Big Wave Surfers
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Yesterday I stood on a bluff at Waimea Beach on the North Shore of Oahu, witnessing perhaps the most thrilling sport of all. The best big wave surfers in the world were, as they put it, "riding giants".
This is the season when storms off Japan and Russia send monstrous waves sweeping East across the Pacific. The first resistance they hit are the reefs off the northern shores of the Hawaiian Islands. It-s as if they hit the brakes hard and flare up in a rage at having to end their flowing journey. The spot they hit on the Maui coast is called Jaws. To watch there, you hike a mile or so through the pineapple fields and reach a rocky cliff about 70 feet above the surface. When the waves break at 70 feet, a surfer on takeoff is facing you eye to eye. Those waves are so huge that the surfers have to be towed onto them by jet-ski. Just watching makes your heart pound. The danger is tangible, the waves unspeakably majestic.
On the North shore of Oahu this time of year, the big waves come into three different beaches. Northernmost is Sunset Beach. Then there-s Bonzai where the waves tube over and the surfers shoot through a tunnel. They call it the Bonzai Pipeline. The third is Waimea Bay and yesterday was the biggest day at Waimea since 1998. Buzz around the island the day before was furious. During the night, 50-foot tidal waves roared into the shore and damage was done to houses, trees, and cars. The dozen or so surfers skilled enough and brazen enough to paddle out there spent a sleepless night. World champion Kelly Slater was one of them.
I got to Waimea just after sunrise and, already, thousands of people crowded onto both the beach and the bluffs above. The crests were hitting 30 feet by then and, for many, it was a once-in-a-lifetime sight. Photographers from dozens of publications around the world jockeyed for position with their macro lenses. Helicopters hovered above, film cameras dangling from open doors.
As Slater and the others ventured to the water-s edge, their body language signaled this day was distinctly different than most at Waimea. No macho joking today. Their jaws were set. They stood together and stared out in obvious awe. I watched Slater carefully through my binoculars and he literally didn-t blink for two minutes. And out they went to experience something few on the planet will ever know.
In all the pantheon of 21st Century, death-defying adventures--helicopter skiing, bungee jumping, sky diving---big wave surfing has to be the knarliest, to use some surfer speak. The force of this Nature is breathtaking on its own. Then to be at one with it, move with it, to cascade down the towering face and into its roaring foam, body unprotected on a mere plank of fiberglass, is nothing short of a riveting phenomenon.
Once out in the swell, seemingly powerless flecks in a vast, raging sea, they seemed a band of brothers, like astronauts braving space together. Mutually scared, mutually brave, mutually unique. They would start to lift for a wave, then back off. They-d take one and come careening down the face. They-d wipe out and spend minutes at the mercy of that roiling, pounding white water. And they-d remain balanced and standing all the way down and out.
If you-re fed up with steroids and ego trip end zone dances and such, take a trip to Waimea this time of year. You won-t be disappointed.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that-s The Score.
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