wave of the winter: 1.23.16 @ birdrock

by kyle david


I watched sets slowly file in from the vantage point of a sterile UCSD cafe at the edge of the oceanography pier at Scripps. The tide had drained out to sewer levels and the waves hadn't yet lived up to their huge expectations. I sat in a pool of anxious excitement, waiting to see something show on the horizon. I had high hopes for this swell; it was meant to peak overnight and the next morning was meant to be one of the biggest days of the winter.


A set came in that made me reevaluate how fast the energy was filling in. I caught a glimpse of light reflected off a wave breaking near the the cove over two miles away over the water, so I walked closer to the edge of the café yard to get a better look. From this far-off vantage point, you can only make out waves breaking at the cove if it’s very big. It looked more like an optical illusion than anything - a massive set broke at the cove a few minutes later and it looked fantastic. A flush surfaced on my skin with palpable warmth and prickliness. My excitement and the swell were both building fast and I eagerly awaited the trial session that evening. The swell would peak by 11pm, so this session provided an opportunity to dial in the waves and get butterflies out before the morning big wave session.


At 2:43pm with the tide bottoming out, I decided to drive up to the cove early and check it. As I pulled up, sets visible between the trees offered more illusion and mystery. I couln’t believe what I was seeing as I parked illegaly and walked through the park to the cliffs. Ten to twelve foot waves broke all the way from the cove to Horseshoe three miles south, with big walled sets arriving early and pummeling the offshore reefs that are normally flat. I decided to keep driving south, hoping something would be surfable. Not a board was in sight until I pulled up to Windansea, where a few takers paddled farther and farther west over big mountainous sets. The ocean had turned up the dial hard on the swell energy and the effects were visible with the rising power minute over minute.


Realizing the surf had already grown too big for my normal step up board at six feet four inches, I sped home with giddiness and a healthy anxiety to pick up my mini gun. The surf would finally be fit for her first use, so I collected the equipment and got ready to bring out the new board. I nicknamed her the GF, for "girlfriend," because she had been shaped by Sharp Eye Surfboards for a pro named Alexa and she had sponsor stickers all over her. I took the stickers off, but left two letters from one sponsor - “GF” - so that I could finally claim I had a girlfriend who knew how to please me.  It had a rising sun spraypaint design with pinkish red and blue pastel colors, no stomp pad, a solid rocker and six feet eight inches of foam covered with a thin single lamination. Despite the length, it still maintained shortboard proportions and would be a fantastic board for heavy throaty waves. Anything bigger than twelve feet would need an even bigger board, though, since this one lacked paddle power and the surface area needed to get into the bigger rolling waves. 


I drove back out and checked the waves from a new vantage point around the corner from Bird Rock as the sun dipped into the golden zone of the sky. The ocean spray affected a glow and the marine layer clouds started to glaze over with a little honey resin. Surf mysticism gets its roots from hours like these. A local standing beyond the fence with his dog cracked an IPA as I walked up to scout the conditions from the exposed cliffside.


"Little Makaha is almost breaking, this looks pretty solid," said the older chubby dude in his oldschool windbreaker. 


"Yeah, I've never surfed it. Looks like it's rideable though. Have you ever surfed it?"


"Yeah, once upon a time. I grew up here. But now I live inland cause it's too expensive. Where you live?"


"Just at the edge of PB and Bird."


"Baja La Jolla, eh?" he busted laughing at my relative poverty. North Pacific Beach has very expensive homes and amazing views, but it's south of La Jolla on the lower end of opulence, so it's affectionately known as Baja La Jolla to locals who want to keep their upper echelon of wealth homogenous. 


Sets continued to break way out at Little Makaha at least half a mile out to sea, and I spotted one charger on it barely visible over the side shore spray and backlighting of the setting sun. I decided to go for it, thinking if I didn’t make the paddle to the outside reef in good time, I could just surf Bird. I turned away from the former local and nearly pranced back to my car to suit up.


Bird Rock used to be much taller. It's an exposed rock that over time, through pounding swell and salt water, had been cut in half and now lies partially submerged amid a shallow nearshore reef. Birds are always out sunning and it's perpetually glazed in whitewash. On big days at high tide, entry into the watter is extremely perilous. The waves and high tide come right up to the wall of sharp boulders and you have to time your jump in carefully. Timing your exit on days like that is even more dangerous; once I had my leash get stuck between rocks and I almost broke myself and my board trying to scramble up the rocks before the lull in the ocean ended and another set returned with a seeming vengeance. Getting into the water on low tide is easy, though; walk down the staircase, hop down the boulders and into the clear, calm water barely covering the reef bed. 


Only four guys were out near the rock, sitting in the subterranean low tide just barely starting to fill in. The spot where you typically find yourself waist deep was completely bone dry. I questioned the choice and didn't know if the tide would come in quickly enough to make the spot surfable. I slowly made my way over the razor rocks and cut my heel when I hopped into the waist deep water onto my board to start paddling. I didn't give a shit, I was so focused I didn't realized it had broked skin until the end of the session. 


The paddle out appeared short and quick, but I timed it wrong and found myself caught in a solid southerly rip with an endless set pushing me farther away from the lineup. I paddled nonstop north against a growing headwind and the neverending rip, hoping to conserve as much energy as possible.


Once I made it out, I found myself significantly farther south than I inteded but in prime country to catch some amazing, huge endless rights with no competition. I turned and went on the first one I saw and sunk into a huge right line. I threw some big turns on my backside and even got a full roundhouse turn in. The wave held shape, fattened out and reformed to give me another solid wall to hack up. After five big turns, I jetted over the back. I looked and I had traveled almost a quarter mile south. I started paddling back towards the focal bird shit covered rock with a huge shiteating grin, knowing I had made the right call to go to Bird Rock and to stay on the inside rather than paddle to Makaha.


After paddling north constantly for fifteen minutes, I got back into position on my trusty new GF. The wind started kicking up a little worse, and since I was paddling north it made me work even harder to stay in position. Since I was already the farthest south of the four people in the water, I started getting in position for a deep left to come through. I couldn't quite gaudge the size of the waves coming through, but I knew they were at least eight feet and up to ten plus on the sets. The low tide threw a new factor into the mix though; typically Bird Rock lefts are only slightly bowly and don't barrel much. But the tide allowed the long period energy to pitch and a few left barrels were rolling through. The waves weren't as tall as other outside reefs, but what they lacked in vertical height they threw up in horizontal pitching power.


A big set appeared and swung wide of the pack to the south where I happened to be sitting ready. It reared terribly fast, staring one eye right at me, so I immediately flipped and paddled to get in position. The guy closest to me about twenty yards off saw it too and started paddling, but I already sat way deeper in the perfect spot. He backed off, the wave gathered under me like a jungle cat about to pounce and I ratcheted vertically down the face. I nearly went airborn, fully extended as I stood up. My board went 180 degrees down the face as my feet found their positioning with magnetic precision and I screamed into the wave on the GF. All her extra lenth came in handy, and the aggressively sharp nose perfectly knifed into a sharp turn right as I hit the bottom of the wave. 


Time slows down inside some waves. A tranquility lives there like no other in nature, and it engulfs you as you pull into this place that few humans experience. I had dropped in just under the lip and became engulfed in a stand-up sized barrel. I dragged my hand along the inside going at 12,000 frames per second as I looked down the line in utter disbelief. No wave had barreled quite like this throughout the whole time I had been watching and surfing that evevning – some had barreled, but this took on a new level of perfection. I kept a tight line, and the wave began to speed on without me. I pumped twice meaningfully for speed. The wave started to close out down the line but I saw a back door start to line up where I could escape the inevitable detonation over the inside bowl.


I stuck tight and crouched lower as the wave propelled me along. The wall of water slowly churned over my shoulder, feeling like a long lost friend's embrace. As the wave showed signs of deterioration down the line, I found the back door and slid out over the back with a grace I didn't know I had in my repertoire. Spray and heavy mist followed me over the edge of the monstrous set wave and I sunk into the water behind. 


I couldn’t help but screaming and hooting as the calm moments of the wave gave way to pure adrenal exctasy.  I scanned the open ocean and the faces of the few surfers nearby, as if to say 'did you just see that!?!.' I saw the disappointed face of the other surfer who watched me catch the wave, but even he knew I deserved that wave for how steep and late I had thrown myself into it.


“This is way WAY better than getting laid,” I laughed to myself, and it took twenty minutes before the faintest wear showed on my toothy full-faced grin. 


I suddenly noticed the full moon that had revolved over the land in tandem with the sun sinking over the sea. It perched over purpling clouds along the shoreline and showed a full white face. Though the sun had already been obscured behind a heavy offshore cloudbank, I stayed out until an hour past sunset with help from the moon and stars. I slowly made my way back towards the rocky shoreline after a few more waves. I waded over the reef as the night came on fully with a fat warmth not typical for January in San Diego. Drained both mentally and physically, I hobbled back to my car with my foot bleeding and muscles sore in the full darkness of night. 


No matter what the waves would be like in the morning, I knew I had already caught the best wave I could on that swell. I drove home content and tired with the knowledge that all my lonely efforts in the water all winter had paid off.


I couldn't wait to tell the girl I had been seeing about the experience and how much it meant to me that I finally found myself in the right place at the right time to catch the wave of the winter.


"Sounds like it was better than sex," she shrugged. 


"That's EXACTLY what I said!"