Everything happened very, very fast; however, I recall clearly (again) how time stood still for a terrifying moment of despair as I recognized I was about to encounter the worst wipeout of my life and a potentially fatal disaster. The laws of gravity were momentarily suspended until they weren’t and Newton’s Law of Inertia literally kicked in as my board hit the proverbial ridgeline (call it a rib) and disconnected from the surface of the water altogether and I found myself flying (hurtling) through the air at what must have Mach III.
Or, in the alternative — it was bad . . .
I hit the water head first. Hard. The sheer violence of the high-impact I experienced was and remains beyond words. Might as well have been cement or stone at 60 plus MPH. Worse than any World Cup downhill ski crash I’ve seen. More like a Formula One collision at 250 MPH or a train wreck. And the pain — white-hot, electric, spastic, all-consuming pain from my head and neck, through my right arm and spine — was beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. Football players, orthopaedic surgeons (my father was both), and neurosurgeons call it a “stinger,” which it most certainly was (it stung bad). At the moment of impact, I broke my neck (at C6-C7 I’d discover or determine 10 years later); severed my Brachial Plexus nerve, which runs from the Cervical spine to the arm (my right one in this case); and torn (blown out would be more accurate) my rotator cuff muscles on both shoulders. I also endured a severe concussion. And all that was just from the impact into what felt like solid water. I hadn’t even gotten sucked over the falls of this Behemoth and thrashed in the Maelstrom itself. Yet. That was coming soon enough. I did my best to relax as I felt myself getting recycled upwards from the depths — a curious, nauseating, weightlessness — only to get hurled over the falls in the “tube” (there’s no proper word for the hydrodynamics of such extreme turbulence) and brutalized once more.
Then, as if by a miracle, rather than be buried and pinned on the bottom, 30’ or 40’ below the surface (which could very well have happened), I just popped up,4 not quite on the “surface” — as there was about 2’-3’ of foam above the so-called “surface” — just in time to catch a shallow breath and see another 25’ Leviathan rearing above, before, and about to break on top of me. I was at direct impact — “Ground Zero” is the term for the epicenter of a nuclear blast — and I saw in that horrifying instant Jamie Mitchell dropping into this monster, drawing his line across a giant wave (cleaner face, absent all the crazy boils of the one I had) that drove into me with all the concentrated violence of the previous one.
Again, I tried to be calm and go into that quiet, peaceful, dark place within myself that nothing and no one can touch or fathom. There I reposed for the next 30 or 40 seconds of Pure Chaos. I forgot everything and became nothing (Nihil) but a fundamental element within the thermonuclear fusion of water molecules, like a Hydrogen atom in the core of a star being pressed under the force of Cosmic Will into something else altogether (Helium).
This time, I had to fight to get to the surface. There was no “popping up.” Despite the excruciating pain, which adrenaline mercifully spared me in the ensuing critical moments, I was somehow able to pull myself up from the black depths toward the light. It was a battle. When I broke the surface, I was way inside, almost in line with the Point, about half a football field (or more) from the Impact Zone. This was a bit of a double-bind, in that while it was fortunate that I was no longer in the Impact Zone (or buried under hundreds of thousands of tons of water on the ocean floor), I was also at risk of two other extreme hazards: either getting caught inside by another close-out set (highly probable) or getting sucked in the Colorado River-like rip-current over toward the rocks (notoriously called: “Coffin Corner” by the Old Timers) on the West side of the Bay. Another miracle: my board was still attached to me and hadn’t broken. Unbelievable.
I knew immediately what I had to do. Despite whatever injuries I might have sustained (I didn’t know or care, although I sensed I was damaged), I simply had to get back to the lineup as soon as possible. There was no paddling in from where I was situated, it would have been reckless, stupid, and futile to attempt to paddle in, as the rip-current was too strong, the shore-break too giant and violent, and the possibility of getting caught by a close-out set too strong to risk such a hopeless Hail Mary. I needed to get back to lineup and catch a wave in to the beach. No one was going to rescue me. I was on my own. Another déjà vu . . . I had this vision before.
Adrenaline is a wonderful drug —all natural and free! Probably my favorite. I’m definitely an adrenaline junky. And I had my fix here and now and was 1000% focused on my objective as I lay prone on my gun and stroked like a demon possessed — “the mind is its own place and can in itself make a Heaven of Hell or a Hell of Heaven” declared the defiant Fallen Angel: Satan himself (in “Paradise Lost”)5 — back outside. Somehow (yet another miracle), despite a broken neck, severed nerves, and torn muscles, I could paddle. So, paddle I did like Sisyphus with his stone.6 Within a couple minutes I was back to the relative “safety” of the lineup.
Clark Abbey looked at me incredulously like I was a ghost or something — as if I had returned from the Dead, which, I suppose, in a manner of speaking, I had. He had witnessed my wipeout directly from where he had been on the shoulder (if one could call it that) of the wave that consumed and demolished me. He just shook his head and kind of laughed. I was in shock. Clinical shock, for sure, and whatever the first stages of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) are, I was rattled. Yet I soon went into another frame of mind with the sole, single aim of catching a wave and getting what was left of me back to the beach. A set approached. It was big and looked a lot like the one that almost just killed me. Nevertheless, I swung and paddled for it.
This time, however, I hesitated. I had the wave (if I wanted it); but as I looked over the ledge some sort of instinct kicked in (probably the PTSD) and I pulled back (in a full body stall, dragging my legs against the immense pull and suction) without a thought. Luckily, I didn’t get sucked over the falls. My body somehow overrode my mind — or was it the other way around? “Fuck!” I yelled. I knew I had the wave (easy 20’) and that I probably could have made it (to the beach!), yet my body/mind-system was all out of whack, the wires were crossed. I tried to pull myself together and screw my head back on straight. I told myself to “focus” and just catch the next set and ride it through the shore-break. The adrenaline was still pumping hard, although I was beginning to become cognizant of the extent and severity of my injuries: searing, hot pain surged like electrical volts through my head, neck, shoulders, and arms. And I was tired, exhausted really — I understood that I was about to run out of both time and energy before my entire system just shut down altogether. It was now or never, urgent that I catch a wave and get to shore.
Another set approached. I didn’t see or hear anyone anymore. I felt like I was in position, put my head down, pulled hard, caught the wave, and stood up in a low crouch, ready to take the drop. It was a smooth drop, a beautiful wave that I actually enjoyed riding, as I lay into a bottom turn, trying to stay close to the curl so as not to get too far out into the middle of the Bay; and just at the right moment, I straightened out, fading gradually back toward the Point, aiming for the inside, tightest corner of the shore-break by the Kam Highway, which is the safest (and on a giant day like this: the only) point of entry and exit.
I iron-legged it through the shore-break and washed up and over the sand berm into a crowd of people. When I tried to pick up my surfboard, I was overcome with bursts of pain and realized that my right arm was essentially paralyzed. It’s odd how serious injuries make one (or me) feel something like embarrassment, I suppose because one (me) is so vulnerable and weak. I did my best to act nonchalant as I struggled with gathering my board with my left arm and withdrew into the bushes where I had stashed my rucksack and slippers. Then I collapsed, utterly exhausted, as I began to take stock of what I had just endured.
Sipping some water, eating a Clementine Orange (from my backyard) and some nuts, and taking a toke from my pipe, I began to apprehend the gravity of my predicament. I was seriously injured and needed to go home, sleep, and begin to recover. It was a surreal experience, both examining myself and taking in the context of everything around me. There were dozens of people all around, many of whom happened to be nubile women in bikinis, laughing and frolicking, the atmosphere charged with excitement and enthusiasm, vibrant colors of blue, green, brown, the roar of the ocean and cheers of the crowd — it was all rather intense, reminding me of the brilliance of life itself, yet I also had this feeling of remove, a pathos of distance, which muted the splendid sights and sounds in an uncanny way such that provoked me to the self-realization that I was grateful to be alive and had come very close to death.
§ § §
Postscript: Back in 2006 I didn’t have health insurance and never went to the doctor. I just kind of soldiered through the pain and disability, but I was never out of the water for long. In fact, I was back surfing big Sunset and everything else within a week of this Super Bowl Sunday event. Probably a good thing (?) that I never got a proper diagnosis. Ignorance has its benefits. Nevertheless, I experienced a lot of pain and dysfunction for years after that fateful day; and I had trouble sleeping for years as I struggled through intense neuropathy for endless nights of tossing and turning in agony. I also had trouble simply turning my head or lifting things (like a coffee cup or beer); but I adapted and learned to cope, figuring that this was part of the price of being a “big-wave rider.” Indeed.
Ten years later (in 2016) I had a series of MRIs ordered by my orthopod regarding a nagging shoulder injury and the neuropathy symptoms I had suffered for years (stemming from the wipeout recounted herein — and others subsequent no doubt). The images made clear that I had broken my neck (at C6-C7) and the resulting calcifications had formed into a nasty little foraminal stenosis, which is a narrowing of the cervical disc space in the spinal canal. Not a good thing. The orthopod said this kind of injury was beyond his expertise, so he referred me to a neurosurgeon who basically told me to stop surfing. He was like: “If you have another wipeout, you risk paralysis or death.”
Of course, I understood what he was saying. I spoke at length with my father (who was an orthopaedic surgeon) about it, too. But what was I going to do? There’s no way I was quitting surfing; and the fact that I had been surfing all kinds of waves and charging Sunset, the Bay, Point Surf Makaha, and the Outer Reefs for the past 10 years mitigated (or exacerbated?) the risk of what the neurosurgeon warned. So it goes.
Still and all, death is always close. Roger Erickson told me one time (back in the 1990s) that “We all die out there a little sometimes.” He was referring to the “big hits” (i.e., the wipeouts) that all big-wave riders endure sooner or later. It’s inevitable. Another time, while sitting off the Kepuhi headland waiting for a set at Point Surf Makaha, Ricky Grigg told me that he had had broken his neck out at the Bay back in the 1970s. He added: “Most everyone who surfs Waimea probably has stress fractures in the neck and spine from the high-impact wipeouts.” True enough. Most of the Old Salts I know and have observed look a little stiff, to put it mildly. I guess it comes with the territory.
I was lucky that I survived. Lucky, too, that I was able to both make it out and back in on my own accord, which means (and meant) a great deal to me — for, in my estimation, when and if one has to be rescued, well then one has lost honor. Of course, that’s all changed now for the most part; and for many good reasons. Waimea Bay these days is overrun and literally plugged with scores of “surfers” (I don’t even recognize the vast majority of these human cannonballs from who knows where) suited up in inflatable flotation vests and several jet-skiis waiting to not only rescue them when they wipeout (sparing them the indignity of actually having to fend for themselves or get dashed on the rocks or just drown) but simply escort these wannabes out to the lineup. Most of these charlatans are inexperienced, have little to no talent, and simply should not be out there getting in the way, dropping in on the shoulder, and ditching their boards. It’s all rather disgraceful in my view.
I understand well enough that places like Peahi (“Jaws” on Maui), Mavericks (in California), Nazarré (in Portugal), and the Kodak Outer Reef (“Himalayas”) are very dangerous places. If only those who paddled out on their own with no assistance or so-called “Safety” attempted to surf these breaks on their own recognizance, there would be a fraction of the hordes (if anyone at all) out at these breaks. Some call it “progress” — I call it decadence.
Regardless, my reflections aren’t so much that of an old bitter man over the hill and out to pasture, but rather that of someone who came of age in a different era. I’m grateful for that. The standards and expectations — the “rules” if you will — were different. Pure. Simple. Straightforward. No shortcuts or excuses. One had to pay dues and earn the stripes. It took time and struggle. I felt ashamed to wear a cord or even a wetsuit, never mind flotation vests, GPS comms, teams of jet-skiis, and cylinders of oxygen (etc.) ready and waiting to save you when you fall. Today’s big-wave riders are suited up in armor with an archery of longbowmen at their back. My generation and those that came before more so (think: Peter Cole, Buzzy Trent, Tiger Espere, Eddie Aikau, Owl Chapman, & Roger Erickson, et al.) had no armor, just a broad sword. Not even a shield. My idea of high-tech safety in the ‘90s and early 2000s was a swim fin stuck in the back of my shorts . . . I digress.
The point I want to emphasize here is awareness of one’s mortality and finitude in the face of inevitable, certain death. It’s coming sooner or later. By no means do I (or have I) consciously courted death — although I’ve often dreamt of it — I’m only trying to challenge myself and have some fun, to commune with and experience the wild majestic beauty and wonder of pure unadulterated Nature. However, experiences like the one told here taught me to be intimately aware of — and somewhat more comfortable with — how life and death are closely connected, indeed intertwined, in most everything one does. It’s always there. Just a breath away . . . Keeping this existential truth in mind each and every day is a source of discipline, solace, humility, and wisdom.
As the “pure subject of knowing, unshaken and unconcerned, looks beyond and quietly comprehends the sublime” (Schopenhauer), then one also “meditates on death” and its inescapability. Like the Samurai, clear-eyed, calm and resolute, in a state of disciplined equanimity, approach all action and experience as if it may be the last. “This is not a matter of being careful. It is to consider oneself as dead beforehand.” Within this state of mind, of Being and Becoming — as inevitably Dead — one has nothing to lose and everything to gain.
PAU, Huelo Hale, 2022
The remains of Eddie Aikau’s old board — a Waikiki Special (by no means a Big Wave Gun design) that Eric Haas rode with aplomb on Super Bowl Sunday 2006. This vintage relic (circa mid 1960s) rests quietly in my backyard under the shed. What’s it worth, one might ask? Good question. On the one hand, given this board’s historical and cultural significance, it can be said to be invaluable. One of a kind, that’s for sure. How many surfboards were ridden by Eddie and Eric (two of the best — if not The Best — big-wave riders of all time)? This one. None other. If pressed, I’d say the bidding would start at $10K and we can see where it goes from there. But for now, Sotheby’s can wait . . .
The World As Will & Idea, Second Aspect, Book III § 40.
As most surfers know or have experienced, when one pulls into the tube (or barrel) of a wave and doesn’t make it out, very often one will just “pop out the back,” as it were — as opposed to getting pinned on the bottom or dragged towards shore — because of the vacuum-like physics of the whirlpool effect. That’s essentially what happened to me in this case.
The relevant passage from John Milton’s epic poem (1674) reads as follows:
Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrors, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang'd by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater?
Cf. Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus” (1942), where Camus suggests that although doomed by the Gods, one must “imagine Sisyphus happy” with his otherwise “absurd” existential predicament. SEE, e.g.,: https://www2.hawaii.edu/~freeman/courses/phil360/16.%20Myth%20of%20Sisyphus.pdf