Relive one woman’s solo surf trip from Costa Rica to California. This is Part 13 of a series featured in Santa Cruz Waves during the summer of 2016.
Rippers from all over the world were trickling into Popoyo for the ISA World Surfing Games the following weekend. I fought to catch waves in the crowded lineup as a crew constructed a massive tent on the hill in front of the break.
A good 200 yards out to sea, to the south of where I was surfing, the outer reef was beginning to wake up from its slumber. The outer reef is a premier big wave spot in Nicaragua, one of the only places capable of handing huge swell, notorious for its dangerously shallow shelf and violent beatings. Despite its notorious reputation, I desperately wanted to surf it.
One afternoon, as the tide began to fill in, one of the local surfers asked me if I was serious about surfing the outer reef. My answer was an emphatic yes. We paddled out at the main break and caught a few waves before commencing the long paddle over to the outer reef. Twenty minutes later, we reached a substantial field of boils. This was it.
We were so far out to sea, I could barely see the beach, just rugged, featureless cliffs towering above the ocean. Just one antennae marked the cliffs, offering little help as it stood solitary and off center, ambiguous and far from where we were sitting. With absolutely no bearing in this massive playing field, my only lineup markers were the boils. Wary, I hung out on the edge, near the shoulder, taking time to understand the intricacies of the wave.
One of the most important skills that I’ve learned in surfing bigger waves is patience. The waves that I don’t go for sometimes have a greater bearing on my session than the ones that I do. My first time at a new spot, with a steep and technical takeoff, not to mention a reef of real consequence, the last thing I wanted was to be overeager – chase an inside wave and get caught inside by a big set, or go over the falls and get mangled.
I sat near the relative safety of the channel for a long time, watching the sets, before I finally inched farther onto the reef and began to paddle cautiously for waves. Still too far on the shoulder, I needed to fully commit if I was going to catch one. And I wanted to catch one, badly.
I paddled deep and positioned myself at the top of the boils, noting that I would have to drop in directly above the shallow ledge if I wanted to catch a wave. I also noted that each subsequent wave in a set was slightly bigger. I told myself to let the first few go by as the set approached. I paddled over the first wave, and the second. As I crested the mountain of water, I saw another wave standing up against the horizon line.
Sometimes, for no discernible reason, certain waves shine with a special, radiant, enchanting light, while others seem dark and foreboding. Ludicrous as it sounds, I have come to depend largely on this feeling – call it superstition or gut instinct – as my guide during high stakes surfing. And this faith, or surrender, to something I can’t capture or control or even wholly articulate, is part of what drives me to seek out and pursue waves of consequence.
The third wave in the set at the outer reef was bigger than the others, but it had a luminous and inviting quality which convinced me it was the one. Paddling purposefully, I ignored the rock ledge, looking down the steep, bowling wall as it morphed into a liquid half pipe. As I got to my feet, I felt the water under my board drop out. I grabbed my rail, trying to keep my fins engaged and stop my board from plummeting down into the reef. It had the intended effect. I shot along the wall, which seemed impossibly long and was feathering at the top, threatening to drill me into submission. I had doubts that I could make the wave, but there was no going back. I pumped hard and braced for impact. Miraculously, my speed carried me past the terminal force of the section and back out onto the face of the wave. Somehow, I had made it. I relaxed, carving playful turns, riding all the way to the inside, exclaiming incoherently in joy and relief.
Elated, I paddled back out for one more. The surfer who had come out with me was nowhere in sight. Straining and squinting, I saw a faint figure with a board making its way along the beach. I was all alone, a bolt of feat seizing me in its fist. I thought about how stupid it was to paddle back out. What if I fell or got caught inside? I could feel my mind starting to go down the rabbit hole of doom, so I sat on the shoulder and gave myself a pep talk, out loud.
“You have all the time in the world,” I told myself. “No one is waiting for you, no one is watching you, and you get to surf an amazing wave, by yourself, in a beautiful place. This is the dream. You can do it.”
And I believed it, because it was true. Another surfer had paddled over with me, had shown me in general where to sit. But he didn’t tell me which wave to go on, how to stick the drop, or how to make the section. I did that myself. And I knew I had the potential inside of me to do it again.
I took a deep breath and paddled back over the reef, going for another, less critical wave. My board glided in smoothly, on a fluid line. There was no doubt, no fear, no section to make. It was easy. I rode it almost to the sand.
Emerging on the beach with a smile that felt like it stretched almost as far as the wave, I walked toward the main break at Popoyo. As I approached the beach front bar in front of the break, I heard clapping and hooting. I looked up to see all of the friends I had made cheering for me like I had won a contest. Indeed, I felt like I had won something – a battle against fear and doubt, not to mention the luck of coming back from the outer reef in one piece.