After a series of wrong turns, we eventually found ourselves at the end of a narrow dirt lane looking out upon a vast bay bookended by soaring cliffs. As impressive as the harbor was, the facilities seemed more suited to a small beach in south Alabama. A diminutive shanty bar stood within a stones throw of the water, a restaurant back up the dirt road traveling inland, and another waterfront shanty that apparently pedaled water sports gear. None of the three businesses appeared open, it was 11 am.
After loitering a bit, taking a stroll to the water, I quickly ran out of things to do with my folks; not exactly 'laid back' types. I stalled as long as I could; taking them on a walk to the edge of the beach to try and get a look at the surf conditions, which didn't occupy much time there only being a narrow stretch of sand in the expansive bay, steep cliffs defining the rest of the shoreline. We stood milling about in front of the car, having even run out of things to talk about, when a promising looking Jeep CJ5 rumbled up. A husky, shaggy haired man with heavily tattooed arms tumbled out. He was like an apparition from 1995; loudly printed board shorts well past knee length, sleeveless shirt, and Oakley sunglasses. I allowed the man to gather himself for a few moments, then approached tactfully.
'Hey man, I was told there was somewhere around here I might be able to rent a surfboard?'
He looked at me, rather caught off guard, but replied 'I've got a couple, let me get the bar open and you can have a look.'
I returned to my folks and triumphantly delivered the news.
'Great! Well, where are they?'
'Ah, I think in his bar...I'm supposed to go look at them in a minute.'
We returned to silently milling around in the oppressive heat. I was beginning to feel indulgent for dragging them along on my personal surf adventure. Then it occurred to me that I only had a vague notion of the wave conditions; it being so far to the west end of the bay I could barely make out some whitewater tumbling over a reef in the distance, the stiff offshores sending back spray skyward. I went and stood again at the edge of the launch ramp to try and get a clearer idea of the wave setup. Peering west, amid the aforementioned slosh of whitewater, I eventually espied a proper A frame approach, bend, and unfurl over the shallow pass. My arms instinctively went into the air triumphantly. The whole bay suddenly seemed radiant with beauty; the colorful skiffs tied off in the harbor, the majestic cliffs that flanked it covered in dense shrub in a myriad of greens, every detail drew into focus with the spark of life afforded by that little slice of reef. I drew a deep breath and went to see about a surf sled.
I marched over to the 'bar'-essentially a tiki hut with seating on three sides and booze and a well in the center. Observing the arrangement, I was curious where the gruff barman could possibly have room for a handful of boards; he barely had space for alcohol back there. Without a word, he indicated the ceiling as he went about setting up the bar. Sure enough, I glanced up to find two sleds in good repair; one a tri fin fish right around 6', the other a variety of the much dreaded 'fun board.' The latter being a hybrid of the longboard and the shorter 'egg', yet espousing the finer qualities of neither. Naturally I chose the fish.
The board was a lot of foam for me; thick all the way through and quite wide, much more so than I'm accustomed to. But I was glad for every bit of it out there in that giant bay; the wave being at least 1/4 mile from the harbor. While checking the break, I'd assumed there'd be a closer spot we could drive to and put in, but when I asked the barman where the best paddle out spot was he simply pointed in the general direction of the boat ramp.
With a bit of a lump in my throat I set out among the wooden flats boats. As daunting as the paddle out was, the scene was unbelievable. Even in the rather stagnant harbor the water was crystal clear. I paddled between the red, yellow, and blue painted skiffs suspended in translucent water as if in a Gauguin landscape. The barman had strongly advised me to stay out in deep waters to avoid coral heads, but being alone and unsure of the local bull shark headcount, I hugged the shoreline. Wild rock formations and cliffs hoisted themselves out of the water to my left, hissing and spitting as the ocean surged and retreated among them. The headland to the west was covered in dense green vegetation, along it the vague outlines of wedging peaks drew into focus. It was all so striking that I was almost able to forget about my solitude.
To be perfectly honest, about halfway there I considered turning back. Already tired from the morning swim, and with an outgoing tide drawing strongly on the bay, I began to question my ability to make the return voyage; especially after taking a few waves. The prospect of returning inside of an hour though without having taken a single wave after having dragged my folks across the island was too much. I pressed on.
Approaching the reef, I realized what a challenge I'd signed up for. It was a wide field of play, with a shifty, ledging peak and dry coral on the inside. Deciphering where exactly to sit in the line up was going to require some advanced triangulation; something akin to honing mortar rounds on an enemy position (not that I have experience with mortar rounds). I would observe a set, find myself slightly out of position, then recalibrate only for the next to land directly on my former position. After three or four such misjudgments, I finally found myself exactly in the path of a chest high, feathering A frame. I was so excited that I nearly fumbled the takeoff. Fortunately it was a forgiving wave and afforded a spare moment or two to compose oneself and set a line. I slid to my feet going left, took a couple pumps, and with ample speed drew out an arcing bottom turn gathering power off the trough as the water ahead swished and boiled over the shallow reef. As in Hawaii, the water was so clear that the reef seemed to spring out at a passenger, very distracting. The long fish responded to the turn sending me back up to the crest of the wave for a brief sensation of weightlessness. I conservatively drove town the line eyeing the dry coral heads on the inside and kicked out 50 yards down the line. I had now forgotten all about the sharks.
I was almost as excited about the fact that I'd actually managed to decode the break as I was about my first wave. Paddling back out I felt triumphant; a conquerer, brilliant navigator of the high seas. There was however no definitive lineup for the reef. Peaks arrived, ledged, and ran across it willy nilly along a span of roughly 100 yards. I remained alert; trying to read approaching set waves and anticipate where they would sound. My strength grew with each wave I took. After catching a dozen or so I felt stronger than when I'd set out; well capable of the return paddle.
At one point maybe an hour and a half in, a bright white figure appeared on the horizon in the direction of the harbor. Must be the water sports rental guy, I thought, having been told he surfs the spot regularly. Within five minutes the figure was quite visible; a stand up paddle boarder in a blindingly white rash guard, my dad. I was overjoyed at the sight-a comrade for the mission. The wind being offshore however, and he being upright like a sail, he was positively hauling ass out to sea. My old man, being an adventurous type, was fearlessly moving full steam out toward islands further afield. We made a few quick exchanges before he drifted past me; I began to worry he'd be swept out to sea.
'Hey!' I shouted, 'watch it or you're going to be on your way to Cuba soon!'
It was unclear wether or not he heard me, but he did begin to slowly wheel around like some miniature aircraft carrier performing a maneuver. It appeared that, by the time he eventually swung around, he finally grasped the urgency of the situation, my dad now paddled with much gusto.
My old man in relatively safe standing, I returned to the business of catching waves and avoiding coral heads. After a couple quick lefts, a large set materialized out the back. I sprinted out, missing the first two but lining up with the third. I back doored it (took off behind the peak) going left; taking a high line and getting catapulted across the peak as it drew out and stood tall over the reef. I came out of the section with enough speed for a proper turn, laying the fish on a rail and sending a little spray in the general direction of Puerto Rico. I knew I wasn't going to top that wave and asked my dad if he wanted to head in. He obliged and we began the long paddle back.
The return trip was even more beautiful that the outgoing one; senses heightened by the rush of catching ocean swells over shallow reef brought the broad palette of colors into sharp focus. The green mountains, red, pink, and yellow coral, and the spectrum of grays in the rocks were overwhelming. We paddled along the shore-again unheeding the barman's counsel-like pale conquistadors on return from great discovery. Reaching the lazy harbor with its glassy waters and colorful skiffs was a fitting conclusion to the session. Not a soul in sight, bright, clear blue water, just the old man and me gliding silently in the blazing sun.