Ever since I saw that magical picture hanging on my cabin wall at summer camp in junior high I’ve had a dream to surf a big wave. The picture was of Laird Hamilton surfing a huge wave which looked unbelievable. I remember telling my cabin mates it was probably computer generated because no one could survive falling on a wave that big. Well clearly I was wrong and as I got older I realized people around the world were surfing huge waves and not only surviving but enjoying some of the most amazing experiences nature has to offer.
About three years ago I decided to make my dream a reality and set a goal to surf a 30 foot wave before I die. The only problem is I’d been running companies for the last 7 years, I was out of shape and hardly surfed a dozen times a year. Most people who brave huge waves are in incredibly good shape and have worked their way up to surfing big waves through 1000’s of hours in the water. I was getting into something way out of my skill level and fitness level and it happened to have a severe consequence attached, death.
But I do have one asset on my side, an incredibly naive sense of optimism.
Fast forward through 3 years of tow surf training, 72 special lung capacity and muscle workouts, $20,000 of blown cash on equipment and travel and you end up at last night.
Here I am in my car, my tow partner Martin next to me, the jet ski in tow and all the equipment piled in the back. We’re pulling up to the Mexican border, our goal is to get down to a hotel and leave early in the morning for the island of Todos Santos (an island 8 miles of the coast of Ensenada which has some of the biggest waves on the planet). As we approach the security check point they sent us to be searched, most likely because of the jet ski. A lady approached the window and asked if I had proof of registration for the jet ski. Oops, forgot that one at home. She then walked over to the supervisor who proceeded slowly over to the car and coldly notified us we’d have to turn around and go back to the US. If we did turn around it would ruin the entire trip because it was already almost 10PM and with the Mexican drug cartel hijacking tourist at gun point on a regular basis after midnight we wouldn’t risk heading down to the hotel any later than it already was.
After a little begging and showing them 3 year old copy of an expired registration for an entirely different jet ski they suddenly let us pass. We were pretty ecstatic and a little shaky from the adrenaline which was already starting to pump.
The night time drive down to Ensenada was sketchy. I was constantly checking my mirror for police cars (the cartel dress as police, hijack you at gun point, steal your car and if you’re lucky they drop you in a ditch somewhere alive). It didn’t help that my passenger Martin was describing in detail a news story he saw on TV about an entire family that had just been hijacked on the very same road we were on. We decided we wouldn’t pull over for anything and just drove like a bat out of hell for the hotel.
When we get to the hotel it was all sold out, we had tried to make reservations but they never picked up the phone so we decided they’d probably have rooms and we went for it, I mean what hotel sells out in Mexico in this economy? I guess Hotel Coral does. So we snuck into the parking garage and slept in the car. Slept is a strong word, it was more like an uncomfortable nap. We got up at 4:30 AM, drove over to the dock and put the jet ski in the water. It was windy and choppy which made for a rough and freeeeezing 8 mile jet ski ride to Todos Santos.
When we got to the Todos Santos it was still dark outside and the island was covered in a spooky fog. The waves were big, bumpy and scary and we were the only ones there. I remember thinking “this is crazy, what was I thinking that I could just will myself to surf a monster wave, I could die out here. Maybe we should just go back and blame it on the bad weather.” I was scared to death. Just then another two surfers on a jet ski showed up, they drove up next to us and just said “pretty meaty, huh?”. Then drove off towards the waves. That didn’t help.
We watched them catch a couple waves. We didn’t want to admit it but we had no idea what we were doing out here. We watched and learned from our unsuspecting teachers. We then decided to go for it, we couldn’t put in all this effort and turn back now. So I jumped in the frigged water and martin started up the jet ski. We headed towards the waves. The closer we got to the waves, the bigger and louder they got. I think I peed myself, but at this point there was no turning back. It was so loud that even if I yelled to Martin to stop he probably wouldn’t hear me. And then it happened.
A wave started to build behind me. A wave bigger than anything I’d ever been on before. It was more like a mountain growing right under my feet, that also happened to be moving very fast. I let go of the tow rope and the power of the wave hurled me down the wave faster than I’d ever gone on a surfboard before and the mountain was now turning into an avalanche of water about to crush me. I turned towards the shoulder to avoid getting smashed and I saw this huge wall of water before me and then suddenly realized I was actually surfing a 30 foot wave. It was like time slowed down just enough for me to take it all in before my adrenaline kicked back in and I surfed my heart out to make it to the channel where I could be safely picked up. The smile on my face when Martin brought the jet ski over to pick me up was from ear to ear. I had done it, I had achieved my dream and it felt really damn good.
We continued to surf for another 4 hours, taking turns driving one another into waves. As the day progressed it got sunnier and the waves even got a little bigger. The wave sizes varied from 25 to 40 feet on some freak sets. The entire day was surreal. I hadn’t really had any big wipeouts, that is until my last wave. I came over the top of the wave thinking I was in the channel only to see a bomb set wave over 30 feet about to break nearly right on my head. I tried to swim into the channel but quickly realized there was no way I was going to make it. So I took one huge gasp of air and prepared to get destroyed.
Again time slowed, but this time the inner feeling was entirely different. It was like I was wrestling with the fact that I might die and questioning if I was really prepared for this. At this point there was nothing I could do, I was completely at the mercy of nature. Then before I knew it the wave smashed into me and drove me deep into it’s chaotic whitewater. It felt like four sumo wrestlers each had one of my limbs and their sole mission was to rip me apart. It seemed like I was underwater for an eternity, I learned later I got dragged about 300 yards underwater and in the process completely freaked out my tow partner who thought I was dead. Luckily all the training paid off and I was able to hold my breath for the entire time without panicking. Although I’m not sure I could have lasted much longer, I was at the breaking point.
All in all it was an amazing experience. I’ve just had on of the best days of my life. I’m completely drained from all the adrenaline and lack of sleep. Time to hit the sack. Special thanks to Martin Grunburg (my fearless tow partner) and his wife for letting him come out with me on Valentines day. :)
P.S. The picture on top is me on one of my first waves. If I had someone filming with a video camera from a helicopter it would have looked sort of like this video of Mike Parsons at “Jaws” in Maui except the waves at Todos were about half this size VIDEO .