The approaching water took us completely by surprise! Our attempt to retreat from the stampede of white horses had been futile and the light disappeared sending me to another world of dark rushing water. I felt myself being swept away. The sharp crevices of rock that I had so carefully crept across barefoot , became lifelines, that I grabbed at feverishly to avoid the precipice that awaited me. Daylight emerged and as I gasped up for air I saw a look of horror in the face of the German before he disappeared over the rock ledge into the maelstrom below. Lying a couple meters short of the edge, the adrenaline pulsated through my body like the steam from a boiling pressure cooker. Having watched the German being swept further down the line-up, I was able to compose myself and survey the damages. I had a small chunk of flesh taken out of the knee, a gash across the foot, a host of smaller cuts and a broken finger nail that had seaweed wedged underneath it from grabbing at the rocks. The illusion of the exotic surf trip had been shattered to reveal a scenario of real danger and I felt orphaned on the exposed precipice.
Pichilemu is the surf capital of Chile and for me it was a Shangri-La of potential. As a Cape Townian who could spend up to 45 minutes travelling in search of good waves only to discover 60 people out in the water, Pichilemu was paradise. It picks up significant amounts of the consistent swell that Chile is famous for and has three of its most renowned waves in no more than 10 minutes drive from each other.
Infiernillo is a perfect left literally in the centre of town. La Puntilla, a 5 minute walk from the high street, is on the right day, the longest wave in Chile. Punta de Lobos, what would become a notorious wave for me, is 10 minutes south along the coast. In summer the town is a significant tourist destination yet as I walked through the streets on arrival in the middle of winter, it felt like a ghost town. The welcoming committee was a pack of street dogs that were at first friendly then immediately broke into a frenzied fight. Reminiscent of the openings of many Zombie movies, the atmosphere felt eerily as if a virus had killed off the local population and left the canine species to flourish and contest over leadership. I arrived to find the hostel that I had booked online the night before completely deserted with a dusty “GONE SURFING” sign on the door.
In our need to find some predictability and comfort in a foreign world, we will travel with people who speak the same language, come from the same place and who are perhaps heading in the same direction, no matter how different they may be from you. You find yourself clinging to groups of people that you would seldom even share a drink with back home. Fortunately, I did not have this option. The person who would set the tempo for my time in Pichilemu and ultimately leave me stranded on the edge of the rock face with 25 foot waves crashing through was called Elvis, the local professional, surf teacher and a serious contender for the Chilean version of Jackass. He was 40 years old yet I am starting to believe that unlike dogs, where you multiply by 7 to get their actual age, for die hard surfers, you divide by 2. He had lived in Pichilemu all his life and I am sure that his biggest fear was that somewhere a wave was breaking without him racing down its face. Not surprisingly, after equipping me with an intermediate surf board and wetsuit, he felt it suitable to invite me to surf at Punta De Lobos (Wolf’s Point) which I would later discover to be the big wave mecca of Chile.
He picked me up at dawn with two cups of coffee that spilt everywhere as we drove at breakneck speed along a bumpy dirt road to the point. I had seen the swell predictions and it was going to be big yet I really had no idea what to expect being in a completely new place. I trusted that Elvis, being a surf teacher, would guide me through the process. We arrived to find perfect waves that to be honest, were huge! At the point they were breaking 25 foot! Adamant that I felt it was out of my range, Elvis suggested that I surf further down the line up yet jump off the rocks at the point because it is the “quickest” paddle out. The quickest way to get down a mountain is to sky dive off it. That does necessarily make it the safest. Getting our wetsuits on to some typical surfer psych up music I was starting to get really nervous yet felt clear that this is what this trip was all about. Pushing boundaries!
Walking towards the point we came across Ollie, the German, who would eventually be swept off the rocks. The reason I was with him when the sea weed hit the fan was because Elvis, too preoccupied with the amazing sets rolling through, just raced across the channel, over the rocks and out into the line up. I worried for the parents that left their children in his care for surf classes. The following photo gives a good indication of the route to get out yet in no way expresses how scary it was.
Standing on the edge of the Wolf’s point having just been washed along the rocks, with each passing moment and thunderous wave, I felt more abandoned. I had to jump in as retreat was not only a cowardly option but a much bigger danger as it meant crossing the channel again. Out into the line up was the logical choice but billions of years of evolutionary instinct where telling me to stay put.
A wave approached and as it crashed off the rocks I jumped and the back wash carried me down into the line up. Sitting out in the middle of ocean, it took me some time to calm down before even considering getting a wave. Having been swept across the break, I was far from the 25 foot waves breaking on the point. I was still contending with 8-10 foot steam rollers that were a significant challenge for an intermediate surfer such as myself. When a 5 meter swell is pulsating across the ocean, there is a huge amount of water moving very quickly. As a point break, Punta Lobos generally requires significant amounts of paddling even on a small day. Today, I felt as if I was on an aquatic treadmill that had me scrambling like crazy just to stay on the take off point.
Over the next 30 minutes many good waves were let through for no other reason than fear. It is interesting that we feel most alive when we confront dangerous situations. Each hesitation and lost opportunity gave a mounting sense of regret. It is too big! I am not good enough! This is way beyond me! These excuses are used time and time again by people in all walks of life and they imprison the very essence of our being in a paradigm that can only be shifted by taking the risk and lifting the bar even higher. As if my destiny had risen out of the depths of the ocean, I felt that the time had come. The horizon began to distort as if the oceanic army had been called to march forth. I could feel the water level dropping as the on coming wave consumed its surroundings and dominated the skyline. I turned and paddled. The swell reared up and as I popped up onto my board, I felt a slight free-fall as I raced down the face of the wave. All thoughts disappeared and in a moment of pure presence and communion with the ocean, I raced down the line. The off shore wind sprayed a refreshing mist in my face as I carved through the water. The ride was close to a hundred and fifty meters long! Each new section, a different chapter in the brief life story of a wave that like a finger print, has it's own shape, personality and energy.
Sitting in the ocean after my ride, I experienced a feeling that is unique to surfing a wave! It goes way beyond the adrenaline hit that one gets having just overcome a new challenge. For me it is a profound communion with the archetypal and mystical realm of the ocean. A place where I feel very much at home!
Watch a video of the swell that day and some of Chile's top pro's tackling the massive waves. Be sure to watch in HD and look out for the microscopic surfers taking off. Watch Here