The Relentless Surf of Pichilemu
I'm a surfer. It's been ingrained in me ever since I caught my first wave 6 years ago. If I see the ocean I instinctively start looking for waves. What direction is the wind? Is the tide rolling in or out? I can't help myself. There's just something magical about taming this great beast of nature. When you get it right, it feels like flying.
I've been catching a piece of that magic again in Pichilemu, Chile; a small surf town 3 hours south of Santiago. It'd been eight months since I paddled out on a board and anytime I go that long it always feels like a rebirth. That first wave I caught catapulted me into a state of ecstasy that absolutely nothing could touch in the moment. It's this feeling that we surfers are after and we'll take a beating to get it.
Yesterday the ocean kicked my ass.
I paddled out for the fifth time since landing in Pichilemu a week ago, right into a 5-star surf forecast and 2.6 meter waves. It doesn't get much better at a world-renowned point break. According to Magicseaweed (a surf forecasting site) this was going to be the best day yet. I'd built up confidence over the past week - learning the best entry point for the paddle, understanding the pull of the current, getting to know my rented board - so I felt ready to tackle the bigger swell.
The sea looked ferocious in the morning light. Thick, foamy waves were descending on the point like steamrollers, creating endless left-handed lines of wide open faces to work with. All that stood between me and the sweet spot was a relentless churning of whitewater.
The undertow was strong. As soon as my feet hit the water I felt a difference from the prior days. I walked slowly along the jetty as far as I could before hopping on my board to start the paddle. Before I knew it I was in the center of the swell's force and looked up to see a monster set heading in my direction. I sprinted toward the first wave in an effort to beat its crash but instead found myself right at the base of the curling lip. I dove under the wave with my board and hoped for the best.
In my life, I've never felt anything more powerful than the force of the ocean.
This wave whipped me and churned me underwater at a magnitude I hadn't felt in years. My board was ripped from my hands and I was forced to hold my breath and tumble; hoping sooner than later that I'd find my way to the surface. Stay calm. Let buoyancy do its work. I popped into the open air and sucked in a big relieving breath filled with ocean spray. Another wave coming. I quickly pulled my board over and swam toward it. Deep breath. Push hard underwater. Weather the storm. I managed to keep hold of my board through a similar churning, but the set had pushed me back considerably far from the break. So I paddled as hard as I could to get out. My arms already feeling exhausted. This was my chance. More whitewater coming. Duck under. Breathe. Paddle hard. Duck under. Breathe. Paddle hard. Duck under. Breathe.
The waves would not stop coming and I was stuck in the dreaded no-man's-land of the whitewater. My arms were failing me and I was out of breath. I peeked over the foam and there was another big set coming in. Discouraging... Still, I sprinted to try to make it past the breaking wave only to get sucked under again by another mighty force of water. By now I'd drifted well past the main break and was floating alone in a wide stretch of ocean. It'd been a 45 minute slog... Exhausted and defeated, I decided to let the current take me back to shore and try again.
The difference in atmosphere between the calm shore and the ferocious sea is astounding. When you step into an ocean that's feisty like this you can really taste the difference. Land is predictable and stable. Sea is emotionally chaotic. I sat there and contemplated my next effort, waiting for some strength to return to my arms. This time I'll sprint as fast as I can and not let up.
I entered the water armed with the knowledge of what I'd be facing. 40 strokes later and I was in the belly of the beast at an opportune moment in between sets. I kept paddling and saw a wave walling up on the horizon. I had to make this one. I paddled like mad, my arms beginning to feel weak again, and just made it past the break. Two more waves came and I dodged them too. I looked around. I'd made it to the sweet spot.
Or so I thought. Minutes later a giant set came that broke further out and sent me into another cyclone. Suddenly I was thrust back into the whitewater and paddling at full speed again, wishing for calm water. The waves kept coming, pummeling me further back... Eventually I couldn't do it anymore - my arms had given out - and I let the whitewater take me back to shore.
It was a surfing failure. And it's alright - the ocean will still be there tomorrow, waiting for me.
Nature is my perennial humbler.