What If We Told You There Was A 500-Meter Long, Barreling Left-hander…In Mississippi?
We didn’t even know it had a coastline!
Ed. note: Here at Stab, we’re not typically in the business of “exposing” surf spots. However, when presented with this story by Cameron Troutman and Chandler Borries, we couldn’t help ourselves. I mean, c’mon…Mississippi?! We didn’t even know that the state most often brag-spelled by eight-year-olds had a coastline.
Em ay es es ay es es ay pee pee ay!
Please enjoy responsibly.
We got to the dock at half past six. In the distance, the rising sun began to paint the silhouette of the pine tops orange, while the bayou’s marsh grass gave off a silvery sheen. Pelicans glided effortlessly overhead amid the background song of a mockingbird, welcoming the start of the day. The wind was quiet but the air brisk. Everything seemed to bounce with anticipation. Mug pressed to my lips, maybe this was just my coffee talking.
We weren’t the first on the water. Trailers stretched out behind pickups, lining the small boat launch. One truck had a large sticker covering the majority of the back window reading “Bayou Boy”. I guess good fishing is always accompanied by tired eyes and few words. The self-anointed Bayou Boy provided us with the sustenance of laughter, an aid to the beginning of all great journeys. Throwing the last bit of gear on the boat before backing it up, an old-timer with a straw hat and a bow-legged gait walked by us on his way towards the water. With a warm smile and a southern drawl, he said, ” I hope you boys catch a big one”. Without a fishing pole on board, we did too. We smiled back and said thanks. Standing room only, the three of us took our positions for the 30-minute ride to the island. Using every inch the 17-foot boat had to offer, surfboards were stacked tightly from the center console to the gunnel with only a few feet to spare for the day’s provisions.
Snaking our way through the bayou’s muddy tributaries, we rounded our last corner; narrow channels, lined with golden grass, gave way to the broad, blue horizon of the Mississippi Sound. Barely visible, ten miles from shore was the faint reminder of where we were going. The sight of the island instantly triggered the warmth of hope. Maybe today would be as good or better than days of past. The buoy in the Gulf of Mexico, 30 miles south of the barrier islands, was reading 7.5 feet at 7 seconds. There was a reason to be excited. But like all novelty waves, The Cove was both fickle and hard to predict. Spring time was always accompanied by steady winds from the South East, but all you could do was pray the wind switched offshore with plenty of daylight left rather than some time in the middle of the night, killing the waves when you woke up. Not to mention it was located on an uninhabited island frequented mainly by fisherman and booze cruisers. It wasn’t like you could just look at the webcam or call a buddy to go check it. You just had to go. And in order to escape disappointment, the mantra was always to go with no expectations.
With one hand slumped over the wheel, Brandon took his captain’s eye off the water for a moment to point at the moon. “When isn’t the moon visible during daytime?” he asked loudly, trying to speak over the rumbling outboard. It was still pretty early for questions like this but I mustered an attempt. “When it’s cloudy?” I responded with a question—a sure way to demonstrate lack of confidence in my answer. He laughed. “False. When the moon is full it is behind the sun making it only visible at night!” A long time friend and life long trickster, Brandon was now a high school physics teacher, a concoction made of both humor and insight. It’s funny how things work out. Just two weeks ago Chandler and I were in South Africa. We have done a lot of traveling together in the past but this was a special trip. Chandler, also an age-old buddy, is an adventure photographer, shooting for brands like National Geographic Lodges and Arc’teryx. I conned him into coming to Cape Town to capture the surprise engagement to my better half, Lauren. I think she was equally shocked at getting proposed to on Table Mountain as she was when I pointed at Chandler behind a rock outcropping, camera in hand. We traveled for three weeks together around the Western Cape but had to leave abruptly when we found out South Africa was closing its borders due to the pandemic of COVID19. Cape Town is such a beautiful place and we had so much more to see. Now quarantined together, we were grateful for our health but sad that our travels had been halted so quickly. In order to cope, we had to find a new point of focus for inspiration and exploration. The Cove was it. Checking the buoy every few hours nearly five days out, we began to obsess over the potential of this first swell since we had gotten back home. Most people don’t even know Mississippi has a coastline, let alone what might be, on a good day, one of the longest left-hand point breaks in the US. What a weird world we live in, I thought. I stared out over the starboard side at the smooth edges of the current line on the water. I couldn’t help but think of two artists in particular that had made this same journey across the Sound, many moons ago.
Known as the South’s most elusive artist, Walter Anderson’s paintings attempted to realize the kinship between man and nature. He depicted the flora and fauna of Mississippi’s barrier islands through a realistic yet impressionist lens. His forms are both bright and imaginative. Considered a philosopher by some and an eccentric by most, he traveled around South America and China in the 1950s but preferred being on the seat of a bicycle, pedaling for months around the country. Walter was quoted as saying, “a bicycle seems to leave no room for other evils, or goods for that matter. It is an inclusive and exclusive wheel.” He would row his wooden skiff to the Barrier Islands staying for weeks on end coming back with hundreds of watercolored paintings. After being diagnosed with schizophrenia, he would retreat to the barrier islands between stints at the hospital. Considering the islands sacred yet mysterious, they were his source of inspiration and solitude. In 1965 Hurricane Betsy wrecked its way across the Gulf. As legend has it, unbenounced to Walter, he found himself on one of the barrier islands and decided to tie himself to a tall exposed tree. His hope was to fully experience the sheer force of the storm. The reward of discovery outweighed the risk of Betsy’s rising waters and violent winds.
The West end was now in focus and Brandon began to slow down to plan his ascent. Slash pine forests peppered the island amongst rolling sand dunes, page white in contrast. Towering from the peaks of dead trees, large osprey nests exploded with gnarled sticks adding to the intensity. Yellow beady eyes stared down at us, questioning our intentions. This was always the moment where we were able to tell just how big the swell was. It was also the scariest part of the journey. The pass was where the island separated the still brown water of the Mississippi Sound and the sometimes violent green waves of the Gulf of Mexico. “Look at that one!” Chandler screamed, as a wave broke way out on the outer bar, at least as tall as the sand dunes in the foreground. Letting out a variety of noises in excitement, we all knew what kind of day was in store. Brandon steered the boat around the tip trying to stay in deep enough water to avoid a breaker to the nose. This turned out to be a very difficult task. Waves began to pitch just a few feet in front of us forcing him to gun it, sometimes ramping the little boat completely out of the water. If we were still sleepy, we weren’t anymore. Once we escaped the turbulence of the pass, the sea went completely calm. The breeze blew lightly offshore creating a sensation of being on an emerald tinted pond. Brandon pointed the bow outside the break running parallel to the Island. Large, smooth rollers were graciously spread out, rocking us gently from the side . Squinting through the sun’s glare, our gaze was fixed southeast. A few miles away, the point of The Cove seemed to poke a finger from the hand of the island, ever so slightly, into the belly of the Gulf.
Stig moved to the MS Gulf Coast the day Walter Anderson passed away. The coincidence is eerie, as if the coast had summoned a new artistic voice to capture its beauty and idolize its islands. The torch had been passed. Following a similar path to Anderson, Stig trained at both the New Orleans and Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. After traveling around South America, Tibet, and Europe, he too finally settled in Ocean Springs, just a short walk from Shearwater Pottery, Walter’s old stomping grounds. In the mornings you can find Stig on his screened-in porch painting in his Little Black Books waiting for the wind to come up. He is an avid windsurfer. These books record the most interesting moment of every day of his life since he was 23 years old. He is now 59. There are over 21,000 6x8inch watercolored paintings comprised of moments as mundane as cleaning the dishes to unique as the birth of his two children Reef and Fin. The sense of awe and wonder completely blanket you as you flip through the pages of his life. I remember the exact moment when I first saw the wave. I was looking through one of his books that was a few years old, seeing the usual windsurfing and walking the dog paintings. Then I saw it. Stig was riding a head-high wave, with white water to his right and a beautiful green wall to his left that seemed endless. Somewhat aggressively, I pressed the book to his face in demand, “Where the hell is this?”
As we approached the fabled spot, I had an overwhelming angst to get into the water as quickly as possible. I took a swipe of trail mix to settle down. The treeline of the straight necked pines rapidly began to shrink to a shrubbery evenly dispersed, mounted atop the dunes. The narrow sandy point jetted out from the steady compounding of sand due to the prevalent southeast wind direction. On the backside of the point is a cove where the spot gets its name, providing shelter from the surf. I’ve surfed the point with Stig many times, and it’s pretty clear he captains the boat with extreme efficiency, rarely breaking plane for the comfort of his crew. But even he enters cautiously to The Cove on your average day. Today the inside section was both big and breaking. Brandon came in slowly but found out quickly that last night’s storm had pushed sand into the mouth of the cove making it too shallow to bring in the boat. Our only option was to anchor outside the outer sand bar, Indonesian style. With the rope tied down to the cleat and our anchor finally catching, the boat slowly swiveled around with the help of the light offshore breeze. Finally coming to rest, our bow faced the point, revealing our first unadulterated glimpse of the wave. We couldn’t believe our eyes. The spot Stig had found while painting on the Island over 30 years ago, the spot that had only been surfed by roughly 50 people, the spot that no one would believe existed in Mississippi, was absolutely reeling. Big green barrels spooled off the point for hundreds of yards containing more standing room than our boat. Pelicans glided 7 foot open faced cliffs while the white bellies of dolphins flashed between the sandy bottom and emerald surf. They were our only neighbors in sight. The outer and inner sections were connecting, creating a ride, I knew from past trips, that was close to a minute long. Leaning over to touch the water, I keeled my neck up at the sunny, cloudless sky, feeling warmth all around me. Grinning, our gamble had paid off. Before jumping in the water I took a moment to reflect. There is undeniable beauty and learning that take place in traveling to faraway lands. But perhaps just as necessary is the ability to make discoveries in the monotony and normalcy of own backyards.
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