Big Break by Boone Speed

It was still dark but we could hear the enormous waves charging over the break wall, the yachts in the normally placid marina dancing. The ocean sounded perilous, like a roaring invitation to certain death. The dockhands had locked a chain across the boat ramp in an attempt to prevent us from launching. Federales with automatic weapons leaned against their trucks looking curious, waiting for us to make a move. Our party paced on the dock with surfboards, ready to just GO. Someone checked the chain blocking the ramp and discovered that it was loose enough to slide a wave runner beneath. It was on.

We unhitched the runners and let them go, sparking backward down the ramp and into the marina. Excitement passed through our party, followed by the “what-ifs”—like what if they take our gear? What if we’re thrown in jail? But the armed men simply stood by and watched, as if they knew our karma would be coming another way. We hopped onto the runners and waiting boats and then put our sterns to the harbor and headed out to sea, navigating loads of surfboards through the giant, shifting canyons of water.

Nowadays, big-wave surfers around the world log in to their computers to study weather patterns of storms developing thousands of miles away and then track “the swell,” the giant ripples formed by the storm’s turbulence. Like waves created from different-sized rocks being thrown into a placid pond, the bigger the storm, the larger the swell. As the swell rolls, its energy focuses with every passing mile. Simply put, the biggest storm swells that travel the farthest distances with the least amount of disturbance create the biggest, most flawless waves that are surfable in their last explosive moments.

In late November 2007, surfers everywhere began tracking a storm that originated off the coast of Asia, sending massive waves east, virtually undisturbed for several days. On December 1, the swell slammed Maui, where it reportedly produced 80-foot faces at a rare and looming break known as Outer Sprecks. Fingers crossed as the swell thundered farther east, where it was scheduled to pound the notorious Mavericks break in Northern California on December 4 before turning its wrath on the Killers break just off Baja the following day. It’d been almost two years since a monster swell with this much promise had dominated the horizon.

On Friday, November 30, as the raging swell closed in on Maui, I received a call from my longtime friend Randy Leavitt, a modern-day renaissance man whom I’ve known through climbing for many years and who is now a surf fiend, fully committed to towing into giant waves. Randy asked if I would be interested in joining him and his partners in Baja to make pictures of them riding an approaching swell at the legendary big wave break Killers, which is located 10 miles out to sea west of Ensenada, Mexico. I’d have to drive from my home in Portland to San Francisco and then fly to San Diego the following morning to meet Randy and drive three more hours south with him to arrive in Ensenada in time for Tuesday’s carnage.

The travel didn’t bother me as much as the thought of being trapped in a tiny boat thrown about by waves the size of office buildings. While I was dubious about the safety of the mission, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. “Hell yes!” I said, attempting to conceal my worries with bravado. “I’ll be there.” I began packing up my gear, still unsure of my decision. But the danger, it turned out, was brewing closer than I thought.

As we navigated out of the harbor and through massive, dune-like waves, the rising sun began to reveal its signature dancing shimmers. It was breathtaking on every level, an awe-inspiring combination of the picturesque and the sublime. As we arrived at the break, you could feel the collective energy level ramping up. We dropped anchor amid a watery violence unlike anything I’d ever seen, with waves the size of four-story buildings crashing down every 20 seconds. I was terrified. But that split second when the towering blue water turned emerald green as it welled up into mountainous vertical slopes, just before the whole thing turned completely over into a disintegrating explosion—that’s the split second that a big-wave surfer lives (and dies) for. And I was there to photograph all of it.

We dropped anchor amid a watery violence unlike anything I’d ever seen, with waves the size of four-story buildings crashing down every 20 seconds.

About an hour after we arrived, our radio crackled with bad news: The Federales on the beach were going to arrest everybody upon return, which inevitably meant confiscation of everything, including my camera gear. But the waves soon brought me back to reality. The highlight of the day for me was photographing big-wave legend Greg Long paddling into an enormous wave—most certainly the ride of the day. After watching surfer after surfer crash into the turbulent sea, Greg’s ride, which lasted only a few seconds, seemed incredible and was met with hollers of excitement from all observers.

About an hour after we arrived, our radio crackled with bad news: The Federales on the beach were going to arrest everybody upon return...

My shooting was interrupted by the commotion that ensued when someone plucked a rubber-wrapped package the size of a dictionary and smelling of diesel out of the surf. It was a sealed kilo of marijuana, and we soon realized that it wasn’t the only one. Dozens of packages and a single, much larger, bale bobbed around us in the surf. Many many dollars’ worth of weed was floating in the water, and nobody wanted anything to do with it. Worse than being arrested for leaving the marina was the thought of smugglers rolling up in their watercraft and gunning everybody down with automatic weapons and rescuing their valuable stash before disappearing into the high seas.

As the day wound down, the specter of what awaited back at the marina loomed. Using strength-in-numbers logic, we headed back with several other crafts. With the wind at our backs, we made excellent time, playing cat and mouse while watching giant waves jacking up over mysterious reefs. About a mile from shore, we watched to our left as another boat filled with surfers from our party rode a massive set wave (set waves had been in twos all day, in about 45-minute intervals, and were significantly larger and more powerful than the rest of the waves). The top of the green wave was thin and wanting to snap. I held my breath as both our boats surfed the same wave over an unknown reef. The ride lasted only a few seconds and then the jacking wave transformed, rising back into a five-story cliff—directly behind us.

The other boat blew by us, making a hard and fast left past the break wall, maneuvering recklessly into the marina to safety. As we veered to follow it, we saw the charging wall we’d just surfed jacking up again behind us. It was battering over the break wall and we were heading straight into it as it went crashing through the marina entrance. Our captain punched it, then cranked a 180 to the right, into deeper water and straight back out to sea. We barely climbed over the steepening wall before it broke, and we headed straight toward the second 50-plus-foot face…then roller-coaster climbed up and over that one to relative calm. My stomach was churning as we turned back, entered the marina with no further drama, and crept up to the dock to face the consequences.

Luckily, and much to our surprise, the Mexican officials were no longer waiting to arrest us. Evidently, they were all too busy cleaning up what was left of the devastated Ensenada harbor two miles to the south.

I swapped my wetsuit for some dry clothes and grabbed a beer. One couldn’t have scripted a crazier day. I recalled that I had at one point seriously considered backing out of the trip over concern for my personal safety. Now, with the ocean behind me and my heart rate returning to normal, I had the peace of mind to contemplate: Was it ever really dangerous out there? Or just thrilling? I wrote down some thoughts and then called my friend back in Portland to brag.

She didn’t waste time with pleasantries. “I’m in the ER,” she said.

She’d been getting groceries out of her parked car when a texting driver drifted into her—accelerating, actually—while she watched helplessly trapped in the nook of the open door. The impact had moved her car, ripped the door off, and scattered her stuff all over the street.

“I feel like I’ve been hit by a car,” she joked darkly but assured me that she would be fine.

I was stunned. I’d just been through one of the most intense, nerve-wracking days of my life. But being reminded that danger lurks everywhere, even in the street while you’re doing routine chores at home, hit me harder than a five-story barrel. And I knew I’d made the right decision to go to Baja.

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Boone Speed is a professional photographer/cinematographer based in Portland, Oregon. Regarded among peers and clients alike for his painterly aesthetic and minimalist sensibilities, he has been singled out by brands like Nike, adidas, The North Face, ESPN, and Patagonia to help them tell their stories.In addition to shooting for some of the world’s most beloved entities, Boone is esteemed as a pioneering athlete and principal architect in the evolution of rock climbing. Follow Boone Speed on Twitter and Instagram: @boonespeed.