“I can see why people say ‘oh Gore Bay… it’s not that great'” Amy says while pulling neoprene off her wet skin. She struggles to both peel her feet out of the legs and remain upright. “But you know, for me I can practice the basics. Like I can easily swim out past the breakers over and over again. At Sumner I could maybe do that, like, ten times. The waves breaking so close to the shore don’t give long rides, but I get to practice standing up again and again.”
“Unh-huh” I acknowledge as I deal with my own wetsuit issues. I drive my hand down the leg of my borrowed wetsuit and pry my heel out. Soon I am free and looking for my fleece. “Well, I don’t have much to compare it to and it is challenging enough for me to catch a wave, so I am not complaining too much.”
Amy and I are camped at one of two campgrounds that cater to the beach going tourists in the otherwise uncommercialized town of Gore Bay. After ten days of wandering in the mountains down the west coast, we have driven up to New Zealand’s Hurunui district on the east coast and have posted up to do some relaxing and surfing. We wake up, eat breakfast, look at the waves, don our surfing get-ups, and head out into the ocean. Sometimes we join other surfers and sometimes it is just us and the dolphins.
Mostly I write about work and climbing of various types, cause, well, that is what I do and that is what I know. I have written much about the alpine, my love affair with it and its desert antithesis. Rarely however, do I visit the ocean. I am not into sea kayaking or sailing, though I have done a bit of both. Fishing and boating are also not on my list of things normally done. Surfing seems to be my biggest connection to the salt water and off shore breezes though it is not something that I regularly do. I think I first went surfing in 2001 and since that time, about thirteen years, have been on a total of four surfing trips.
“Jared, do you want to go to Mexico for two weeks?” Whigger Mullins asks, his arms spread and a big smile on his face as he comes bursting in to his office at Trails Wilderness School in Kelly, WY. I am sitting in his office chair with my left leg propped on his desk. My elevated left ankle is wrapped in an ace bandage and is sporting an ice pack, the victim of an intense game of ultimate frisbee in a field of sage brush.
“Uhh” I respond, a bit dumbfounded. I feel like I need to explain the obvious so: “uhh, I don’t speak spanish and I don’t surf” I reply, knowing that he wants to send me there to do some work on his upcoming surfing course. “And most of all” I continue “I have a sprained ankle, as you can see.”
“I know, it is perfect” Whigger replies rather non plussed by my excuses. “You’ll be fine. You’ll be driving cars, sitting on the beach and the cold water’ll be great for your ankle. Besides, Paul is an excellent teacher and he’ll teach you how to surf. Really I just need you to drive up to Ensenada and pick up the producer and film crew. Be a liaison between them and the course.”
It really doesn’t take me much convincing to sign on to a fully paid and paid for journey to the Pacific Coast of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. I pack my bags, grab my passport and quickly hobble onto a flight from Jackson to San Diego to meet up with the other employees and then the students before driving south to Baja. And thus began my illustrious surfing escapades that have seen me on four different surfing trips in four different countries and three continents.
Ok, so maybe illustrious is the wrong word, but the beginning it was. We were south of Ensenada, somewhere in Baja Norte. Thirteen years later, my memories of that trip have faded, though besides the behavior of the students, there are a few things that still swirl deep back in my memory, things like catching a long ride on the last day of surfing or the lifestyle: camping on the beach, eating fish tacos and homemade corn tortillas with beans. I was a climber then and I remember thinking “if I ever quit climbing, it will be to become a surfer…” and that is something that I have thought every time I have paddle out and gotten tossed around by a wave, felt the exhilaration of dropping off a steep green, glassy wall of water into an unknown outcome or watched the sun rise burn the mist off the ocean. Much like climbing, it is the challenge, the beauty and the time with friends that fuel the desire.
Years later Josh Beckner and I solidified a friendship that we had developed on the the spires and crags of Frey by several weeks of surfing off the coast of Uruguay. We spent Christmas Day traveling through Montevideo and then on to Punta del Este. We found the upscale vacation spot for porteños to be a bit snooty and expensive for us, so we continued north to La Paloma and settled into a low key existence fueled by time in the mountains and the thought of coming work. The waves weren’t great and the rental shop was a bit shady, but we got after it anyway. Staying at an out of the way hostel with a thatched roof, we would foray out to the beach and enjoy the local scene. In many ways, as was this last trip in New Zealand, I was learning all over again.
A year later, after once again returning from the alpine of Patagonia, I zipped up a wet suit and joined my then girlfriend Emily for a short day of surfing out at Cowell’s in Santa Cruz. It didn’t feel like I was beginning all over again, but it did feel like the beginning of something more.
That something more stalled out. There was talk of Australia and Arapallies and surfing near Melbourne, but nothing ever came of it. I thought of buying one of them ironic Surf Wyoming hats, but that would have cost money, so the feelings and ideas faded, that is until I decided to come back to New Zealand in the spring of 2013. “Amy” I propositioned “what do you think about spending some of December and January climbing some snowy peaks and surfing in New Zealand? I think you and I spending some of that time together would be a good incentive for me to come back to New Zealand this September.” She went for it and in January I attempted to paddle out past the breakers once again.
Sitting on my board, bobbing up and down with the gentle swell I can not help but think of how disappointed I am with the way this holiday is wrapping up. Yeah, I may be going on to El Chalten and the alpine climbing crucible, but in some ways that is old hat. Do I want to trade it in for a long stint of surfing somewhere? Well, not really, but surfing, even at an “easy” break such as this one is new and different and holds my interest. I think about “spot X” and carving versus trimming, hands out on either side and legs together. All this technique fills my mind. I think about the days I have left and how I want them to be good ones, ones that will allow me to improve, have fun, and enjoy time with Amy. The waves are slow and flat and despite my best efforts, despite paddling like mad, I can’t seem to be in the right spot at the right time with the right speed.
Later that afternoon we go and check the surf again, making the short walk across the road and down the wooden stairs. Kids and parents frolic about in the surf and boogie boarders catch small waves next to the shore, but the swell has subsided even more and with it, our inspiration. We sit on the small, warm, round rocks that coat the shoreline and watch the families and the gulls. A gentle breeze stirs the water surface while we sit a little longer enjoying the afternoon light before heading back to camp and eating supper.
“If you don’t mind me saying, you should get a little closer to the tip of your board. It will help you catch the wave more” the man floating on his surfboard next to me offers. Indeed, I have been struggling with catching waves all morning. We discuss the intricacies of the sweet spot: to far forward and your board dives into the water and is ineffective; too far back and one looses the ability to drop into the wave or even catch it. I consider it, give it a whirl and miss the next wave. He offers a few more tips: paddling and then kicking your feet up to inch your body and weight forward on the board, thus giving it the needed weight to drop into the wave. I watch him effortlessly catch the next wave and then paddle back out. “Oh and another thing, you got to paddle like fuck.” We float, slowly rising and falling as the glassy, green, gray water swells around us. “When you think you’ve got it, give it one more” he adds. We sit, with our backs to the shore watching and waiting for the next right one. “What size is your board?” he asks.
“A seven footer” I reply, knowing full well it’s length gives a novice like me an added challenge.
“Hmmm, that is probably a bit short for you. Here, why don’t you try this, it’s a seven-six” he offers.
“You don’t mind?” I ask, a bit incredulous that this random stranger would offer to switch boards with me in the middle of the ocean.
“Naw, you’ll probably have better luck with this. It is much more buoyant, wider, and longer. It’ll be easier for you. Here take your leash off at the board…” After a few shenanigans with the leash, which was mostly me not quite grasping what he was saying, we swap boards. I set myself up for the next wave and after paddling like fuck, I catch the wave and ride it in, though I may or may not have fallen off after popping up.
Later, on the beach after he has had his fill, we shake hands. “Nigel” he says. Amy and I introduce ourselves and we chit chat a bit before he and Amy each decide to call it quits for the morning. I stand a bit staring out at the ocean before strapping back into my leash and walking out for another try. “That is so Kiwi,” Amy says before I walk away. “You never hear of people punching each other or being territorial surfers here like you do in California”
“Yeah, a random stranger offers me tips and then his surfboard. That’s kinda awesome.”
The waves returned with a vengeance the following afternoon and morning. They came in fast and furious and for the most part didn’t even allow us to get out past the breakers. And much like the waves came in, so did the end of our holiday. We packed it in and headed north. Despite the challenging conditions in the last 24 hours, I have no problem chalking it up as a success in that I am still hungry for more. The question to answer now is which country is next?