A crew of friends-to-be score perfect waves in Nicaragua’s Popoyo region (2012).
An ideal surf trip, or mine at least, involves medium waves to start, up to my chest or shoulders — especially coming off a summer of flat waves in California. Online surf forecasts are calling for a big swell to reach the area this afternoon.
Our surf camp crew for the week is together for the first time at Popoyo Reef on Southern Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast and one of the better breaks in the country. I gaze at the ocean for minutes, trying to process the double overhead waves erupting a hundred yards out in the water. Those online forecasts weren’t joking – GULP!
I’ve been surfing steady for four years now to an intermediate level (I’m not making the pro circuit anytime soon). But there’s nothing intermediate about these waves. In this swell, a wipeout for me is not a matter of if, but when—which could mean being held underwater for ten turbulent seconds or more when on the wrong end of one of these bad boys.
Coconut surf wax aroma mingles with the tropical air as Rick applies the finishing touch of grip on his board. Gustavo, our local guide, kneels beside Rick and instructs him on how to negotiate the ensuing madness at sea. I detect a Sopranos-worthy, New Jersey accent as Rick wishes us luck before charging into the water.
I have mixed feelings on even paddling out. Audrey and Katelyn, the female component of our team, are in the same boat. Each of us stand unmoving, scratching our heads and wincing at the big waves thundering in.
“OK,” Audrey exhales, “Let’s do this!”
Ugh, so this is really happening? “Well…OK. No guts, no glory. That’s how it goes, right?” I grit my teeth and chuckle half-heartedly and fully unsure. She’s right though, let’s just get into the fray. Gustavo leads us down the beach with our boards and we all paddle out together.
The ocean chews us up and spits us out, one after the other. Within the hour, we’re huffing together under a shaded table. The only ones catching waves (or not being pommeled) are either professionals, kamikazes or Gustavo, who’s an equal mix of both. Our fearless guide carves up a king-size offering from the surf gods before coming in.
“You win the heat today,” Rick declares as Gustavo approaches our table. “That last wave should be on the cover of Surfer Magazine.”
Rick the Ruler
The next morning — a boat trip to a more protected spot called Lances, as waves in the region still exceed humongous. The boat launch is near El Astillero, a tiny fishing village twelve miles north of Popoyo Reef, then it’s another fifteen-minute scoot across the water to the break. Several other surf boats have the same idea and soon the main peak is rife with hungry surfers. I notice Rick is implementing a different strategy: go where everyone is not. And it’s working! While everyone is slugging it out at the top of the point, a new wave breaks down the line. As it reforms, Rick is there to swallow up the leftovers. These overhead scraps are still hearty and the NJ native is the only one there, catching wave after wave.
“Is two a crowd?” I ask as I paddle closer. “You’re sitting on prime location.”
“All good, man, I could use some company.” Rick smiles before he swims into another beauty.
We both surf the inside section for another two hours until our arms give out. Back at the boat, Katelyn tells Rick, “You caught twice the waves as anyone out there, great job!”
“In both quantity and quality, Rick the Ruler wins the heat!” I add.
Gustavo fishes icy beers out of the cooler and we toast the crafty victor.
Although Popoyo Reef is the central break for the region, Gustavo’s main stomping ground is Rancho Santana, just two miles south. It’s midweek and a crowded afternoon session at “Santana” scatters our crew down the beach. There’s an hour before sunset and it’s time for me to punch the timecard for the day. It’s become an evening tradition for us to sip a few sundowners at Magnific Rock, which offers one of the best views – 270-degree views, in fact, of the Pacific Ocean — in Central America.
Rick is sitting in the sand with his board. I wonder how his session went. “Hey bud, catch a—”
“Dude, check it!” Ricks cuts me off and points down the beach. Fifty yards away, Audrey’s on a speedy wave that just won’t quit. And neither does the blonde California miss. As the wave begins to slow, Audrey snaps the board around and skillfully cuts back into the foam to keep her momentum going.
“Holy crap, are you seeing this?” Rick, impressed, snaps his fingers.
The wave picks up again and accelerates Audrey to the shore. Just as it crashes, she swoops around in front of it and zips to the nearby sand, fist pumping and all smiles.
Gustavo and his local friends shout, “Yeeeeewww!” A common call of respect in the surfing community.
“Talk about finishing up strong,” I say to Rick as we lug our boards toward the crew.
The Best for Last
On our last day together, Gustavo has a secret spot in store for us. No spilling the beans on its magical whereabouts.
“The wave here doesn’t break often, but today it will be on fire,” our guide says, wide-eyed with glee. A short walk through the jungle soon reveals surf perfection. This wave factory is churning out punchy offerings and we can’t get in the water fast enough. Gustavo, you’ve done it again! We have the whole break to ourselves, a spoil of surf riches for nearly two hours.
The conditions aren’t crazy like in the beginning of the trip, and waves are ranging from chest to head high. Fantastic! Gustavo whistles for us to swim hard out to sea and as my eyes focus, an outlier super-size set of waves are forming in the distance. I’m the furthest out and position myself perfectly. “Yeeeeeww!” my comrades each wail like a pack of peppy jackals as I drop down the face and blast past them. Fifty yards later, I jump over the ride before it crashes near the beach. That has to be the wave of the day! I’m so proud of myself … but so wrong.
Audrey is shooting towards me on a wave that easily trumps mine in size and quality.
I can’t believe what I’m seeing, and now Gustavo is behind her on the next wave while at the top of the point Rick just paddled into a monster. Each wave bigger and better than the rest. Katelyn’s left bobbing around by herself with a relative Godzilla approaching. It looks like she’s just getting the hell out of the way of it. I don’t blame her. Oh no, wait. She’s going for it! Paddle! Paddle! Paddle!
Katelyn times it perfectly and catches a certified “10”. It’s over, she has the title! There’s a series of hoots and whoops as the brunette surfer chick rides the official wave of the day past everyone as we paddle back.
Seeing my friends, one-by-one, catch a five-star wave is one of my fondest surf memories. To me, that’s what surfing is all about. Fun waves, big smiles, camaraderie and good-natured competition.
Don’t Be A Stranger
Thanks for reading another Tacks on a Map story. Hope this brings some insight to the joys of surfing. If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right. Until the next one, keep in touch, comments and feedback are thoroughly appreciated!