Mortal Compass

Rob Gilley

Previously in denial about his photographic past, Rob Gilley now rummages through his trove of mediocrity.

Tavarua Island, 1990: one of my first official photo trips for Surfer Magazine. I’m pumped as you can possibly be.

I’m not only excited about shooting talented surfers in photogenic surroundings, I’m secretly amped about something else: my own surfing. The opportunity to ride Tavarua. A possible chance to get pitted at Cloudbreak.

As soon as the lighting gets bad, or when it rains even the slightest amount, I’m clocking out and I’m out there. I’m on it.

It’s Day 4, and my opportunity comes. Light rain, light offshores, and Cloudbreak is about 4- to 6-foot Hawaiian.

I’m on the first morning panga to Cloudbreak with two boatmen and a Tavarua resort guest: a surfing plumber named Rob from San Diego. I thought I was amped—this guy is frothing—he’s had to snake a lot of drains to get here.

We pull up to the reef, jump off the boat and paddle out. With gray skies and glassy conditions, it’s kind of hard to see sets coming, and it’s even harder to figure out where to sit—the inside ledge isn’t consistent enough, and the outer point isn’t really connecting with the middle section. There are perfect waves, but it’s random. Really random.

I sit wide on the middle section and stay cautious. I keep my eyes open, trying to study the sets. My new plumber friend, meanwhile, makes a beeline for the outer point.

I grab a set wave and get a fairly long, decent ride, but as soon as I kick out, I see that I’m in the middle of the inner ledge impact zone. A set comes, and I barely scratch over it. As I paddle over the last wave, I look behind me. I can see water draining off the reef. It looks shallow and scary in there. No wonder they call it Shish Kebabs.

Back outside, I look up the point just in time to see my plumber friend get pitched and subsequently pummeled by a set. He paddles over to where I’m sitting and looks rattled. He seems to carry a forced smile on his face, and then he asks me how it is over here and I say something to the effect of, “kinda gnarly.” He doesn’t say anything. He just stares at me, paddles up the reef, eats it on a late drop, and wears another set on his head.

I catch a few more waves, but they’re disappointing because the whole time I’m riding them I’m paranoid about what’s coming after and I’m looking behind the wave while I’m surfing. I want to make sure I kick out at the right time and place so I don’t get smashed by a set and become a human shish kebab myself.

Adding to this disappointment is the fact that the boatmen we’re surfing with are currently getting shacked off their gourds. Worse yet, they look completely at ease—air drops, casual stalls, deep cover-ups. Even getting caught inside doesn’t seem to bother them: they just paddle aggressively straight at the foam, violently duck dive to the bottom, and pop out the back. No worries.

I paddle back to the boat and watch for a while. Plumber Rob gets a couple more waves, and then a set swings wide. It’s the wave of the day, and he’s in the perfect position. He pulls in to a nice section but ultimately trims too high, gets sucked over the falls, and then dragged over the reef face-up and backwards. He paddles back to the boat cut and bleeding. His back is hamburger.

Back in the boat, Rob is crestfallen. Not because of his injury, but because of his situation. His once in a lifetime opportunity—his dream trip—has become a nightmare.

Although I’d like to tell you that this Cloudbreak story is an anomaly, I have to report that I’ve seen it repeat itself the world over. All over the planet, traveling surfers are forcing themselves into waves and conditions they probably shouldn’t be surfing. Not if they actually want to enjoy the experience, anyway.

That day at Cloudbreak made it painfully clear that there are certain waves on the planet that surfers like Rob and I should probably stay away from, or at least not purposely seek out. When they’re breaking properly, waves like Cloudbreak, Teahupoo, Pipeline, Desert’s, Kandui Lefts, Green Bush, Coxos, The Box, Ours, and Shipstern’s are basically double black diamond mountains that should only be attempted by pros, hellmen, and masochists.

Why this isn’t common knowledge isn’t perfectly clear, but to be honest, the surf media is at least partly to blame. Because of visual one-upmanship, the surf magazines have created a misleading reality by constantly publishing photos of big, hollow, razor-sharp, shallow reef waves and promoting them as dream locations. Unfortunately for normal surfers—for mortals like you and I—they’re anything but.

The problem is that surf photos don’t come with a rating system or a disclaimer. The truth is that many of the ‘sick’ waves you see in magazines are only sick in the sense that that they would make you puke if one broke in front of you.

So given this reality, here’s what I suggest: choose your next surf travel destination based on your surfing level. Assess your talent, and be honest with yourself. Even if you are an experienced surfer, chances are very slim that you should be going to Tahiti, Western Australia, The Canary Islands, The North Shore, or much of Indo and the South Pacific.

The good news is that there’s plenty of incredible ‘mortal’ destinations all over the planet. Some of them include Costa Rica, New Zealand, Baja, The Maldives, Peru, El Salvador, Eastern Canada, and most of the Caribbean and Europe. If you’re a really good surfer but not quite a pro or hellman, you can step it up a bit and try places like G-Land, Southern Mexico, Chile, Ireland and Nicaragua.

The bottom line is to talk to fellow surfers and ask them about their experiences and really think about where you should be going. Study guide books, and read online testimonials. Do your homework.

Pick your destination based on maximizing your potential surfing experience, not on a misplaced Pipe dream.

Mortal’s Gallery:

Mainland Mexico. Photo: Gilley
Costa Rica. Photo: Gilley
New Zealand. Photo: Gilley
Baja. Photo: Gilley
Canada. Photo: Gilley
Scotland. Photo: Gilley