This morning I woke up and couldn’t decide whether to skip yoga practice and just go surfing…but it is Sunday, and skipping yoga somehow felt wrong. However, when the waves are big, I wondered if I would be too tired to paddle through the line up after almost 2 hours of yoga. Yoga or surfing? Surfing or yoga? I love both so much. Usually I am able to do both. But in the winter-time, when the waves get fairly big, I sometimes wonder if I need to reserve all that energy for surfing.
Though it is technically still fall, for surfers “winter” begins with the first round of big Northwest swells that wrap through the region. This weekend we saw massive waves of about 10-12 feet. Encinitas — and at a particular point break which I shall not name — had waves which might have been a little bit bigger. My friend Jeff said that he paddled out Saturday at dawn, and saw faces which were 15 feet. Two of my other friends Gil and Helmut wound up with broken boards. Apparently Helmut’s board broke into six pieces. Gil’s board snapped in half and the story was that he went back to his car, took out his other board, and promptly paddled back out!
The enormous wave energy, combined with the super high tide in the morning, made for some pretty treacherous conditions. Bruce, another longtime surfer at the Secret Spot, admitted that he didn’t even make it out; he paddled out from the stairs and got swept by strong rip currents, and almost could not make it in. Later Bruce shared that, as nerve-racking as that experience had been, it made him realize just how important his family was to him.
The folks I spoke to were strong, experienced men who have surfed this break for many years, if not decades…so to hear them say that their session was “humbling” extinguished any possibility of my paddling out yesterday. I watched the waves at the top of the lot, with a crowd of onlookers — some are just curious about the big waves, some are surfers like me, wondering, “Could I paddle out?” At times it seemed doable, during a lull when the inside looked benign. But this didn’t last long…soon monstrous sets punched through the point with the steady fury of a freight train. About a half dozen surfers were carried out towards Pipes by the strong rip current. I had said to Pat Hayes, “Well, maybe I could just sit inside.”
Pat looked at me and said, “There is no inside.”
Pat’s photograph shows what greeted those who tried to paddle out:
Pat is another longtime surfer whom I’ve known over the years and greatly respect. He usually has no qualms about paddling out on a big day. But on Saturday, he said he was staying in.
Moreover, just as I was still entertaining that tiny hope of paddling out, the lifeguards closed off the stairs. I took this as a sign from the universe — two friends broke their boards, one friend almost didn’t make it back in, and the stairs have been closed. These are not good omens for a paddle out.
So I ran instead. I was already tired enough from yoga practice to know I wouldn’t make it out there, but I still had all this excess energy from the anticipation of surfing. Reluctantly I decided that I would paddle out the next day. Despite all the surf stories of fear and survival, I felt sort of like “half” a surfer for not paddling out. Waves were on my mind the whole day. I wanted to go out and catch a nice, juicy head high wave! I don’t need an 8 foot macker…I’d be happy with a head high wave on the inside.
Sunday rolls around. While Ashtangis typically do only Intermediate on Sundays, I use that day — since I don’t have to rush off to work — to do Second and Third, up to Galavasana. (Saturday or Thursday is my Intermediate day.) I decide to do yoga practice…my much-needed mental floss, and then just take a look at the waves.
So, as you can imagine, doing Second and Third takes a substantial amount of energy. Andrew had cut me a break and split me at Karandavasana…because to do all of Intermediate just before the seven headstands and Third took over 2 hours. “Oh, well, because you’re a mum and you have 2 jobs,” Andrew said. Sometimes I still do all of Intermediate and Third on Sundays, but today I told myself that I would split to third after Karandavasana. I tried to focus on “lightness” and try to conserve energy that way…which worked up to a point. By the time Galavasana came around, I was struggling and feeling (and probably sounding) like an elephant going into labor.
Then to do tic tocs after all of that! I’m still struggling with the tocs. As I stared at my mat this morning, after stepping back to prepare myself, I noticed how similar the feeling is within me, whether it is preparing for toc back or dropping into an overhead wave on my shortboard. I’m a bit nervous! I know I’ve done it before, but whether it’s hurling your feet back over your head or making that drop, you need that leap of faith with a good dose of conscious effort and strength.
I finished practice and felt good. I felt like I had energy left, maybe even to paddle out. Today on the surf report, the waves looked a bit smaller, only 2 feet overhead compared to 10 foot faces, and more lined up. I have to admit, I was preoccupied with waves all through practice and tried not to rush. After resting, I of course rushed to the Secret Spot and was lucky enough to find a parking spot by the SRF temple on the 101. (Locals will realize that I have given away the Secret Spot with these details). I suited up, swathed zinc oxide on my face, waxed up my shortboard, and pretty much sprinted to the lot. I was grateful for my short hair too — probably saved a minute by not having to tie it up and secure it into a bun.
There was still quite a bit of activity at the lot — lots of onlookers, surfers coming in and out of the lot, but no paramedic ambulance, which was a good sign. I arrived just as the tide was peaking. I saw my dawn patrol buddy Rafael — he told me with a cheery smile that it has been super fun both yesterday and today. Well, I thought to myself, today will be the day!
People were lined up along the stairs, folks I’ve never seen before — just onlookers, taking pictures and videos of the massive tide. The bottom of the stairs were submerged in water, and at times the waves crashed angrily into the shower stall. As I came down, I saw a couple of surfers just standing at the stairs, waiting for the right time to paddle out. My friend Tyler was coming in, and could have easily lost his board had we not helped him. And if you paddled out at the wrong time, the waves and backwash could slam you against the rocks — not a good thing!
I waited with two other guys. Waves came and splashed all around us. I seriously wondered about going back up the stairs, still in my wetsuit and dry hair and all. I looked back up the stairs and the non-surfing folks looked down at us, like we were crazy. Finally there was a small lull. We sprinted into the ocean, hopped onto our boards, and paddled like there was no tomorrow because already the sets were starting to come in again. On the outside peak, you could see that the waves were a couple of feet overhead. But at least there was an inside, and that is exactly where I’ll be sitting.
When it’s big like this (for a female surfer who is 5’3″, everything is bigger…what is shoulder high for most folks is head high to me and harder to paddle into), the paddle out feels like forever. The “inside” on a big day feels like a quarter mile swim. The rip current was still pretty strong, so I made focused effort to paddle north and towards the main peak. I seriously wondered whether I had strength to continue paddling after practice at one point. I had to talk to myself, “Ok, just take your time, slow down your breathing, long deep paddles. Don’t panic, you’ll be okay.” When the pack of groms grew closer, I knew that was a good sign.
Finally after what seemed like eons, I made it to the line-up! The waves were lumpy from high tide and back wash. I hoped to see some of my fellow female surfer compatriots today, but it seemed that I was the only woman out there. Maybe there was a tough, fearless woman sitting on the outside peak — like my friend Michelle, who would have no issue sitting outside on a big day — but I was too far inside to see anyone there. I sat in a pack of young groms who ripped (they probably surf D Street most days and came out here because D Street is closed out) and had no mercy for us older folks. But, it still felt good to make it out and sit in the salt water.
I saw a couple of familiar faces, and I suppose I made friends with an older male surfer who decided to coach/encourage me into some of the inside sliders. He was kind to the other groms and probably thought I was one too — with my short hair and boyish figure, I probably could have passed for one. It was a short session for me, only 1 hour…with only 3 waves to bat. They weren’t great waves, they were nothing to write about…but hey, they were waves and I rode them as best as I could. By now I was very tired. My arms ached. I desperately hoped that the tide would have gone down when I began paddling in, but it was still high and sufficiently dangerous to do some harm if you weren’t careful.
On the very inside, I waited through the bigger waves and positioned myself so that — hopefully — I would end near the stairs/shower stall. The waves were still crashing into the stairs with a fair amount of force. I got lucky, and with a lull, felt my feet touch the sand. I began running toward the stairs because a next round of waves was approaching with speed. Made it to the rocks just as the waves crashed into us. A surfer offers to hold my board while I scrabbled up the rocks and stairs; I was so grateful for this kindness. I was lucky and timed it well. Made it to the shower stall while the round of waves crashed all around. It felt like one of those moments in an intense dream — you’re running from something and using all of your might to get to that safe place…finally you reach it and the sweet sense of relief fills your body.
As I walked slowly up the stairs, I pass by onlookers who are still taking pictures of the waves and angry high tide. One older woman says to me, “You actually went out there?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I survived.” She and others just shook their heads. Some may never understand the pull of the ocean. But for those of you who do, it is the best feeling in the world to have gotten out to the ocean and come back in — in one piece.
It wasn’t an epic day for me in terms of surfing. But I survived, and I was happy for that. I lived to do yoga practice and surf another day.