Chasing the Swell of the Summer?
Everyone loves the 4th of July in Cali, its always filled with fun, friends and tons of festivities to make you not want to leave home. But when purple blobs start forming in the southern ocean swell charts its a surfers que that something wicked this way cometh. The beaches of southern Mexico can hold surf of almost any size and with the right conditions transform the raw pacific energy into giant perfect hollow caverns. But timing a swell with perfect conditions in such a short window is always a gamble as we had to be back stateside by Monday the 7th. Everyone has an reason of why not to go rather than why to go, especially with so many festivities for 4th of July is socal. Suggested excuses range from “But what about the fireworks?”,” The weather down in the tropics could be rainy and weird this time of year”, “The swell is too big you could die“, “The points in costa are gonna go off” and the list goes on. After processing the opinions and with weather and a mega swell brewing on the charts we went all in. You just don’t know till you go so we did leaving the fiesta of the 4th behind us for the hot steamy coco’s, black sand beaches and hopefully truck size perfect barrels of the kinds that lurk only in the southern beaches of mainland Mexico. It turned out to be one of the best decisions and trips of our lives.
Riders on the Storm
Taking the familiar red eye flight on the approach in to our destination I usually am meet with a cool sunrise and view of the nearby volcano. However this time I noticed a jet black sky and no visible morning light. Stormy skies are never a good sign for clean conditions near the beach just an hour away from the airport. Watching the satellite prior to departure we noticed several hurricanes and a tropical depression circling in the vicinity but moving out to sea so looking not to be a threat. We stuck the landing and after de-boarding under dark cloudy skies with a light sprinkle we noticed deep puddles everywhere. After gathering the boards and making the drive to the beach of our local friends said they had some of the worst thunder and lightning storms they could remember the night prior with lightning bolts rattling and hitting houses, telephone poles and the local police station. The thunder lasted so long and was so loud no one had been able to get a good night sleep the previous night and privy to our arrival figured our plane wouldn’t be able to land with such a wicked storm passing. Luck would have it the storm passed in the early morning hours and the worse was over. Wave conditions had cleaned up for our arrival making for a crispy offshore first surf under solid conditions. A little bit of brown in the water but clean and hollow. No time to unpack lets get out there!!!
Warming Up & the Flies
With conditions clean offshore and a solid double over head plus swell in the water its was time to get the jitters out with the first paddle session. With so much rain the previous night the entire sky was filled with small fly like insects. They especially liked me and to hover around my eyelids relentlessly no matter how hard I swatted them. I sought the refuge of the sea but they lurked even out into the surf zone landing on the water and buzzing around me. I couldn’t shake em so nothing left to do but go with it and focus on the barrels rather than the bugs. As the tropical sun began to creep over above the low clouds and the offshores blew harder the bugs finally went away while hollow heavy peaks started unloading across the sandbars. You can never tell how big it is till you get out the back but it was solid size and round enough to offer up some heart pounding drops and spittoons. We surfed for several hours getting our bearings and adjusting to our boards realizing the big swell we flew down for was only days away.
Nervous and exited we had our fill and went in for a delicious seafood lunch and beers followed by a stroll on the black sand beach to watch the sun dip below the horizon. The pace of the small town is a welcome adjustment from the city life of San Diego and especially the 4th and nothing left to do but catch a few brews and a zzz’z and wait to see what the next days rise in swell would bring.
Barrels, Blowouts, Birthdays and Rio Paddle on the 4th of July
We awoke at sunrise to the sounds of large swell pounding and sunny clear skies. The storm had moved out and it’s was excellent conditions to again test our wits before the real big swell was scheduled to hit the following day. After a close inspection the swell had again climbed up another notch and was a solid double to triple overhead plus with even larger sets and looking more and more consistent by the hour. Large un crowded barrels unloading up and down the beach and beckoning us to have a go. I opted for a drone fly first and after seeing a few heavy tubes and drops watched my buddy pack one of the sickest barrels of the morning. Its was a full on drainpipe start to finish with 2 running sections and I expected he was a goner until he came flying on the doggy door.
That’s all I need to see to motivate out there and snag a couple big ones myself. With so much water moving around I opted to paddle the bigger board and needed every inch of the thing. Huge monster tubes and although I packed a few pocket rides I couldn’t find the deep cavern like my buddy had packed. The wind snapped around 1pm and I figured it best to take a stand up paddle at the River mouth just down the road offering up calm flat waters and a possible crocodile living deep in the thick reeds. He gets spotted every now and then but makes you looks twice at a floating log in the water.
Rio Paddle & The Birthday Celebration The calm flat water of the river was a welcome break for the bone snapping tubes of earlier in the morning and with sunny skies the mid day heat was beginning to climb into the stratosphere. After making our paddle along the rio we finally reach the mouth where it spilled into the sea. With so much rain the previous week the water was chocolate brown and thick with hundreds of logs and tress of all sizes washed downriver into the ocean and shoreline. A quick dip and it was time to head down the road to a famous palapa seafood restaurant on the beach. My good friends younger daughter was turning 8 years old and the party was complete with waterslides, a delicious cake and all the seafood you could eat. After singing some birthday banter she blew out the candles and the crowd cheered!
After a few trips down the waterslide and cold ones we headed back to the comforts of the hotel to await the swell from hell or at least that was what the rumors had told us was on the way. All of us grew anxious and excited to see if we were up for the challenge and just how large the swell would be. It most definitely made for a few extra tosses and turns before falling asleep.
The Big One Arrives as Scheduled
We again rose at sunrise eager to see what the day had in store. Planning on paddling the entire trip my buddy had organized a jet ski due to the massive size of the new swell arriving making it much easier to be towed into waves that are almost impossible to paddle at such a large size. Skis of late have been pushed aside by much of the big wave community who seek to paddle with arm power only and avoid the convenience of the ski pushing paddle wave surfing to all new heights with arms alone. A much more raw and natural high to pack a supersize bomb but with boards not even close to big enough to paddle the incoming monsters it was time to ride the ski and hopefully luck into some of the biggest barrels of our lives.
We use special small heavy boards that are easy to carry and maneuver and as the wave approaches leap off and with all your speed get into the wave long before it breaks and if you take the right line within seconds you are riding inside a cavernous barrel to be spit out clean on the other side. Only one problem the ski can quickly and easily slide you into any wave you choose and drawing the wrong line on waves of this size and girth can come with serious consequences and beatings so its best to know when to hold em and know when to fold em before picking the bombers from the comforts of the ski. Happy to be on board with one of the best barrel riders from the area and drivers in the business he slung me into a couple giant caverns and it was unreal until I made a real bad decision on a monster and found out first hand of the dark side of getting into any wave you want so easily.
Naked as the Day I Was Born
Easily on of the bigger waves of my life It looked as if was lining up to be a whopper of a barrel. After giving the nod I wanted a piece of the thing it was game on and jumping of the ski and to my feed It was growing and growing about to unload on the sandbar. With so much offshore and water sucking up the face I started to draw my line but realized I was either to slow or too high to pull in and got stuck in what I like to call no mans land not a fun place to be as the barrel and flats tend to be safer. Before I could say “oh shit” I had a 3 story lip land directly on me. It was time to take a wild ride and rather than shoot me out with the force of the explosion it took me under deep. I started cartwheeling like I was a lost astronaut floating in space getting sucked into a black hole. And then suddenly like the hand of god grabbed me and slammed me flat down deep as possible right on the sand. At this point all my air was expelled from the impact and wearing a long sleeve vest and my favorite $89.00 brand new deluxe trunks I was pinned to the bottom almost frozen in time with the force of the entire ocean bearing down on me in powerful undulating waves. No matter how hard I moved I was frozen by the force and energy of the wave and then in a split second almost as if a bomb went off a shock wave of force blew at me in all directions. I was stripped stark naked of my trunks and vest. Blown off in a instant and naked as the day I was born. No more air, naked and still deep deep under I again began to cartwheel again underwater over and over. Dazed and confused and seeing stars I finally surfaced and lifted up my head in the cappuccino foam not really knowing who or where I was and looked up to see a building size top to bottom barrel getting ready to unload. Seeing stars and spent of energy it was time to stay calm and ride out the next one as best I can. To take away the fear rather than face the wave forward I simply turned to the beach and with no energy sank just below the surface right before impact. KABOOOOM and the cartwheels started all over again but this time the explosion took me up and down and up and down probably 10-20 feet in each direction and I was able to sneak a sliver of air and back down and then finally surfacing totally out of gas. Dazed, out of air and energy another bomber got me and on another wild ride I went finally getting pushed in slightly and looked up to see a ski ready to grab me. It was a happy moment and in my birthday suit I hoped on for a ride up to the beach much to the delight of the onlookers and peanut gallery on the shoreline hooting and hollering at my naked body. My ski partner tossed me a shirt to cover up and I took a good 45 minutes to shake it off. Happy to be in one piece and survive it made me appreciate the power of the ocean and realize keeping calm was the best course of action and the only thing that got me through it as I was very close to a full blown panic. I headed back to the hotel and changed into a backup suit ready to get back on the horse and get another. With the new mega swell now hitting with full force and sets stacking up to the horizon, blue water and clean conditions with a puff of offshore it was nothing less of epic and it was time to get back out there and redeem myself.
Prehistoric Dragon Slaying Cave Dweller
A small crew had assembled just south of the hotel on the beach to watch and shoot photos of the local boys going big out the back. So I grabbed my gear and headed to join them and build up the courage to have another go. The swell was clearly peaking and lines stacked and stacked to the horizon unloaded in massive surreal 2 & 3 story blue water a frames up and down the beach with the boys packing perfect round barrels the size of houses. As I started to get my courage to head back out I noticed what looked to be the largest set on the horizon stacking miles out to see. It was a whopper and the skis zoomed down the beach to get a piece. Stunned by the sheer size and magnitude and perfection of this particular set I noticed a small dot sliding down the face as the 4 story plus building went square as we all watched in fear and awe from the shore. It was local rider Brian Conley Pulling up inside with a highline and after being engulfed by the prehistoric cavern within seconds he came flying out in an explosion of giant spit. The wave was so large and round the kick out of the spray from the main peak that has decompressed shot plumes a hundred feet into the air behind the wave almost like a bomb had gone off. Waves of this magnitude have no room for error. You gotta make em make cause any major mistakes and you could be in big big trouble. We cheered in awe as he safely road out on the shoulder and later would say it was one of the most special waves of his life and rightly so and a tall statement for a tuberider of his caliber. It was hands down the biggest barrel I have ever seen in person.
I was super pumped and ready for one myself. Just as I was ready to go a ski made its way to the beach and waved us to the shoreline. One of the local heavies had packed a massive tube and failed to exit and when underwater had caught a board to the forehead. It didn’t look good and we walked up to view the damage. Shaken and ok other than a world class headache and a huge gash on the forehead squirting blood. After close inspection and tossing him a towel to stop the bleeding stiches would be required no doubt but with the force of waves this size he was lucky to still have his head attached to his shoulders. Seeing this sure didn’t help my jitters but just as I had second thoughts Mr. Conley pulled up again and waved me over saying it was go time. I grabbed my board and jumped on the rodeo horse again.
One wave can make a whole trip worth it
We zoomed around on the ski and I was picking of inside tubes one after the other but looking for a solid one as I was leaving that day in the afternoon to head out to Guadalajara. After being patient Conley had his on a big blue triangle left hand wall stacking down the beach. I slung in nice and early set my line and watched the lip toss over me bending over the sandbar into a perfect barrel. Once inside it was like standing in my living room with so much water around me and the view was incredible and before I knew it I was flying out in the spit on the shoulder. One of the biggest cleanest barrels I had ever experienced and an amazing cap to such a special swell and day.
So Long Epic Swell
With plans to do the tourist thing in Guadaljara and needing to be back in the states by the following day we pulled out of town after saying good byes to the crew and discussing how amazing the day had been and eveyones wipeouts and barrels. The swell was still unloading and as we shared stories on the balcony we watched massive peaks and sets jacking across the beach.
Good Times in the Guadalajara Districto Histrico
Guadalajara is one of the biggest cities in Mexico and has a lot of history. It has a historical distric with lots of old monuments, museums, Cathedrals and sculptures from hundreds of year ago. All are within a short walking distance so with a few hours by foot you can catch a glimpse of these majestic structures. . The city is alive and buzzing with people enjoying the day and parks amongst the area. My favorite one was probably the monument looking like a circular roman stone structure in a well kept park. Just behind it was a massive cathedral and people could be seen ringing the bells in the top tower ringing out chimes across the city. After a full day of exploration in the city and some of the best barrels of our lives it was time to head stateside and only wonder just how long it would be before a swell like that would stack up again so we could give it another go. I have a feeling its gonna be a long long wait for a day like that…
About the Author - Marc Miller is the founding partner of Isle Surf & SUP an online retailer of paddle boards & surfboards. He has been involved in board manufacturing, product development and website management for Isle since its inception in 2004. He also writes the Isle Surf & SUP Blog. An avid surfer and paddler for the past 2 decades when hes not in the office he can be found on foreign shores searching for waves and fun.