Hejira


kikopipe.jpg

Da série recordar é viver. O meu primeiro Inverno no Hawai’i.

For the entire year of 2001, I did three things: work, swim and surf. Single focus. I had proposed to my longtime girlfriend and been turned down and so I needed to focus on something else. I was putting 6,000 yards a day in the pool before work, surfing every free moment I had and then collapsing on my bed to do it all over the next day, seven days a week for an entire year. The plan was to quit my job at the right time and spend the winter surfing in the Islands before the next gig. I was going to rip Hawai’i, the North Shore of O’ahu and the mythical Hanalei Bay in Kaua’i.

Boy was I dumb back then.

This would be the equivalent of hitting a ball with a racket against a wall for a year and then showing up at Wimbledon. It doesn’t matter you are winning contests back in San Diego, you are a nobody here, you won’t be turning any heads. Unless, of course, you are Occhilupo, Curren, Carroll or Slater, the Holy Quadrant.

It doesn’t matter how many pictures you’ve seen in the magazines, how many stories you’ve heard, when you drive past Wahiawa, through the sugar cane plantations and that red Hawaiian clay that reminds me so much of Brazil and after a curve the North Shore comes unshrouded before your eyes, that is a revelation moment. You can see from Ka’ena Point to Sunset Beach, miles and miles of the bluest water you’ve ever seen. This is my Kaaba.

I spent several weeks living in a tent in the middle of a pineapple plantation in Hale’iwa, an outhouse, a hose for showering and a gazebo with a hot plate and a fridge, all this yours for $5 a day. Eating poi plate lunch from the trucks on Kamehameha Hwy (I must have logged a round trip to the moon riding to and from the surf on my rusty bike on that road), getting up at 4:30 AM to check the surf, going to bed at 8 because, unless you’re a tweaker, there’s nothing to do in the North Shore at night. It seems now all this was in a past incarnation.

My fellow campers were all there for the surf as well. Costa Rica, Australia, France, England, California. Some were happy to just dip their toes in the kindergarten breaks, others had brought their Waimea guns, going all the way. I was in the middle. I knew from doing this for two decades that I didn’t have the wish for a true big wave experience in me, but I wanted see where I got.

—————

Out at Hale’iwa Harbor breakwater, first morning, trade winds and a head-high swell running. Michael “Bonga” Perkins lords over his kingdom on his longboard, a salamander slithering into blue faces, then a bullfighter. Or the Ali’i who, centuries ago, was the only one allowed to ride the water standing up. Economy of motion, a Haiku of momentum and thrust.

He paddles for a wave but is cut off by an overeager guy paddling in, someone really foolish or really confident; this is the North Shore’s First Commandment: Thou shall not paddle into someone else’s wave, especially when that someone is Hui. The penalties for that are stiff.

To my surprise, there is a short altercation between the two but no more. In the next few weeks, I will see several fist fights in the water and in the sand. The offender paddles away, towards me.

As he gets closer I start to see the traces of a familiar face. He seems to recognizes me first as I see his mouth arching, his face blurry with stark sunlight reflected on the water.

Holger the Horrible. I’ll be damned.

Holger, German guy from New York who surfs. Consummate thrill seeker. I knew him from my days in Boston, where we were part of the Kooks Anonymous, an East Coast cabal for the old and out of shape who still love to surf icy East Coast waves. Holger’s trademark: he will not let his lack of experience in any field deter him from getting in way over his head. He took me ice climbing once. I swore off ice climbing for life after that.

Holger and his big smile and bear hug.

“Holger, do you know who you just snaked?”
“No, why, is he important or something?”
“Bonga Perkins.”
“Bong who?”
“Never mind, let’s go get a beer.”

We have a few beers by the Harbor, Holger hits on every single waitress and we decide to go pay Laniakea a visit.

——————

The reef at Lani’s lies about a quarter mile out, flanked by deep water channels. You paddle from the beach and get there with your hair still dry. On the way out I see two sea turtles mating. Two Hawaiians out and us this afternoon, no wind, 8 to 10 ft faces, which is 4 ft in the Hawaiian Measure-it-From-the-Back-Macho-Man scale.

About an hour later a young, pink-faced man with a crew cut who looks obviously out of his element paddles out. I make conversation. He is a Marine from Nebraska, stationed in O’ahu. A few minutes later the inevitable happens, he gets pummeled by a wave, loses his board and starts getting dragged by the current to the rocks. He starts screaming for help, but I can’t see him. Then I see him. He can’t swim. He was relying on his board to stay afloat.

Holger makes it there ahead of me, at which point the guy is about to pass out. I have one look into his eyes and I can see the fear of death like I’ve never seen it before. The irony is not lost. Here’s a man trained to be sent into battle to kill and possibly be killed. We put him on my board, I swim ahead while Holger holds him as he’s in panic; we get him to shore. I help him throw up all the water he swallowed just as the paramedics arrive. Off he goes to Honolulu. Our first day in the North Shore.

——————-

The weather forecasting service is ridiculously accurate in Hawai’i. It has to be, with tidal waves, typhoons, giant swells and everything else the Pacific regularly throws at these islands. It helps that the from the islands weather and ocean patterns can be spotted unimpeded for thousands of miles.

We’re out at Jocko’s, getting ready to call it a day.

“Holger, what was that swell?”
“They’re calling 18 ft at 13 seconds, N-NW.”
“When did you say it was coming in?”
“About 5:30.”

It’s 5:32.

Two minutes later the horizon starts jumping. Time to start paddling fast. The Hawaiians are at least a couple dozen yards ahead of us. They make it up the first wave and so do we. But the next one… Holy shit. This is the biggest wave I’ve ever been involved with in any capacity in my life. And I’m about to wear it on my head. I dive as deep as I can, down to where the sunlight is filtered into blue. But I still get caught.

I’m down for a very long time being rag-dolled. I feel the tension of the leash being released as it snaps. I am trying not to fight it yet, waiting until the wave loses power, then fight my way up, but my lungs are burning, I got to swim up NOW. I’m getting light headed, then the tingling in the extremities, then the sleepiness and the warmth. Drowning is a good death. I see light, my head pops up in the middle of the foam, air rushes in through my nostrils as God’s breath onto clay. I feel the surge of adrenalin, neurotransmitters screaming in their electrical language that I will not die today.

———————

Waves sound different in Hawai’i. It’s a low frequency rumble, not the high pitched hiss you hear in California. The sound of a wave here is more ample, takes more space, comes at you from all directions.
I have a CD by the Mermen where they have sampled the sound of a wave breaking, it sounds like a mixture of timpani with white noise. I used to think that sound was preposterous, studio trickery. But the Mermen were right. Waves do sound like that here.

———————-

I am sitting on the sand at Ehukai as the Brits are getting ready to go out. They are camping next to me and gave me a ride on their camper van. They’re from Cornwall, six of them, the owner and the employees of a surf shop in Newquay. They won a prize in a TV show and are burning the money surfing around the world.
They are not that skilled but they make it up in confidence. They’re going to surf Pipeline.

I am not nearly that confident. I know of the injuries and the two or three deaths every year this place dishes out. I am not sure I’m doing this. It’s small Pipe today, barely head high. But breaking over a 2ft blade of water over razor sharp reef. So I sit and ponder my choices. I can always walk a half mile down to Pupukea.

One of the Cornwegians scratches into a wave, takes the elevator drop, is briefly covered by the falling lip and scurries to safety in the shoulder.

I guess I’m taking my chances.

It’s small Pipe, so small the locals can’t even be bothered to surf it, almost no stand-up surfers, but a crowd of Japanese bodyboarders that don’t know where to sit or paddle out, creating hazard in the line-up. As I step into the water to paddle out, I cut my foot on the reef, Pipe’s subtle way of letting me know why it’s one of the more dangerous surf breaks on the planet at any size.

I get out there, sit and watch for about an hour, just trying to figure out what to do, what not to do, where to sit, what the current is doing, where the waves are breaking and how and who to be aware of. Watch and learn.

A head high set looms. I let the Japanese sponger next to me go first, the sun is going down, there’s a handful of us left and I’m the one in position. I swing, paddle and go.

You’ll never forget your first (and in my case, only) wave at Pipe. The bottom being stolen away from your board, the rails snapping into the water wall, your stomach going up to your mouth, the speed, the bottom turn, the veil of water surrounding you for seconds that last lifetimes, the sound in your ears and the silence inside you.

But what I remember very vividly is the blue, green and purple reef racing under my feet as I crouch still, aiming for the blue water ahead, reminded of how God thinks.

Photo: Pipeline, O’ahu North Shore, Winter 2001-2002

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