By Simon Nicholson
Photos by Pacotwo/We
It's not often you're disappointed when faced with the best waves you've ever seen. I watch as minute-long barrels stretch across the horizon and fade into the marine layer. But they're useless to me. Standing on the beach, I take a mental inventory of my body's critical systems. Adrenaline: depleted. Muscles: seized. Nerves: shot. The only thing I know for certain is that I’m exhausted and ready to give up. And the surf is only 4 feet.
Something that nobody ever mentions about the Skeleton Coast--about that left--is how unbelievably fucking heavy it is. Try to imagine thousands of miles of desert sand meeting the Atlantic Ocean. The Agulhas Current carving out the perfect curve from south to north. The open-ocean swells need to be in excess of 18 feet before it even starts breaking. Imagine all that ocean moving, nothing slowing it down until it hits that concrete-compacted-desert-sand bank and explodes down the point. I couldn't imagine it--not before I saw it with my own eyes.
Now the waves of my life are right there for the taking, and trust me, some are being taken, but not by me. When Ian Walsh and Grant "Twiggy" Baker are pulling back on 4-footers, you know something’s not right. The wave is alive, angry, charging north, and eating anything in its path--no compassion here. It's a wave reserved only for the brave, and even then it's a waste of time without the skills to back it up.
On one set, Ian commits to an upside-down takeoff. He clings to his rail as he shuttles down the point in a subway train of a wave--four tubes, five tubes, all ridiculously long and seemingly unreal. He later claims it as the best wave of his life. My personal in-flight dreams, however--fantasies of sliding into perfect left barrels--blow into the thrashing wind and sand on my first wave.
It ends quickly after free falling from top to bottom in a panicked scramble to grab my rail. Again on wave number two and three. It's not my idea of perfection. And now, the current has dragged me over a mile down the point, and still the waves stampede in, exploding and eating everything in their path without mercy.
To fully appreciate the experience that is the African desert, you need to embrace it for what it is--a land of extremes. For instance, there is no need to drive at 75 mph on the sand, but that is how my mate Paul drives, straight from the airport to the point. At least we've shaved an hour or so off the drive, I tell myself, until he hits the e-brake at full speed and snaps the exhaust off of the manifold, turning the V8 engine into something that sounds like a monster truck. Paul loves it. He can fix the problem, but chooses, instead, to drive the car like that for the rest of the weekend. He likes the sound.
We pull up at the point and battle the ocean during the last three hours of light. They are the most incredible barrels I have ever seen...if you have the guts to go over the ledge and the concentration to stay inside one until it lets you out. Like early treasure hunters, the crew in the water gets worked more than they're rewarded. It's brutal. A broken foot, two broken collarbones, dozens of snapped boards, and a near broken neck are just some of the casualties of the desert. When the sun finally sets, the beers start flowing and the temperature drops rapidly. But Twiggy shows his true animal commitment. He refuses to let go. He gets his equally committed girlfriend to drive him to the top of the point well into the twilight. He's the last man standing, threading his way through the mist, the sharks, the seals, and the endless pits. He thrives in this type of harsh environment.
Driving back at 80 mph in the dark, on the sand, I'm terrified, but I can't fight it. I have nothing left.
At 5 a.m. the alarm rings. Paul is already making us sandwiches for the day. Coffee, eggs on toast, and it's still dark outside. We pile in and head off into the desert. Jackals howl in the distance, hoping for something to go wrong. A killer whale has washed up on the beach. I've never seen an animal like this before. I feel vulnerable, a small part of the food chain.
The morning session is dominated by the goofyfooters, because it's too fast for the backsiders as the tide drops. When the tide bottoms out, the wave still looks as beautiful as ever, but it's almost completely unridable. To prove me wrong, South African goofyfoot Dan Redman gets a 20-second tube, kicks out, and hugs me.
"Best wave of my life," he says. There's a lot of that going around.
Then the desert sun attacks us. Hours earlier, we blew smoke rings into the ice-cold air getting into our wetsuits. But now we're baking, our skin turning the color of the sand.
Dave Weare snags a clean entry and quickly drops to the basement, gone in an instant. When he emerges from the spit he looks confused--this has never happened to him before, not for that long anyway.
Kiron Jabour and Artiz Aranburu have travelled from the opposite ends of the Earth to try their hand here. They make the most of it. Both have tube-riding techniques that need to be seen to be believed. Jabour lays back and feels the roof of the barrel at the same time. Aritz makes it through everything, and lets go and stands tall when it counts. He rides the best wave of the entire swell. It looks like he's kneeboarding, but he's actually just adapting his stall ingeniously for this wave. Without changing his line, he dumps half his body over the rail. As the wave swallows him, he rises over his board and stands. The wave thunders down the point.
Well overhead and well below sea level, we write it off as just a runaway. Then, 20 seconds later, he comes out, only to disappear again, and again, and again.
The wave is changing before our eyes. It wasn't here 20 years ago, and every swell is having an impact on its future. It's already less makeable than the famous Cory Lopez session. Less secret too. Twiggy cringes: Two years ago, he says, you would have been lucky to find someone to paddle out with. Today there are 30 trucks lined up. It's a scene. Still, the crowd is not really an issue.
I see a friend for the first time in two days, though we have been surfing the same point the entire time. The 2-mile conveyer belt, the mist, all the rubber we wrap ourselves in, and the pulsing sets keep us anonymous and the crowd spread out. The locals have yet to snap. Seals are the real locals and we are told not to look them in the face. They are in culling season now, thousands are being killed, and they are not happy.
The wind swings hard cross-offshore as the tide fills in, the swell surges, and I stand shivering at the top of the point, ready to commit to the experience again. The current pulls at my legs as I wait for a gap in the sets. My feet ache from the cold--booties not solving the problem of the icy Atlantic. When it's time to commit, I drift with the current, scrambling to make it out the back before the next set of guillotines comes marching in. A seal pops up next to me, scares me half to death, and bares its teeth in a sign of aggression. I keep my head down and push on. The lines start to show, my heart climbs into my throat. This is it. I'm going no matter what. The wave is a beast and I scramble to get wide and paddle hard to try and match its speed as it charges down the point. I'm in. The roar becomes deafening as I grab my rail and the pit snatches at my back.
Shaun Tomson once said time slows down in the barrel, but this wave breaks all the rules. My line changes several times through the 220-yard tube. I have time to adjust, time to think, time to laugh out loud, and throw a wave at the hooded soldier paddling over the shoulder. But it all happens at full speed. Who cares how long it was? It was five times longer than anything I've ever experienced.
From the bottom of the point I survey the carnage. The waves continue to roll in, but I'm exhausted. Bruises cover my body. I'm dehydrated and sunburned. I exit the ocean and join a procession of rubber-clad casualties shuffling back up the point. One more, I tell myself, and then I'm done.