Can We Have Peace and Play?

Posted on August 4, 2014


 Toshiba Digital Camera

One of the most frightening experiences I have had in my life was on Christmas Day, probably in 2007. It was a period of time when I was on a long run of pushing the envelope to see how far my comfort zone boundaries extended. This Christmas Day would be monumental to me; no longer would I see myself as an extremist, at least in the athletic world.

While camping at a surf-front campground just north of Ventura, CA, I awoke to the sounds of heavy surf…quite surprisingly, since my bedtime at nightfall was to waves no more than chest-high. I hadn’t checked any surf forecasts recently, something I had become less concerned about when moving to a location about fifty minutes to any coastline. So this unexpected surprise got me fired up and ready to prove myself in waves higher than I’d ever faced.

There is something about putting ourselves through the ultimate challenges, right?

I relocated north after packing up my campsite, to a spot a bit more famous…but not quite the fame as another spot just minutes north of my chosen battleground. Not having surfed this spot before, I watched the others in the lineup in order to get a read on obstacles, current, etc. There was a minefield of jutting rocks on the inside, but nobody was ending up in this section so I just took mental note. This would be helpful much sooner than I could imagine.

It wasn’t long before I was suited up and paddling into the 10-12′ cold faces of my humbling, wet mentors of the day. My 9’0″ longboard couldn’t push through like the shortboards many others were riding, so I had to burn a lot of energy turtle-rolling through massive, heavy waves as they were starting to break.

Not wanting to get drilled by that amount of water (and risk having my board snap in half, or my leash break leaving me scrambling in the impact zone while my board would be tossed unsparingly into the rocky graveyard behind me), I fought with all my might to press forward as quickly as possible to reach the safety zone behind the breakers.

After what must have been about twenty minutes of paddling, rolling, paddling, rolling, and finally losing energy, I realized the only progress I had made was to be pushed down-shore to an area with no beach; I was in front of the rocky wall that led up to Highway 101, and no other surfers were anywhere near me. This should have been the cue for me to find a way to exit…I was never a great paddler to begin with, no matter how strong I was.

It never occurred to me that physical strength alone isn’t the answer to navigating the tough challenges.

Determined to not lose face by getting out and walking back to my Jeep, I pressed forward again after a deep sigh and a few choice words to Mother Nature. Somehow, the ride seemed smoother now…

I had launched from basically a small cove, where the current swirled and therefore pushed me rapidly out through the lineup. If only I had paid attention more closely about thirty minutes prior, I could’ve just floated down to this cove area and saved myself a lot of frustration and energy.

Before I knew it I was alone again. How? This small phenomena of swirling water had propelled me about 20 yards past even the surfers who had been waiting deep outside. Not knowing this spot well, and not totally being a comfortable water person to begin with, I felt alone now. And completely spent; exhausted, fighting to get my breath back under control. I was asking myself now what in the world I was doing out here and how exactly I was going to get back in now that I would have to face those consistent heavy waves with my back turned to them.

The only way was to surf. And they were much larger now that I could actually see them in their full glory.


To big-wave surfers, and even well-seasoned surfers of any kind, these waves are not huge. But they are also not child’s play; this swell and many others like it cause a lot of rescues each year in Southern California. I knew this going into the water, and the intrigue of seeing what I was made of dominated the logic of the odds being not in my favor.

As was the sign of the day, I was in for yet more surprises; a rogue, large outside set was bearing down on me. Though I was far outside the others and in a great spot to either surf or dodge this macking set easily, I was completely annihilated energetically from the paddle-out and simply could not paddle into the first wave of this set. “Never take the first wave of a set” flashed through my head, as I turned back to see another, much larger, peak starting to bear down on me…and it looked ready to break WAY  outside. I was in the impact zone and helpless.

I was also in a place of great peace, way out here beyond all people and waves. Until this set, I was in a peaceful, alone place, feeling rather…eerie.

I had no choice; I had to give enough of my reserve energy to paddling into this one and be ready to ride. Not knowing these waves, I wasn’t sure how much paddling would get me into the face without overdoing it and flying straight down the wall, which was likely going to be more than 12′ of breaking, stormy water. The strange and frightening calm I was faced with was now replaced by the pull back into reality.

It didn’t take much to get into this wave, and suddenly I was flying across the lip at a speed I was not accustomed to. I would normally have wanted to do some carving, but I was depleted, still unable to catch my breath. My heart was racing faster than I was comfortable with, my 10′ leash was wrapped around my front leg and under my foot, making the ride a bit painful, and the lip wouldn’t stop trying to close above me, eliminating the possibility of shoving over its back to paddle behind it and wait for another wave. I was in this one for the long haul.

So I tried to make it fun. I stepped off my leash quickly so I could more easily control the board; not an easy thing to do at this speed. That gave me a couple moments of being able to try and turn down the face to pick up enough speed to get me ahead of the lip. Nope, not this time.

Instead, I saw my doom ahead. The wave was in two sections, and the second was in front of me, closing into a fold about three seconds into my rapidly approaching future. I looked to see if I could try and really kick over the back, but it was a no-go…I was stuck. My only choice became to jump down to my belly and turn towards the shore, riding my 9′ log like a boogie-board, into the rocky minefield at a far-too-fast pace.

Little Rincon's rocky minefield, fully visible on a low tide day

Little Rincon’s rocky minefield, fully visible on a low tide day

But I had too much whitewater splashing into my face, and I couldn’t breath. So I took in as much air as I could and ditched. I went immediately into the fetal position and covered my head with my hands, since I had no idea when I’d be flying into those sharp rocks. Then, suddenly, it all went quiet…dark. My board was no longer being pulled above me, though I didn’t know which way was up.

There was no noise, no motion, no rocks…just nothingness. I thought maybe I was no longer in the physical world, and it became peaceful after a moment of panic. “This is not a bad way to die”, I remember thinking. It felt like minutes had passed.

Then a need for air overcame me, and I was back into the world…needing a plan. My leash was tethered to my knee, and somehow I thought to grab it and pull my way back to my board. Just as I took in a massive breath, I looked back to see the wave behind mine coming down on me, promising to shove me deeper and possibly break my leash. So I got on the board, on my belly again, and held tightly as the whitewater lifted me and hurled me forward.

This time I was not safe from the rocks, and was flying past them on both sides, madly navigating my board somehow without going nose-first into any. When I finally was let free of the wave, I was on the shore. My 9″ center fin had been shanked out, and that was the only damage to self and to board.

Hobbling slowly back up the hill to my Jeep, I vowed to never go past my intuition again. Oddly, the biggest thing that I recall is the moment of peace when I was beyond the breakers, and how frightening that was to me. I was faced with a choice: stay in peace, where it feels terribly alone when not prepared, or come back into the thrilling circus of the reality behind me. It almost cost me my life, yet it taught me mortality in a way that nothing else has.

I also love that day more than any other solo experience!

The question is: Can we find joy in inner peace, pushing past the fear of being alone, bored even, and still play in the turbulent physical world at the same time? This is the question of our times. What do you think?