Three of the four days prior to the contest I surfed multiple sessions in Puerto Rico until my arms couldn't paddle anymore. The night before the contest I slept only three hours before getting up at 1 a.m., driving to the Aguadilla Airport and flying back to Florida. I landed in Orlando at 6 a.m. and drove straight to Bethune Beach (site of the Contest) so I only had the equipment I packed for Puerto Rico... in other words no wetsuit. I did not sleep on the plane, but opted to watch the movie "Up" over "G.I. Joe" instead.
Brian has been bugging me to surf a contest for months now so I figured this was better than never. I'll try anything once and while I have little desire to surf contests nor do I fully understand how they work, I figured I might as well give it a shot at least for the experience, not to mention I'm a curious person.
Saturday morning was a classic Autumn-like day on the east coast of Florida with a twist. A Nor'easter had pounded the northern states for the prior week leaving a swell in the Atlantic Ocean. Hurricane Ida had passed through the gulf coast in an easterly direction and out to sea causing west winds along the central east coast of Florida. With the swell and offshore winds it was an above average day for surfing. Head high sets rolled in with moderate periods. The waves weren't hollowing out, but were on the edge almost feeling as if they want to and just need a little more push. Perhaps a tidal change. Looking back it's obvious that I under estimated the conditions having surfed much bigger waves in Puerto Rico the prior few days.
Initially I was not going to enter the contest. I came to scout the south beach area while another friend went north with the goal of finding the best waves. Brian, Jeremy and Blythe were already at Bethune. Brian already entered the Open Men's Longboarding Division. As I arrived the surf looked really fun and clean. My friend scouting the north drove down to meet up with me, but while I was waiting for him, Brian convinced me to enter the contest. Jeremy entered it as well. The folks at the "Before the Fall" Pro Am contest could give us no real idea of how long it would be before our heat would begin in our division. This was frustrating. I felt as if we had to wait around all day to be called just to surf a 20 minute heat. I just want to surf. This is why I have long felt that surfing contest are NOT for me and also not considering myself skilled enough to be competitive.
On a gamble (not knowing when my heat would be called) I told my friend, Bob, that I'd surf with him for a while. Bob had somewhere to be later in the day and I could tell he wanted to surf with someone. He was not entering the contest. Besides, I wanted to surf with Bob. He's a super cool longboarder and I'm always stoked to paddle out with him. The water was colder than what I was acclimated to so I wore a long sleeve 2mm top that I borrowed from Brian. This worked out well, but Brian wore a full suit and ended up being too hot and wanted the top back for the contest forcing me to wear a short sleeve top. I took it easy so not to wear out my arms. The waves were fun and clean and after getting a feel for them I felt as if I could actually rip a few of them up and score some points.
After the warm up session with Bob the waiting fest begins. Heat after heat competes, but still no Men's Longboarding Division. Hours go by and finally they give us notice. We are going after the next heat and since there is only one girl registered in the Women's Longboarding Division she is going to surf with the men. She's a talented local longboarder that also works in a surf shop here in town and I'm stoked because of the five of us in our heat only one person is a stranger to me. This is going to be like surfing with friends on any given day I tell myself. A contest official calls my name and hands me a light green rash guard. Brian scores a blue rash guard, Jeremy a red, Kristen a yellow and stranger gets the white (they have us wear these so the judges know for sure who is who). I'm told to surf as many waves as possible and they take the best two waves to score you. Jeremy and I joke around about a twisted strategy while we're waiting. Since we both feel Brian is the better surfer and Jeremy thinks he doesn't have a chance we joke that I'll drop in on and snake Brian on all his waves and they'll disqualify me (the thought of contest officials telling me to never come back makes me laugh), but ruin Brian's chances for a good score and give Jeremy a fighting chance! This is all good sarcastic fun and we'd never really do that to each other.
Longboarders tend to be so much more laid back and mellow than the shortboarders. This is a generalization of course, but more often than not if you hang out with a group of longboarders you're going to have a good time regardless. The contest is allowing five minutes to paddle out and then they blow an air horn indicating the 20 minute heat has begun. As we're waiting for the go ahead on the paddle out we are all talking casually on the beach. Jeremy borrows some wax from me and then I decide to put a little finishing touch on my board. I look up and everyone has left me and they're already in the water paddling out. I didn't even realize someone said "go." .... shit, it's game time!
I toss my wax in my pocket and sprint to the water to catch up. It's funny how quickly the seriousness of being competitive can take over the vibe and spread like Ebola virus in any sporting environment. I hit the water fast and hard and immediately gasp from the chill. I paddle hard not only to stay warm, but to catch up. Since the warm up session hours before the conditions have changed drastically. The wind switched to a north wind and that has crossed up the waves a bit leaving it choppy. The tide has changed from flooding to ebbing and the long shore current is now pulling south like nobody's business. We entered the water well to the north at the advisement of the contest officials with the hopes of staying in the boundaries or contest box once we make it to the outside break about 300 meters offshore. I paddle at a 45 degree angle to wear I'm heading. If I was an airplane I'd be crabbing into the wind. I lose sight of everyone except Kristen in the yellow jersey. She's slightly ahead of me and gets pushed back by a large set wave. I turtle roll the same wave, but recover much faster. Soon I find myself past the break and in the midst of several female shortboarders finishing up their heat. I yell to one of them, "is your heat over" and she gives me a stupid look. I look at my stop watch. It's been 4 minutes. I look behind me and see that I've made it to the outside ahead of the rest of my competitors. Kristen soon arrives on the scene and Jeremy and Brian are a little south. I look to shore and realize we're on the southern end of the contest box about to drift out of bounds so I start paddling again north. I hear the air horn blow and now our heat is officially beginning.
At first there's some hesitation and we're all kind of clumped together fighting to stay in bounds. Brian goes for a wave and backs off. Kristen takes a wave and nails it going toward the right (north). Jeremy passes on a wave so I turn into it and pop up making a fast bottom turn to the right. It's a four or five second ride and I complete one cutback and a fadeaway. Then it begins to close out so I exit off the lip not wanting to get caught on the inside. It's my first wave and it felt really good. I probably could have done a floater into the foam ball, but it's early in the heat. I'm amazed at how strong the current is pulling to the south. The contest is running two heats at once in two different boxes. We're in the southern box and a shortboard division is in the northern box. As I'm paddling to stay in my box I see several shortboarders drift by as they can't keep up with the current. Suddenly it's apparent that these are not the ideal conditions for a contest. The strange thing is the current subsided a little while after our heat almost as if it were only there to pick on us.
I look at my stop watch and we're three minutes into the heat so I've been going full strength with no rest for 8 minutes. I know I need to calm down and pace myself. I feel like I just ran a 6 minute mile. My arms are a little sore from surfing in Puerto Rico and my body is tired from lack of sleep. But, it's a contest and I'm fully involved in the moment. Another wave approaches. It looks good and I'm in the best position. I look left and right and nobody has priority over me so I drop in and take this one left for the hopes of a longer ride. It's a smaller wave so I push it a little to far thinking I might get more points for a long ride. Eventually it begins to close out on me. Hmmmm, how about that floater? I cut back on the lip and try to line my 9'0" Walden up to go down the top of the white wash, but it stalls leaving me to fall into a void of aerated water. A few seconds later I surface, flip my board over and begin to paddle back to the line up. But, before I can get there a set wave crashes down before me. I turtle roll, recover and fight to make it back out before the next wave arrives. I FAIL. The next wave is larger and I'm in the worst spot. A spot that you can't turtle roll. A spot that endangers your board in that it could break it. A spot where the only thing to do is push away from your board and dive to the bottom. I do this and get under the wave, but the leash drags me back a good distance all underwater. When I surface again and get back on the board a third wave arrives and forces me to abandon ship again. This time I'm dragged underwater even harder and in the middle of all the roaring water I hear a loud "pop" followed by a release in pressure upon my leg. "F*ck," I yell underwater as I realized my leash has just snapped.
It would be just my luck that in my first surfing contest the conditions go to hell in a hand basket and my brand new leash that I bought only five days prior breaks leaving me in a dangerous situation. I've had a few leashes break before, but this one was the worst possible situation. I'm located just on the verge of the outside break about 300 meters offshore after riding a wave to the left (south) leaving me outside the contest box. At the time I couldn't figure out how nobody could see me and my situation, but now I realize the judges are only looking at surfers riding waves plus I'm only a head in the water now making me harder to spot despite the bright green jersey I'm wearing.
My first instinct is to get back to my surfboard. Only problem is I can't see it anywhere. The bigger problem soon becomes the fact that I'm exhausted from paddling out, surfing waves back to back and then taking three large waves on the head before my leash broke. I can't get my breath back. I'm in colder water than what I'm used to and only wearing a 2mm short sleeve top. Unlike most people I'm negatively buoyant in saltwater because I'm so thin. If I cramp up I'm dead. Trying to put that thought out of my head, I start to do the natural thing and swim for shore. Swimming in rough conditions is tricky. You have to pay attention to the waves around you. You can't just put your head down and swim like you would in a pool. Several waves break right in front of me. I try to dive below them, but get tossed around like a rag doll. I still can't get my breath. I turn around and can see Brian about 100 meters away paddling away from me. He's fighting to stay in the contest box. I yell out to him, but then realize how silly the thought of him hearing me over the crashing waves is so I look back to shore and triangulate position. I've already drifted a few hundred meters south of the contest box. This leaves me about 1,000 meters from the judging tent and the lifeguard tower. Still no sight of my board and I still can't seem to catch my breath. Then it happens.
I puke then dry heave and puke again.
It happens so fast I can't believe it's happening to me. I've never barfed from exhaustion before. I've hurled from being ill and also from injury pain, but never from exhaustion. I'm so stunned by the fact that I'm actually puking I fail to notice a wave breaking right behind me. It engulfs me and my body involuntarily decides it's a good idea to drink some saltwater to wash out the puke. This promotes a few seconds of uncontrolled coughing that seems like an eternity. I regain my composure still not being able to catch my breath and all of a sudden that lifeguard tower starts looking more and more appealing. I've never counted on a lifeguard to save me before. I've never even considered the lifeguards good for anything other than say helping me if I get bit by a shark and only after I make it back to the beach. I've even joked that the lifeguards here don't even pay attention to surfers, but right now in this moment I decide to give him a wave. I'm also a scuba diver and I know from diving that if you surface and wave your arms from side to side it's pretty much the universal signal for "help me dude!" I still can't catch my breath.
After about 5 seconds of waving I soon realize that it's taking up more and more of my energy to wave and the chances of him seeing me are slim. Last I saw him before the heat he looked like he was half asleep.* I stop waving and feel an odd sensation overcoming my body. It makes no sense at all. The instinct to panic is a strange one. Panicking is basically a death sentence in my book. If you panic you lose the ability to think rationally and usually kill yourself in the process. I've been around the water all my life. I'm extremely comfortable in the water, yet right now the thought of panicking is actually appealing. Perhaps my brain is hypoxic since I can't seem to get enough oxygen to catch my breath and I'm not thinking rationally? It's now that I feel a sense of anger coming about me. I series of thoughts fly through my head. Things like I should have checked the leash since it took a few strong pulls in Puerto Rico and if I was wearing a full wetsuit I'd be more buoyant. Then things like where is the next set of waves and does that look like a rip current over there? Then the movie "Major League" of all things pops into my head. I think of the character that prays to his god named "Jobu." At the end of the movie Jobu is failing him because he is about to strike out and he looks at his bat and says "F*ck you Jobu, I do it myself!"
I'm getting no love from the lifeguard. My surfboard is gone. I'm out of sight of my friends. I want to panic. The only person that is getting me out of this situation is me. F*ck you waves, I do it myself! Anger overcomes the instinct to panic. I fight and I fight. I flip over on my back and attempt to float in the hopes of catching my breath. This works, but takes a while as I have to frequently dive under breaking waves. Just when I think I'm getting close to a sandbar where I might be able to touch bottom the waves subside a bit and the texture of the water changes to something I know all to well, a rip current. Usually in rough surf I seek out these holes in the sandbar that funnel water out to sea. It's the easiest way to get to the outside when you're floating on a surfboard. Now is not one of those times.
I turn and swim toward the south at a 90 degree angle to the shore, with the long shore current and eventually make it through the rip current, but I feel like I'm back where I started on the outside. This happens a second time, which pisses me off even more. Adrenaline flows through my system as if I've injected myself with heroin. I fight and I fight some more. After 22 minutes (yes, somehow I kept track of time on my stop watch) from the point that I took the second wave that ultimately snapped my leash I feel the bottom. I'm on the sandbar and I can't only barely touch, but this gives me a boost of the "I'm almost there" feeling. I'm able to rest between waves crashing down and finally catch my breath enough to swim through the slew and crawl up the beach. I swear I wanted to kiss the sand!
Almost immediately an extremely intense headache overcomes me. I recognize it as a side effect of all the adrenaline my body just used to survive. I spot my surfboard about 75 meters south of me drifting in the slew. I thought it would be washed up on the beach, but like me it was also having a hard time getting to shore. I forced myself to swim out to get it and then I begin the long walk back to the contest tent. I estimate I drifted 3/4 of a mile. Upon being spotted by my friends and competitors they gave me the "what's wrong with you" look and had no clue that I had just fought for my life. The crazy thing is we stuck around for the awards ceremony and I got third place. I couldn't believe it, but the two waves I rode (my only two waves) counted enough to get me third place. Brian got second and the stranger got first. Unbelievable!
The Lesson Learned:
Contest are not for me. It was fun and I can see how it can be exciting, but I'd rather just go surf on my own schedule and agenda. Despite surfing with friends that would usually be watching out for each other, none of them even saw what happened to me because they were so involved with their own ability to surf the contest. This experience strengths my believe that panic in any situation will kill you. The fight instinct can save you if used correctly. I'm not sure if I would call this a near death experience, but I am certain if I wasn't so comfortable in the water that I would have panicked and drown. That's a crazy feeling to have and ponder. It makes me thankful to be alive and appreciate the things and people in my life.
*No offense to the Volusia County Beach Patrol. I truly believe you do a top-notch job saving hundreds of swimmers each year from rip currents. I've even assisted from my surfboard before in saving swimmers, but as a surfer I feel like the lifeguards don't expect us to get into trouble and that is completely fine with me and a fact I accept every time I paddle out.