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Winter Swell—the E-Ticket

by Ed Anderson. From Buzz, October 2008

Most everyone knows that someone who is the E-ticket. It may be the half-crazy friend who convinces you that it is would be a good idea, indeed almost a moral imperative, to borrow a sheep from the FFA pen, dress it in black stockings and a garter belt, and set it out in the high school quad. Or it may be the cool uncle who takes you out to an amazing dinner in Manhattan, finished off with cigars and Sambuca, the digestivo set alight to roast the floating coffee beans (three - one each for health, hope, and happiness). It is that someone who brings with them the alluring promise of unknown pleasures, often made more enticing by a touch of the illicit, improper, or mildly dangerous. Yes, you may get suspended for the stunt with the sheep, but how many of your actions cause you to laugh to the point of starting to wet yourself? And the hangover from the red wine you never drink and the tobacco you never smoke may be unpleasant, but how often do you have a night dedicated purely to life’s finer pleasures? That is what the winter swell is to me, a close friend blowing in with laughter, excitement, and perhaps a caution or two.

Saturday, October 25th marked for me the return of the winter swell, weighing in at a height of 13 feet and a 21 second period. It does not take an old salt to recognize 13 feet as big. The very long period may not be as easily discernible but plays a fundamental role in wave speed and power. Skipping over the mathematical formulae, suffice it to say 13 at 21 is in technical terms, "big." Hence my observation as I first saw the massive waves breaking across the expanse of Half Moon Bay: "Holy crap! It’s really big today!"

I loaded up my surf boat that morning and met BASKers Cristina Lewis and Gregg Berman at CCK’s Pillar Point outpost. Cris would be paddling a sit-on-top surf boat and Gregg would sport his Mega surf boat. Cris had just graduated from this year’s Skills Clinic, in which she did very well. I imagined she would be quite anxious to put her newly honed techniques to work, and indeed her face clearly conveyed her anxiety. I felt confident she would be fine and, as importantly, have fun. Both Gregg and I assured her that we would be playing where the surf would be manageable. Besides, I added, she would be with Gregg and me, so what could possibly go wrong?

We met numerous other paddlers about to enjoy the day as we geared up and put in. We exchanged greetings with BASKers Charles Harris and Anne “Scooby” Kang, who were setting up a BSK class. We also saw Marcus Choy, who was about to lead an SK II class. BASKer Wendell Lee, who I had the pleasure of working with in a recent Open Coast class, was parked right next to me and I encouraged him to come play on the reef with us. Amidst all of the good people on this beautiful day, I again thought to myself how lucky I am to live in the coolest paddling spot in the world.

As Gregg, Cris, and I paddled across the back of Pillar Point harbor to the reef, I hoped that Cris was not noticing the waves exploding menacingly over the top of the jetty. When we portaged from the harbor to the reef, I saw the ocean up close and thanked goodness my daughter Aiko and I had done our paddling the night before to measure water temperatures for her science fair project. At that time there was almost no hint of the thunder to come. I knew this morning we would find some place on the reef to play in relative safety, but suspected Cris might feel a little intimidated because I could feel the butterflies take flight in my stomach. But then again, the adrenaline rush is part of the fun. Gregg, Cris, and I observed and discussed what was happening outside and on the reef, noting an area of relative moderate size and order close to shore.

Launching in the shore break was refreshing. I had both my bow and my sinuses cleaned by the waves. I headed to the northwest corner of the reef, while Gregg and Cris went to a spot closer to the beach to start off. Alone further out in the popcorn water, I looked to a swell rolling in and set myself up to catch it. I doubled up my cadence as my tail lifted and my boat rose to the crest. I waited for the hiss of the wave break, but the swell instead chose to keep building, so that I quickly found myself on a wave considerably oversized for being inside the reef. It was also, I noticed looking down the near vertical drop below me, surprisingly steep. I took an extra deep breath as the expected happened: my nose caught as I tried to angle the take-off and I found myself rushing along the reef upside down, bull kelp bumping me along the way. I put my fear of kelp out of my mind, rolled up, and paddled back out to the same spot to try again. I was instantly rewarded with the first wave’s twin, but this time I was expecting the subterfuge and managed to take off like a shot without incident. I thought I was flying across the water until I saw another wave come at a perpendicular angle, I turned in to it on impact, and I literally flew. I burst out laughing when my boat banged onto the water again. This new experience of course required repeating, and after catching air several times, I went to tell Gregg and Cris of the new game I had found.

When I reached Cris, she had a smile on her face. It turned out that her first wave had put her completely vertical before driving her nose-first into the drink. She had a bit of a pounding, a cooling swim, and then as she put it, got back on the horse. She had caught a few waves and I could see in her eyes that she was hooked, a new wave warrior was born! Her stoke was contagious, so I decided to play with her on a few waves and let Gregg find some of those crazy waves further out.

Eventually we all needed a respite from the fun, so we beached out. BASKers Roger “Mad Dog” Medler and Ken Armstrong appeared while Gregg, Cris, and I were sharing water and energy bars. Cris had to leave and Roger and Ken joined Gregg and I when we went back out. Roger and Ken demonstrated impressive boat-handling skills as they surfed their longboats in the charged waters. I for my part was trying to get outside the reef where Gregg and Ken were playing in the boomers (and rescuing a goofball on a sit-on-top clearly in over his head), but a meaty wave sent me bow-over-stern backwards. This wave apparently decided that two contact lenses was redundant and took one from me in the tumble. Never one to miss a clue, I could sense that Mother Ocean did not want me out there this day, so I packed my tail firmly between my legs and headed for shore. Roger was kind enough to escort me all the way back. It is very comforting to know that you have friends looking out for you when you are dancing on the edge of your skill set.

Somewhere in the early afternoon, after almost four hours of energetic play, fatigue set in. The tired mid-section, stiff shoulders, sore elbow, and hunger became too much to ignore, so Gregg and I headed in. As we were coming off of the water, we were greeted by the Michael Powers and a small group he was taking out. We wanted to play more with the Madman of Miramar Beach, and his offer to take pictures of us on the waves was tempting, but our exhaustion was overwhelming. We returned to my place, ate, popped in some paddling porn, and both promptly fell asleep on the couch. Just before slipping into unconsciousness I gave thanks for the return of the winter swell. I do not know if I could stand this much fun every day, but it was fun to take the E-ticket ride again.

BASKer Anders Landin surprised me with a call Saturday morning before I got in the water. He was supposed to be participating in the surf competition at Davenport, but his online registration was apparently lost in the ether and the monstrous swell inhibited him from arguing too strenuously for his right to go out. He did not join us that Saturday as he said he might, but when he and I went out Monday, he did share a chilling tale. One of the regulars on the reef was playing with a large group at Davenport after the day’s formal event when an exceptionally large wave sent everyone running pell-mell for cover. Some went outside, some went inside, and this paddler went down. He wet-exited his boat well underwater (where it remained), found the surface thanks to his PFD, and began a southward drift on the open ocean. Despite waving the paddle he still had, his absence was not noticed and it was only through the keen eye of someone on another beach 20 minutes later that he got help. It is a sobering reminder that the winter swell can be insanely fun, but the consequences of mishap can be far worse than those with your other E-ticket friends, with whom you might only have to worry about a bad tattoo or a bed partner whose name you were sure you knew last night.

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