Several years ago, completely beside myself in wit and humility, I got it into my head that I’d make it a goal of mine to surf a “big wave.” Because the definition of “big wave” is rather vague, I set the “humble” goal at about 30 feet. In order to fully illustrate the absurdity of this goal, it is important to note that the most intense surfing I’d ever done was at Rockaway Beach in New York. I’d paddled out for the Nor’Easters, but hadn’t really been in the water with waves of consequence, much less surfed them. It wasn’t until I found myself in the ocean in Puerto Rico in a rising swell that I understood that waves could get much bigger, and that I might have to rethink my mental scale. (When I moved to Hawaii, I’d have to rethink that scale again; more on that later.)
But this isn’t an essay about the conflicts of measurement between the Hawaiian wave scale and the scale used pretty much everywhere else. This isn’t an essay about big wave surfing—a big wave surfer I am not. This is an essay about humility.
David Foster Wallace was probably one of the better writers of the 20th century, and he was best in his nonfiction writing about tennis, where his attention to tedium and effusive style balanced with the need for specificity. I don’t really care much about tennis, but Wallace’s philosophical approach to the game makes me care.
One of David Foster Wallace’s classic essays about tennis is his piece about Michael Joyce, a relatively unknown tennis player who was ranked in the top 100 in the world, but hardly at the top of the game. The piece is called “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff About Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness.” There’s a point early in the essay where Wallace invites the reader “to imagine what it would be like to be among the hundred best in the world at something. At anything. I have tried to imagine; it’s hard.”
This is relevant to my story because without realizing it, I was perhaps setting myself a more ambitious goal than I realized when I told myself I’d surf a 30-foot wave. The surfing world has (somewhat) objective measurements for determining its top female surfers. There are contests for that, contests for which I will never qualify. But what does it mean to be top in the world as a big wave surfer? The World Surf League has rankings for big wave surfers, but how many women in the world have surfed a 30-foot wave, or a 40-foot wave—for that matter? Queen of the Bay’s invitee list includes 28 female athletes. There are more women who surf big waves than this, I know for sure. But how many?
Are there even 100 female big wave surfers in the world? And what does it even mean to be a “big wave surfer?”
Carissa Moore, the four-time World Surf League World Tour Champion says she only surfed Waimea Bay once. Moore gives a tour of her home in “At Home with Carissa Moore: Presented by Subaru Hawai’i,” and shows the audience her big wave board. “This is my big wave board,” she explains, pointing to a yellow gun on her wall, “but I’ve only used it once at Waimea and that freaked me out, so now it’s up on the wall.” Surfing a wave once does not a big wave surfer make.
And what does it even mean to “surf” Waimea Bay? I’ve paddled out on empty days when it was “small” (7 feet, 8 feet, and one day where it was rising to maybe 10) and I know that doesn’t count. I’ve been out there with a bunch of tourists who wanted to be able to say they “caught one at the bay.” And yes, I’ve caught a few waves out there, but the wave felt “small” even then. I don’t know how to explain it. It didn’t have the power of serious surf at that size. I don’t even own a big wave gun surfboard. Would 15 feet at Waimea Bay even qualify as “big” enough? Maybe 20 feet would count? At what point would it count?
Red Bull’s Queen of the Bay event only runs if the waves in Waimea Bay are scheduled to be 18 to 20 feet. Emily Erickson was quoted in the same article as saying, “I’ve heard people say we should run it smaller, like in 15 feet, just to get a contest in… I think it has to be 18 to 20 feet to be proper Waimea.” And I believe her. Maybe 15 feet Waimea Bay just doesn’t have the juice. I wouldn’t know.
What is a big wave?
Fortunately, I found a partial answer. I found a helpful article in the San Francisco Chronicle called “A Brief History of Women’s Big Wave Surfing.” The writer, Bruce Jenkins makes the following note: “To establish parameters: The standard for big waves begins at 15 feet by the so-called Hawaiian measurement. That’s 15 feet as measured in the open ocean, a still unbroken swell. That generally translates to a 30-foot face as the wave encounters shallow water—a reef…” This gave me some comfort, because 15-foot Hawaiian had been my goal. At least I had enough of an understanding to set a proper goal when it came to measuring what would be my standard of success.
The article goes on to note that “As recently as 1988, there was no evidence of women having surfed a 20-footer.” On 20 to 25-foot days at Waimea Bay, the book “North Shore Chronicles,” mentions only men. In the 1960s and 70s, a couple of female pioneers took on big waves. Jenkins notes that a woman named Layne Beachley was towed (by her boyfriend, Jenkins takes pains to note—I don’t see why this matters) into a 25-foot wave at Outside Log Cabins on the North Shore. Only recently have female big wave surfers even made the news. The World Surf League only held its first Women’s Big Wave surf contest in 2016.
Keala Kennelly (my hero) is the modern-day master and female pioneer of the big wave; the female equivalent of one of the best in the world, if not “the” best.
Kennelly has set the standard for female big wave surfing, dropping in on terrifying huge barrels in Teahupo’o, a wave I have no interest of ever surfing. Kennelly is a master.
To illustrate her mastery, I’ll tell you another short (and humbling) story. A while ago on the south shore there was a day of pretty significant (for me) swell. When town gets swell, everyone heads out to sea. I remember paddling out and feeling a little timid about the energy I felt out there for some of the waves (I also hadn’t been surfing every day at that point, because I had been busy working on finishing a book of poetry). Kennelly posted some of her waves that day on her Instagram featuring beautiful aerials and impossible looking turns. Her caption in the comments? “#southshore has been #firing. People think I don’t enjoy surfing small waves but I absolutely do.” Ouch. Small waves? I wouldn’t have called those waves small.
The more I understood what it felt like to surf 7-foot waves, the more I felt humbled, and the more I thought about David Foster Wallace’s essay about Michael Joyce.
Wallace writes beautifully about encountering levels of play, levels of competition “so distinct that what’s being played is in essence a whole different game.” Wallace’s experience watching Joyce play in Montreal is, he admits, his first experience watching professional tennis live. “I… confess that I arrived in Montreal with some dim unconscious expectation that these professionals—at least the obscure ones, the non-stars—wouldn’t be all that much better than I. I don’t mean to imply that I’m insane…In other words, I arrived at my first professional tournament with the pathetic deluded pride that attends ignorance.”
Wallace’s realization that he has never played “the same game as these low-ranked pros” makes him incredibly sad. I can relate.
I arrived at the North Shore with the same “deluded pride that attends ignorance,” a unique state of mind one experiences when one encounters levels of achievement so great they cannot even be imagined. I could vaguely think about surfing a big wave, but I had no clue what I was talking about. I thought I’d show up, paddle out into the sea, and learn how to catch bigger waves. How hard could it be?
When I first saw Sunset Beach on a big swell, I just sat on the sand under a tree, my mouth opened in awe, and my hands shaking as I watched several young women paddle out into what appeared to be their certain deaths without looking the least bit phased. I was truly humbled. I just wanted to lie fetal on the sand and take a nap.
Surfing is an interestingly egalitarian sport. In tennis, in order to occupy the same court as a Federer, Agassi, or Sampras, you need to be truly good (or have a lot of money). You can’t just show up to the court on a day Federer is playing and expect to knock around a few balls. As David Foster Wallace noted, it would be “obscene” and “absurd” for Wallace to think he could ever occupy the same court as a reasonably good player like Joyce. Wallace explains: “I could not meaningfully exist on the same court with these obscure, hungry players. Nor could you.”
In fact, in Wallace’s essay, one of the things Joyce is most proud of is the fact that he has been flown to Vegas “at Agassi’s request to practice with him, and is apparently regarded by Agassi as a friend and peer.” Wallace notes: “these are facts Michael Joyce will mention with as much pride as he evinces in speaking of victories and world ranking.”
In order to play against an Agassi or Federer, you need to be invited; you need to be good.
But in surfing, each wave is its own court, its own field of play. (My comparison between the tennis court and ocean is not so far-fetched; it appears William Shakespeare made a similar comparison in Pericles, writing “A man whom both the waters and the wind,/ in that vast tennis-court, hath made the ball/ for them to play upon, entreats you pity him.” The ocean is the court and the field, but in surfing, the ocean belongs to everyone. In order to compete for the same waves against the pros, you just need to watch the surf report and paddle out on a good day. (Mostly) no one will tell you to go home (unless you make the cardinal sin of getting in someone’s way or if you pose a danger to yourself or others, which happens). If you follow the surfing etiquette, put in your time at the lineup, show humility, and wait your turn, even the best pros will give you a wave eventually.
Still, it’s one thing to paddle out and be out in the lineup with a professional surfer, and another thing entirely to really have the right to be there. I have sat in the lineup with professional long boarders and have found myself on the same waves accidentally, but these accidents are just as “absurd and in a certain way obscene” as David Foster Wallace thinking he could hit around a few balls with Agassi or Joyce. I don’t meaningfully occupy the lineup.
Perhaps my thinking that I could surf a 30-foot wave is similar to thinking I could meaningfully occupy the same field as a pro baseball player, or basketball player. What if I just didn’t belong out there?
Imagine someone going out onto one side of the tennis court, trying to learn to serve, while Agassi was on the other side, practicing his serve for the U.S. Open. This is basically how I felt trying to catch waves at Queens where masters like Kelis Kaleopa’a and Honolua Blomfield were also there, dancing, defying gravity with grace, poise, and perfect style; their toes always on the nose, while I flailed around trying to take one step in that vague direction, shuffling around, dragging my feet, and falling head-first off the front, a move I liked to call “walking the plank.” Maybe I learned something from them by watching and taking up space, but I certainly didn’t belong in the lineup.
There are moments when I think about how wonderful it would be to someday message Kennelly and ask if I could maybe shadow or paddle out with her on a bigger north shore day, but I also understand that to do this would be, to borrow Wallace’s words, “absurd and in a certain way obscene.”
Since I moved to Hawai’i, I’ve surfed most every day (taking occasional weekends off and time off to nurse injuries or fall in love). I improved as a surfer, in the way one improves when one devotes time every day to an activity. I would hardly say I’ve trained the way a professional would train, but I’ve put in time in the ocean, more time than the average person for sure. South shore swells once terrified me (though I’d paddle out into them anyway). Now, all but the largest south swells feel pretty routine.
North shore swells are a completely different beast.
In order to surf a big wave, you need to be a good surfer. The physics involved in catching a wave is too complicated for me to describe here, but it involves perfect positioning on the wave itself and in the ocean, angle of take-off, timing of when you stand up on the board, and subtle decisions about the path you take once you’re actually up and riding the wave. Then there are the individual idiosyncrasies of each wave and wave break and beach, that involve currents, where the wave breaks, how it breaks, how the lineup works, who is in the lineup, blah, blah, blah…
I think I understood in my logical mind that I’d need to get good, possibly great, but I don’t think I understood this in my gut, and when it comes to taking stupid risks, the logical mind’s fear centers can often be easily overridden, while the gut’s fear-centers are far more effective. When I moved to Hawai’i to try to surf bigger waves, it didn’t occur to me that I’d have to actually get better. I just figured I’d get braver and the rest would work itself out. At no point in the mental calculus did I take into account the fact that I’d only been surfing for about three years, that I’d never surfed in waves of consequence, and that I’d really had no truly frightening experiences in the ocean. Maybe I had the bravery part figured out from my days of rock climbing without a rope, but the common sense part and skill still needed work.
Either way, my fearless approach would change.
Putting value judgements on natural phenomena is dangerous, but big waves on the North Shore can be best described as freakish. In order to surf a wave—any wave, small or large—the wave must generally have a shape conducive to surfing. Think of a series of dominos falling, one after another. When surfing a wave, you want the wave to break like that, like a series of dominoes falling one after another. That left to right collapse of the wave gives you a path on the water. If the wave breaks all at once, you can’t really surf the wave. If it breaks all over the place, you can’t really surf it either.
When surfing waves, you want to be pretty close to where the wave first breaks and then stay as close to that spot as possible.
When waves get very big on the east coast, they tend to get disorderly, and therefore are not surfable. But when waves get big in Hawai’i’s North Shore, something miraculous happens, they don’t get disorderly. They don’t “close out” or collapse all at once. No. They break in an orderly and predictable manner. Of course, as the wave gets bigger, only some breaks in Hawai’i will “hold” the size. Some places, like Sunset Beach, Pipeline, and Waimea Bay will “hold the size,” the waves falling predictably and reliably like a beautifully laid out domino configuration, while mostly everywhere else on the North Shore will be a mess of huge white water, the water falling all at once like a table of once-ordered dominoes that has been kicked and shaken.
The reason why this can happen is largely why the North Shore of Hawai’i is called the “seven mile miracle.” Anywhere else and the ocean would be a dangerous roiling mess of white water and unsurfable chaos, but in Hawai’i, the waves get big and orderly. This is because of the bathymetry of the ocean floor. Offshore, under the sea, you’ll find reefs. But these aren’t just any kind of reefs. These reefs are structured in a manner that allows them to channel the energy of the ocean in a precise way to create surfable waves.
Being out in the ocean when the waves are bigger, but breaking in an orderly fashion is like nothing else on earth. You feel like you’re somehow defying the laws of nature. How can it be that the water can move like that, that the wave can be that big, and yet you can find a place to sit in the water where it is still safe to watch it break? I have had many surf sessions where I haven’t caught a single wave. Where I have just paddled out and felt the power of the water. It was enough.
In order to meet my goal of surfing a “30-foot wave” I’d (in theory) have to paddle out on a day when Waimea Bay is reported to get a swell of about 15 feet (and if I wanted it to really, really count, according to Erickson, I’d have to paddle out on an 18 to 20 day). The Hawaiian wave scale measures waves by the “back” rather than by the front, so when the report says the waves are 3 feet, they are really more like 6, and when the report says the waves are 7 feet, they are really more like 14 feet, give or take a little or a lot. Because I’d learned to surf in the east coast, where the waves are small, powerful, and largely disorderly, the waves in Hawai’i were a pleasant surprise. Channels made it relatively easy to paddle out. The predictability of the ocean thanks to the reefs and underwater formations that shaped the waves (the bathymetry) made me feel confident swimming and paddling out in much larger surf than I’d ever dream of paddling out into on the East Coast or in Puerto Rico.
When I first moved to O’ahu, I paddled out in Waimea Bay when the surf was a small “seven to eight feet” and caught a wave. In my head, in those naïve days, I was halfway toward my goal. Marathon-running friends of mine had always told me that if you can do a half marathon, you can do a full because it’s basically the same mental and physical principle, but much longer. I figured the same might apply to big waves. If I could paddle out and surf in swell half my target “size,” I’d soon enough surf my 30-foot wave.
But when the surf is small in Waimea Bay, the wave breaks on a part of the reef called “pinballs.” And when the surf is larger in Waimea Bay, it breaks elsewhere. I’d learn this on a day I tried paddling out on a rising 10-foot swell, realizing that I could no longer predict where the wave would break. It was terrifying, but because the waves were still “small” for Waimea Bay, I could paddle to the middle of the bay and safely avoid the reef shelf where all the action was taking place.
If I was going to improve as a North Shore surfer, I realized I’d have to stop surfing “small” Waimea Bay where I could always just paddle into the middle of the bay and avoid a pounding. I’d need go surf some of the other spots. These other places would give me my first real lesson.
It didn’t take me long to have an experience that truly terrified me. Since moving to Hawai’i, I’ve surfed all kinds of waves in all kinds of conditions, but I’ve never felt scared for my life. Yes, I’ve had a few fun hold downs (where the waves have tumbled me underwater for a long time), and I’ve even tomb-stoned (which is when the wave drives you down deep and your board sticks up in the water like a tombstone, and if your leash doesn’t snap, you can climb your leash to the surface like a rope ladder) and I’ve seen some big (for me) waves come my way—and even caught a few big (for me) ones—but I’ve never felt scared for my life. I’ve lost my board a few times and have had to go swimming, but in smaller south shore waves, where I felt pretty confident I’d make it to shore. I like to think I’m a pretty strong swimmer. I free dive and I feel like I’m reasonably good at holding my breath, and if I have one talent it’s my ability to see looming waves on the horizon and my ability to navigate the channels. I don’t often get waves on my head.
A few weeks ago, I knew I was pushing my limits when I drove out to the North Shore and saw the cleanup sets completely transform the normally orderly waves of the place where I surf into a chaos of whitewater and rip currents. The break wasn’t closing out on every set, but every 30 minutes, a wave would fill the entire horizon and collapse seemingly all at once, linking two surf breaks together in a manner I’d never seen before. When it starts looking maxed out, I know it’s big. Still, the outside sets weren’t frequent and the ones in between looked fun and big–good test pieces. I decided to give it a try, knowing I was pushing my limits. The report called for 8-foot waves, with an occasional 9-foot one, but the report the day before had called for much larger 12-foot plus waves. The truth was that I really didn’t know what I was getting into. I knew that if I got scared I could just paddle out to sea, where I’d be safe from the bigger sets.
Still, I’d never seen water move like that, and I’d never been in the water when it was moving like that. From the moment I started paddling, I could tell that the ocean was mean. I almost turned around and paddled back to shore. But when I got to the lineup, I felt okay. The funny thing about surfing any waves is that the chaos on the inside gives way to calm ocean when you’re safely beyond where the swell breaks on the reef.
I watched the water. I wasn’t quite ready to paddle for a wave, but I felt safe enough to inch myself closer to the takeoff zone, the place of highest energy where I’d actually be able to catch a wave. On the North Shore, you have to be close to this place to actually catch a wave, otherwise, the energy just passes under your surfboard.
I felt comfortable and started chatting with the guys out there. I let myself get distracted and that’s when I looked out to sea and saw the set coming. It loomed, rising with every inch, darkening the water, like something malevolent had gotten into the sea and had turned it bad.
I didn’t make it over the wave. I had to bail on my board, which is terrible and something you should never do. I dove deep under and got out on the other side okay, but the wave had my board in its grip. The leash snapped.
I don’t really know how to describe the shock I felt. I felt naked, vulnerable, and scared.
And so I found myself swimming, without my leash, as more waves loomed on the horizon (I don’t even know how big they were anymore, but they were bigger than any wave I’d ever seen). I had a decision to make, paddle back to my board or swim for my life out to sea. I chose to swim out to sea. Breathing deeply to stay calm and prepare myself for a hold down in case I got a wave on my head. When the cleanup sets passed, a kind man and woman helped me get my board.
Safely reunited with my board, I paddled out to sea to think about things. I used my climbing knot skills to tie my leash to my leg. I thought about stupidity, and hubris, and bravery, and ego. More waves came through. I watched a young woman catch waves and even walk to the nose on some of them. David Foster Wallace’s writing about skill so transcendent it was almost obscene for someone like me to be out there came to mind.
I saw a sea turtle get sucked up into the lip of one wave. Even the sea turtles seemed to be having a bad day (except for that amazing woman). I waited until a space between sets and paddled back to shore.
One of the kind men in the lineup followed me back in. I asked him if I could have handled the situation better. I had decided to swim out to sea rather than swim back to my board, after all. My board had gotten caught in the washing machine and I worried if I swam back to get it while the cleanup sets were rolling through, I’d get caught in the washing machine too.
He told me I did the right thing, but he asked to look at my leash. I lifted it up. It looked like a creature had bit it clean in half.
He showed me his leash. It looked industrial grade.
“This,” he said, pointing to his metal-reinforced leash, “is a big wave leash. I use it because I don’t want to be swimming out there. I know you don’t want to be swimming out there either. Get a better leash. Come back tomorrow. It will be a little smaller.”
I went home and ordered a big wave leash. I’m also taking my swimming more seriously in the mornings.
When you’re learning something new, there’s ignorance that comes from knowing the dangers and then there’s ignorance that comes from not knowing the dangers. There’s also knowing something intellectually and knowing something viscerally, in your bones, from experience. Anyone can tell you that heartbreak hurts, but there’s knowing it hurts and feeling it and living it. I always knew my leash could break and that I’d have to swim if it did. I just didn’t know what it felt like. What it meant, in my bones. Now I do.
I went home that day, crawled into bed and cried for hours. I cried because I was relieved to be alive, cried because I realized that I was trying to do something impossible, cried because I didn’t realize how ignorant I had been to what I was trying to get myself into. I cried because I realized I probably couldn’t meaningfully exist on the lineup when the surf would be calling for 15 feet waves.
But now I own a big wave leash, a piece of surf technology I previously didn’t know existed. I don’t own a big wave gun and I know now, in my bones, how far I am from being a big wave surfer. If I told you an amateur tennis player was trying to qualify for the U.S. open at age 36, you’d think the person was crazy. Maybe my goal of surfing a big wave is just as nuts. I learned to surf at 30. I’m 36 years old, an age when most athletes are retiring.
But most days, when the swell calls for “solid” surf, I make the drive out to the North Shore, rain or shine, and try hard. To a real big wave surfer, these are not waves of consequence at all—I know this. But to me, they are my training ground, my proving ground.
I’m getting more comfortable in the water. I’m going for it more often.
Perhaps improvement is less about a sudden leap, and more about raising your game in small increments, pushing your comfort zone slowly in the direction of your goal, with humility, knowledge, and care.
About the Writer
Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.
She founded Sphinx Moth Press to provide more opportunities for low-income writers to have their work read and reviewed.