My View from the Lip: Six Months of Surf and Self-reflection on the Nicaraguan Pacific

Note: this is an unusually long post, as it covers a six-month period in one place. And, while this post focuses on our surfing experience, it runs simultaneously with the more general piece about our lives as hotel managers at Buena Vista Surf Club during the same period.

Back in my teens my best friend Nick was a surfer. I would accompany him on yearly trips to Cornwall, in the southwest corner of England, seven hours’ drive from our homes in Essex. We would wade into the North Atlantic, in the springtime when the water was still cold from the winter months. From there we gazed over the choppy, grey water that stretched all the way to North America.

When I first saw the Pacific a few years later, the horizon looked the same, but knowing that the Pacific Ocean was even wider than the Atlantic somehow made it more astounding. I tried to imagine the expanse of water between me and whatever country was on the other side: Japan? China? Polynesia? Those names didn’t just mean distant countries, they were the other side of the world.

The Pacific is over twice the size of the Atlantic. It covers almost half the world’s ocean area. Weather systems form over its waters and, from as far away as New Zealand, push swells in a northeasterly direction towards the Central American coast. They can travel perhaps 10,000 kilometres before they break a few metres from the beach below the hotel where we volunteered for six months from October 2014.

By the time I arrived at Buena Vista Surf Club I was supposed to be ready to teach surfing to guests. Although I was only expected to teach beginners, I could barely surf at that time. I felt like a fraud. I hadn’t actually lied to our employers in the interview but I probably gave them an inflated impression of my ability in the water. I told them, “I’ve surfed a lot but I wouldn’t call myself a good surfer”. That was true, I had clocked-up some hours in the waves since that first trip in 1997. There had been three week-long trips to Cornwall, followed by two months living in La Jolla in Southern California in my early twenties, again with my old buddy Nick. That, plus the odd day-trip over the years, had amounted to something like 50 sessions in the water. It may sound like a lot but the reality was that I could barely stand up, and almost all of my practicing was over twelve years behind me. Now I had six months ahead of me, acting as a surf instructor while simultaneously teaching myself how to do it.

After six months, I wanted to return home with the confidence to call myself a good surfer, someone who could rip on the water in many different types of waves and conditions. I wanted to be a good teacher too, who people would name years later as the guy that introduced them to the magic of surfing. And I wanted my development to have a larger effect on me and my world – to extract all the spiritual, psychological and physiological value I could from this sport that is so much more than just a sport. I made a journal of the experience and I’ve tried to consolidated it into some kind of sense, largely for my own sake, so that I can feel like those self-indulgent months were worth it. This is a personal tale of a guy who never made the sports teams at school, tackling the weakness of his confidence, stamina and agility; sculpting a new, stronger person out of himself from one little victory at a time at the summits of a thousand waves. This is my view, from The Lip.

Getting on My Feet

Buena Vista Surf Club was built above Playa Maderas, on the west coast – the Pacific coast – about eight kilometres north of the increasingly popular surf town of San Juan Del Sur, in the Rivas province of Nicaragua. The coastal region there is a thin isthmus of land between Lake Nicaragua and the ocean. The lake is so big it has a major effect on the local climate, causing air to blow from the lake in a westward direction out to sea, handing-out an offshore breeze all day, perhaps three hundred days of the year. This is a surfer’s dream, as an offshore wind will hold the incoming waves up like sails, making them break slower, taller and with less chop. In most parts of the world, the wind only blows offshore in the mornings and infrequent other occasions. Not in Rivas.

Zooming-in on Playa Maderas, sandwiched between Lake Nicaragua and the Ocean

Zooming-in on Playa Maderas, sandwiched between Lake Nicaragua and the Ocean

The break at Maderas got crowded in the middle of the day. It was tolerable if you were confident but could be scary if you were not. We didn’t feel any territorial aggression from the locals, they just wouldn’t hesitate to drop-in on your wave and steal it from you. In any case, many of the surfers drove to the area from San Juan each day, leaving the early mornings and late afternoons clear for us locals and seasonaires to play in quieter water. At dawn, the light rose from the shore side, casting rainbows in the spray that arced off the top of the waves as they crashed into the incoming breeze. At the opposite end of the day, the sun set out on the water. It fell behind silhouettes of fellow surfers sitting on their boards, squinting into the reddening light, waiting for the next big set of waves to roll in and crash over them. As the sun flashed its final colours, the sky became a painting and the water was a smooth, sloshing spectrum, like an oil slick.

Sunset over the iconic Shark's Fin rock at Playa Maderas

Sunset over the iconic Shark’s Fin rock at Playa Maderas

I don’t clearly remember the first time I tried the surf at Playa Maderas. Weeks later, after we had developed a life-long friendship, my colleague James recalled that I had paddled straight out into the largest waves and gone for everything that came along. He said, “I figured you were either stupid or crazy”. I got trounced.  I doubt I caught any waves that day but my journey had begun.

In those early days I also stood-in on a couple of surf lessons given by James and one of the hotel owners, Marc. The lesson script and structure was exactly what I had expected, having familiarised myself with teaching from around the world via YouTube. So I quickly volunteered to run my own lesson and it went smoothly.

At Buena Vista we had a good “quiver” of boards for guests to choose from, with a bunch of nine-foot longboards at one end, shrinking down to a six-foot board at the other. Then out the back we had another bunch of boards that were generally past their best. They included longboards too but didn’t offer much in the shortboard range, with the smallest being a 7’0″. That set of reserve boards out the back was ours to play with as we liked. Since it’s generally easier to learn on a big, bouyant board, my aim was to work my way down through the sizes. I started out on a 7’10”. At the time it felt clunky and embarrassing.

After a couple of weeks I upgraded myself to a 7’2” that I never really got comfortable on. It was essentially still a “fun board” shape, being more rounded and buoyant than the classic modern shortboard shape. I couldn’t get it to do anything but go in a straight line. At least I had moved one step further. At the time, the numbers meant so much to me, every inch counted. I would eventually learn that the size of the board means little, it’s all about making the most of what you’ve got that day. Or, as the old Phil Edwards quote goes:

“The best surfer out there is the one having the most fun.”

Eventually I took the 7’0” for a spin, then stayed on it for much of the remaining couple of months. It was a funky looking board, having gone a dirty yellow colour in the sun over the years and started to crumble around the edges. It had a long, sharp nose that curved upwards greatly. I didn’t feel cool walking about with it but at least I could convince myself that I rode a shortboard at last. Marc reassured me, calling it, “a cross between a tall man’s shortboard and a gun”. A gun is a long, pointy board for tackling big waves. I think the name works like, “bring out the big guns”. So it was for big guys and big waves. Well, I’m a tall man, so I figured this one could be my all-rounder.

Hustle with surfboard

Our beloved Hustle, with my beloved 7’0″

I taught a couple of lessons a week to guests that were new to surfing. I quickly got confident with my instruction, after realising that I did not have to be a good demonstrator, just a good teacher. I would never have guessed before I left home that the teaching would be the easy part. Handling many different personalities and sea conditions, my senses grew more finely tuned to my students. If I felt nerves from them, I would make jokes and talk them round until they were smiling and uncaring. If I sensed distraction, or complacency, or doubt, I would adjust my communication style to compensate. The peak moments of fulfilment were on the occasions that I was able to watch what my student was doing and spot the one tiny change that was needed to get them confidently on their feet. Everybody yelps with joy on that first ride.

Our six months at Buena Vista started in late October, just as the Rainy Season and the bigger wave swells were dying off. Swell Season typically runs simultaneously with the rain, from about April to November. This suited us fine, we weren’t chasing epic surf, we just wanted to learn. Often the waves would be so small and powerless that a longboard was the obvious choice. On those days I was able to stop worrying about feet-and-inches for a while and remind myself how much fun surfing could be. Longboards are much easier to catch waves on, they just don’t offer the manoeuvrability of shorter, more shapely designs. They’re not better or worse, just a different style of surfing. I could sit on my favourite red longboard, further out to sea than all the shortboarders, and paddle into waves much earlier. It felt like I was at the wheel of a big red bus, parked outside a busy playground with the engine revving. Then when I got moving there was no stopping me, the shortboard kids had to scatter. My confidence needed those days.

The Myth of Surfing Zen

Surfing is supposed to have this spiritual, Zen side where, I dunno, the surfer feels connected with the sublime and indifferent majesty of the wild sea. And it’s supposed to be cool, gliding with composure through the sunlit glass. Those virtues exist, I’ve felt them. Briefly. But what they don’t tell you is that it’s mostly just frustrating and occasionally scary. I can snowboard. I’m no expert but I’ve experienced a lot of time on the mountain, making thousands of turns. A single ski or snowboard run could last as long as twenty minutes. You get time to fine-tune your style. But out in the waves, the hills are moving and unpredictable. They roll towards you and they pass you by regardless of your desires. They don’t give a shit.

Unlike any other sport I’ve tried, it takes ages to become a good surfer. Years. Of course some people take to it well (I’m not one of them) but any way you cut it it’s a slow learning path. After my first few weeks at Playa Maderas, remembering the sensation, from a decade earlier in California, of being swallowed by the Pacific every few minutes, I improved slightly, along a bumpy curve. Then I hit a plateau for about a month. I tried to be spiritual about it, I tried to be Zen. I tried to be patient and positive. But the impartial ocean still beat me while I was down. I didn’t tell anyone about my creeping despair as I descended, alone, to a critical point. I knew I couldn’t give up because I had another few months ahead of me pretending to be a surf teacher, but I had arrived at the question of whether or not I should bother with surfing in my future. It felt like the answer was going to be no.

Then one afternoon in February, the pall broke.

Once a week, the owners of the hotel, Marc and Marëlle, would take a work shift so one of the couples could have a full day off. It also meant that the two couples got one free shift together. When that time came around in early February, we went down to the beach after lunch with our co-workers James and Ciara. It was right on low tide, when the waves tended to “close out”, each wave breaking all at once in a single section that is impossible to surf. Nevertheless there were always a few rideable waves among the hopeless ones. That day, it was close to the end of James and Ciara’s time at Buena Vista and a rare afternoon together. So James and I left the girls on the beach and entered the water.

The waves weren’t big that day, only breaking up to about shoulder height, so we could take risks. During those close-out sessions, the waves tend to break at about the same distance from the beach, due to the steep shelf they had dredged out of the sand over the course of the years. This meant that we could sit out back and easily paddle into any wave that came along, we didn’t have to move around much. What’s more, we were alone in the water so we could attempt a wave every few seconds. Often we would feel the wave pitching up into a single, simultaneous barrel, knowing that there was nowhere to go, but take it anyway, putting in one big bottom turn before diving back off the wave as it crashed over the board. It turned out to be a really good session – fast, furious and funny.

Up to that point, I had been in a pattern of daily frustration in the water. Now that pattern was being disrupted by this new type of surfing. For an hour or so, everything felt pure. James and I were kids in the playground, hurling ourselves at every chance to crash or fly. We laughed and cheered for each other. And as we paddled about, chasing every potential opening in the oncoming waves, Nature treated us to an unforgettable spectacle. Perhaps two hundred pelicans were gliding in low, tight circles just above our heads. Every couple of seconds one would tuck its wings and dive at the water, crashing through the surface with a loud smack. They were so close we had to wonder if we would get skewered but there was no way we were going to leave the show. It was breathtaking. I needed it. I needed that session so badly but I had been too distracted with frustration to know that I did. All it took was a break in the vicious cycle of self-criticism, one little moment to remind me how to shake off the past and move forward.

While we were out there in the water that day, I told James what had been going on in my head over the previous few weeks. I might have given up on surfing forever before that day. Now I was back. Stoked, that’s the word they use for it, and it’s the right one. The fire in my belly had been stoked and after that day, until we moved on at the end of April, no drenching wave could extinguish it. I had enough drive to fuel that fire every day until it became a rolling, self-propelled furnace, burning like the sun and compelling me to the water like a drug.

Ben with surfboard in Nicaragua

Proud, healthy and loving the surf life

The Big Waves Return

In case you start to get lost in the following paragraphs, here’s a glossary of surfing vocabulary.

We had it easy working at Buena Vista Surf Club but we had enough new challenges that we grew in unexpected ways. Once, a maid took a bottle of rum that belonged to us so I had to confront her about it. It’s issues like that, involving anti-social traits like dishonesty, that I’m most sensitive to. The thought of that little confrontation was enough to distract me with anxiety, I felt slightly nauseous. Then, in a quiet moment alone, as I imagined how I would have to speak to the maid when I next saw her, my mental imagery of the scene was engulfed by the shadow of something looming into my vision: a wall. A dark green, almost black, wall, slowly rising and approaching. It was the image of a big wave with a lip that ran horizontally as far as I could see in either direction. A flat shape like that is a clear signal that a wave isn’t going to peel left or right, it will just close out along its whole length. There’s nowhere to go in that situation, you can’t surf the wave, you just have to hope you have time to paddle over or under it.

By that time I had experienced paddling out through a few close-outs that were well over head height. Lying on my board looking up, they seemed huge. The first time I saw one bearing down on me was back in February when the first big swell of the year hit, a few days after that confidence-boosting session with James. The wave height forecast had been sitting between two and four feet since our arrival in late October. Then one day in February the forecast jumped to 4-6 feet, with a wave period of 20 seconds. Without getting into the science of it now, just know that those numbers are bigger than they sound.

When I went down to the beach that morning, I went alone. I took steady breaths through my nose, leaning on my yoga practice to keep my head calm as I walked down the track. Then I saw the Pacific. It was swollen. On big days like that the waves push so much water into the bay that the tide level becomes abnormally high with frothy, sloshing foam. There were far less surfers out than normal, and they all looked experienced. Some of the family that ran our favourite taco shack were standing by the bar, gazing into the water. They saw me with my board and told me to be careful. I said, “tengo miedo” (I’m scared), giving them a resigned shrug and a grin.

I stood at the water’s edge, planning to watch the waves for a while and figure-out how best to get to the line-up. But just as I got there it looked like a wave set was ending and a brief lull was starting. No point hesitating. I strapped my leash to my ankle and jogged out into the foam. The receding current made it quick and easy to paddle to the back, where I found our friend and neighbour, Duña. She was sitting on her board, looking calm and happy. It was the first time I’d seen Duña in the waves, as I guess she had been waiting for the annual swells to come back. She was a very good surfer, having won titles in the past, and she was a relief to find out there. I stuck close to her and made small talk.

Duña and I sat there, bobbing on the smaller waves that passed underneath our boards. Then a larger wave approached, maybe about head-height. In my experience to that point, that would have been the “set wave”, the biggest and best of the set, before another lull. But it looked like a bigger one was behind it. I squinted, trying to judge what was coming, then I looked back at Duña to see what she thought. She was already lying down and digging through the water towards me, headed away from the shore, fast. She nodded and said something like, “Yep, it’s big”. I laid down and started to paddle, being overtaken by Duña before I could get to my best speed.

Reaching the top of the first wave, I finally got a look at what was behind it. No doubt now. It was big, and it had no shape to it, just a horizontal crest that ran for hundreds of metres to either side: a close-out. I paddled as fast as I could towards it, hoping that I would make it over the top, confident that I would. But I started to doubt myself as I began to realise how much further away the wave was than I had first thought. That meant it must have been deceptively big, bigger than I was used to. To me it was a terrifying size. It slowly rose up and got steeper. I should have reached it already but it was still a few metres away. Then a loud voice in my head said, “I’m not going to make it. Oh shit, I’m not going to make it”.

The nose of my board began to lift as I climbed up the face of the wave. It was a vertical climb, like a boat in a movie mega-storm. All I could do was hope that I could duck through the lip of the wave and pop out the other side when it lurched into its final crash. I reached the lip just as it started to break, feeling like my board would go beyond vertical and I would fall backwards from it. So I threw my board to the side and took a couple of breast strokes, swimming right through the top of the wave and emerging in the safe air behind it. I made it, just. But my board was now loose behind me so the wave took it “over the falls”. When the board reached the end of the leash that was attached to my ankle, it dragged me backwards under the surface. I gulped to grab some air and swam hard against the pull.

After a few seconds below the water I felt the force on my ankle easing so I hauled the board back to me. I climbed on as quickly as I could and began paddling out again, now looking at the next wall of water approaching. It was slightly bigger than the last one. I would have made it through if the previous wave hadn’t dragged me back. Instead, I did exactly the same thing as before, ditching my board and getting pulled under. Then again with the next wave, each time compounding a rising sense of panic and exhaustion.

By the time the fourth wave came, now larger still, I had fought for just enough ground that I guessed I would make it over. Even if I was dragged back a little, I didn’t expect the dreaded “hold-down” this time. As I climbed the face of that fourth wave I had enough confidence to look back over my shoulder, to see how the rest of the surfers had handled the set. They were all strung-out between the beach and where the line-up had been. They were pounding their hands through the foaming white water, having taken the whole set on their heads. None of them were going to make that fourth wave. As I crested the wave and began to slide down the back of it, this time still on my board, I saw that there were no more coming, the set was finished. I saw Duña, the only surfer to have made it through the set comfortably. We stopped beside each other, sat up, and caught our breath.

A few decent sets came through that day, and I caught a couple of waves. Perhaps every 15 to 20 minutes, one of those big “clean-up” sets would roll in and smother anyone who was too slow. Maybe I would make it out past the set, maybe I would get stuck inside. I don’t remember any more scary moments that day. The bit I remember best was a few minutes after those first big waves, when a decent head-high set came in. Duña and I both went for the set wave but, just before the critical point when we would need to pop up on to our feet, it became obvious that Duña was in the priority position. It was her wave and I needed to pull out. But she yelled at me, “It’s yours! Go, go, it’s yours!” I thanked her out loud, then prayed silently that I wasn’t just going to fall face-first and waste “her” wave. I didn’t. I popped to my feet and, for the first time in my life, rode off with real speed and composure. For a few moments all the drama and fear vanished and I experienced something I didn’t expect: complete silence. I glided across the smooth wave face, feeling weightless.

I knew when I left the water that day that I had raised my confidence to a new level and I would never again be afraid of waves that size. Over the coming months I would go out on bigger days, and what used to seem big soon became normal. I had grown, both in the water and out. Now, when I must confront my fears, sometimes I see that wall approaching through the air in front of me, and I know that it was once daunting but I overcame it. I mastered how to work with it. I stand taller and feel stronger for this, it’s there for when I need it.

Big Swell Week

That first big day was an early freak. The swell dropped down again for a few weeks after that. Then in mid-March I was having a drink up at Hulakai, a plush surf lodge overlooking our place. We had become friends with the owners and one of them, Jeremy, was a total surf-head. “You seen the long-range forecast?” He asked me, as he mixed me a cocktail.

“No”.

“It’s gonna be big, in about eight days, really big”.

Then a day or two later Marc told me the same thing. I checked the Magic Seaweed forecast. The free version of the app provided estimates for one week ahead. Sure enough, the last day of the forecast, next Thursday, the swell was due to jump. I had been used to numbers like 2-3 feet, with bigger days being more like 3-4. Thursday was showing 4-6. As the week crawled by with aching slowness, I checked the forecast each day. That 4-6 became 4-7, and the peak of the swell was predicted for the following day, Friday, at 5-8 feet, amplified by high wave periods of around 19 and 20 seconds.

Marc started talking about a possible boat trip to a different break, to take advantage of the approaching jump in swell size. He mentioned the legendary point break at Manzanillo, a half-hour boat ride north of us. It was a tempting idea but it was potentially expensive and I was keen see how our beach, Playa Maderas, would handle a big day. But Marc told me it might be too big for Maderas to handle. Too big? The idea had never occurred to me. Too big for Maderas but perfect for a point break in deeper water. Like Manzanillo.

Manzanillo was a left-hander so all week I tried to practice taking off to my left, my weaker side. I tried to visualise a clean take-off and good ride, hoping that the visualisation would get my mind to where it needed to be. The boat trip was planned for that Friday and the days were racing by. I felt far from ready.

Marc and I exchanged messages on our mobiles all week. The messages referred to the “freight train”, a phrase I had heard from the surf legend Jamie O’Brien, describing the kind of barrelling wave that just keeps on throwing down sections of barrel at speed, like the passing cars of a speeding train.

On Wednesday night I changed the name of my morning alarm to “CHOO CHOO”.

I doubt any surfer sleeps well before a big day. I woke at dawn on Thursday, confused by the screech of my alarm. I got up to turn it off: “CHOO CHOO”, the freight train was coming. I went to the bedroom door and poked my head out from the fly screen to check there was nobody there, then nipped out naked to grab my board shorts from the drying line. The sky was dull and the air cool. Wind heaved through the surrounding leafless forest with a dull roar, like an old ship. When I get up that early, especially when I’m nervous, the first thing I have to do is shit. Then I followed my dawn surf routine, throwing a few glasses of water down me and eating a banana stolen from the hotel kitchen. I climbed into a wetsuit top and waxed my board. I was always drowsy at this point but I knew that feeling would end the moment I hit the cold water. Or rather, the moment the water hit me.

I went out alone. The sea looked hostile. It was frothing and churning. Beyond the rocks at the southern end of the beach was the peak they called Machetes. The swell needed to be quite big for Machetes to start working. It was big now. Not yet scary big, but it was still early and the forecast had indeed said that the swell would build through the day. But already it was big enough for Machetes, which was firing off in heavy, hollow barrels that spewed white spray when they collapsed. The sun was starting to break over the headland at that end of the beach, illuminating the iconic Shark’s Fin rock over at the northern end, and turning the foam into a watercolour palette of gold and black. And all that sunlit foam had changed the water surface from glass into marble.

Sitting on my board at the line-up, out back behind the breakers, I watched a shoulder-high wave approaching. Above the top of the wave I could see another behind it, throwing craggy triangles of dark green water into the air, flickering like fire in the sky. To see it from my low perspective, it must have been big. I laid down and began paddling out to sea, over the first wave. Sometimes you get it right and are able to paddle out to catch the approaching wave, sometimes you go too far and it passes under you, breaking further in for some lucky surfer. Sometimes you underestimate, or you’re just too far inside to ever make it, or you simply don’t see it coming in time. Then you just have to “pay your dues” and take it on the head. I don’t remember if I caught that first wave, but I had a good session that day and left the water feeling pumped.

After Thursday’s good waves, it looked like Manzanillo was going to be on for the next day, on the peak of the swell. A few hotel guests were going to join us so we could also split the cost of the boat. My final message to Marc before bed that night simply read, “CHOO CHOO…”

With a constant off-shore wind and typically moderate waves, we almost never heard the break from the hotel. We could see it coming in, a couple of hundred metres away over the treetops. But we rarely heard the waves. Then, as the swell built through March, a couple of months of howling wind decayed. And with that came the sound of the waves – a slow boom every few seconds. Maeve and I woke to that sound on Friday morning. It was accompanied by a loud chorus from our local howler monkey troop, and the familiar tap, tap, tap of the hotel dogs, lazily wagging their tails in their beds as they heard us approaching. Like many other mornings, we walked barefoot onto the deck with a mug of coffee, to look out over the ocean. Clean, dark lines were visible all the way to the horizon. And nearer the shore the water was a mess, a marble wash of foam and sand. Those lines came in, marching in parallel ranks until they lifted, with creeping, predatory slowness, forming into dirty green and brown walls, before pitching themselves into the shallows. From that distant viewpoint It was hard to judge the size of the waves as they walled-up, but it could be inferred by that unusual slowness with which the white-water broke and fell.

We waded out to our charter boat from the neighbouring beach of Marsella, which was sheltered from the swell. Out at sea, the water was deceptively peaceful, just a rolling swell that passed gently under the boat. From there, we got a rare view of the coast from the ocean. It was a lush and unspoiled landscape of volcanoes draped in greenery, fronting a rugged cliff line that was skirted with leaping white spray.

Cutting inside a small island, we rounded the corner of a high cliff and entered Manzanillo bay. There the swell, over which we had been flying with ease in the boat, was now transforming into ranks of near-vertical walls as it flanked the cliff line and formed up. The smallest walls reached just above head height for a tall guy like me, and the set waves were two-and-a-half-times that.

Our group felt like we were on a quest together, working as a team. It was me, Marc and three guests. Christine stayed on the boat, happy to be a witness and photographer, and the other two joined us in the water. They were both called Max, so we renamed the young father as MaxDaddy, and the beardy one as, well, BeardyMax. Besides us, there were only at most four other people at the break so we had no competition.

We sat-out the first few sets to watch the other surfers and get a feel for how the break worked. Then Marc jumped in, and led the exodus. I was keen to break myself in quickly, I didn’t want the fear to grow. So I positioned myself close to the cliff, hoping to catch a good wave close to the shoulder. But Marc shouted at me to get out of there, knowing that I could get stuck inside by a big set and squashed against the rocks. I paddled away but kept creeping back, getting closer each time a set came, until finally I figured I was clear to go.

My wave was one of the smaller ones, but still as big as any wave I’d ever attempted, and now at an unfamiliar, famously hollow break, on my weaker left side. I pointed my board towards the shore, parallel to the cliff, and paddled hard. I felt the wall lift underneath me and looked down to see the other surfers below. I was way above them, higher than I had expected, trying to swallow my fear. I couldn’t hesitate. I popped to my feet. The board leapt forward. It was supposed to leap down and forward, not just forward. I was screwed. I rode the lip of the wave off into thin air, plummeted and landed with all that water following on top of me.

I had been attempting a relatively small wave, the first of a set. So the rest of the set was always going to follow, bigger and heavier. I turned and swam diagonally away from the cliff, not even attempting to get back on my board, just letting it drag behind me. Each wave lifted, barrelled and landed precisely on my head. The bigger waves were unlike anything I had ever seen. The difference in height of the water behind and in front of the wave was already perhaps three metres, let alone the added face of the wave itself as it sprung up, reaching about 4.5 metres above me. What’s that, 15 feet?

Each of the bigger waves held me down for several seconds and buried my board deep in the water at the end of the leash behind me, while I swam as hard as I could to keep clear of the rocks. A couple of times I looked up the face of the set wave and saw Marc dropping-in from the peak. Marc is broad-shouldered and even taller than me, and he’s a longboard lover. He got to his feet, way above me, and pointed all nine feet of his surfboard at my face, before rocketing past me and out onto the open wall of green water.

Marc surfing a big wave

Marc dropping-in on a big one

I made six attempts at waves that day before I gave up. I failed every attempt. Each time I got pitched into the water and emerged to face the rest of the set on top of me. I wanted nothing more than to get one ride, and I was getting closer each time, but after taking six sets on the head I started to feel dangerously tired. What surprised me was that it was never really scary. I had to steel myself several times, and I got rocked by powerful waves and lungs full of sea water, but it was all fun. The whole group was adrenalised and ready for it. We were stoked.

Wave of the day went to Marc, more than once, for taking the biggest ones that came. He knew the wave at Manzanillo well. It tends to peak a few metres from the cliff, where you can catch the most speed. Then there is a short section that breaks quickly, due to rocks below the surface. On a good day that section will curl into a perfect, almond-shaped barrel which you can just ride straight through without having to slow down. On our day, that section was a little mushy and unpredictable so it was good to stay low past it. Once clear though, it was just open wall the whole way. On a beach break, that wall would break, but out there in the deep water it just stays open and provides a clean surface play around on for ages.

Both Maxes had great sessions, each finding his stride until he was able to catch good rides consistently. Along with the other few local surfers, we all kept taking our turns before paddling around for another go. Then our numbers slowly dwindled. I was the first of our group to give in, paddling back to the boat full pride and joy that outweighed my frustration at not catching any good rides. Marc was the next, but not by choice. He was paddling back through a big set when he made a mistake. He rolled his board to get through one of the full-size waves, hanging underneath it in what’s called a “Turn Turtle”. But the wave broke on top of him with such power that it ripped the board from his grip and snapped his leash. The board vanished into the foam and left Marc treading water in dangerous waves.

With the help of the boat, Marc made an epic journey to collect his board. They motored to the far end of Manzanillo beach, from where Marc was able to swim to the shore and walk back along the sand all the way to our end, where he could swim into the water, retrieve his board and paddle perhaps 300m through the violent breakers to get back to the boat. He was exhausted.

BeardyMax joined us on the boat a short wile later, by which time Marc was seriously considering having another go. Then we all watched MaxDaddy, wondering when he would finally cave in. But he was having too much fun, taking one wave after another and occasionally getting caught inside. Then, on what was probably going to have been his last wave anyway, he had a big wipe-out and his leash was snapped. His board drifted away, doomed to being smashed against the rocks. Max, focused on survival over the love of his board, left it behind and swam against the oncoming set. But the set just kept rolling in, it was endless. After three or four waves we started preparing ourselves for some kind of rescue job with our boards for buoyancy. Then again, there was no easy way to get him without endangering ourselves so we just watched as he slowly won the battle. By the time he reached the boat he was not a complete human, he was pale and wide-eyed.

Max exhausted after losing his surfboard

MaxDaddy, gathering himself moments after making it back to the boat, his wedding ring adding a certain lump-in-the-throat poignancy to the moment.

Back in the rancho with our friends, every surfer cracked a beer and slouched somewhere, surrounded by people eager to hear their stories of the day. Someone put some music on. The last dregs of adrenaline buoyed the atmosphere as we bragged like returning heroes. But as the rush faded, the voices quietened until no sound remained but the music playing quietly to no-one. The high had brought an inevitable come-down. People went to their cabañas to crash. I joined my fellow co-managers. We walked down to our favourite taco shack on the beach, to present them with a hand-painted sign we had made for them out of an old surfboard. Then I hauled back up the hill, changed clothes and started my afternoon work shift in the kitchen. It was only lunchtime. Not a bad start to the day.

An Aside: the Submarine Shadow

They never tell you about the weird little details of things. No matter how much you research or prepare for a pursuit or environment, there are always nuances that you only learn from being there. One aspect of surfing that I never knew was how dark it can be when a wave passes over you. The first time I experienced this was at Manzanillo, when I dived under a big wave and let my board drag behind me. I opened my eyes to see how far under I was, and maybe get to watch the wave rolling above, but all I saw was utter blackness. I couldn’t even see my arms in front of me. I didn’t know if my eyes were open or closed, it was disorientating. Then the black faded to white, then green and the sea opened around me as the wave moved on and I naturally floated towards the surface. I’ve seen this darkness a few times since and become familiar with it, no longer scared. I have even opened my eyes before the wave hit and watched the darkness come. The body of the wave forms a cylinder that steam-rolls over everything. In its wake there follows a billowing yellow-green cloud of turbulent water which, as it envelopes you, blocks all light and rattles you like a doll.

… And the Addiction

I have a theory. I’ve heard that addictions to things like smoking and sex, and particularly to gambling, are to a significant effect fuelled by the anticipation of an occasional small buzz. And that this desire is amplified when the delivery of the stimulus is random. Gamblers keep pulling the lever of the machine, or laying down a hand of playing cards, never knowing when the thrill of victory will come. And I guess that this is the same for surfing.

You bust your ass to reach the line-up, then you sit there all day, squinting into the shimmering light, waiting for a good wave. A wave finally comes and maybe you catch it or maybe you get pummelled. Even if you catch it the ride might not go to plan. But every now and again, and never when you expect it, the conditions stack up in your favour, the fins bite, and you fly. Maybe just for one second, rarely more than ten. And then you start over again.

It’s absurd. I mean, I wonder: in his entire life so far, how long do you think Kelly Slater has spent actually standing on his board? It might be hours but I doubt it’s days. When I first wrote the notes that eventually became these words, back Nicaragua, I was probably just out of the seconds and into the minutes. I wrote,

“and for all the salt-blasted sinuses; the cuts, scratches and dings; the near-drownings and lung-fuls of seawater; for all that I still go out, feel driven to do so. I can’t help myself. I might get a great ride. I probably won’t. But I might. I can’t even relax, sitting here now while the low tide close-out waves crash unappealingly in hundred-metre-long sections in front of me, because one in twenty of them might offer a good ride. It probably won’t, but it might. I guess this is an addiction. Lucky then, that the main side-effects of this one are fitness and confidence.”

Close-Out

By late April the big swells were coming in frequently, with the daily wave report typically over four feet (1.2m). The wind that had howled since since December had blown all the heat out of the water, until it had got cold enough that we were surfing in wet suit tops or even shortie wetsuits. But in April the wind finally eased and the sea was transformed completely. The surface became glass, the waves became dark and transparent, such that you could see diving surfers and schools of fish through the building wave face. On your feet on the board, you could cut through that glass in silent, smooth arcs, without the surface chop or the spray in your face. And the water was so warm you only needed shorts for an all-day session. These were the conditions that made the locals whinge during the winter months, not bothering to enter the water due to waves that were too small and water that was too cold, too choppy. This was the beginning of Swell Season.

I had reached a level at which every surfing session was enjoyable and I was catching waves consistently. I could see an approaching hump in the middle distance and be quite sure if it was going to break near enough for me to take it. At best, I could paddle from far away, cut through a group of other surfers and get into the peak of a wave that they all misjudged, stealing it from under their noses. But once I was on my feet I could do little more than make a big turn at the base of the wave – a “bottom turn” – and get back onto the wave as it crashed around me. I still couldn’t make some basic manoeuvres that would have given me far more water to play with. At the same time, Maeve had emerged from a desperate plateau in her progress that had latest for a couple of months. Now she was having fun again, and when she had the confidence to take a wave for herself, she could fly across it.

Our time at Buena Vista was close to completion. On 27 April, we were going to shut the hotel while it got a new roof. Maeve and I were planning to be on the road the next morning. In those last few weeks I set myself the goal of performing two moves on the water. A “floater” involves riding above the lip of the wave, floating, to skip over a small section of broken wave. And a “cutback” is a turn back towards the broken part of the wave, followed quickly by snapping back again into the unbroken part. Nothing is easy in surfing but these are considered “basic” moves. They would have given me more wave to work with and longer rides. And, of course, they look cool.

In my downtime, I watched surfing videos and tried to visualise my improved ability. With such a clear mind from the simple, healthy lifestyle we had at the hotel, I was able to create a rich vision for myself. In that imagined world I drop into a clean, green wave, lift my head and look down the line ahead. Then I twist to look back at the white water behind, my arms and shoulders follow as I bend deep and my board comes around after me… I walked myself through every twist, every shift of weight until I could see, hear, feel, even smell my goal of a good ride. I could picture the nose of my board cutting through the glass, with the scrub-covered headland visible in the distance through the sparkling spray. I was there, every day, in my head. But my feet never followed me into that bliss. As the days ran down I pushed harder but I never managed to get myself setup with enough time or space even to attempt either move.

In our final week we shared the cost of a boat ride to another beach to the south called Yankees. The waves were small, clean and stayed open to give us long rides. And there was nobody else at the beach. In particular Maeve, without the stress of the crowds, was able to enjoy every minute. I experienced then something that had been missing from much of our surfing experience. As with only a handful of other times in my life, we had nothing but good surf and a bunch of friends to enjoy it with. No pretension, no competition, no bullshit. Sadly no cutbacks or floaters either, but I came closer than ever that day, zipping about on a 6’3” that seemed glued to my feet.

Maeve and I with shortboards at Playa Maderas

Maeve and I with shortboards at Playa Maderas, near the end of our time there.

On the morning of 27 April, all the guests cleared out and we had the place to ourselves at last. There would be a staff party later that day but we had time to go down to our beloved Playa Maderas for one last surf – one last dance in the maw of the mighty Pacific. The water was warm and clean, and the waves were easy-going. But the jellyfish were back, in greater numbers than we’d ever seen. Every few seconds we would drag an arm or a leg into some invisibly thin tentacle and yelp from the battery acid tingle that followed. It didn’t stop us both from getting some good rides anyway. I watched Maeve catch a great right-hander that she rode fast, all the way to the beach. At the end of her ride she joyously dived head-first from the board – straight into a cluster of jellyfish tentacles, that smothered and blistered her face. She emerged from the water grimacing, swearing and clawing at the air, before breaking into laughter. Thanks, Nature.

Now, touching-up this post for the last time, months later, half the world away in a grim Northern Irish summer, I can reflect on my surf adventure and ask myself what I got to take away from it. As with all memories, it’s hard to grasp. Sometimes I walk a little taller, with the added strength of a surfer’s physique. Sometimes I see or hear a little cue that puts me back there, back in the water, squinting into the falling Pacific sun, watching like an expectant parent for the next clean wave to greet me.

In my first week back in Belfast I found myself seated in an office, at the start of a job interview. Dressed in a shirt and hard shoes for the first time in almost a year, I shuffled awkwardly in my seat and tried to compose myself. I needed something to bring me back to a place of comfort and power, to find the inner resources I had gained from six months of pounding waves. Then, without conscious effort, I felt my chest expand, hauling deep lung-fuls of air down through my nose and calming my heart. I lifted my head and straightened my spine, rising taller in my seat, expanding to fill the larger self that I become. Then, somewhere in the the strip-lit air of the room before me, I saw a dark green wall approaching…

Sunset over the Breakers at Maderas

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  1. […] We took to our teaching jobs with surprising ease. Maeve was to lead the morning yoga and I was to teach surfing. We performed these tasks in turn with the other couple, depending on who was on duty at the time. Occasionally, groups from yoga studios in the States would book the entire hotel for a yoga retreat, bringing their own teachers and therefore not needing us to lead the sessions. Two of the first three weeks we worked there were booked-out in that way so we got to sit-in on the classes and learn from experienced yoga teachers. After that, Maeve was taking her own sessions in the mornings with rapidly growing confidence. I was soon comfortable with the surf classes and taking them on my own within a few days of starting, but the story of my surfing has its own place elsewhere. […]

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