I was fucked.
The sun was gone, and the current kept dragging me around the large rocks next to the cliff. I don’t panic easily, but I knew I wasn’t in a good spot and I had to do something or I would be coming back to the United States in a bodybag. That’s if they even found my body floating somewhere out in the Indian Ocean.
An hour before, I lumbered down Ulu Watu’s famed staircase, one of Bali’s most sacred spots. My target was the world class surf spot with the same name, at the bottom of the stairs. This day, my second day surfing there, I decided to go down the original stairs to try to save money parking. The more popular stairs with all the warungs and shops charges to park in the lot. Had I gone that route though, I would have seen that the surf was well overhead, and sunset was coming rather quickly.
Had I gone that route, I would have changed my mind about paddling out.
But I got down to the cave, stretched, got my leash on, and paddled out. The current was strong, pushing me out and around Racetracks, pretty quickly, I had to paddle hard to break through the flow that wanted to push me East towards Padang Padang. I finally got to the lineup for the Racetrack, rested a minute, then paddled on to the Peak where I wanted to surf. This is when I knew things were a bit too hairy.
I’ve surfed and been around powerful waves since I was a kid. Imperial Beach is a formidable beach break. Wiping out on a 6 foot Winter swell in IB will shatter your board, pin you down to the ocean floor and squeeze your life-force from you, rag-doll you out of your wetsuit, attempt to decapitate you, or any combination of the above.
But what I saw, heard and felt was a whole new ballgame. Shit it was a whole new stadium (to paraphrase Samuel L Jackson from Pulp Fiction).
What gave me that reaction was the meanest, hollowest, loudest freight train coming my way. It was a Mack Truck that had lost the brakes. The fastest wave I’d ever seen. And the sound of the lip crushing through the surface and pounding on the reef below was fear inducing.
Fuck Freddie Krueger and Jason Voorhees and all those guys. This wave is far more scary than them.
And mesmerizing! Beautiful in fact. As I was duckdiving this monster, I watched as one of the guys rocketed through this cavernous pit of a barrel. I wanted to be in there!
But, not this day. I decided to paddle back to Racetracks and catch one in, back to the Cave. The sun was almost gone, and I knew it was just a bit much for me. I’d work up to it.
But when I got to the Racetrack, it was still crowded. A bit tough to catch a wave, so I waited. Eventually paddling into one, I wiped out and ended up on the inside. No big deal. I’d do the paddle of shame. I’ve done it before. Turned and started paddling towards the Cave.
But I wasn’t moving! I was actually being swept away from the Cave!
And that’s when I realized the “I was fucked” predicament.
I had two choices:
A. Paddle with the current down to the next beach (passed the cliffs) a couple miles away and come back for my motorbike later.
Or, B. paddle back out into the lineup, and try to catch a wave in closer to the Cave.
I opted for B. It was the more challenging option, but probably quicker. My arms were rubber bands at this point. It was dark, and no one was around. Or so I thought.
After 20 minutes of paddling against the current, I heard an angel-like voice from behind me, in the black void. “Hey Bra, it’s just you and me.”
It was a Hawaiian! His name was Gabriel, from Maui. He took a wave too far down the line, missed the cave, and was in the same situation as me. He said we had to paddle pretty far up the point so we wouldn’t miss the cave again.
The feeling of dread abated. I still had a lot of work to do, but at least I was out here with a waterman.
We paddled for maybe an hour. We covered about 400 hard yards, all against the current. The dark, one-hundred foot tall cliffs rising above us on our left. My arms started as rubber bands, they were wet, limp noodles by the time we got up to Temples (the break beyond The Peak).
The trick with getting to the cave is knowing that the waves come in over the reef, bounce off the cliff walls, and form a river that sweeps out past the cave. If you can get in the river, hug the cliff, paddle into the cave as you ride the current, you’re good. This was the time to do that. Timing everything was critical. Much more now that I my tank was well past empty.
“What should I do if we get separated?” Gabriel called to me as we planned to scramble between sets for the inside.
“Send a boat!” I half joked.
He wouldn’t need to. My timing between sets was poor, or I just paddled slow, but I got caught by a set, and got rag-dolled coming through the inside. But I made it, and was able to rest as the river slowly pushed me down towards the Cave. The last tough stretch was actually paddling through the Cave in high tide. I gave everything I had left. Fought the current and the chop as I got closer and closer.
I shouted for Gabe. He called back, encouraging me on from waist deep water, just 30 yards away. I was so close!
I made it!
I stood up and sloshed over to Gabe. And we shared the biggest man-hug of my life. Both our smiles lit up the dark Cave. Mine was pained with exhaustion, both were beaming with relief. We talked a short while, and walked up the stairs out of the cave, and went our separate ways.
We would bump into each other a few more times on the island, and even went on a few surf excursions with his buddies from San Diego, whom I met a couple days later randomly.
That night after I got all dried off, I went to the internet cafe and ordered 3 large Bintang beers to replenish everything I lost. Called the girl I was seeing back in San Diego on Skype, ( she was pretty heavily Christian), and I recounted the story. She looked me dead in the eye, or screen as it were, and said.
“Gabriel is the name of an Angel. He’s your Angel!”
I might have made it that night, I might not have. I’m not religious, don’t believe in angels. But what I do know is Gabe was definitely a gift. He didn’t let me give up, or stop paddling once. And for that, I’m thankful, and very much alive.