"I had never seen anything so big move so fast so loud."

From the Vault: Today the surf was massive

Today the surf was massive. Like… 20-foot. Proper 20-foot surf. Bigger even. I saw shit I still cannot believe. I watched from a boat in the channel from 10am to 3pm. I watched six-foot men ride ten-foot boards through 20-foot barrels. I watched and watched.

Nathan Fletcher was out in the morning on a 10’10”. When he paddled past Ace Buchan, Ace said he felt like an ant. Melling and Bede and Otto and Raoni surfed two heats in the biggest waves I’ve ever seen for an ASP comp. Warriors. Hell men. Lambs to the slaughter. Two heats and that was that. The event went on hold. Then they called it off. “Too dangerous,” they said. “Wrong wind,” they said. But still… the freesurfers paddled out. I watched and watched.

I sat and saw the craziest tuberides to ever go down, man. Ian Walsh got an 18 second 18-foot barrel. Reef McIntosh rode a tube so big it popped my ears when it spat him into the channel near our boat. Pat Gudauskas fell out of the sky sideways and somehow stuck it long enough to not get pulverised to dust. Ramon Navarro tail wheelied his way over a foam ball to make the deepest pit of the day. Of any day. In history even. It seemed like every moment redefined the one before it. Every wave raised the bar. The swell was still picking up and I watched and watched.

At about 3:30 I figured I should at least go and watch from in the water. I wanted to suck up more of the energy of the day. I wanted to hear the banter of the big wave surfers. What did they talk about in between sets? Inflatable wetsuits? Oxygen canisters? Jersey Shore? I wanted to hear that shit and I wanted to feel the swells, the weight of history, move through me.

There had been no clean up sets and no wash throughs. The swell was true to the line of the reef. And that line was as easy to see as an electrified fence at a lion enclosure. I knew on which side of that line I belonged. The side with no man eaters. The swell was true. I knew I’d be safe.

I borrowed a 7’0” from an Aussie guy named Nick. I dived over the side and into warm water. It felt soft and inviting. As I paddled toward the pack, sets continued to roll in and surfers continued to ride inside them. The scale of the waves took on an entirely different dimension. How big was that last one? I don’t know, how do you measure a wing of jets flying at you? In speed? In height? In width? In volume? In power? I don’t know… It was massive.

The whole place was buzzing. Whistles. Hoots. Cheers. Clapping. Laughter. Swearing. Disbelief. I saw Josh Kerr and Ace sitting on the edge of the pack. Friendly familiar faces. I paddled over and sat with them. CJ Hobgood joined us on one of Kellys 9’0”s. Then he quickly turned and stole one that missed the guys on the ledge. The wave rolled under me. I felt the heavy rain of the spray coming off its roof as it passed. I was in the thick of it. But the line was clear. I felt safe and I watched and watched.

I listened to the banter. It was as warm as the water. “This is pumping.” “This is perfect.” “Can you believe this?” Ian Walsh paddled past and everyone asked him about his earlier barrel.

The talk was familiar. Surf talk. And then in an instant everything changed. The air. The mood. The line. My line. My line had moved. My line had betrayed me. And suddenly I was looking from the wrong side as a thing rose from deep and from the deep. Top to bottom, heaven to hell, ocean folding in half. Disgusting and incredible and truly frightening.

Healey sat deepest. He had a quick look at it then changed his mind. I watched (and paddled) as he just scratched over an avalanche. Then I watched (and paddled) as the biggest big wave hell men in the world scratched over it too. I watched their reaction as they breached the lip and saw the wave behind it. I watched them gunning for the channel. I watched (and paddled) and watched (and paddled).

When I reached the top of that first wave I felt a kick to my chest. What I saw was hard to take in. The entire ocean was going skyward. No matter where I looked there was rising water. Panic. Kids. Dry mouth. Home. Adrenaline. Life. Sickness. Death. The line… I buried my arms to my earlobes. I clawed and scratched and kicked. I put in every last bit of energy I had in my body. I had to get back to my side of the line and I feared in the deepest part of me I wouldn’t.

The wave doubled up and started projectile vomiting across the deepest part of the reef. I had never seen anything so big move so fast so loud. I watched Healey scramble. He was directly in its path. I saw his board go up and over. Did he go with it? If he did he’s dead. I don’t know. I couldn’t think straight. My mind was screaming, “WHAT HAVE I DONE? WHY AM I OUT HERE? THIS IS A NIGHTMARE.” I kicked and clawed and scratched for the line.

And then I was moving up the face and my entire lifetime of surfing told me I was safe. I had crossed over. The monster had stayed true to the reef and I was back where I belonged. The natural order of things had been restored. The wave roared as it ran under me, like a lion would roar. And then it was gone, on its way to Restaurants (where as an angry ten footer it would clean up everyone out there and wash three guys onto dry reef).

The entire line-up was screaming and cheering in the wake of that unridden set. Healey had ditched his board and just made it through. He was alive and safe. Kai Garcia was already motoring out on the ski to get him. There was celebration in the air. Excitement. Kerrsy and I looked at each other. He was laughing.

“Were you scared just then?” He asked me. “I was shitting myself!”

“I didn’t come here to die, I came here to watch.” I told him. “I’ve never been more scared in my life.”

Tonight photographs of the rogue set began appearing on computer screens in the media room, with Healey’s board caught up on the lip and a familiar shape in the bottom left hand corner frantically scratching for life and limb. I had to laugh when I saw it. It’s a strange feeling to look at yourself knowing that at that very moment you thought you might die.

But then doubts began to surface. Closer examination of the images makes it hard not to admit that maybe I was always wide enough to avoid being eaten alive. And I find myself wondering: Did I really cross that line today? Or was I blinded by adrenalin and fear? I can’t say for sure, but I’m not the only man on this island asking questions of himself tonight.

– Vaughan Blakey

This classic surf story and more, available now in SW400: The best of 400 issues of Surfing World magazine.

Vaughan Blakey