The Sound of the FuryM. Stanley Bubien
I own a gun because I ride the largest waves in the world. I bought it six years ago, just before coming to the North Shore of Oahu, hearing the call all the way from the California coast. Those mainland waves thundered against the shore during the storm-generated swells of deep winter. But that thunder lacked, I realized one icy morning as I dropped down the face of an early morning set wave---not far enough to sea, it was too soft a sound. Yes, that was the reason.
I nearly gave up though, nearly shined on the call and fled back for the mainland.
When I had first arrived at Waiamea---the largest makeable break in the world---I was left to wonder what was less forgiving, the ocean or the other surfers. Even as I kneeled on the sand and waxed my gun---a surfboard designed specifically for gigantic waves---I felt the stink eye of the locals treading across the beach.
"Go home, haole!" a dark-skinned Hawaiian slurred in passing. "You no wanna like beef, huh?"
I glanced at him. He was huge, muscles so thick from shoulders to thighs, he seemed a human equivalent to the Waiamea waves.
Without acknowledgement, I returned to my waxing.
"Wha? You no listen? I's talkin' stink on you, haole."
It didn't take a genius to know this guy would kill me if push came to shove. I finished with the wax, palming the deck to make sure I'd created enough traction, and I stood with board under arm.
Taking a deep breath, I marched past him toward the water.
"Stay outta da way, haole." he yelled at my back. "My braddah's an me in da kine. You no wanna like beef wit dah mokes! Get a poundin' you!"
Sitting in the lineup with forty other guys, I did what he said and stayed out of the way, but it had nothing to do with him. Wave after wave passed as I tried to get a sense of the break. When a larger outsider would obscure the horizon, jutting up like a snowy mountain, I found myself paddling like wild toward it, envisioning a four-story building crashing down upon me. Up, up, up it lifted me, an agonizingly long ascent that inevitably pulled my heart into my stomach just as I shot safely over the top.
Yet, as I panted relief, a glance over my shoulder revealed six or seven others leaning back on their boards to spin one hundred eighty degrees. Though facing shore, the wave lifted them toward the heavens too, but while I crested the peak, they scratched dutifully downward, trying to match speed with this moving mountain. The last I saw was them leaping to their feet just as their boards entered into a thirty-foot free-fall known as a drop in.
I think I "surfed" Waiamea for one week solid before I actually caught a wave. It was more an act of desperation than anything. I don't know who saw it first, but once one guy falls flat against his board and scratches out toward the incoming set, everyone else soon follows, some jockeying for good position, others just hoping to make it past alive.
As I approached the first wave, I saw something that gave me a buzz of adrenaline---peaking beyond the top of this towering behemoth rose the second of the set. That meant it was probably twice this one's size, and I had no chance of getting past it before it broke.
I had already begun ascending the wave when I made my decision. I swallowed hard and sat up, leaned back, and spun my board around, collapsing against it and digging my palms into the thick salt water. It only took three strokes before I realized I was dropping in. I leapt to my feet, but the wind pinned me at the top of the wave---so high, I felt as if I was jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge.
It's impossible to explain how you can "hang on" with only your feet flat against the deck of freshly waxed surfboard, but that's what I did as the wave threw out and I went with it. Completely airborne, I made the drop.
The free-fall was only seven feet, just a fourth of the full distance to trough, but this was where most guys lost it. My gun splashed in, and with knees bent, I absorbed the shock.
"Whoo hoo!" I screamed with adrenaline-releasing fury, feeling myself just ahead of the avalanche.
The trick then is to get your board parallel with the curling wave; if you let yourself drop all the way to the bottom, you lose your speed and are inevitable buried within a bone-crushing breaker. I forced my board horizontal, and shot down the line, skirting the growing crest. It was a bumpy ride, offshore wind chopping up the surface, but my board plowed on as it raced the whitewash roaring over me.
I once heard someone say you could go as fast as thirty knots on a big enough wave, and in that moment, I believed it. But, as I realized the wave was pealing over ahead of me, I saw even that would not be fast enough.
"Yaahhh!" I screamed yet again as my right foot flexed against the tail of my board, angling it toward shore to dodge the gauntlet. Heading vertically downward, I accelerated ahead of the pounding whitewater, but once I reached the trough, I slowed.
Until now, I had done everything right; but here I hesitated slightly before leaping from my board. I hit the water just as I was engulfed. I kicked for the bottom but was swallowed in turbulence. It twisted and turned me, tossed me up and down, threw me left and right---and I fought with frantic futility. Tension built in my muscles. I strained for the surface, but the tempest held me under; pushed me deeper. I spun relentlessly, the fight draining out of me, my chest aching with the desire to inhale.
And understanding came; this was what it meant to drown.
Experience can flee in one second, yet return in another. Almost too late, it spoke one simple word: relax.
I ceased my straining, allowing the currents to do with me what they would. And they threw me still, but I took it with forced calm---a feather in a storm. Soon, the violence lessened; I drifted lighter in its passing, until finally, lungs screaming, I pushed for the surface.
I broke through and gasped air, trying to keep afloat in the churning sea, head half-buried in bubbling foam. "No, please," I said between breaths as the sea thundered anew before me. Inhaling as much as my lungs could hold, I darted for the bottom. Fingers pinching my nose, I equalized the pressure as I dove. This time, I had gotten deep enough; the larger of the two waves passed and I re-surfaced.
However, I had been pushed hundreds of meters toward the shore. My board was nowhere to be seen. And I remained in the impact zone, a sitting duck for another incoming set. Forcing fear-stiffened muscles into action, I swam as hard as I could toward the channel---an area of safe passage where the water remains too deep for waves to break.
I made it safely, but it remained a difficult journey to shore, for the channel flowed seaward to satisfy the appetite of these insatiable beasts. I swam upstream, as it were. A few surfers paddled past, some ignoring my plight while one or two wore smiles.
Approaching land, I faced my final obstacle, for the depths of the channel gave way to the shallows of the shore, and the waves that could not break in the deep rushed in and shot up to pound upon the beach. This was the second famous thing about Waiamea: the most dangerous shore break in the world.
I bobbed for a while, waiting for a lull in the coming sets, and was soon rewarded. Head underwater, I swam hard. A few smaller waves pushed past, and I stroked to get into them so they would carry me ashore, but each went by. Just as my hand touched sand, the brine suddenly drained outward, pulling me with it.
Ignoring my biting muscles, I swam hard again, but now away from shore, for I needed to get back out before the incoming wave broke. It jacked up, the peak throwing out almost as far as it was high, and it pounded downward. My foot hit bottom as I kicked. I slid past the lip of the breaker, suspend briefly inside the hollow tube created by jutting crest, and ducked my head through the wall. As the wave collapsed, all the air trapped within that tube exploded out the back, shooting spray about me as I surfaced.
My second attempt was more successful. I dragged myself up the steep incline of the beach, and when I was safely beyond the reach of the ocean, I collapsed to my knees, sinking into the coarse grains of sand.
I lay there panting, remembering.
I had just ridden the biggest wave of my life---and it was still the smallest one in the set. I barely survived the journey back to shore. And my board was where? Lost for sure. Probably broken in half. It'd be at least two hundred bucks to replace, and I didn't even have a job yet! Hell, I'd only been on the island a week. One week, and already I'd nearly killed myself and busted my new board.
"Howzit braddah?" a voice cried above me. "Howzit?"
"Crap," I mumbled, for I knew it was the Hawaiian I'd encountered on my first day. As if I hadn't had enough, he was now here to kick my ass. Oh well. I pushed myself onto my elbows to accept my fate.
He was standing a bit to my left and the morning sun obscured his form.
"Nahs wave." he said.
"Huh?" I replied.
"Nahs wave, brah. Gotta poundin' doh."
Hands grasped me under my arms and lifted me to my feet. "'Ere braddah," he said. "Planny big suhprise."
I wiped my eyes. This was not the guy I'd run into before---he was closer to my height, though still Hawaiian. I followed him up the incline and onto the flat expanse of beach that held morning sunbathers.
Taking in this sight, I accidentally bumped into my new friend who had halted directly before me. He fell flat on his butt.
"Sorry," I said extending a hand.
"S'cool, brah. S'cool." And he waved to indicate a spot next to where he fell.
I nearly jumped. It was my board! And in one piece.
"What?" I cried, picking it up to inspect for dings. "How? Where'd you find it?"
"Saw duh wave. Ho brah! You beef an duh wave do you board planny. An den it go in duh channel. S'I grab it."
I could barely believe my ears. "Thanks! Thanks a lot! I owe you one, man."
"S'cool. We in dis togethah, brah---da kine!" he pointed toward the break.
Far off, a set of waves were marching inward. As the first formed, five tiny specs rose with it to drop in along the curl. Two were swallowed in the whitewater as the other three raced down the line toward the safety of the channel.
Even from this distance, the spectacle gave me a rush. "Whoo!" I yelled, pumping a fist into the air. "Geev'um!" my companion echoed. And as the three surfers cut out safely, falling onto their stomachs to begin the paddle back into the line-up, others on the beach joined our cries.
A thunder reached us there upon the shore, and I realized that it was the sound of the fury we had just witnessed, delayed by the great expanse of sea which lay between us.
"Ho brah, nahs wave."
"Yeah, nice!" I replied.
We both stood watching as the rest of the set passed. After a reverent silence, the Hawaiian said, "'Kay den. Tomorrow?"
Thunder still resounding in my bones, I answered, "Yeah, tomorrow. Maybe I'll see you out?"
"F'sure, braddah," he told me. "F'sure."
Copyright ©1998 M. Stanley Bubien. All Rights Reserved.
Please contact the editor for free text versions of this very short story formatted for e-mail, usenet news, or ftp.