A two-week surf trip to Tavarua, Fiji, is always an exciting event. We had a good group. Laird was there, and Darrick, plus two friends from Canada. Ken and Don were terrific snowboarders who only recently had discovered surfing. They had tried it enough times to begin the love affair. This trip would be their best opportunity to learn some subtleties, because they had all of us lifers around to offer helpful tips.
After a few days of practice in smaller waves, we thought they were ready to try the real waves of Cloudbreak. The surf was little by our standards, certainly nothing life-threatening. Even small Cloudbreak, however, is still a powerful wave breaking over a very shallow and sharp reef. After riding a few insiders, Ken wanted to know how big the waves were.
“There aren’t any waves out here today that are over four feet,” said Laird. He chuckled. The rest of us exchanged knowing looks.
“Well, four feet is only this big,” said Ken. He spread his hands apart to demonstrate the measurement. “You’re telling me that wave wasn’t taller than this? Do you guys measure from the back or what?”
“Don’t be an idiot, nobody measures waves from the back,” replied Laird.
A few minutes later a nice set rolled in. Laird yelled for Ken to go for it. His arms were a blur as he paddled hard to get the wave that the great Laird Hamilton had personally selected for him.
“How big is it? How big is it?” Ken inquired over his shoulder. It was a nice wave and quite a bit larger than any that had come in so far that day – almost seven-foot by our standards. But Laird wasn’t going to tell him that.
“Its four feet, GO!”
The wave jacked up even more as we watched Ken, caught in the lip, get pitched headlong over the falls. He got clobbered, washing all the way in to the very shallow “Shish Kabob” section. Battered and beaten, tail between his legs, Ken went straight to the boat and would have no more of the waves that day.
Over dinner that evening, he kept asking us how his wave could have been four feet. Right before he got launched into space, he insisted politely, he was looking down 10 or 12 feet. We assured him that the wave was barely four feet, maybe only three. Ken shook his head, plainly troubled by the notion that a mere four-foot wave could give him such a beating.
Later that winter we met again at a place called Blue River in British Columbia. Mike Wiegele runs the finest helicopter skiing operation in the world there. All day long we raced down mountainsides on our snowboards. We wove in and out of the pine trees. We launched jumps made by fallen trees, wind cornices and sometimes even small cliffs. At one point, Ken stopped and yelled back uphill that there was a great jump right below him. From our position above, we could see the drop-off but not the bottom.
“Well, how big is it?” Laird asked.
Ken, getting his camera out, told us that it was only four feet so we should get all the speed we could, otherwise we wouldn’t even get off the ground.
“Come on,” he said, “I’ll count back from three. You guys all go together, okay?”
On the count of “one” we all took off. We went off the edge together and were equally shocked to find not a four-foot drop but at least a 20-foot one. And as one, we all realized that we were going way too fast to make the landing, and that we’d just been had by Ken.
After we dug ourselves out of the deep powder, Laird was a little pissed. He shouted back up to Ken: “Hey, I thought you said it was only four feet!”
We could hear Ken cracking up as he yelled back down, “We measure from the back here in Canada.”