The paddle out is simple but creepy, with cold, dark water and undulating bull kelp doing a spooky little dance. As waves sweep over the kelp forest, bowlingball-sized bulbs are forced under water and burst through the surface again. Each erupting bulb makes me flinch in a millisecond of fear – early fall is the perfect time to find a great white petting zoo on this stretch of coast. Locals D.Z. and Chad appear unfazed by this and seem amused at my hesitation.
The waves aren’t big, but the break is heavy and presents a technical challenge: Deep water converges onto a shallow, uneven shelf of barnaclecovered rock, and the takeoff spot is elusive due to long lulls, lack of exposed landmarks and closeout sets. Every wave watched or ridden is littered with clues about what to do when it’s my turn.
Chad has it down and I watch him closely. He whips around late on a solid one; D.Z. and I hoot him on. At almost the same moment, we glimpse a big closeout set out the back and start scratching for the horizon side by side, rushing to beat the cascading lip.
When I surface, D.Z. is gone.
I chuckle a little, imagining him getting sucked over the falls backwards with only a duck-dive breath. But when I look back, just before diving under the set’s second wave, I only see two feet of D.Z.’s 7′2″ tombstoning in the leftover turbulence, with just seconds before the next wave detonates squarely on his head.
I’m spooked now, thinking that his leash or a limb is hung up in a crevice on the bottom. When I resurface I whip around and sprint through the white water, scrambling in the direction I had last seen his board.
Time slows when you’re tumbling under water. Add darkness, cold, a quarter breath: What is probably only 25 seconds feels like you’re sprinting a mile blindfolded, not breathing, while being kicked in the guts. I’m worried that, at this point, D.Z. could be out cold or very close to it.
With the next wave looming, just before bailing my board, I catch a glimpse of D.Z. gulping air like a goldfish in the white wash; he looks tired and shocked but otherwise fine. Once he surfaces, I am out of my focused, adrenalized rescue mode and back to prowling for one more good wave.
Sitting out the back alone, I start daydreaming about dinner and begin looking forward to a good evening: Close calls make the food taste better and the storytelling richer.