Things were a bit surreal. Piles of sea foam from the swell were bouncing off rocks and drifting out in to the bay. Anthony Sullivan was driving the jet ski carefully, avoiding those lumps as if they were little icebergs. It felt like we were on a spaceship, navigating back through the asteroid field after landing on Jupiter.
The sun was out. And it was warm, eight degrees (C) or so, and I was enjoying the rush of dopamine your brain treats itself to after a lash of the ol’ adrenaline. We were on our way back, which is the part of surfing these kinds of waves that I enjoy most.
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Sully was driving slow because he just got mooshed like an ant under an elephant. He injured a rib when a huge lip landed on him. So driving a ski in the open ocean was particularly tender.
It was ten years since we first surfed this unicorn. We had the great Paul O’Kane with us then, and his 10,000 hours of safety experience, when surfing waves of magnitude. Ten years since we first made that crossing, with our dinky life-vest and hearts pumping under them. But in ten years, we have spent less than thirty hours out here. And that first session was the biggest and best. By far. We did not have a single camera with us. But we saw the wave in its true form that day.
Speaking of ten years ago: this is starting to feel a bit like the 2013/14 winter season. It’s all a bit too much. It was too much surf back then, for the mid-thirties me, never mind the mid-forties me now, with the marriage, mortgage and kids and bills and that. There is so much swell that even the most die-hard surf monster is now begging for a couple of flat days. There has been so much swell there is still swell when the wind decided to die. And therein always lies a holy grail of a mission.
Ten years is a long time to be doing anything. If you get obsessed, you generally are getting close to master stage if you keep at it for that long.
They say mastery comes at 10,000 hours. But that’s a tricky thing when it comes to surfing, I mean, raise your hand if you’ve spent those hours with your feet in the wax. Nobody can say that. From the paddle out to paddle in? Ten thousand would come for most during grom-hood. I wonder how much time the average surfer spends thinking about surfing? I bet an average surfer of 50 has spent 10,000 days thinking about surfing. When your partner accuses you of spending more time thinking about surfing than thinking about them, it’s true. You lie when you deny it.
By the time you reach Anthony Sullivan’s age of 54, you may have spent 10,000 days thinking about surfing. That’s the orbit time of Saturn around the sun.
You may have seen Anthony on late night TV, as he was the spokesman for a prominent cleaning product for decades. A couple years back he had a heart attack, and dedicated the rest of life to two things: his daughter and his bucket list.
I could not tell at first, if his character was cookie-cut or incredibly interesting.
I admit, before I met him, that I groaned at the thought of a wealthy person ticking off his bucket list. But as you go through life you realise how wrong your prejudices can be.
Mine were. As Anthony is a man of quality. He came ready to go, needed no training, and though he was the oldest, with the least amount of experience, was capable, generous, funny, and a welcome addition to an expedition like this. I liked the guy, instantly. And the more I thought about it, the more amazed I was that someone would get into this sort of thing in their 50’s.
With us we had pros Conor Maguire, Andrew Cotton, Taz Knight, as well as Barry Mottershead.
It’s a gathering of the most experienced. The people who have seen this wave in its prime. And then Sully, green as hell but keen, who by a combination of determination and dumb luck found himself surfing the unicorn.
On the day, although the weather and the company could not have been better, the swell was not promising. All of our indicators were not indicating and one of the more experienced members of our posse declared, right before he started putting his suit on, that we are “wasting our time.”
It’s an interesting coaster of emotions, this business. We have learned to manage our expectations. If the wind is five kilometres stronger, or the swell three feet smaller, or the interval two seconds shorter than what was forecast, it could turn scoring into skunked.
But the negativity vanished like light fog as the line-up lifted above the horizon to show sets breaking. Inconsistent, but breaking. And with the swell meant to build, cheers filled the bay, echoing from one ski to the boat to another ski. On the long drive to the place where the mountains break, we took turns howling at the breaking sets like wild dogs howl at the moon. It was close to the best conditions we’ve had. But the waves, 30 to 50 foot on the face, were still small.
One day this unicorn, this giant horn that stabs up out there, where everyone can see, will be the biggest wave in the world. In the ten years since we’ve been after it we’ve only “scouted” the place really. And if there is anything to live a long life for, it’s to see this spot reach its full potential.
Once again, it didn’t. I’m wondering if I’ll ever see it reach its potential. It takes such a rare combination of swell and wind, it might not be me who eventually gets to witness that.
I hope it’s Cotty though. If it ever happens, I will catch a couple and feel the sheer blitzing Indy 500 speed of this mountain as it hits that shelf. Then I will watch when Cotty goes for his waves. I will watch Cotty because watching Cotty surf big waves is truly entertaining.
Cotty surfs big barrels like a skateboarder skates when they are determined to land a big trick. He is never satisfied. He kicks out of great waves with a disappointed look and asks for criticism, like; “I should have been deeper shouldn’t’ I?”
I always say the same thing, “Meh,” with my shoulders raised. I mean everyone could always be deeper. Right?
But Andrew Cotton took this session. He shredded thirty foot waves the way I can’t even shred a four footer, surfing top to bottom, bottom to top. He’d carve a committed top turn into the tip of the unicorn and pretty much fall down the face again, but with confidence and coil up again to come off the bottom.
Simply ripping. Like Occy in his heyday but on a silly scale. Always looking for a cavern, always with the control to get there if it happens.
My tow board is thin and heavy. His is thin and heavy. He rides three fins and I ride four. But I don’t think that has anything to do with the obvious performance gap. Cotty is a pro, and he works hard and lives for just this sort of thing.
Compared to Cotty, even after ten years of chasing this unicorn, I feel like I’m just as much a tourist, just starting on my 10,000 hours, just as green as Sully out there.
Maybe, like Sully, I’m already starting my bucket list.
Scarier still, maybe I’ve already finished it.
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