6:30pm The Night Before: EJ
Newport is buzzing. There are humans everywhere, on bike and foot and stopped in cars. Parents usher their children through the gates of the great coliseum. I walk the sidewalk and feel the ground tremble. After years of anticipation, the booming sound of my own daydream synces with my reality.
10:30pm The Night Before: EJ
Skye, Kyle and myself sip on beers sitting in the sticky Newport sand. I stare at breakers through the still darkness. Visions strobing through my mind, two-story waves swallowing bodysurfers, spitting them onto the rocky jetty. I have to remember. We’d trained our legs and lungs for this and we are ready. Sleep would not come easy. I shift from side to side in my sleeping bag on the floor. Thankful to have a roof and a bathroom for the morning (always an issue when travelling to Wedge), I focus on breathing and collecting my energy to let my body rest for the morning.
The swell rumbled me awake as I urban camped on 50th St. I groggily drive to the end of the Peninsula, scoring the best parking spot possible. A few dozen people pace the beach waiting for the show while a couple of jittery bodyboarders chat excitedly.
Sitting on the jetty rocks, I see the outline of large peaks bouncing off the jetty. The whole beach shakes. Then I’m blinded by headlights approaching from the street. I think, “That’s weird, the street ends up there.” The headlights get closer, “What the hell are they doing?” Rumbling over rocks, down the beach, the KTLA news van comes to an abrupt stop 5 ft. from where I’m sitting. The driver quickly puts it in reverse…and digs himself deeper into the sand…stuck.
Boards and hoards begin to arrive. More news trucks fill the end of the street. The beach quakes from what must be truly massive, but unseen waves.
The coastline is still stifled in shadow, but the behind a few lines of obvious urban-campers, riders were beginning to park. Most of the early-risers were bouncing with excitement, but some looked downright intimidated. The swell had done its part and now it was up those of us who had waited to step into the water. I had plenty of distractions; the news truck stuck in the sand, the drone operators, the wide-eyed onlookers and the Purps beverage slingers. Stay focused. Watch the waves, study the waves, know the waves. The next few hours were a blink.
Civil twilight brings the first sign of light. Suddenly there are hundreds of people taking their spectator positions. Finally, the full scale of the Hurricane Marie swell is revealed and it is not a disappointment.
The first wave of the day is successfully ridden by a surfer. The flood gates open: bodyboarders and surfers rush the lineup.
The lineup is already chaotic: drop-ins, ditched and broken boards. Glory rides and horrific wipeouts abound.
Pipeline charger, Jamie O’Brien, shows up with his normal shortboard and a soft-top surfboard. He attempts to paddle out on them simultaneously, but as he enters the water at Cylinders, a huge set stacks up. As the first wave approaches, he stands on the soft-top and tries to heave his shortboard over the top while he dives into the shallow water. His boards wash back to the beach and he swims in after them…smiling.
O’Brien pulls off his board transfer stunt by paddling into the peak on the soft-top while holding his shortboard. Half way down the face, he puts the shortboard on the wave and jumps onto it. He finishes the ride by pulling into a mean, foamy barrel. The ever-increasing crowd cheers.
Eric Thulander catches the first bodysurf wave of the day, a solid right on the inside. While South African, Robin Mohr battles it out on the peak. Catching a couple of bombs dangerously surrounded by boards from the drop. I made the decision the week before that I was not swimming out. I was an excited spectator. But my boy EJ had been waiting for this. He’s been spending some time up here and he wanted it. He was anxious but ready.
9:40am (20mins until Black Ball): EJ
Much of the Crew is in the rocks and getting in their wetsuits. Teddy is literally bouncing. He’s half singing and half screaming, fake-boxing with Starky’s chest. I go the other direction. I hardly want to speak. My eyes avoid contact. Sometimes I’ll meet eyes with another guy in the same “zone.” We nod and reabsorb into our personal ether. Collect energy. We’ve all been looking at these freight train waves for hours, but Kyle and Skye find me. Kyle tells me that I don’t have to go out, but by his smirk I know he’s aware I decided to swim out months ago. My body suddenly felt the immensity of the situation. I’m racing on my bike across the peninsula, bound to find myself contemplating each of my exhilarating adventures in the squalor of public restrooms.
Cheers to the Crew. They had to swim out. Regardless of their apprehensions and nerves. They had fought so hard for this. It was their time. Blackball. Newport Beach City Resolution 95-116. At 9:50, they gathered on the berm. 9:55 a massive set rumbled down the Jetty. At 10:01, after the set cleared, Chuck Olson led the charge. The Boys straight charged. There was only about 15 of them max at any given time. But very few waves went unridden. There was a group of guys sitting on the inside catching well-overhead runners all the away across to the sand. A group sat in the middle, riding perfect peaks into cavernous barrels. And a few guys lurked out the back, furiously kicking into, and successfully riding the biggest 20fters. It was a spectacle. A celebration of the Blackball. A tribute to the history and culture of bodysurfing.
From the berm, I’ve never seen the look like this, but at this point I need to get in the water. The gallery is 7-8 people deep. I’m wading through bodies, each with eyes glued to the horizon. Eager to get in, but I have to watch the jetty. Whitewater on the jetty means sit your ass back down. All clear? Go. My nerves are twisted and tied, but as soon as my wetsuit fills with the Pacific energy nervousness is a distant memory. Swim. Letting the wash do the work I’m in the lineup unscathed and the “lineup” is scattered. There are heads bobbing outside, no doubt Kalima, Larson, JT and Teddy. There are a handful of guys doing laps on the “inside,” catching perfect 10-12ft cornerbowls to the sand. Their artful rides are jaw dropping. I had decided to sit on the inside of the peak towards Brutals. The truly perfect hurricane peaks were inconsistent at best, but I saw a couple of smaller “sets” swinging wide to the north and that’s where I’d hunt.
I’m trying to find a spot to spectate and photograph. The thick crowd is serious about holding their spots. Ooohs, ahhs and gasps resound with every wave ridden. A giant set breaks out the back and a bodysurfer charges down the face, much to the delight of the crowd. Unknowingly, the crowd continues to spectate the action in the water as the first wave of the set rushes unimpeded up the beach. Slamming into and over the tall berm. Everyone nearby is soaked. Including the guy holding the $3,000 in sandy, dripping wet camera gear. Lot’s of action all around!
I’ve caught a few to the inside. Feeling comfortable. Everyone left in the water is grinning ear to ear. Look at that crowd. I just noticed thousands of people staring back at me from the sand. Surreal. There would be chargers among them. They may even remember back to that day in 2014 when they watched a handful of bodysurfers swim the thin line between chaos and control. Now they’re whistling. Oh shit, they’re whistling at the jetty. I whip around to see Godzilla rising out the back. Scurry and scrape. Not going to make it. I’m arcing my neck straight up in a way that I haven’t since childhood. Experiencing the elephant as the mouse and I’m swimming deep. Long strokes, deep. Each breath has been practiced and the collision of water is epic. Popping out of the churning Ocean and then I’m deep again. On the third I catch a blur of a body air dropping into the pocket of the beast. He stuck it, whoever it was. Bodies rolling in the high seas.
After a succession of waves, each bigger and better, I am saying my goodbyes. I’m solemnly aware of the specialness in this rotation of the Earth. 14 years since the last, who knows how long til the next. A slow sniff of the moment and I float on my back to look up. My private reflection ended and I start tracking what looks to be a swinging inside peak. It’s big. Thomas, who has shared a number of waves with guys already calls out, “you got it? Looks like a makeable closeout.” Makeable closeout.
It pitches. I’m locked. I’m the blur. In the cave. Out the caaavvve… back in. It blurs, I’m pitched, then expanded in all directions. The big bang and then the sand. Love.