Friday, January 11, 2008

Big Waves

Wow - these guys are crazy! But incredible at the same time.

What does it take for these surfers to defy all odds, and ride the biggest waves possible? What makes them tick? And how in the world do they wrap their minds around the idea that they're surfing 80-foot waves? Mad, but brilliant.

A bit more mad, if you ask me...

I first became interested in Big-Wave Surfing after watching an excellent documentary on PBS's Nature. "Condition Black" documents the extraordinary adventure of Ken Bradshaw, who was filmed surfing an estimated 85-foot wave, the largest ever recorded (at the time, 1998 - I don't know if this record still stands).

The images captured by IMAX cameras on that remarkable day, are a true testament to Big Wave surfers and their jet-ski counterparts. The only physical/possible way surfers can generate enough speed to ride a 40, 60, 80 foot swell, is by getting towed into the peak of the swell by a jet ski or personal watercraft - just before the wave begins to crest. Only then can the surfer generate enough speed to ride down the wave wall without getting overtaken by the wave.


These people are amazing: Big wave surfers and the jet skiers who accompany them on their quest to ride the biggest waves possible.

The power of the ocean, the power of water never ceases to amaze me. And I am just blown away by the size of the aforementioned swells.

I was giving this topic - Big Wave Surfing and Big Waves in general - a lot of thought on my run yesterday. I was running at NAS (Naval Air Station) Pensacola, on the wood chip running trail right next to the water, and noticed the gusty and choppy conditions. The water was grey and churning, a reflection of the sky. And the waves pulled and tugged at the white sand beach, relentless and unyielding. It was twilight, and the salty breeze was blowing stiffly off the Gulf. My pace quickened, as I made haste to make it to the car before sunset.

As I ran along, I marveled at how the waves looked. Today's conditions weren't all that bad compared to what I've experienced first hand. Nothing like my Big Wave friends, but all the same - pretty harrowing to me, the "newbie" triathlete who grew up in ocean-deprived Minnesota. For the most part, the Gulf has been like a kitten for the past year or so that I've lived out here.

It was off the coast of North Carolina that I got to experience some pretty big waves.

There were two races during my "sophomore" year of triathlon racing (2006) in particular that made me cringe. But I learned a lot, discovered the tranquility of swimming out past the breakers, and more importantly what to do and what not to do when racing in "big" waves (maybe 5, 8 feet at the most - perhaps more. They looked BIG to me!)

The races - Surf & Turf and The Kure Beach Double Sprint were held about a month or so apart. Both excellent races, part of the North Carolina Triathlon Series. (I strongly recommend that you check them out if you're ever in the region. Set Up Events runs a great program, and I raced and had the pleasure of meeting some seriously fast ladies out there.)

That particular season, the Atlantic was finicky - to say the least. There would be awesome, flat days, where the waves would sweep gently up the sand's edge. Then there were days where craft-advisories would be issued, and it was highly advised that people not go in the water. Surf & Turf and Kure Beach were both held on days were Small Craft Advisory probably should have been issued. Athletes were given the option of foregoing the swim and racing a duathlon instead. Additionally, the two dozen or so lifeguards were well trained and were happy to sit beyond the breakers, watching brightly-capped swimmers head their way.

Me, being the triathlete that I am - competitive, out-for-a-challenge, (but could also be considered idiotic, rash, and quick to jump in at times...) - opted for the triathlon version.

Surf & Turf wasn't all that bad, really. Sure, the waves seemed huge, but the ocean wasn't doing the "washing-machine" thing (where waves break in all different directions, the chop is awful, and where boats can't keep anchor because of all the movement...that came later). Once we navigated our way beyond the breakers, the feeling was incredible. I wish I could remember the exact size and distance between waves - 7 seconds, maybe 10 at the most. I remember a rocking sensation, and fixating on the toes of one of the elites in front of me. At one point I turned me head to breath in the direction of the beach, but was startled to only see the back of the wave as it hurled towards shore. Even though I was swimming parallel to the beach with a pack of other athletes, I was still riding the swells, catching glimpses of the beach condos, disappearing as the waves rolled past.

One minute I could see the beach, and then during the next breath, only the back of the grey-blue wave. Thankfully I didn't get nauseated - but I've got a whole new appreciation for sea sickness as a result. The trip back to the beach was fun, and quick! Before I knew it, I had the "pleasure" of riding on particularly large wave in. Thankfully I had composed myself enough to not eat sand, as the wave crashed off shore...

I had already learned my lesson. Very embarrassing to admit this, but being the Minnesota-girl I am, at the tender age of 23 I was new to the whole "ocean thing". One day, Nathaniel and I were up in Virginia Beach and made our way to the Ocean. As we spread out our blankets, towels, books and cooler, I caught a glimpse of a little kid getting taken out by a 1 or 2 foot wave, close to shore. It was hilarious! I laughed my head off, upset by the fact that I didn't have a video camera. We would have won $10,000 on America's Funniest Home Videos guaranteed. What a dopey kid! Well, my friends - Karma has a way of rearing her head. Not five minutes later, I was leaning over in the surf zone to inspect a beautifully colored shell, when I was taken out by a 1 or 2 foot wave. Foot-over-head I tumbled, while grasping desperately at my bikini bottoms. The sand tasted gritty, and I had lost my visor and sunglasses in the process. (Didn't want to loose those suckers!) Luckily the 50 or 60 people on the beach who witnessed my fall were very helpful in pointing out my floating visor. The sunglasses were lost forever, a sacrifice to the Karma gods. Hey - it was either the sunglasses or bathing suit. Which would you pick? Thought so. So yeah, I've learned my lesson, first hand, about wave mechanics, thank-you-very-much.

I exited the water, dignity intact, and went on to finish the race. In retrospect, the waves weren't all that bad. At least they were uniform. But at the time, they seemed huge compared to anything I had ever raced in before.

A month later, Kure Beach rolled around. The race format was a double sprint: swim-run-bike-run-swim. It was going to be a fun race, a new format, and actually my last race in North Carolina before we moved to Florida. (As a quick side note, in the NCTS, athletes needed to participate in at least 5 races to be eligible for the year-end-series awards. I had learned earlier (in February) that we would be moving around June or July, and had made an effort to fit in as many of the NCTS races as possible into my hectic schedule. Kure Beach was the last on my list - number 5.)

Race day rolled in, windy, brisk, with the biggest, washing-machine-like-waves I have ever seen. Triathletes and family members were all looking, speechless, at the churning water, convinced that the race director would call off the swim. It was so bad that the usual chatter and gossip the precedes a race was absent. We stood in amazement, watching as waves crashed violently against each other, and eventually into shore. The wave echo was fierce, and I could only imagine the currents lurking below the stormy surface.

One athlete nervously commented, "Ha ha. At least the water is so bad the sharks won't be near shore. Ha ha. Ahem. They would never want to be caught in waves like this!"

Cheerful Bastard.

I think I gave him a look - but have a hard time remembering because my mouth had gone dry and my back was breaking out into a cold sweat, despite the summer temperatures.

Long story short, the RD made the swim "optional" - and many went for the duathlon format. Me, well, I was stuck. I wanted the series points, and knew this would be my last chance before our move to get in the 5th race. I discussed it with Nathaniel, and he was extremely sympathetic, but didn't know what to tell me. It wasn't really his call, though - he didn't want to tell me NOT to do the race, only to have me upset and regret it later. On the other hand, he didn't want me, well, dead.

Eventually, I decided just to go for it - give it a shot.

I should have listened to my initial fear. That little voice in the back of our head is there for a reason. It tells us to not go down the creepy dark hallway, to avoid running alone late at night, to avoid turbulent-scary-big-wave-water-at-all-costs.

But I was stubborn, noted that none of the other elites were opting for the duathlon, and decided to do the swim.

The start of the race kept getting delayed, as first the buoys would not cooperate, then the lifeguards had a difficult time getting out past the swells, and even the Coast Guard Cutter was forced to retreat. THAT should have been a clue: when the Coast Guard ship can't stay in the vicinity, DO NOT ENTER THE WATER. Finally, after one buoy had drifted off, and the others were simply not cooperating, the RD decided to have lifeguards paddle out past the surf zone, remain stationary and triathletes would swim around the lifeguards seated on surfboards. The guards became our new buoy markers.

One question - what if someone needed rescuing? Then what?

It was scary. It was horrendous. And I was the last one in my group out of the water by at least 2 minutes. I was terrified, shook up, and couldn't fathom going back in for the final swim leg (but evidently, I did). I honestly don't remember much about the race itself: just the pure terror of seeing the tube of water crash over my head, pushing me under - not once, but twice. I don't know how I got through - for what seemed like eons, but was only a few seconds - it was just me, trapped at the bottom of these crashing waves. The other athletes had disappeared, and I couldn't see the lifeguards. But instinct took over, and soon I was swimming parallel to the shore. The waves were about twice the size and in much more disarray than what they had been at Surf & Turf. One moment I would be at the crest, getting a fantastic view of the beach, and then the next I would be looking at the back of the wave... The interludes were fast, the water furious.

But I got out.

I suppose my fascination with Big Wave Surfing and Big Waves was increased after these two experiences.

After Surf & Turf, Kure Beach, and even Virginia Beach with my near-bottom disaster, my respect for the Ocean has increased ten fold. My experiences with the water have been terrifying, wonderful, relaxing, painful, agonizing, fun - all at the same time. I love the water, love the ocean, love swimming - and have grown to love the bobbing up and down of swimming past the breakers. It's the process of getting past the breakers that I don't always like.

The good part, though - sharks don't like the rough stuff, right?


My run ended, and I took a final glance at the Gulf before entering the car. The water had calmed a bit, but was still choppy and grey. No beautiful sunset tonight, not with the grey cloud cover. I thought about the past, past races, past experiences, and marveled at the pure grit and determination the Big Wave surfers possess.

I guess that everyone has something unique that makes them tick. I love training, racing, turtles, great books, British comedy, etc etc. But for fun, training is such a positive factor. My Other Half gets his kicks from flying helicopters (he's now graduated from hovering! Hurrah!), flying in general, and reading. Big Wave Surfers are rare: when everyone is exiting the water, fleeing its wrath - they grab their gear, grab their friends, and head out.

They're doing what they love, and are willing to go to great lengths to make it happen. Amazing. Crazy, but amazing.

It's just them, their board, and the wave. The silence must be deafening. The roar of the ocean must be almost overwhelming... And the moment of cresting the wave, gliding down the surface, and feeling the tube grow over you must be one-of-a-kind.

I think surfing would be fun, and if I weren't so afraid of sharks, I would give it a try. Only I would make sure to wear a one-piece, as I've almost lost my bottoms before. And the wave was only a foot or two (at the most). So I'll spare beach goers the pleasant view of my derriere, and stick to the swimming. That, at least, should be a safe past time. (Unless I get eaten by a shark.) In that case, I'll make an extra effort to not be the last one out of the water.

Oh yeah - I'm a triathlete. I'm supposed to be racing, not watching the waves crest towards shore... Being the last one in the water sort-of defeats the purpose, anyway. Duh.


Alicia Parr said...

I heard about that Surf & Turf race. Laurie Zack, Ms. Awesome Distance Freestyler herself, swore off ocean swimming after that experience.

Pedergraham said...

Nice swimming stories! I'm wondering how the lifeguards were going to remain stationery in all that?

You've gotta get Bree to point you towards some "surf-safe" bottoms for if/when you do take up surfing!!!

Marit Chrislock-Lauterbach said...

I don't blame Laurie a bit! As for the lifeguards, well - they did their best...I guess they remained as "stationary" as possible because they were past the surf zone. Getting out there was the trick. The good thing - I've yet to encounter another swim that rough... and I learned how to handle really big waves. As for the "surf-safe" bottoms - then NEED to exist! Most surfer chix don't wear a single piece. Usually they've got separate tops from bottoms. So they do exist... good for me to keep in mind when I get taken out by a 1 or 2 foot wave.