Feeling Lucky

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Editor's Note: This year's Google Earth Challenge winner Brian Gable – the man who lead us to Skeleton Bay and the waves of our lives – wanted to share his experiences and let you know what it's really like to tag along on a trip with SURFING Magazine. Since we owe this guy all of our first-born children, we happily obliged. We even let him throw in some surf shots of his Cousin Mike. Be sure to check the print story in our December issue – on newsstands now.

For the last two years, the only break in the world I’ve thought about has been a remote, sandy point jutting into the ocean on the edge of the desolate wilds of the African desert. Time has stood still since that night at 3am, when I nearly fell over in my swivel chair. From behind the virtual lens of Google Earth, I slapped my forehead in disbelief, endorphins engulfing a weary central nervous system. A mere 50-plus hours into my search for the perfect wave and it was over. Between salt and sand, ancient desert and frigid sea, on a thin strip of beach, there it was, a break that seemed to transcend the imagination. The search may have been over, but the challenge had just begun. Year One of the Google Earth Challenge was a debacle. The crew never even made it to the winning Western Saharan spot. I came close that year, a legitimate runner-up. But after reading the final article in Surfing Magazine (and the immediate announcement of the "Google Earth Challenge 2: The Redemption"), my faith in the contest, the organizers and my commitment to winning was at an all-time low. I tossed the magazine across the room in frustration.

And then I gave it some more thought. My narrow defeat had given me a swift whack-in-the-head on how to attack the follow-up contest. Channeling Tom Berenger from the movie Major League, where the Cleveland Indians were dealt a brutal loss and faced probable dissolution, I concluded:

"Well then, I guess there’s only one thing left to do….Win the WHOLE, f**king, thing."

From that moment, I committed to nothing else. Logging some serious late-night hours online, I focused on studying the country, the terrain and bathymetry, the people, the marine life, weather-patterns, the cost, travel, logistics, etc. I corresponded with locals halfway around the world. Obsessed and possessed, I selfishly put personal and professional duties aside and spent my days formulating the ultimate package for the ultimate magazine surf trip. To me, it wasn't just a free adventure for myself. It was a chance to prove that the gem I found not only stood up to every other world-class setup, but was on the very short list at the top. Then, on Wednesday, Sep 19, 2007 at 10:03 AM, I got the call. First prize, the Indians take the pennant, the whole freakin' enchilada! I erupted from the seat in my office, bellowing shouts of joy and ecstatic fits of co-worker-disrupting jubilation through the hallways. Sworn to secrecy by the magazine staff, I couldn't help calling everyone I knew, relishing in our shared disbelief of what lie ahead. For the next ten months, I savored the win, pondering the adventure, ordering new boards, drafting a check-list, worrying about the future swell, taking major heat from my wife and spending endless hours revising already onerous flight plans. With the itinerary seemingly locked down, and the addition of my last-minute traveling companion, cousin Mike Gable, we finally embarked in early July.

After thirty-five hours of straight travel, we finally touched down at our destination. The wind was blowing 40 knots, kicking up a sandstorm that pervaded my sinuses and respiratory system. Once our visas were stamped, we grabbed our bags, and headed for the exit when two customs agents stopped us in our tracks. They demanded we pay duty in the amount of $3500 USD on the surfboards. After a nerve-racking, three-hour hassle to add to the travel, we convinced them it was just sporting equipment, and they let us go. We hustled to move the boards onto our vehicle and quickly sped away to start the journey. Once settled, the wind subsided. The sun shined and we finally connected with everyone at the hotel, the finest surf-trip crew on Earth. First, you've got the long-blond-haired, dread-locked, hack-master, Pete Mendia, from West Palm Beach, FL. Not only does he define the term "throwing buckets", but he's apparently the only surfer alive to be sponsored by Zippo, and quite possibly one of the most chilled, comical characters I've ever met with the best misspent-youth stories of all time. As a gifted surfer, proud dad, and down-to-earth human, Peter gets MVP of the trip in my book, for sure.

Next, there's Cory Lopez: super-human paddler and lifetime grommet. Aside from the fact that Cory is probably the most talented surfer I've ever witnessed with my own eyes, he's also the most energetic and stoked to be riding waves…any wave! Always motivated and extremely positive, Cory was spark plug that kept the entire crew accelerating onward and upward (with or without a rail grab).

Maui resident, Hank "Hana Boy" Gaskell, reminds me of the regular-foot version of Rob Machado: fast, stylish, laid-back, super-friendly, and exceptionally hirsute. After coming off of a banner session at Desert Point, he went straight to work showing the regular foots how to approach fast, hollow, perfect lefts from the backhand perspective.

Mitch "Viral" Coleborn, the new super-talent from the Sunshine Coast of Australia, was suffering from several ailments from the minute he landed, but through it all, managed to pull off some insane rides, shipwreck acid drops, and physics-defying airs and turns.

If this trip were a Hollywood movie production, then photographer, marine biologist, and barracuda antagonist, DJ Struntz, would be the director. Eccentric, unbending, quick-witted, razor-tongued, and always chiding his buddies, DJ is indeed the "magic man" behind the lens. Plus, if it wasn't for this guy, no one would have made it out of bed on time. Of course, tolerating his daily personality did require heavy drinking on a nightly basis, so perhaps we would have been all right with a Casio alarm clock instead.

Then there's Evan Slater – the mellow, introspective, pensive leader of the band. He deserves a lot of credit for making this entire event happen, finally bringing all the right elements together. The dude’s got talent in and out of the water and radiates a warmth for others and a strong passion for the sport. As the team caretaker, he’s always looking out for everyone, asking thoughtful questions, and willingly shares a profound recollection of surf history. Most nights on the trip, he's passing out early, mid-sentence, with the wireless laptop on his chest, open book in the other hand, and an empty bag of licorice in the other.

Last but not least, my cousin and willing side-kick, Mike "Clubbed by a Seal" Gable. Although San Diego's newest goofy-footed dentist had to pay his entire way, you've got to have a partner in crime on any journey, and MG is the platinum edition. He's always up for anything, including live jellyfish bikinis, blasting {{{80}}}’s glam rock, and a fondness for being physically harassed by local seal pups.

Back in town, I'm standing on the balcony of the hotel guesthouse, taking my first glance out at the spectacle in front of me. The water-front is reminiscent of the Mission Bay, San Diego boardwalk on a warm, sunny day. Families are walking dogs and strollers along the grassy, palm-lined boardwalk overlooking the massive light-blue body of water. Plants and landscaping are strikingly similar to Southern California with flax, bougainvilleas, a variety of small and large palms, aloe plants, yucca, etc. The homes here are exceptional and the neighborhoods are clean and contemporary. The freshness of everything is surprising considering that the air is salty with regular gale-force winds from the south that pelt everything with fine granules. Sand is indeed everywhere. Mike and I pile into the backseat of a {{{Nissan}}} Navarro pick up and head off into the desert with only one thing on our minds. When we pulled up to the beach, the wave was already doing it's thing, just like the photos I had acquired from our guide—long bending lines careening down a perfect, sculpted sand bar. Seal pups played in the head-high, hollow waves while pelicans and flocks of black-necked grebes skated in single-file procession for miles over the dark surface of the water. Right away, without even seeing the full potential, we all believed this was a truly incredible set-up.Before anyone thinks of reaching for a wetsuit, Cory's already paddling out. Watching him drift 100 yards on the short paddle to the outside, it was pretty clear that the current would be a problem. After watching him lock-in just one solid tube, Evan, Pete, Hank, and Mitch are all in the water. Mike and I are quick to join them. After a fury of dirty barrels and broken foam, everyone is reveling in the new experience. My arms turn to liquefied jelly with the current and furious paddles required to catch the sand-sucking lefts breaking fast across the bank. I'm toast after barely 3 hours.

Following that first session, with the small taste of decent surf, the wave continued to play havoc with us over the next few days. At this spot, the wave wraps 180-degrees from deep water after colliding with the point's apex. The extreme bend to the swell is visible out into the channel as the distant, curving shoulder of the wave moves away from shore, leaving behind a series of perfect, tapered, trailing tubes that race down the length of the bay. When the wave hits the shallow sand bar, the bottom drops out rapidly under a gritty, heaving lip. Generating enough paddle speed to make the wave became an immediate challenge. It is the fastest wave I've ever surfed, proving to be frustrating for all, but especially the regular-footers. To add to the disappointment, we had yet to see more than a 3-foot wave connect all the way inside to the point's proper setup. The waiting continued.

After the rhythmic long-hauls back to civilization each day, the best bar/restaurant in town was just a short saunter away from our hotel. From the distance, the inviting wooden structure calmly sits stilted over the jellyfish laden shallows of the bay at the end of a pier. In the outer waters, hundreds of flamingos group to feed while town locals wade out into the mud at low-tide to collect shellfish. We would find ourselves spending almost every night at the pub downing Popeye Pizzas, fish platters, Oryx steak, and gallons of the local lager while we rehashed the day, chortled among cohorts, and planned for our next adventure.

— With the surf going flat at our spot, we all decided to head out of town. As we drove along the coast, each subsequent settlement and point beckoned us further to explore the multitude of reefs and surfing options peppering the country's coastline. Encountering each municipality along the way revealed the remnants of an apartheid era that once plagued this region. Black shanty-towns fringe city centers, divided from the wealthier areas – comprised mostly of white business and property owners. However, in contrast to surrounding regions of Africa, the people of this country, of all colors, radiated a calm, warm, conducive, welcoming, and laid-back nature that eclipsed any apparent residue left from a relatively recent, oppressive past.

We checked the surf all along the way, watching outer reefs fire in the distance while the shifting mirages and changing landscape managed to conceal endless possibilities beyond what was visible from the coastal road. Somewhere near St. Nowhere, it became abundantly clear that surfers have only begun to understand the enormous quantity of perfect, consistent, unmolested waves this region has to offer.

During our travels, Mike and I came to learn a lot more about the difference between the surf-magazine trip vs. the standard surf trip. Make no mistake, these guys work for a living; they may be paid to travel to far-off lands and tropical destinations to surf, but the goal is to get the shot. That means waking up early, busting your ass all day, staying positive, and doing what it takes to turn mediocre conditions into fine art. The scenarios seemed ridiculous to us: surfing shitty waves because of compelling lighting, foregrounds, and backgrounds, or passing up good waves because of the dreary haze. But, when we saw the final images, it all somehow made sense. It was clear that Pete and Cory have been doing this a long time, and to me, their ability to remain dedicated and perpetually stoked, in all conditions, epitomizes the consummate surfing professional.

The entire crew was now headed to the most famous of wave in the country, a massive, protruding reef point, hosting a colony of 800,000+ fur seals. After paying the park's bargain entry fee, we ventured out to the boulder-strewn point to witness the seals, along with their inescapable stench and cacophony of barks, groans, and snarls. With so many animals crammed into a tight space, the sounds from the field of moving bodies reminded me of the hoards of zombies from Dawn of the Dead. Off in the distance, the sets exploded with brown foam, thousands of surfing seals, and absolutely perfect overhead sets running into the cove.

With the "reserve" status of the point, various publicized "bad" experiences from other surf travelers, and plenty of warnings from locals, Evan prudently decided the best policy was to politely approach the park official with our honest intention: we would like to surf this beautiful place. Perhaps she sensed our low-key nature and respect for the reserve – or at least appreciated the entry fees – but the plan worked and we were afforded gracious smiles and granted permission to surf. DJ went to straight work, setting up shop in front of a foreground of crosses marking a cemetery and the massive point in the background. Thousands of seals dominated the long lines of surf, while Cory and Pete traded hacks in hopes for a golden shot in the waning evening light.

On the long drive back, one of my best memories of the trip was sitting with Mike in the backseat. Cramped under DJ's camera gear, absorbing the rich hues of the passing countryside, we’re eavesdropping on DJ and Evan, and keying into all the rich stories and gossip of the surf industry. As a typical pair of your average surf mag subscribers, we're having a fine time getting used to the fact that we're no longer so detached from our visions of surf grandeur, but actually living one of those epic adventures most of us have only experienced second hand. That crammed backseat, and our days on location, were quickly recalibrating my preconceptions about the world of surfing as I knew it.

The waves died the next day. Cory had to head back to the US Open at Huntington, Mitch back to Australia, and Mike and I were fixated with reluctance at reservations for a long journey to the showcase diamond of Africa: Jeffrey's Bay. Meanwhile, on the horizon, a respectable purple blob had formed on the swell charts; it was growing and headed straight for our current location.

The quandary: stay put and hope the swell materializes at our left-hand gem, or head to J-Bay to potentially score some right-hand perfection? The fact remained, that despite some good sessions, after two weeks on location, we hadn't even tasted more than a few morsels of what we had come all this way to experience. This was not a time to leave. So, with the swell forecast four days out showing real promise, Mike, myself, and the four other remaining crew members cancelled all plans, staying on for the long haul and chance of great swell.

Google Earth winner, Brian Gable, feeling lucky.

Most of the locals we came to know were friends of Naude, Rudi, and the crew of kite surfers that inhabited the first floor of our guesthouse and bar. Incredibly friendly and overwhelmingly generous, these benevolent humans rolled out the red carpet again and again to our band of foreign travelers, enveloping us into their tight-knit community. Tranquil days of sight-seeing, surf checks, and jogs along the boardwalk contrasted with nights of Jager-bombs, karaoke, and raucous partying that filled the gap of time as we waited for the approaching swell. The night before The BIG Day, locals gathered friends and family on the sand of the very break we sought to discover, and together we barbecued a feast for kings, and snapped group pictures as the sun dipped beyond the horizon of a placid sea. The sky darkened, and time slowed as the fire crackled beneath an intense, beaming galaxy of constellations and star clusters that were completely unfamiliar. Naude pointed out the vibrant, and unmistakable Southern Cross. As I stood there at the bottom of the earth, humming Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young under my breath, I {{{recall}}} gazing upward at this new discovery above, finding concordance with the stars and the infinite grains of sand around me. The promise of a coming day…

When we awoke, we scrambled for the car and set-off for the final long haul of the trip out to the point. Utter silence among the crew saturated the air of our rattling vehicle; each of us imagined what the final day of our journey would deliver. Was the swell big enough? Was it on time? Was the direction right? Was this place as good as it looks? These questions had plagued us for two and a half weeks. And while we clung desperately to our faith in the discovery, it was now judgment day for Google Earth Challenge 2.

Upon pulling up at the break, our jaws literally hit the sand. PIFF! My pupils tightened and focused intently while my head rotated mechanically like a camera’s tripod across the 180-degree field of liquid luster. Well overhead waves cascaded from the top of the point, reeling in sculpted perfection for thousands of yards down the beach. The third and final wheel in this slot machine of a surf journey lined up…Jack Pot! We're frantically scrambling for our gear; fumbling for booties and fins in our peripheral vision while we fixate on the detonating sets of green cylinders.

DJ says: "Hey boss, I think I'm going to setup in the water first, and then get out for some long shots from shore down over…"

Evan, without looking away from the view, chuckles: "I don't care what the…I am going to surf!"

And that's how it was this day – what we called "Magic Monday" – the most amazing waves any of us had seen, surfed, or even imagined in a long time, of ever in our lives. Legitimate claims of 20-second barrels and 1km+ rides all came true on that day; we were mesmerized in disbelief by the spectacle in front of us. Pete and Hank absolutely killed it, while Evan caught the wave of the day. Mike stole some solid bombs, and I think I had more tube-time on one wave than in all the combined shacks across the many years I’ve been surfing. Every time I looked up the point, someone was slotted.

Peter: "You're just not supposed to get that many barrels in one day!"
Hank: “I just got the best wave in the universe!” (And, this from a guy who just scored Deserts)

Like a giddy bunch of school girls, we did the kilometer run-arounds all day long, and DJ's freaking out on the gold-mine of images he'd already captured by mid-morning. After surfing from sunrise to sundown, we retire in pain and absolute exhaustion to the truck. We kiss the sand, pay homage, pack it up, and head to the bar on stilts for the grand-finale celebration before everyone departs at 4am the following morning.

Redemption: Mission Accomplished.

One week later, I'm sitting in Irvine with my tie on, sipping burnt coffee and pouring over a one-month backlog of email. Back in reality, I'm absolutely unable to concentrate with the experiences and images that berate my mind with every thought. While overjoyed to see my saintly bride and gorgeous little girls again, I’m dumbfounded to find myself suffering from a bad case of post-trip depression. Things at home are the same, but I am different. Life for me has always been about reaching the next level, the next greatest adventure. That’s the problem. How am I ever going to top this? And, being disqualified from the next Google Earth Challenge event leads me to question: Is it all down-hill from here?

As time passes, and the concentration of energy from the trip dissipates, I am, however, left with something of great value. Memories, new friendships, new insights, images, stories, the best waves of my life, the greatest trip of my lifetime, and the commitment to return, without a doubt, to this incredible place.

Moreover, I still retain the tools and knowledge that got me here in the first place. Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page had a grand vision of what their software would produce for the world, but probably weren’t yet attune to the way in which Google Earth is revolutionizing surf exploration today. You might think that surfing’s rugged and salty roots might be too old fashioned for something from Silicon Valley, but I would wager that all types and degrees of explorers today would concede to a heavy reliance on Google Earth – arguably one of the greatest human inventions in twenty years.

Today, I continue the search for fun, logging and measuring every little nook and cranny that has potential. And as satellite images refresh more frequently and resolution quality improves, I’m utterly confident that the next best wave on the planet is still waiting to be found.

Good thing Cousin Mike is still eligible. I hear he’s been busy. Google Earth Challenge 3, get ready!!

[Be sure to check the December issue of SURFING, on newsstands now.]