Dancing With the Devil at Waimea Bay

 

First-person history time. Days of yore. Slice of life. “Tell us what it was really like back then, grandpa.” All that kinda crap.

For some reason, people keep pestering me about this shit, so, despite deep misgivings about the whole enterprise (I deeply despise those who blow their own trumpets, and what follows here verges dangerously close, and perhaps squarely into, that dark and dirty terrain), here’s another surfing adventure story from Hawaii, back in the early 70’s. There’s bunches more, but I dunno. Did I mention that I’m none too fond of those who blow their own trumpets? Whatever.

This story was told in much reduced form, in the forum on 16streets.com, back in 2006, but there’s probably not too many people out there who may have read the tale back then, so I’m gonna go ahead and tell it once again, in a bit more detailed fashion. Also, the twist at the end was not mentioned previously, so that’s gonna come as brand new stuff, except to perhaps those I’ve told this story to, face to face, who might remember that little wildly-improbable bit, right at the very end.

Ok, Waimea Bay.

Biggest day I ever rode it.

Winter of 1973/74. No precise recollection of which month it might have been, although another principal actor in some of my adventures and misadventures had yet to be released from prison in Florida and arrive on Oahu, so I’m guessing it was November or December of 1973, but I could be a little off with that assessment. No big deal, either way.

At that time, I was staying on the property at Myrtle Kaapu’s, over on the Windward Side in Punalu’u, living literally in an authentic Hawaiian grass shack (pretty Spartan accommodations, actually, and not exactly what most people imagine such a living arrangement might really be like), with a guy who was a pretty good friend at the time, Billy Amell. He was the guy who gave me my original invite to The Islands, in fact. Place to stay included. At Myrtle’s. Hopped off the plane and took my first breath of Hawaiian air on October third, 1972. So it’s a little over a year later, and I’d bounced around, living in different places, including the bunker described in my two-wave hold-down story (which also occurred at Waimea), but now we were back again, right where we had started from, at Myrtle’s.

The previous winter, my first, was a strong El Niño year, and Waimea broke early and it broke often.

In addition, that very same year, by purest blind chance, Noll and a lot of the rest of those other hairy-chested members of the early big-wave vanguard had more or less said, “Fuckit,” and were occupying themselves elsewhere.

That year also, Peter Townend and all the rest of the “Bronzed Aussies” (these guys were, for the most part, not nice people, and instead tended toward obnoxious pushiness at all times) had successfully taken the focus of commercial surfing (magazines, clothing, surf movies, contests, all the rest of that evil fucking shit) away from big waves and placed it as close to the camera lenses as possible (where it remains, by and large, to this very day) in the shorebreaks of Pipeline, Backdoor and Off the Wall. Interest in big-wave surfing had faded, and the masses obediently did as they were told, swarmed down to “Kodak Reef,” and all of a sudden places like Sunset Beach and Waimea became passé, and the effect at Waimea was so pronounced that Billy and I took to calling the place “Secret Spot” as a private little joke because so few people were surfing it.

Imagine that.

They were calling Waimea Fucking Bay, “Secret Spot.”

Whodda thunk it?

I got to ride a LOT of waves at The Bay that first winter. Way more than I deserved or had earned, but if there’s nobody going, and I’m sitting there, well then goddamnit, I’m going, and that’s exactly the way it went down that year.

So anyway, by this time I had grown sufficiently comfortable in larger waves that I actually looked forward to those days when Waimea was breaking.

So ok. So today it was breaking. Again.

Put the boards in Billy’s shiny-new fire-engine-red VW Van, and roll on up the Kam Highway, around the bend through Kahuku, past the nightmare breaking-through-solid from a mile out there washing-machine at Sunset, and into the parking lot at Waimea Beach Park.

Not a normal day, weather-wise.

Solid deck of thick stuff up at the cirrus level. Gray, but not the hatefully oppressive low gray of a “marine layer” day in San Diego (or anywhere else between Seattle and Baja, for that matter). High gray. Airy almost.

Wind was light, as opposed to its usual habit of roaring along at twenty-five knots, tradewind style.

And it was straight offshore, as opposed to its usual habit of being near-sideshore.

Boards out of the van, across that marvelous soft green grass, over to the beach we go.

And just the thought of it, just the simple act of writing these words, and I feel the onset of that tension that builds up inside when I’m getting ready to enter the water on a day when Things Matter, and mistakes might get punished with extreme severity.

Adrenaline. Funny stuff, adrenaline. But not “ha ha” funny. No. Not “ha ha” funny at all.

It’s big and it’s just as clean as a whistle. Ruler-edged. Cleanest I ever surfed it, in fact. Which is good, because it’s BIG, and that’s more than enough to deal with all by itself, without introducing any further complications of chop, warble, disorganization, or excessive wind.

No, we’ve got our hands quite full enough with what we’ve got already, thank you very much.

With that thick deck of cirrostratus overhead, the color of the water was green instead of blue. Clear and transparent, but a deep and sinister green at the same time. Its sinister aspect caught my attention, which, I’m sure, is why I remember it so well and am taking the time to mention it now.

Bad light. No contrast. Crummy day for photographers. Of which there were exactly zero to be seen, anywhere.

Hardly anybody around at all, actually. Nobody on the beach. No cars pulled over on the highway.

Out in the lineup, maybe three or four guys, no more.

So ok, so let’s go surf Secret Spot on a big day.

Once you’re in it, your focus shifts to the task at hand, and everything else sort of gets blanked out. You need all the help you can get when you’re surfing large waves, and extraneous thoughts and distractions are of no help at all. So your mind kind of goes on lockdown, and that which pertains to the business at hand gets strongly enhanced even as everything else gets more or less erased. Your attention is placed on the horizon, and on the marks you use to line yourself up with, and very little else, except for when you’re actually going after a wave. It’s a constant business of evaluation and reevaluation and it goes on without end, and it completely absorbs you for the duration.

I literally do not remember seeing anyone else catch a wave that day. Paddling back out after a ride, you’d think that sort of thing would come with the territory, but nope. Not there.

What I do remember is the drops. Not that there were all that many of them, mind you. On days like that, you’re playing a very cagey game with the waves, making damn good and sure you never EVER find yourself getting in front of one of them the wrong way. So you sit outside, and you sit patiently, and you wait for the bigger ones that show up every so often, and you don’t go doing stupid shit like making takeoff runs at waves that you might not be able to get into properly, only to turn around and see that the one behind the one you missed, the next one, is not only bigger, but that it’s breaking, and you’re sitting directly in front of it, at point blank range, unable to escape what’s coming.

No.

No. You don’t do that. Never do that, ok? Not on a big day, ok?

So what happens is that despite the fact that there’s only four people surfing, your wave count remains surprisingly low compared to what some people might think or expect.

And on this day I was as focused as I can ever get, and I wasn’t in a hurry, and I didn’t have anything to prove to anybody, and I kept my fucking wits about me, and I never had a problem with being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the whole day.

Which also means I didn’t catch a whole lot of waves.

But I caught enough.

Of that, there can be no doubt. I caught plenty enough waves that day.

One, in particular, stands out in my memory, and we’ll use it as the example for this story.

Usually, on more “normal” sized days, Waimea comes in fat and low from the outside, not standing up, not looking particularly large or threatening, and then suddenly the whole goddamned thing caves in, all at once, and it’s pass-or-fail time, right now! Usually. But once in a while it will start standing up out there, a good ways off toward the horizon, deep, dark, lined-out, letting you know it’s on its way, and it’s not here to fuck around this time, it’s playing for keeps.

Which is what this one was doing.

It was letting me know, long-range, what it was up to.

I literally have no recollection of anyone else in the water as this set approached, but there had to be somebody, somewhere. I suppose. But my focus was elsewhere, and that end of things did not get recorded.

When a wave stands up outside, at a place where you generally do not expect to see that happen, it tends to get your full attention.

But at least there are no other people to have to consider, and the mechanics of moving to the exact right spot to properly connect with, and give myself over to, the oncoming Silky Green Menace, is straightforward, and I’m up to the task this time.

Paddle, observe, measure, judge, swing the board around, drop your chin to the deck, and then butterfly-stroke like your life depends on it.

Which it might, actually.

Despite the fact that it came in already standing up, it still does that Waimea “thing” on takeoff where the bottom drops out from underneath you at the exact worst possible time.

And time itself doesn’t quite stop, but it comes pretty close to doing so for a little while.

As you’re stroking furiously toward the beach with every fiber of every muscle, you can feel the lift from beneath and behind, and you can also feel the rotation, as the nose of your board goes from being directly level in front of you to being somewhere forward and unpleasantly down below you. Much too far below you for comfort, in fact, but by now it’s too late to do anything about it except to dig even harder, hastening your imminent rendezvous with fate as much as possible, despite every neuron in your brain screaming in panic, telling you to STOP! STOP! FOR GOD SAKES, STOP!! WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?!?

As this rotation is occurring, in the space of a second or maybe two, you can also feel yourself accelerating, but for the moment, that end of things is perfectly manageable.

Ahead of you the water has begun falling away as it always must at Waimea, dropping out from beneath you, turning a much darker shade of green as it does so. Your viewing angle of the, thankfully, velvety-smooth surface of the water goes from near-parallel to near-perpendicular in much less time than you’d prefer. Much, MUCH less time.

Things now occur in fragments of seconds. Things start happening really fast, despite the fact that you’re dealing with a mass of water the size of an apartment building, that appears to lumber along in slow-motion when viewed from anywhere else except for directly upon its forward surface.

You’re committed, but it looks like you got into it early enough to maybe, possibly, pull this one off.

And your last stroke is taken, and your hands are palm-down on the deck of the board, and you’re pushing away, and your dilated pupils are taking in a sight that at once fills you with wonder, dread, excitement, terror, and a delicious anticipation that is completely uncommunicateable to all except those who do not need to have it communicated to them, because they too have already experienced it.

You feel like you’ve got lightning in your veins.

You actually have lightning in your veins.

You are perched upon the top of a rampart, master of the prospect arrayed all before and below you.

Beneath you, an impossible slope, becoming more and more impossible with the passage of each slowly-ticking, drifting, sluggish tenth of a second.

In the far distance, the beach abides, verdant, tropical, languid, inviting, unreachable.

Directly ahead in the middle distance, down below, a marvelously flat playing field composed of the smoothest water, arranged like a well-ironed tablecloth at a state dinner for the rich and powerful, without the least wrinkle, crease, or flaw, begging you to come skim across it without effort, without care.

Off to the side, a good ways out there ahead of you to your right, perhaps the small speck of a fellow human or two, safely out of harm’s way, paddling back to the place you are departing from, giving proper scale to the immensity of the energy field you find yourself immersed in. The wall of your wave extends far beyond them, but it will not break over there. Not this time. Not this wave.

Your feet are now compacted beneath you in a deep crouch as your hands quit the board and take their places on either side of you.

All attention, all life, thereupon goes into a sort of exaggerated tunnel-vision and there is nothing in the entire universe except for you and your surfboard. Your surfboard is life, and in order to stay alive, you must stay upon it.

But the wave has other ideas, and it is a much greater thing than you are.

You are now dancing with the devil himself, and the devil is trying to trip you.

If you fall, the devil will take you.

The rail. The goddamned motherfucking rail! Please let me put this rail where it needs to be placed. With a surgeon’s precise touch, in less time than it takes to inhale a breath, while being tossed through the air by an ocean liner.

Another tenth of a second has drifted by, and through your adrenaline-fueled haze of terror and primal alarm, you can see that what was once a slope has now become a precipice, and is continuing rapidly toward becoming first a perfectly vertical wall, and then after that, going beyond vertical, on its way to becoming an enormous canopy that cannot remain above you, but must, instead, come crushing down upon you.

You MUST make this drop before any of that that can be allowed to happen.

Very dark green. And very smooth, too.

A small piece of your brain detaches itself from the rest, calmly makes that observation, and files it away for a future time that may, or may not, ever come.

The board cannot be allowed to fall down the face of the wave with too flat of an aspect relative to the surface of the water, but neither can it be allowed to fall too much on edge.

Too flat, and the area in contact with the water may very well be enough to provide just barely enough drag to impede things to the point where you’ll never make it down to the bottom in time and will instead take the full force of that falling canopy in a direct blow, down at the bottom of the wave. This is your worst fear, and the results of such an outcome are unthinkable. And even if that does not happen, a board too much in contact with the wave, at the wrong time, will want to pearl at some point along the way going down, pitchpoling you into a skipping, skidding, tumbling disaster that may also bring you into direct violent contact with the falling lip of the wave, down at the bottom.

Too much on edge, and you run the risk of becoming separated from the board in a way that will preclude your ever landing back down on top of it with enough control to continue on your way.

So, without any conscious thought about it at all, you find yourself pushing the lead rail down, angling the board over toward, but not too far toward, a rail-down orientation.

While all of this is going on (this really IS one hell of a long tenth of a second), you’ve traveled perhaps a quarter of the way down the face of the precipice, by which time the water has fallen away beneath you to a point where you, the surfboard, and the surface of the water are now all traveling in slightly different directions, at slightly different velocities.

The water separates from beneath the board, even as the board separates from beneath your feet.

And, for a shattered fragment of time, you find yourself fully extended, complete with arms stretched to their maximum, legs the same, and even your feet reach downward as far as possible, tips of your toes just barely brushing the deck of the board, and the board itself is fluttering away from the water, with maybe just an inch of the fin still making sensible contact with the water, maybe nothing at all making contact.

And that moment implants itself into your brain as if it was placed there with a branding iron. You are in the grim shadow of this great dark living presence, all alone, completely and irrevocably beyond the reach of hope or help, and you belong to it, you are submitted to it, you will go where it wishes you go, you will suffer what it wishes you suffer.

Time is now traveling at its slowest. Adrenaline and terror are surging at their highest. And you dangle there for a moment or two, not knowing. Not knowing what’s coming next. Not knowing if you’ll see the morrow or not.

It’s dark. It’s dark all around. The detached piece of your brain continues to calmly observe and record.

And then the rail of the board reconnects with the water, even as your feet reconnect with the board.

And these things happen in the most beautiful and gratifying way possible.

There is no lurch, there is no jolt. The water is silky smooth and the board reengages with it quickly, almost effortlessly, transitioning from freefall to powered flight, seamlessly.

Suddenly there is the recommencement of that marvelous feeling which regaining control in a truly dangerous situation gives you.

It’s still high tide on the shores of the Adrenaline Sea, but the terror has suddenly been transformed into exultation. And it’s at this moment when you realize why you do this sort of thing to yourself. Again.

The sheer cliff has gone back to being a somewhat manageable slope. Still steep, but manageable. And your feet are firmly pushed down into the wax on the deck of the board, and you’re no longer extended to the point of not being able to extend so much as another millimeter, and you’ve regained your proper stance, and now you’re down near the bottom of the wave, hurtling forward at breakneck speed, easing your lead rail down once again, but this time you’re sure-footed about things, and the resulting bottom turn does exactly what it’s supposed to do, and your trajectory redirects at high velocity toward the safety of the channel.

Just behind you, whisker close, the wave explodes in a spasm of unchecked fury, the like of which would bring down the stone walls of a castle.

But you are not to be found inside that castle, and have nothing more to fear at this point.

The pent up tension and energy unwinds and releases, almost as quickly as it was originally wound up in the first place.

The wave hits the deep water, fattens and flattens, and your velocity begins to come back down as you nose the board into the channel, up, and then over and behind what remains of the wave you just rode.

Down prone on the deck of the board once again, swing dip stroke, smooth, easy, deliberately, headed back to where you came from, vibrating with energy and adrenaline, in a state which those who have not experienced it for themselves will never properly understand.

Back outside, I paddled past one of the two or three other people who were in the lineup that day, and the guy gave me real funny look, and said “That was a pretty big one.” I agreed and smiled, and continued on, returning back to my chosen lineup.

I mean, when you really think about it, there’s not much else you can say about a thing like that, is there?

So yeah, that’s what it was like, ok?

Or at least for me that’s what it was like.

Other people will have other thoughts on the matter.

Please forgive my inability to communicate this any better than I have. I’m doing the best I can, but the best I can is vastly insufficient for the task.

But this particular day had more in store, and what followed is just one of those uncanny things that you take note of, realize you’ll never understand the least of it, shrug your shoulders, and go on about your life.

We rode for hours.

Nobody else ever did show up.

Secret Spot.

Finally, I decided that I was done, and rode one in.

No problem.

Into the corner of the bay over by the bell tower where it’s smallest, time things a bit, slide right in on the back of the surge as it hissed up the sandy slope, jump off in waist-deep water, plant the feet, grab the board, hippity hop, and I’m on dry land once again.

This all went down in the days before cords.

Never fell once, the whole day.

Made every wave.

I had danced with the devil, and danced close, in tight embrace, but the devil did not succeed in tripping me.

I did not fall, and the devil did not take me.

It was a good day, no doubt about it.

Billy was still outside, but soon enough he was done, too.

So there I am, standing at the edge of the water, board under my arm, and Billy comes in.

At which point things began to go very wrong.

I wasn’t really paying proper attention, but in pretty short order I became aware that Billy no longer had his board, was still in the shorebreak, and wasn’t having the easiest time of things getting to the beach.

And from there, things began stepping up, notch by inexorable notch.

The swell angle this day was such that the rip was none too bad right at the water’s edge. Just an easy slow movement of water from the bell tower side toward the diving rock side.

The diving rock is a house-sized block of basalt that sits directly in the shorebreak, over next to the rocks that define that side of the bay.

The way things work is that the opposite side of the bay, over by the bell tower, is where the very least wave energy makes it to the sand. Which is why this is the side of the bay where people enter and exit the water when they’re surfing. As you head toward the diving rock, things become more and more exposed, and the shorebreak becomes larger and larger, and consequently more and more violent.

Which is not to say that the shorebreak over on the bell tower side isn’t violent, because it is. It’s plenty violent over there. Fucking thing will take your goddamned head off if you give it half a chance to.

But as you head toward the diving rock, things become worse and worse, ok?

Keep that in mind.

So here I stand, watching Billy, over on the bell tower end of the beach, as he’s trying to time things so as he can swim in and get the hell out of there in one piece.

But it’s not working.

Each time he makes an attempt to use a wave to wash him upslope to where he can plant his feet properly, getting the holy shit beat out of him in the process, the water overpowers him and drags him right back downslope into the ongoing vortex of continued beatings.

Waimea shorebreak. On a pretty fair-sized fucking day.

Go google Waimea shorebreak, maybe. Get a look at some of those pictures. If you’ve never been IN it, you can’t possibly understand what it’s like, but it’s better than nothing, right?

At first, it was ok.

We’re healthy enough to ride this kind of surf in the first place, so a protracted beating in the shorebreak is no big deal. Funny even. “Take that, you dumb haole motherfucker, you!”

But this one was going on for an awful long time, and for whatever personal reasons, Billy wasn’t of a mind to swim out past where it was breaking, rest for a while, maybe do a half-lap around the inside of the bay, and then come back in all the way over on the bell tower end of things and give it another go.

He stayed close in, and he kept on getting the living hell beat out of him.

And while that was going on, the water, as water will, slowly, surreptitiously, kept easing him toward the opposite side of the bay, and I'm staying on the sand right with him, moving at a slow walking speed, headed toward the diving rock.

The devil had danced with me, and had not gotten what he wanted. So he turned his gaze directly toward Billy.

It was now Billy's turn to dance with the devil.

He was now past the middle of the bay, continuing to creep toward the diving rock, and continuing to refuse to back away, when the lifeguard, who I’m sure had been watching things like a hawk the whole time, decided that it was time for him to get involved.

And, as it just so happened, the lifeguard at Waimea that day was Eddie Aikau.

Yep. Eddie. Eddie Fucking Aikau.

So now it’s the three of us. Me, Billy, and Eddie.

Eddie comes down out of his tower with a rescue float on a line in one hand, and a bullhorn in the other.

Stands at the edge of the water for a while, and sizes up the situation.

The first measure that he took was to try and throw Billy the float.

BOOOOMMMHISSSSSSHHHHH, and here comes Billy upslope, tumbling around like a ragdoll, and Eddie throws the float. Which Billy never succeeds in being close enough to get to, to actually grab, and instead gets sucked right back out again, for yet another uber-violent thrashing in that horrific shorebreak.

Waimea’s a funny place in that regards. Everything looks smaller than it really is. The wave. The shorebreak. Hell, the whole goddamned bay itself. Everything looks small and manageable.

Until you find yourself dealing with it one-on-one, directly, at which point it takes off its mask and assumes its real aspect, which is much larger and much more violent than you thought it was, even though you already thought it was plenty large and violent enough in the first place.

Very strange how that works, and I have no idea how it works, but you’ll hear similar words from just about everybody who’s ever gone toe to toe with the place on a for-real day.

So let us not begrudge Billy, nor Eddie, for the failed attempts with the float, ok?

Waimea had taken off its mask, and they were dealing with the real thing, up close and personal.

And by now, things are beginning to get really ugly, with Billy rapidly closing in on certain death, dashed to a bloody pulp against the unyielding black basalt of the goddamned diving rock.

Fuck that shit. Fuck. That. Shit.

So Eddie puts down the float, picks up the bullhorn, and begins roaring at Billy to “Go out, go back outside. Swim away from the beach.”

At which point another peculiarity of Waimea reared its ugly head.

The sound it makes.

Or, more to the point, the volume of the sound it makes.

You’re standing right there, right next to it, and you can certainly hear it plenty good, and plenty loud, but for some strange reason, the volume of the sound fails to properly register. Don’t really seem that loud. Not like a jet taking off, or anything like that. Not at all. Not even a little bit, in fact.

I have experienced this for myself a few times, and it’s really quite strange.

The roar produced by the water is so goddamned loud that it has the power to completely mask and eliminate other sounds, including things like fully set up surf contest venues or guys beating on bass drums just around a corner fifty feet away from you.

Just completely erases other sounds.

Overwhelms ‘em and wipes ‘em out.

And so when Billy saw Eddie get on his bullhorn, from right fucking in front of him, his ears were unable to give him what Eddie was trying to get through to him, and instead he surmised that if Eddie was right there in front of him with a bullhorn, shouting some damned unintelligible thing or other with obvious urgency, then clearly the sense of the thing was that whatever it was that was coming was going to be even worse, so I guess he’s telling me to swim in, and get out of the water.

Perfectly reasonable, and perfectly wrong.

And so I find myself staring in horror as Billy closes in with the diving rock, Eddie going batshit crazy on the bullhorn, and I can almost reach out and fucking TOUCH Billy, but not quite, and I have no power, I have no hope, I have no way of affecting the dreadful outcome of what must surely be getting ready to go down.

It is not a good feeling.

You’re watching it from very close range, and you have no power to change the outcome.

I would not wish this feeling on my worst enemy.

It is an awful feeling.

A set caps over in the fucking middle of the goddamned bay.

Yeah, it was THAT big, that day. I told you it was big, didn’t I?

And then, for no fucking reason whatsoever, all of a sudden, Billy gets coughed up on the sand intact, Eddie puts away the gear and goes back to his tower without a word, me and Billy go back to his van, stow the boards, get in, turn on the radio, and the following song, at the exact place I’ve set it to start in the link, comes on, full volume.

The link.

I dunno.

You tell me.

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