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How Often Does the Ocean Scare You?

Once a week? Twice a month? Thrice daily?

style // Aug 25, 2017
Words by Stab
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Fear is a funny thing. It’s a response to a situation that, at least in one’s mind, could result in bodily or psychological harm. But much like pain, fear has only as much effect on a person as his mind allows. Hell, some even find fear/pain pleasurable. (Oh, hush.) From my limited experience on Earth, I’ve decided that in order to realize his potential, a man should confront small fears on a regular basis.

That’s why I was ecstatic to find myself in Sydney, Australia during one of its recent winter lows. The Harbour City is exposed to more direct, heavy swells than my home in Southern California, and its unique bathymetry provides all sorts of incredible breaks, most of which start working with two meters of swell. This pulse peaked at five (m).

And while I was fairly terrified by the forecast, I loved the idea of spiking my nerves for the first time in a while. This made me wonder: how often is the typical surfer scared by the sea? Is it once a week? Twice a month? Thrice daily?

For me, living south of Point Conception’s protective ledge, it’s not as often as I’d like. Of course there are always options to get the adrenaline flowing – novelty rock waves, novelty reef waves, novelty shorebreak, etc. — but I don’t chase fear for the sake of fear itself. I want to catch the wave of my life, and that means pursuing a sensible risk/reward ratio.

IMG 3630

The benefit of surfing waves like this on a regular basis, is that they no longer seem so risky. Behold the relaxation in this pig-dogger’s approach!   

So, back to Sydney

On the final day of the swell, local buoys continued to push 2.5 meters while a Swiffer wind graced the entirety of the coast. With no bad options available, the greater Sydney region was our proverbial poker table, and we played our cards beautifully.

Paddling at first light to a not-so-secret, but not-quite-nameable reef south of the city, my friends and I found ourselves alone in the lineup. At first it looked small — much smaller than we’d anticipated– but as the light forged a crimson ring around the Northeastern horizon, set waves began marching in from the from South. It was as if the sun’s battle cry had been heard, and reciprocated, by a sleepy Pacific.

The first wave approached before the sun was in sight. My friend yelled “Go!”

I’d describe the wall as smallish and not particularly attractive, but thick. The type of wave that’s probably a closeout, but it might just turn out to be a gem. I began paddling early, as the tide was quite high and the spot’s notorious chip-in was nonexistent. The wave lurched at just the wrong spot, leading me to air-drop, land briefly in the flats, and get completely annihilated by the lip.  

I was stirred, but not quite shaken. The very next wave fixed that.

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Can you imagine copping this Blue Raz flavor-bomb to the dome? It’s like Warhead-infused meth! 

I remember having enough time to think, What an incredible fucking wave, before realizing, Oh shit, you’ve gotta hold your breath! That lashing carried me far enough to escape the impact zone, which would have been nice, had I not been lagooned.

The next twenty-ish minutes were spent paddling around the reef and back to the takeoff zone. Just as I arrived, the first boatload of locals paddled in and usurped the peak. Feeling traumatized by my pounding and subservient to the natives, I spent the rest of the session in beta mode – paddling for scraps, backing down whenever someone looked in my direction, being a coward. I can recall three specific times when I could have, and should have, swung on a wave that snuck under the pack. I didn’t have the guts to flip it and go last second.  

My session contained one half-decent ride, a couple closeouts, and countless missed opportunities. This, in the best waves I’d surfed in ages.

Never one to to admit defeat, I hoofed down a quick brekkie and paddled out for a second session, just as most of the morning crowd scattered. Remaining in the lineup was only Russell Bierke, Louie Hynd, and one anonymous hunter. While the swell and tide had dropped considerably, there remained ample opportunity for tube-shooting. I told myself to start surfing like I had any balls whatsoever.

When the first solid set came, I ignored my internal warning system and motored toward the beach. Having fumbled the takeoff, I found myself completely off-balance as I entered the steepening face. Somehow I ended up bottom turning with my ass in the air, head literally in the water, and feet glued to the inside rail. Though I was eventually able to right myself, I spent the rest of the wave gliding awkwardly on the shoulder. A quintessential BDA moment.

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See that crease in the lip? It tells you a lot about this wave’s wicked bottom contours. Josh Hallam shows us that sometimes, the prospect of getting the shot (from multiple angles) can override the fear of a rocky tumble. 

Mr. Bierke, who had seen it all happen from the channel, found the ride highly amusing.

“At least you didn’t fall,” he chuckled.

“I kinda wish I did.”

Surfing is a vain, vain sport. Few among us are immune to the sense of embarrassment felt from a poorly ridden wave, especially when witnessed by an esteemed friend or colleague. For me, riding a wave like that was worse than falling in the first place. And it certainly didn’t help my confidence.

For the rest of the session I was unable to shake my psychological burdens. Even as the crowd disappeared, and it was just me and two friends, alone, at a world-class right hander, I felt utterly spineless. Whenever a proper set would rear its head, my heart would sink. No matter how hard my mates would hoot, I just didn’t want it.

I could give you all the excuses in the world – a bum knee, a mate’s board, too small of fins, tide too low, tide too high, weird winds – but in reality, fear had destroyed my will to try. And that’s a really sad feeling.

As the sun neared the last stage of its daily trajectory, one final bomb emerged. Realizing this was my last chance to leave Australia in a positive headspace, and hearing the cheers from my pals, I paddled like hell.

Now, everyone imagines their path to victory when staring over a ledge. It is the promise of glory that sends us past our perceived limitations — picturing how the lip will fall just as we set our rail, the whole thing opening up wide and sparkling in the afternoon’s golden light…

Nope. Nose dive. Straight to Davey Jones’ locker with me. An absolutely incredible day, and another incredible wave, gone to waste.   

I’ll be back, Sydney.

 

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