I was left wondering when I had gone wrong. It can be argued it was that morning, upon waking up at dawn to go surfing on one of the biggest days in months. But I had proceeded with caution, driving 30 miles south of the city to a spot guaranteed to be smaller, perhaps a third of the 20-footers crashing into Ocean Beach.
Maybe my mistake was venturing out without a friend. My usual before-work cohort had been fortuitously sidelined by the birth of his first child the week before. Others couldn't make the drive before work, while it was on the way to me. If it wasn't that day, it might be a week.
I donned my wetsuit and walked to the beach. I considered it a good sign that a longboarder who was packing up said the paddle wasn't bad. But when I got to the shore, I noticed the thick fog covering the coast prevented me from seeing the outside breakers. Further, a young shortboarder loitered by the path, with no obvious intent on going in.
But I was here and ready to go. Besides, I'd gotten myself out of much stickier situations than what could be presented here, surely. With that thought, I began to wade through the whitewater.
The first wave reminded me of the power of even the smaller stuff, pushing me back to where I'd begun. I pressed on and got past the initial lines to realize I had stepped into the sea version of a conveyor belt; I was pulled south faster than I could've jogged. Worse, I now catch a glimpse of the outer breaks and see they are larger than expected, close to ten feet.
I may not make it out.
Besides the personal setback, this is usually not a serious matter. But when I turn around to check my options for re-entry of the shore, I see I have none. The huge waves rolling over and under me continue all the way to the cliffs where I had drifted, smacking into the sheer walls with enough force to break boards and bones. There was no shore.
Now I'm paddling with renewed vigor, hoping to get outside and gather myself. I know that coming in from out there may not be any easier, but at least I'd be rested and have a choice in my landing spot.
I get to the last bits of soup and foam and begin grasping to get past the final peaks. I see what looks to be the safe zone just 20 or so yards in front of me and steam ahead. But moments later, I see the first face in a presumably large set emerging from the fog bank, coming straight for me.
Knowing I can't make it entirely through or around it, I paddle for the impact zone anyway. Even if it hurts, I've got to get outside. And then the wall of water collapses on me, ripping the board from my hands and dragging me backwards. And then another. And another.
I surface closer to the cliffs than the lineup and grow certain no matter how hard I paddle forward, it's just a matter of time before I end up against the muddy rockface. Again, I can let that happen or attempt to choose my landing.
I turn around and paddle with the water while looking for anything that will get me above the water, and quickly. Another set rolls in and pushes me closer to the red walls. Still no clear exit, not even a haven. Instead, I'm greeted by the sight of a broken longboard and an ominous cylinder, which thankfully turns out to be a log.
On what looks to be the last wave of that set, I slip off the back of the board to keep from getting drilled into the ground. I snatch the leash and pull the board back to me just as my feet touch down. I'm now trudging uphill through the last of the water and running for a tiny shelf jutting out from the base.
I leap on top of it with no idea whether it will be high enough to save me from the next deluge. I climb onto a boulder on the shelf, propping myself on it and the wall for any added heighth.
The next set proves I had chosen wisely/gotten lucky, spraying me and surrounding my feet, but nothing more. I crouch down afterward and try to catch my breath. Getting away was secondary to simply surviving. I figured I'd stay on that rock until the tide went out, the swell subsided or both. Anything but get back in that water.
Just then I hear a voice, a woman calling to me from above.
"Are you alright? I saw you getting pushed in."
"Yeah, I think so," I yell, attempting to summon any remaining courage. "I'm going to rest here and try to make it back to land."
"Can I help? Want me to call someone?"
I think to myself last rites might be in order, chuckle morbidly, and say, "That's OK. I'll get out of this, ma'am." In reality, a couple guys and a rope could've done the job. But I couldn't imagine being rescued.
Fortunately, she ignored me. After seemingly leaving, she reappeared a few minutes later to tell me she thought she may have found a place to climb up. It was about 100 feet south, around a bend.
I told her I didn't know if I could get there between sets but determined I didn't have much choice. One big one would do it. The thought of the ocean dragging me back out sent shivers.
As the next set slipped back, I leapt to the ground and raced around the bend for the opening. Not seeing it, I hopped onto the tallest ledge I could find. Another set comes in and covers my lower legs.
The lady appears again and tells me I had overshot the spot by a bit. I see the crevice she's talking about, lean over and attempt to wedge myself into it. But I can't get me and the board in and decide the board will go.
She leans down and offers to take it from me if I can get it up to her. Swallowing the last bit of my pride, I hand up the board. She's able to reach the nose and pull it aside. I follow by jamming my hands into the clay cracks, emerging a grimy but elated mess.
"I can't thank you enough," I espouse. "You really saved me. I don't know how I would have gotten out of there otherwise."
"My pleasure," she responded, genuinely pleased with herself. "It looked like you were doing alright out there at first, but the waves just kept piling up."
"Yes, I thought I knew what I was doing but apparently not. You absolutely rock."
With that, we part ways. Walking back to the van, I spot the young shortboarder from earlier heading toward me. As we pass, he asks if I've seen a longboarder, a friend who had entered about a half-hour before me. I say no and then tell him of the shattered board I saw near the cliff.
He says it doesn't sound like his buddy's. We search the cliffside for sometime before he tells me he'll take it from there.