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.
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.
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.
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...
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.