Reflection on a Giant Day
November 13, 1996
A recent subscriber (for whom I’m eternally grateful) asked about my “biggest wave” experience. This question is almost impossible to answer. There have simply been too many “big,” “memorable,” and “heavy” waves over the years.
Here’s one: I might have caught one of the biggest waves I ever rode on November 13, 1996. It had been raining for a month straight. Everything was totally flooded. The whole scene around the North Shore was Biblical — houses and cars swamped out, radical disasters, and a total loss for some people. The ocean looked like fudge, thick with dirt and full of detritus of all kinds (I saw bloated pigs). Things were crazy and perilous; definitely not ideal surfing conditions.
The river at Waimea had blown out the entire beach from the lifeguard tower to the Kam highway — there was virtually no beach left (this actually happened again for the first time this past year — 2021 — after a major rain event). The Northeast corner where we usually paddle out (where they’ve been paddling out since 1957) was gone: underwater. Totally flooded. The Bay was just one, huge river-mouth of gushing brown water flowing out of the Koolau Mountains. And there were trees, debris, dead animals, and all sorts of gnarly flotsam flowing into the Bay.
I managed to dig out from work (I was conducting research for a Master’s thesis in the philosophy of education at an elementary school in Pearl City at the time) a little early that day and got myself down to the Bay at about 1:30 p.m. As soon as I got there, I heard there had been a 30’+ closeout (that’s a 60’ plus face — bigger than a telephone pole, about as tall as a big coconut tree) that took out everyone in the lineup. People were freaking out. Something like 20 boards were busted or lost on one set. So, by the time I arrived, the place was virtually empty; maybe five or six guys out.
The Bay looked nuts. Almost too big. From the beach it looked giant and gnarly, not at all inviting: intimidating and scary. Weather was overcast, rain drizzling, although the trade-wind was a light SE. Straight offshore. While there were long lulls between the huge sets, there was nowhere — obvious or safe — to paddle out. Shore-break was bonkers: doubled-up, endless, relentless lines of white water surging hard into a river full of suds and shit. Even so, I thought I’d give it a shot and waded down to and through the river — trying to avoid the trees and sticks and stuff flowing out — and waited for a lull. I was standing in the middle of the Bay — not in the corner. I stood there for a long time and it looked like it might be a futile endeavor. My mind was racing . . .
Brock Little charging a Waimea Bay Leviathan . . . as BIG as it gets . . .
When Waimea is really big like that, the paddle out (or coming in) is dicey. 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 like nothing by comparison. A situation like this is treacherous. These kinds of days are the rare, real test of a true Waimea rider. Once you make it out, riding waves is almost easy.
The Platonic Archetype re: Shorebreak
Anyway, I’m standing there in knee-deep water, kind of in the middle of the river mouth, just East of the Lifeguard tower, almost hoping I don’t have to go out. The mind plays crazy games with itself at moments like this — psychological warfare. Mixed feelings of fight or flight would be an understatement at this point; it would have been very easy to just blow it off. Then this red Brewer washes in. I know it’s Eric’s (Haas) board (actually it was Eddie Rothman’s; but Eric had been borrowing it that winter). It’s a sign. I grab it and wait for Eric. Again, this was absolutely Code Black: huge, gnarly Waimea. Swimming around the Bay was something very, very few people could handle. No jetskiis. No possibility of a water “rescue.” But I knew that Eric could make it. Among other things, he’s Aquaman. And so, on cue, Eric washes in a few minutes later, just as I expected. Ho! He’s jazzed. Eyes lit up like I’ve never seen before.
Moment of truth . . . “Do I really want to go out there?”
When I ask him how he paddled out through this crazy shore-break, Eric tells me he had paddled down to the Bay from Phantoms!
Think about that for a moment (if you can): if Waimea is 25’-30’+ and closing out, the outer reefs (from Phantoms to Sunset to Pipe & Logs) are off the scale huge, breaking miles out to sea — who knows, maybe 40’ (yep, that’s right: 80’+ faces) or more. Incomprehensible. Giant — off the scale. Yet Eric had casually jumped in the water at Backyards and paddled over 3 miles in a raging ocean to the Bay by himself (after what I guarantee was a long, wild night), with a fin tucked into his shorts. Just another go-out for the ultimate underground big-wave rider of not only his (and my) generation — but of all generations (including now). I’ll write more about Walter Eric Haas; and I stand behind every superlative that one can state on this rarest of individuals. The point here is that nobody has ever done that — at least not since Woody Brown and Dickie Cross in 1947 — when Dickie disappeared (presumably drowned) and Woody washed in on the beach naked and unconscious (and it wasn’t as big then as it was this day). Anyway, Waimea Bay must have seemed like V-land (a small-wave spot) after what Eric had seen and dealt with on that heroic paddle down the coast. As I said, that’s another story yet to be told . . . another of thousands of reasons why I believe that Eric Haas is the greatest big-wave rider and waterman of all time . . . He charges like no one else — when no one else is looking.
Walter Eric Haas on a Waimea Bay Bomb — behind the Boil and Charging . . .
So, there I am in front of raging triple overhead shore-break, wondering how in Hell am I going to penetrate through . . . and Eric is just like “Go, brah! GO NOW!” I have always had this implicit trust of Eric (in the water at least). If he says “GO,” then I’m going. Somehow, I made it through the shore-break — never lost my board! It was actually pretty easy; only had to pull through a couple relatively soft ones. Minor miracle. The Fates smiled upon me. Then I sprint paddled to the lineup as fast as I ever had: I’m OUT there. And I made it. Thanks, Eric!
There’s no more than 5 or 6 guys sitting on the boil: Brock Little, Greg Russ, Paul Moreno, I don’t know who else. But these guys are each and all legends (half of whom are dead now). I’m the youngest guy, a nobody compared to these accomplished veterans. And I’m feeling like I am in another world; might as well be alone. No one is saying much. Everyone is intensely focused on the horizon. There’s a weird, electric buzz in the air. The surface of the water has this strange velvety or silky quality to it; I can see water droplets on the deck of my surfboard vibrating, almost like they’re dancing as the waves concuss inside. Quantum of solace (or something like that) comes to mind as I type this out.
Despite the rain, all the brown water, and trees and crap in the channel, the waves were absolutely PERFECT. With the light SE offshore wind, the surf was glassy and super well defined. One could really see clearly what the water and all that energy was doing: massive, top-to-bottom barrels rifling from Ke Iki and Impossibles across the Bay. Not a drop of water out of place. Seamless peel on the best sets. The waves were as focused and intricately defined as I’ve ever seen (then or now) at the Bay. The pure, unadulterated force of Kanaloa (Akua — God — of the Ocean) was more than palpable — what the old Hawaiians call: Mana Kai. This was a sacred moment; a divine opportunity . . .
Author dropping in just behind the elusive “Outer Boil” — this ramp only reveals itself at size: 20’ or bigger . . . “The boil doesn’t lie.”
That was the day I learned about the outer boil — a narrow, confined, and defined ramp on the outside second reef that stands up just so and, if you like go, launches you in right behind the peak in the middle of the Bay. This is where the old guard — guys like Owl, James Jones, Roger Erickson, Mel Kinney, Zook, Tiger Espere, and Eddie Aikau used to sit on their elephant guns on the giant days. Right at the summit of the pyramid, as it were. Catching waves that day was actually EASY. I just slid right in — smooth transition — on my red 11’10” Owl Chapman single fin pintail (I gave that board to Eric Haas in a trade years later; he still rides it). Holding position and turning around for one of these monsters, however, is another matter. When the sets come, every instinct is screaming: “paddle outside!” But I managed to hold position on the edge of the reef, right on that outer boil; and I caught a few set waves. There were some big ones, too, still closing out in the middle on the sets; but no more full-on, top-to-bottom close-outs like there had been earlier. I made the drop (one behind Brock — he was pissed, I could tell, although he didn’t say anything; nor did I) and kicked out of each and every one of those waves in the channel. I began to feel something like, if not in control, a little more comfortable. Calm, totally focused, nasal breath.
Author knifing a set wave outside and behind the “Boil” at Waimea Bay. “The boil doesn’t lie,” oft refrained by the Old Guard. (This is a different day than the one described herein; not as big . . . but you get the idea).
One wave in particular stands out for me. I saw it coming from miles away. The horizon shifted, a grey/black hump rose; and one can gauge by what’s happening up at Logs and coming down the line from Ke Iki and Shark’s Cove through the renowned Impossibles section (what I affectionately call “Wasserman’s Cove”) what’s going to happen next. “Dar she blows!” (what I was thinking) I was deepest and the furthest outside. No one hassled me for it. Again, I’m on a red 11’10’’ triple stringer single fin pintail — “Big Red” (Eric’s board now). I know I have the best board in the water. And the wave approaching at 60 mph is precisely what Owl made this board to catch and ride. I have supreme confidence in my equipment. That confidence helps a great deal. The outer boil lights up (bubbles galore) and I’m on it. Barely even had to paddle for it — just a little stroke, petting the cat sort of thing. I’m in and up — low, loose, crouched, wide stance, and poised for the take off . . . Locked and loaded.
When it’s really big like that, there are a series of ledges in the wave. Waimea is actually a double-up. Breaks a lot like one of my favorite small wave spots, an esoteric little section at the end of Val’s Reef at Sunset Beach called: “Parking Lots” (because it’s right in front of the parking lot). It’s my big wave practice spot when it’s 2’. Parking Lots, like giant Waimea Bay, comes out of a deep trench (in the case of the Bay it’s a submarine canyon extending miles out in to the ocean) and hits a shallow inside reef. The bathymetry creates an aquaticwonder of nature — whether it’s 2’ Parking Lots or 25’ Waimea Bay. At the Bay, on the outside, the wave stands up tall and vertical — not quite concave yet — looking like a drive in movie screen (only bigger). The ramp I mentioned earlier allowed me to slide in just a little behind the peak, which afforded a split-second opportunity to penetrate and set trim high, just a hair off-center. Owl Chapman told me about this many times; and this strategy was imprinted into my subconscious, which, at this moment, became a conscious reality. This slim trim line allowed me to make the critical transition over the ledge into the face of the wave itself so that when the wave hit the next ledge and the Leviathan really doubled-up, jacked skyward and went totally top-to-bottom, I’m already in, rail set in vertical trim. I proceeded into a virtual fin-out freefall; but I penetrated. I felt in command despite the violent throw and throb of it all looming above, around, and in front of me — and I wasn’t even half way down the face of the wave yet . . .
When the wave — indeed the whole Bay — went concave (throwing top to bottom) I was low, poised, and ready for the next suck-out ledge dredging out of the fathoms of water beneath me in the bottom third of the wave. The power and speed of it all is difficult to describe. I can remember a high-pitched hum from the fin of my board as it hit full hull speed (probably somewhere around 45-50 mph) — never heard that before (or since). This strange, eerie hum; time slowed down; the tiniest and farthest things came into perfect focus. I sensed everything acutely. I felt awake and alert to everything around me. I was One with the Universe. Dasein. It was actually very peaceful. And I felt something like control. Pure stoke! I made the drop and found myself at the base, in the pit (the proverbial “hole”) of a 25’ Waimea Monster.
Author coming in behind that Boil . . . going as fast as one can go on a surfboard: Freefalin’.
Then . . . I became immediately aware of a massive, spinning left tube coming at me from the other side of the Bay. I realized there was nowhere to go. Here at the bottom of a massive wall of water — easily 50’ or more of cascading, beyond vertical face — and there was no “kicking out.” I was about to be consumed by the Leviathan . . .
When it’s big and giant, Waimea Bay is actually a pretty small place; it’s tight and constrained. There’s not a lot of wiggle room. And I was stuck in the middle of it all with little option but a sketchy prone out. On the other side of the Bay, approaching the rocks (the infamous, deadly “coffin corner”), the Bay closes out, so I hit a bit of fade (pushing left) back toward the Point with the hope of iron-legging it through the shore-pound. No luck. I got hit by a veritable cement truck and went for a vicious under-water thrashing. The violence is indescribable. All one can do is try to relax. Don’t waste oxygen. Dial down into a quiet Zen zone and take what comes. It’s like a mini nap. Just close my eyes and dream of simple, happy things (like: survival). Incredibly, my leash holds. I don’t drown. When I come up after a 20-30 second beating, I’m pretty close to what used to be the beach, right in front of the lifeguard tower — maybe 20-25 yards away.
This is not a good place to exit the water. Very ill-advised. The shore-break is so violent and double/tripled-up that there’s a strong chance of . . . well, death or dismemberment. But — given the situation and how exhausted (i.e., totally hypoxic) I was and that the prospect of paddling back across the Bay through raging rip and the strong possibility of getting caught inside before reaching the lineup (etc.) — I had no choice but to death-grip the board and let a 15’ shore-break explode on top of me, blasting me to the beach — no (there is no beach) right into the river! Came to rest in the calm, sudsy, brown estuary . . . safe and sound. I paddled toward the trees on the West side and got out of the water.
I guess I was in a state of shock. It was over. I was stoked, to be sure; yet I also realized — understood at preconscious, visceral or spinal level — that I had been more than lucky. Not only did I not drown or get horribly injured (both strong possibilities under the circumstances), but I actually caught some epic waves, the biggest, best of my life up until that point; and I didn’t embarrass myself by doing something lame or stupid that might involve a rescue (one of my many fears); and I didn’t even bust my board. All miracles. I sat down on the grass. Totally spent: exhausted.
After sitting there for I don’t know how long (20 minutes? An hour?) My friend (really more of mentor at the time) Greg Russ (RIP just this past year — I will write more about this underground outlaw soul surfer) came in and he asked me for a lift back to Sunset Beach, where we lived (he lived at V Land; me: Kammieland). Of course, compadre! So, I gave Greg a ride in my rusty, little, old Toyota Corolla; guns strapped on top. Greg got us a six-pack (Grolsch if I remember correctly) at Foodland to share. I drove real slow, never got out of third gear. There was no rush. Everything was serene, sublime. We didn’t talk or say much, just sipped our cold Grolschs, John Lee Hooker on the tape-deck, trade-winds blowing gently, driving down a Kam Highway covered in sand from waves washing across . . . The moon was beautiful that night — a “surfer’s moon” — a striking yellow slim crescent (what the Hawaiian’s call Mahina Po Hoaka) shaped like a curling wave.