Canyon Set on the Head

IMG_3995It was a truly epic weekend. Beginning on Friday evening, winter spots were well-overhead and pumping at last light. Saturday morning, we walked down the cliff in perfect predawn stillness. We could hear solid waves cracking and could trace the whitewater outlines as they rolled. We changed into our wetsuits on the beach, in the dark while snacking and hydrating. Eyes strained to make out some semblance of wave form.  We were in the water at the first sign of light.

Kyle LargoFor two and half hours, we rode and witnessed some of the best surf California can offer: 8-12ft, light offshore and consistent. The rest of the dawn patrol crowd sat outside waiting for the 12fters, while we had the perfect 6-8fters to ourselves. Splitting perfect peaks with buddies, hooting and laughing. It was big and exciting but not terrifying.  Lots of swimming and plenty of fun thrashings. Coming up inside after a good one, looking back to see your friend slide into the next peak. Yews all around. We got out for a water, snack, photog break exhilarated and dripping stoke.

E Chaco Taco (2)Then the tide drained out. We swam out to North Peak at noon. The tide had dropped from a 5ft. high at 4am to a .5 low at 11:30am. The swell continued to pump. But the glassy perfection of the morning changed. A treacherous rip current blasted through the lineup. The Peak sucked sand and exploded relentlessly on the shallow bank. I was cautious of the conditions and as usual EJ swam himself into a meaty slab.

Canyon Set

Then it appeared. We’ve heard about it mythologically in local lore. Spend enough time around here and you’ll pay dues eventually. It was our time. Way outside, large lumps of water stacked up, gathering momentum into three distinct peaks. I’d never witnessed more raw, focused energy. Canyon Set…a real one.  We were mesmerized by the hydrodynamics until we realized we were square in the impact zone as the largest lump swung at us. Swim. Swim hard. Not gonna make it. Shit. Not gonna make it.

The first wave’s apex stood up in front of us. Oxygen: get it. Dive to bottom, fingertips dig into sand. The lip launched and landed on our heads. Ripped from the sand and drilled back down again.  Come up with a gasp, check for EJ…we’re ok but the next wave is bigger and the rip is pulling us directly into the pit. Helpless, we watch the next wave develop. A-frame…teepee…monster. Big breath, back to the bottom.

IMG_4175The percussion of the lip squeezes just enough oxygen out to make the rest of the beating interesting. Gasping through the thick layer of foam on the surface. I know there are successive waves in this set. There is nowhere to go. Start to think, “Sure would be embarrassing to be rescued today.” Gotta slow the breathing, gotta get the heart rate down. Relax, you’re ok. You have fin leashes and this set can’t last forever.

The next wave, bigger and more menacing, stood and focused it’s attention.  A surfer trying to escape gets caught in the lip and ditches his board. One more thing from which to run and hide. Big breath, swim to the bottom, blasted by the full brunt of North Pacific winter energy.  Back to the surface, mouth open hoping for oxygen, but only the gases inside the foot of foam are on offer. Now choking, the rip current holds its ground in the impact zone and the next wave (and hopefully last) is gathering force.  The turbulence in the water makes it difficult to penetrate. Heart pounding, back to the bottom for the same cycle. Surfacing, the horizon finally quiet.

I look to EJ. We chuckle nervously with eyes wide open and great relief that there weren’t more waves in the set. It was our time to experience the mythological Canyon Set. We survived. Looking back, it is a great privilege to experience such raw natural energy.  A transcendent thrashing.


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Swell Lines Magazine

Bodysurfing yarns woven 'tween crest & trough