The Unlikely Ecstasy Of Chasing The Cristobal Swell From California To Florida's Gulf Coast
Tosh Tudor's reverse strike to the Most Embarrassing State In The Union.
It's May 16th 2019, the world is at peace.
The burn on my face from the hot sun and the relentless semi-offshore wind is intensifying. Fine grains of sand from the beach at Supertubos bend with the dry breeze around my face and bounce off the inside of my sunglasses finding a pleasant place to rest between my eyeball and eyelid.
Another left grinds into the wind off in the distance, the lip flaring out with each piece of side chop that runs up the face, an inviting mist comes spitting out of the barrel as the wave corners off onto dry sand. I feel more reptilian than human after days of non-stop traveling, surfing, wine, and the morning’s 4hr session trading off tubes with Australia’s Tom Payne, France’s Nathan Sadoun, and California’s Troy Mothershead.
The Joel Tudor Duct Tape Invitational taking place in Praia de Ribeira d'ilhas is what brings me to Portugal. I rented a car the day before and drove to Supertubos early the next morning with Tom. We slithered our way through winding roads and quaint white-walled, burnt orange Spanish tile-roofed, traditional Portuguese towns in hopes of scoring a wave that has been high on my bucket list for some time now.
The early morning session did not disappoint, in fact it exceeded expectations. No one out, overhead wedges sucking below sea level on a knuckle of sand that protrudes out off the relatively straight beach. The wind is not straight offshore, but dances between side/offshore into the lefts, waltzing and waning. Keeping the right ones wide open, slowing down the exit, allowing one to get nice and deep. I’ve been texting updates to Joel Tudor and Ross Howatt (Vans Marketing workhorse and fellow North Floridian), they’ve just pulled up. Their rental car driver’s side back door flies open. Joel’s son Tosh comes out running onto the beach ahead of his Dad, Ross, photographer Jimmy Wilson, DTI security Yusuke Hayashi, and everyone’s favorite Italian Daniele Ramazzotti, who follow closely behind. Tosh is losing his fucking mind. His high pitched voice exclaiming with every breaking wave, getting louder and faster, shouting my inner monologue as he jumps around. His dad quickly scolds him for pointing and tells him to calm down. I can’t help but laugh, the grom’s stoke is contagious.
I notice an all too familiar twinkle in his eye as another left blows its guts out down the beach. It’s obvious to me that Tosh share’s my terrible addiction. For the 100th time in 30secs Tosh yells “TUBE!” His rally cry echoes as the morning’s crew throws on their half-dry suits and run up the beach. That evening I saw a 14-year-old Tosh get the best barrel he’s had up to that point in his life as his dad clapped from the beach.
I was lucky enough to snag a good one myself—it was a special session trading off tubes with Tom, Troy, and Nathan as the sun slowly sank below the bumpy horizon of the Atlantic.
Fast forward: it’s Thursday, June 4th, 2020; the world is in constant crisis. Tosh is 15 now, and a foot taller. Random hairs sprout from his upper lip. We have been planning a spring tube trip for months now. Bocas del Toro, Nicaragua, maybe pay Al Clelland Jr. a visit down in Pascuales. Whatever looks best, we’re going.
Then, boom! Full-blown Global Pandemic! Plans foiled, that's the way she goes. Domestic travel is looking like the only option for the near future. Tosh has been calling me every couple weeks like clockwork asking about potential hurricanes. With the Atlantic hurricane season just starting June 1st, and the majority of our tropical activity typically happening around late summer, the question is borderline preposterous.
As businesses open back up and things slowly return to “normal”—a modern-day civil rights movement heats up, and the remnants of the earliest recorded storm ever for the Eastern Pacific Ocean hurricane season (tropical storm Amanda) reinforces to a tropical disturbance in Campeche Bay. This disturbance soon turns into Tropical Storm Cristobal. It’s showing a promising path to generate waves for the Gulf of Mexico. Not the strongest storm (peak activity reaching only 60mph) but a very broad system with lots of fetch pointed at a narrow stretch of beach and the surrounding areas. A zone coined “The Forgotten Coast” in the Florida Panhandle. Local winds are forecasted to be relatively ideal.
I’ll be damned, a potential hurricane swell and it ain’t even summer yet.
At 1:19 pm I send this text to the insatiable tube hound: “Yo dawg give me a shout back when you get this. Looks like that left in the Gulf could be on! If you want to come you’d need to get here by tomorrow. I can’t make any promises as far as waves go, the Gulf is a fickle place, but right now the forecast is looking good.”
Shortly thereafter I received a message that read - “Hell yeah! Let me talk to my dad and I’ll try to get on a flight tonight or tomorrow.” At 11 pm the next night I was picking Tosh up from JAX International Airport with my friend Drew Miller. My 2006 Subaru Outback was filled with a wide range of surf craft, from a couple Black Rose MFG single fin logs to a 5’10 green Greg Loehr 80’s twin-pin replica by Ricky Carroll, a 5'10 AJW OG Potato Launcher, and a 5’5 1/2" SBMB fish. We’ve got 3 Pelican cases filled with Drew’s camera equipment, an EZ-Up tent for him to shoot under during the rain squalls, and just enough room for a grom and a couple beautiful THC (The Huevo Club) surfboards of Tosh's.
With flood alerts, tropical storm warnings, high wind advisories, tornado warnings, and heavy rain rolling in on the radar, we strapped a cooler filled with water and White Claws to my fishing rod brush guard, grabbed a bottle of rum for good measure and some hand sanitizer. We were ready for whatever dangers lie ahead.
Not to take social distancing lightly, we actually checked the flights beforehand and the planes were mostly empty. We would only be surfing relatively uncrowded beaches and fishing while Tosh was in town (other than a few trips to the store.)
We actually decided to make the five-hour drive straight over to the Gulf from the airport to avoid the majority of bad weather as well, at least during the drive. We knew from the forecast that we would be dealing with some significant wind and rain while we were surfing, possibly a few thunderstorms. For having just traveled most of the day, Tosh was still wide awake. I was fired up too. I love chasing storm swells like this, you just never know what’s in store.
I’ve only recently really started to explore the Gulf. I know it’s holding some legit setups with the potential to be some of the better waves in Florida. The windows of opportunity to get those setups at their fullest potential are just so rare and fleeting. That is what adds to the fun of chasing these types of swells though, and what makes it so much more special when you do score.
Tosh was cracking us up, just constantly asking if it was going to be tubing, and what we thought the waves were going to be like. I was telling him how swells in the Gulf can be hard to gauge. You never know how much a swell is actually going to fill in there, or how long it is actually going to hang around. The sand changes at spots during prolonged flat spells with little or zero recent swell references. Some spots can get big and handle a lot of swell, some can’t, but crazy little nooks and crannies start working. Think Cory & Shea Lopez in the Lost movie The Decline. Those waves are only knee-high, and you wouldn’t necessarily think to travel for them, but how fun does that look?
Also evident in a video that was leaked during the quarantine: a semi-heavy emerald green slabby sand-bottom tube accessible only by ski.
Around 3 am the car got noticeably quiet; Tosh had finally crashed. The radio kept me awake under a starry sky through country roads that would soon be covered by big dark clouds and tons of water. We rolled into town around 4:30 am, or it may have been 5:30 am—we were in-between the Eastern Standard and Central time zones.
We got a few hours of sleep at a cheap hotel then started searching for waves. The area was ravaged by Hurricane Michael a couple years prior when it made landfall as a Category 5, boasting gusts of wind up to 139 mph (or 224 km/h) measured at Tyndall Air Force Base before the sensors failed. The destruction from that storm was still very visible, as we drove by damaged businesses, a church with a caved-in roof and a crooked sign, and plots of land where homes once stood. There was simply more open space in an already open area, the natural beauty of the land and water was more evident than ever. The stark juxtaposition of the damaged dwellings against the natural beauty of the surrounding environment giving new meaning to the “Forgotten Coast.”
Unfortunately, the swell was not yet evident.
We drove around until about 1pm checking a few spots until we started seeing some lines in the area we were really hoping to post up at—a spot that can resemble a faux barreling left point break when it’s on. I actually surfed the same spot once before the day prior to hurricane Michael making landfall. I got this particular wave on the small side, the swell didn’t really fill in until that night. I was hoping to see the wave turn on again, hopefully this time just a bigger cleaner version.
We pulled up and saw Cory Lopez surfing with his kids, so we knew we were in the right place. The waves were only about thigh to waist high, but the little lines were starting to push down the beach. We decided to get wet and give the small running lefts a go on the logs and surf with some friends from Flagler (Saxon Wilson, Skye Blumenfield, Pat Conklin, Ryan Conklin, and Robbie McCormick) while the swell filled in and the wind sorted itself out.
We got rained out a couple times—like, blinding rain—but by the end of the day, we were pulling into chest-head high grinding left tubes with offshore winds. As a surfer from the East Coast that has traveled the world, I have an appreciation for these waves because I understand how rare they are despite not really being considered “good” in a lot of areas. Drew and I were blown away by how frothy Tosh was though, we couldn’t believe it.
For a kid with Big Rock and Blacks in his backyard, just coming off a good run of swell at the O-side beach breaks and plenty of recent trips to Pipe this winter, Tosh was just as stoked as that moment we were standing on the beach together in Portugal. “Look at that barrel!” “That one just spit!” He was keeping the stoke levels high. The next morning looked to have the most potential out of the whole swell, although it didn’t take much to pass out that night, considering all we'd been through.
At first light, the wind was straight offshore and the swell had picked up even more. There were now pretty consistently head-high, backless tubes running up the beach, with some pushing a little overhead. The storm surge was letting the swell get over the second bar on the outside, and despite the ripping current, there was potential to get a pretty damn good wave. Especially for the Gulf. We got out there as quickly as we could.
Of course, as soon as we got set up and in position, an outer band of the storm ripped through the lineup causing a waterspout and raindrops Forrest Gump would refer to as, "Big ol’ fat rain that seemed to come straight up from underneath.” The band cleared nearly as soon as it came, but it shifted the wind enough to where it was now side-offshore.
Regardless of the wind being a little less than ideal, there were still tubes to be had. To the locals, it definitely didn’t matter. Hollering for one another with a noticeable twang, cheering Tosh on with each late drop, each clean exit, and every wipeout. They were welcoming and just stoked to see their little slice of paradise doing its thing. I saw a guy go face-first over the falls and come up claiming it. I also saw this redneck that looked like he could kick my ass with one arm get a stand-up tube. “It’s like Indo out there brother!” Almost like an indigenous tribe that had never seen modern surfing, riding pieces of reclaimed wood on some untouched island. Stoke in its purest form.
It wasn’t the trip we had planned months before—hell, we didn’t even score by most standards. But judging by the laughs and the smiles on our faces, it’d be hard to tell the difference. Considering the area we were surfing is flat as a lake most of the year and the likelihood of driving there to surf and actually getting tubed on any given day is slim to none, I’d say we beat the odds. Jimmy Wilson once told me, “if you drive to the gulf and surf, you scored.” With that mindset, it was pumping.
The road has a way of making you think, and in these times I feel reflection is more necessary than ever. We didn’t get to go to Bocas del Toro in Panama, Chancletas in Nicaragua, or visit Al in Pascuales. But I feel thankful to live in a state with so much natural beauty. That has coastlines and waterways, forests and hollers, wide-open spaces where we can feel small. Where we can interact and align ourselves with nature and the inherent lessons it holds. Where we can think freely and clearly, and have moments of clarity. Of consciousness.