How Does Sunset Beach Work? - Page 9

Anecdotes and Personal Experiences - 2

Not One Of My Better Days at Sunset Beach

You always hear stories about how Sunset Beach can really kick the shit out of you. Really humble you. But it's not really possible to understand just how humbling (and, don't forget, life-threatening too), the place can be until you've had the "pleasure" of experiencing things on your own personal skin. Your own hide.

So of course I'm going to try and tell you how the place can humble you, which also of course won't do any good at all.

You really do have to experience just how far Sunset Beach can ratchet things up, for yourself. When it's your pupils that are dilating, it's not the same as hearing about when it was somebody else's pupils dilating.

Ok, enough of that.

Big day.

Big goddamned motherfucking day.


Swell angle just about due northwest, coming directly straight in, maybe just the slightest hair north of that, to keep the big outside peak from completely detaching itself from the lineup the way it does sometimes on really big west swells, but not any kind of proper north swell, ok?

Great goddamned big even lines, no secondary swell of any kind. Lines. Just great goddamned big fucking lines marching in from way the hell out there, bending around and focusing perfectly into gigantic peaks that were going off like atomic bombs or something.

High overcast. Water was kind of greenish gray. Good stiff tradewind without too much north in it, huge plumes of white spray coming off the tops of them when they reared up and folded over way, way, way the hell outside. Funny, now that I think about it, there was a pretty substantial number of macking big days with that high overcast, both at Sunset and Waimea. Don't really see that many days with a high deck of cirrus like that in Hawaii, and they seem to kind of associate themselves with some pretty big days during the wintertime. Or at least that's my recollection, anyway.

Maybe go back to Page 1 of this thing and scroll down to the image where I put the ruler on it.

That's where it was breaking this day. Maybe even farther outside than that. Who the fuck knows? Not me, that's for sure.

So ok, so it was big, and so nobody rode the place with cords back then. So what?

Let's go surfing.

Hop on the 9'0" gun and take the paddle.

This particular day, it was pretty inconsistent. Happens all the time in really big, really long-period swells. In between the sets, a lot of time can go by, and nobody but NObody even thinks about trying to move inside a little ways to pick off one of the "smaller" ones.

Nah, don't do that, ok?

You'll wind up wishing you didn't do that, if you do that.

So don't do that, ok?

And yours truly is already much more inclined than most people who ride the place, to sit farther outside, and wait longer, just to be damn good and sure that he's not gonna get cleaned up, too. That was pretty much the entirety of my game plan, when you get right down to it. Sit the farthest outside and wait the longest between rides. Not only does it keep you from getting cleaned up, but it also has the very desirable side effect of placing you on the very biggest, very best waves, when they finally come in, which, at Sunset, they always do, eventually. So yeah, be patient, sit tight, don't go doing anything stupid, and grab the fucking bombs. It's also a good way to eliminate most of the other people from the equation, too. When you're the farthest guy outside, there ain't nobody else around you anywhere. Got the whole thing to yourself when you sit farthest outside. You find yourself taking the drop all by yourself, nobody else near you, with everybody else being inside of you and either scratching madly for the channel, or bailing off of their boards and swimming down underwater. So yeah, that was my game plan, just like any other day out there.

So what'd the damn ruler on that image I said to go look at say, anyway? Point four six miles? Yeah, that's it. Whatta ya say we just go ahead and round that off to a nice even half mile? Easier to deal with. Perfectly reasonable number too. Difference of only 211 feet, and with Sunset at that size, and breaking that distance from the beach, 211 feet becomes a rounding error. It just completely disappears in the background noise of the error bars.

Finally get all the way out there, and, as it does on certain large days, there wasn't really much of a crowd. I dunno, fifteen or twenty people maybe, spread out over one hell of a large area, not really much of a distraction, not really much of anything.

Sit and rest, sit and watch, sit and maintain lineups, sit and look at the wristwatch, sit and sit and sit.

Waiting to catch my first wave.

At which point, Sunset Beach very quietly and calmly said in a just-audible voice, "No."

Even when you're the farthest guy outside, it's not enough to keep you out of trouble at Sunset Beach.

Barest sliver of a nice solid dark bulge across the refraction axes, creeping ever so slowly across that peculiar fuzzy boundary which lies between imperceptible and perceptible, way way way the hell out there, not much more than the faintest irregularity, disrupting that perfectly even line which is the horizon.


Ok, this one looks fairly solid, best we pay attention here, ok?

To which Sunset Beach replied, once again in that soft barely-audible voice, "Fuck you."

Ok this one's got some meat behind it, let's get moving.

No doubt about anything, now, and the program switches from "Get positioned" to "Holy shit, let's get the fuck out of here, NOW!"

To which Sunset Beach replies with bared fangs and a deafening roar, "I'm going to try and kill you!"

Enable crazed paddling mode.




Enable half-mile rough-water swim mode.

About which, there's not really all that much that you can say.

Takes a long time and the ocean works away diligently for that whole time attempting to drown you, but you're young and healthy, and you eventually wind up on the sand, unscathed.

So right now, the score is, Waves Ridden - 0, Swims From All The Way Outside On A Big Day At Sunset Beach - 1.

But look how good it's breaking today! GodDAMN, just look at that shit out there!

Plenty of reserve energy, let's give it another try.

And back we go, for Round Two.

Same deal as before, same deal as every time. No need to repeat all that crap, right?

Finally, okey dokey, we're all sorted out, here comes the one we wanted, and enter the takeoff run, stroking furiously toward the beach against the trade wind and chop, feeling the lift from beneath and behind, getting pulled up into the very highest rafters of the wave.

Uh oh.

Maybe just a tad late with this one.


At which point I made the sort of mistake that continues to amaze me, sitting here typing, almost forty-five years later.

I only made this mistake one time, and this was the one time I made it, but..... what the fuck? I already knew better. I was already much smarter than that. I was no longer new at this shit. I knew what the hell I was doing, goddamnit.

Maybe not.

The memory is as sharp and crisp, recounting this event, as if it had occurred just this morning.

I can see it in all of its awful clarity, down to the smallest details.

I was not going to make this drop, that much was clear.

And I did not want to take a twenty-five foot freefall out on to the flats, either.

So instead, I aborted the paddle run and sat back on the rear of the board, grabbing both rails and hunching way over with my face just above the deck, with legs in the water applying full brakes, and attempted to punch through the lip as it lunged forward just above me, trying to exit things by popping out the back of the wave.

What the fuck could I possibly have been thinking?!?

It didn't work.

Oh lord, it didn't work at all.

Although I actually did pop out of the back of the wave.

Well, sort of, anyway.

My upper torso cleared the water nicely, and the front end of the board was out of the water, too.

Sitting position, hands on rails, a little deeper in the water than you might expect, sitting on a nine foot big-wave gun.

Completely immersed within the lip, up at the very top of the wave.

I cannot tell you how thick that lip was, but I can tell you that there was no sensation whatsoever of my legs, feet, or any portion of the board, extending down far enough to penetrate through the underside of that lip, into empty space.

Completely immersed in a lip that was plenty thick enough, however thick it actually may have been.

Sitting upright, not quite chest deep, looking forward and down across that great gray-green cylinder of water, moving smoothly and evenly along with it, as it poured itself over like Niagara Fucking Falls.

There were even little streaks of spindrift across the back of that cylinder, ahead of me and to either side of me.

The finest detail imaginable, all these long years later.

Made quite the impression on me, and I suppose there was plenty of time for that to happen, because things were by now moving in extraordinarily slow motion.

I was not on the leading edge of the lip.

Not by a long shot.

There was twenty-five feet of lip out there in front of me, curving away and down down down, oh god, that's much much much too far down.

The lip hit the flat water, and as if watching in a dream, I could see myself following the great curve of that cylinder (with the little streaks of spindrift on it, can't forget that, can we?) forward and down, and as I traveled away from the apex of things, the detonation of white water formed by the impact of the lip with the flat water out in front, came back up in my direction like a wave of its own. A great fan of whitewater, looking, from my very unfortunate vantage point, nothing like a proper soup might look, but instead like some kind of..... I don't even know. Never seen the like of it anywhere else. I mean, I was sitting on top of my board. I had the best seat in the house to see that backblast of water coming back up at me as I was being drawn irresistibly down and into the very heart of the maelstrom.

At which point, I had the presence of mind to do a very uncanny thing, and, considering the depth of the stupidity required to get me into this position in the first place, a very smart thing, too.

With dreamlike slowness, I had all the time in the world, as that great fan of white backblast was still on its way up to greet me, to just kind of hop off the back of the board, give it a bit of a push into the air in front of me, and watch the backblast arrive from below and blow it clear to hell up, behind, and away from me, as I went on over and entered the belly of the beast.

BOOM! number two.

Followed, of course, by swim number two.


The score is now, Waves Ridden - 0, Swims From All The Way Outside On A Big Day At Sunset Beach - 2.


But it's still just about as perfect as it gets when it's this big, and there's still hardly any crowd to speak of, and James Fucking MacLaren can be a little on the hardheaded side, sometimes.

Fuck, shit, piss, cuss, hell, damn.

So ok, two complete paddles, two complete swims, and fuck this shit, here goes the third complete paddle. Board's not broken, so may as well put it to use, right?

Long paddle, and finally here we are, once again, way the hell out there, waiting for a nice one, maybe just a wee little bit on the fatigued side.

At which point Sunset Fucking Beach once again, in that barely-audible voice, says simply, "No."

Do we really have to go through this again?

I mean, really?

Yes, yes you do, yes really.

Son. Of. A. Bitch.

Another cleanup set even though I'm the farthest goddamned guy outside, godDAMNit!

And so, children, our Story of Woe proceeds promptly and inexorably to BOOM! number three.

Followed immediately by swim number three.

Following which, the challenger drags his well-beaten body up on to the dry sand once again, looks dejectedly at the scoreboard which now reads, Waves Ridden - 0, Swims From All The Way Outside On A Big Day At Sunset Beach - 3, very sensibly tucks his tail between his legs and decides to cut his losses here and now, and departs the arena.

The board remained intact, so at least I had that much going for me.

But, all in all, it was Not One Of My Better Days at Sunset Beach.

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