A brush with body-crushing death only months before fatherhood (Peru, 2011).
Cue up a surf trip to the longest wave on the planet in Chicama, a coastal town in Northern Peru. On certain days it’s possible to ride it for two miles. Gotta get it while I can. My wife, Jenny, is six-months pregnant with our first child, so this is my last overseas jaunt before dadhood.
On arrival, the waves at the prime surf spot, Main Point, are six-feet high, not too big or too small. My first ride lasts a full minute before the ocean spits me out near town. The swim-out spot to access Main Point is a thirty minute walk back, but that’s the price of these long rides. Paddling back from the town isn’t an option, especially against the current. So I trudge back up the beach, then along the base of the sandy cliffs, my legs turning to Jell-O.
Back at Main Point, I’m about to hit the ocean when a local man yells, “Hey friend, you have to walk a little more, past the cross, see?”
“Ugh, more walking!” I joke. This spot did me fine the first time around, but I walk with my new pal toward the wooden cross, which is planted firmly in a patch of stones and kelp, several feet from the water’s edge. “Here?”
“No! Always past the cross!”
He’s so insistent I have to ask, “Why?”
“Bad spirits will come,” he warns, and leads me ten yards past the cross. “Go out here. Swim fast.”
“Sweet. Thanks for your help!”
“I am Miguel. I’ll wait for you in town and drive you back here in my rickshaw. Only one dollar?”
A buck to forego that half hour-lugging-my-nine-foot-longboard trek? “OK, Miguel, see you down there.” We seal the deal with a handshake, then I march into the sea.
The next morning at first light, my trusty friend Miguel, who saved me plenty of time yesterday running me back to Main Point, waits patiently outside my hotel. The winter wind is straight offshore — the perfect direction for clean conditions. The point break’s churning out perfectly groomed waves. A surfer’s dream! I down some water, polish off two bananas and wiggle into my rubbery wetsuit in ten minutes flat. Miguel secures my board to the rickshaw and we speed off.
“Double the size today!” Miguel shouts over the unmuffled engine. At the drop off, he reiterates, “Past the cross, swim fast.” I heed Miguel’s directive and soon, bobbing around at the Main Point, catch a beauty nearly twice the size of any of yesterday’s waves. By the ride’s end, my legs are burning. Not the typical problem on a surfboard, but a good one to have.
Miguel collects me and seven loops later, hunger trumps my surf exhilaration. It’s time for second breakfast.
You’re Going The Wrong Way!
By late afternoon, I’m amped and ready for the day’s third surf session. The swell is peaking with the faces pushing fifteen feet at times. Frothing to get back out there, I dip in twenty yards short of the cross. I got this, it’ll be fine, what “bad spirits”?
I swim hard for the point, failing to notice that, thanks to the high intensity swell, formidable currents are funneling back into the bay. I realize my folly as I’m whooshed backwards, close to a patch of loose, round stones smacking together on the sand. I turn the board towards the adjacent shore so I can get out and reset. Go past the cross this time, stupid! But I can’t get off this ride.
A hint of panic sprouts as I jet sideways, parallel to dry land. The riptide sucks me towards an expanse of jagged rocks extending to the top of the point break. I’m heading straight for the mountainous headland.
It’s full-blown terror as I spin the board around, a double overhead, freight-train is steaming towards me, its two big brothers right behind. I’m so done for. My only hope is to gun it over the rising swell. Since I’m only in a couple feet of water, I can’t bail and cower; that would result in getting slammed onto the piercing rocks. Hurry! Victorious by a microsecond, I launch into the air and land on the back of the mammoth wave as it thunders on the shallows behind me. Keep going!
I give it my all. Gotta make it over! But the sea sucks up in front of me exposing a wall of water. I corkscrew my longboard through the bottom of the wave, escaping the impact of the crash, but I’m carried back into the rocks. Nice one, idiot! A baby on the way and look at you. Shooting for an early grave ‘cause you can’t follow simple directions. As I kick away from a barnacle-infested boulder, I think, for the first time ever, I’m going to die. I’m sure of it.
In surfing the last wave of the set is usually always the biggest. This time is no exception, but I’m off to slow start. My fingers brush against the sharp bottom and I paddle like a madman to avoid certain doom. In a stroke of luck, I break free from the current sweeping me into the rocks. Besides a blast of adrenaline, I feel something more powerful. Hope.
A gigantic wave forms before me. As I prepare to roll under it, my hands vising onto the board’s rails, I’ve never been so focused. Punch through this, dude! I spin clockwise on the board and manhandle the nose into the vertical water, willing myself to the other side.
Whew! I drift away from danger into open waters. Other than some minor reef scrapes on my fingers and hands. I’m okay. But it’s a half an hour before the adrenaline shakes subside and I chalk up the confidence to ride in. Miguel gives me a brotherly scolding and chaperones me past the cross. I’m thankful I escaped my dance with the Peruvian Grim Reaper – and had I heeded Miguel’s advice, I wouldn’t have summoned the “bad spirits” in the first place. Lesson learned: don’t take local knowledge for granted.
I return home to California, kiss my wife and await the birth of our son. Five and a half years later I drum up the nerve to tell Jenny this story. She’s not impressed.