Adam Wright: So about 3 weeks ago I was sitting in front of my computer, staring at this big ugly (but still beautiful) black and purple spot on the swell model.
I was just watching it move as the model animation progressed frame by frame…soaking in the bigger pattern (aka zoning out a little)…when I almost said out loud to Kelly-Dog (my bullmastiff and faithful floor covering)
“Wow that is going to light up Mainland Mexico and Central America…”
I didn’t quite verbalize it since the dog doesn’t really care, and I am not quite that crazy yet…but I continued to watch the model animation and that big, nasty, gnarly-looking bruise of storm activity that I know was tearing up a large chunk of the South Pacific.
Within a couple of minutes I got an email from Benjamin Ginsberg @ driftwoodfoto.com, asking me about that particular storm and what is was likely to do to Puerto. Instead of emailing back I called Ben, and after we talked through a few details I had convinced him to fly to Puerto Escondido…and into the waiting arms of this swell.
As usual with all of the people I send on trips I asked him to take notes or even do a little surf journal we could publish when he returned. When he got back to the States he not only sent over the pictures in this story and the killer photo gallery at the bottom, but he provided some cool insight into the mind of travelling surf photographer.
Puerto Escondido, Mexico Trip
There’s a lot of work that goes into planning out a surf trip. A dot on the NOAA charts moving out of Antarctica sets things in motion. The summer’s drawing to a close. You’re chomping at the bit for some big waves. You see some photos from the previous swell, a similar dot on map. Could this one be bigger? Time to get a move on things.
As a surfer, you’re checking swell reports, airfares, picking which boards you want to take, maybe getting a new board or two dialed in with your shaper, double checking the ever changing airline baggage fees, booking a room somewhere, putting sponsor stickers on any new boards, maybe lining up a photographer and working contacts to arrange a feature story of the trip.
As a photographer you’re organizing/prepping gear, cleaning and re-cleaning all your equipment, coordinating swell reports, booking flights and hotels, the list goes on.
Of course there’s also rushing to the passport agency in Los Angeles if you’ve accidentally let yours expire. And after taking up most of your day and your money, they inevitably make you come back a second day through endless mid-day traffic to pick it up, which of course in the grand scheme of the government means queuing up like a Soviet Russian for bread or toilet paper. Only at the end of this line they hand you a little blue book with an awful picture of yourself that lets you hop around the globe.
What if you’ve managed to lose all your sunglasses? Ones you’ve bought and the freebies. You take a trip to the local gas station or 7-Eleven to find some cheap ones..or maybe you find an old gift certificate to Sunglass Hut from someone who couldn’t think of what to get you one year. You wonder, “Does it still have anything left on it?” So you go to check it out, maybe you find a pair. Maybe you pay way more than you planned because the sales girl is really cute.
And maybe you decide to dictate your thoughts for a write-up to your phone while driving, and end up hopelessly lost in your own town…
Before you know it the day of your flight arrives. You spend some time double-checking the swell report; cram your last few things into yet another bag; and head to the airport. A couple of connections and a few strong drinks later (still free on international fights!) you land in Mexico.
La Olas Es Mas Grande y Peligroso.
Big wave surfers are a rare breed, yet they’re part of a subset of athletes spanning many sports. The snow crew has the “Backcountry” skiers and snowboarders. Mountain climbers have the crazy “Free Climbers”. Skydivers have guys wearing wing suits and try to fly around like squirrels (who already have giant nuts). These guys, like surfing’s Big Wave Surfers, all push themselves to the edge of what the rest of their sport thinks is possible, often beyond. Continuously pitting themselves against the most extreme edge of Mother Nature.
It’s the middle of August, and the big wave surfing world has descended on this little Mexican town. Puerto Escondido. The Hidden Port. The Mexican Pipeline. Nearly as close to Guatemala as Mexico City; 1,600 miles from the nearest US boarder in southern Texas; 2,300 miles from our starting point in Los Angeles.
Puerto is considered by many to be the heaviest beach break in the world. Besides just the local Mexican chargers, surfers from Hawaii, California, Peru, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Australia, and many other regions are all in town, all hunting the biggest waves of the summer.
For some this would be another stop on a well-trod road, for others the start of a lifelong obsession.
After 15.5 hours of flights and layovers, getting to bed wasn’t hard. The 5:30am alarm was almost welcome, anticipation and excitement overriding the usual desire to roll back over for a few more hours sleep. Its pitch black out, yet the sound of boards being waxed is unmistakable. A quick climb to the roof terrace in hopes of seeing a wave bombing in through the darkness; the sun won’t be up for another hour and a half.
Billabong riders Greg Long and Spencer Pirdy are already there, staring over the small coastal town out towards the dark shore. One is already a legend. The other eagerly waits his turn to pay his ticket at the turnstile and join the ride.
Back home in Newport Beach, California Spencer charges the Wedge like none other. He knows he won’t make all of the 20+ foot drops that jackknife through the lineup, courtesy of long period south swells and a harbor jetty perfectly refracting the wave energy, all dumping into 5 feet of water. Yet he paddles into them regardless, seemingly without concern for his own wellbeing. But when he makes one of those drops he’s doing something no one else at the Wedge is doing. It’s those near vertical, seemingly impossible takeoffs that will help him here in Puerto, as much as the experience of taking wave after heavy wave on the head.
With resounding Booms, white lines appear in the distance. A few minutes later they’re twice as far away. For the moment the waxing sounds stop, and Danillo de Couto and Joao de Macedo join us. Someone quietly points to the distance as another set of white lines appear even further away from shore. Today is going to be epic.
6:00am. Greg, Spencer, Danillo, and Joao suited up with boardshorts, vests, and their guns, head off through the dark Mexican beach town to paddle out from the distant harbor. The waves are far too big and heavy to consider a frontal assault, and their boards are way too big to duck-dive. They should be in position by sunrise, still about an hour away.
I head back down from the roof, unlocking the bike lock chaining my Pelican hard cases to a cast-in-place concrete counter, and padlocks from the cases themselves. This is Mexico, after all.
Bottled water, granola bar, tripod, and camera in hand it’s back to the roof. As the sun rises there are Greg and Spencer, taking position at the main peak. For the moment Danilo and Joao are 50 yards to the north. Kohl Christensen, Will Dillon, Coco Nogales, and Gabriel Villaran soon join them as the set waves begin to roll through. Coco Nogales strikes first on a 20-foot face, local knowledge of his home break giving him the edge. More surfers are appearing in the lineup as if by magic. Nobody is watching where they came from, just the next set on the horizon.
Greg and Spencer start scratching for the horizon. Something’s coming their way. The rest of the pack turns and starts paddling further out back as well. It’s something big.
Clearing over the first two, Spencer turns and digs in for the third set wave. Popping up, it momentarily looks like the nose of his board might lift, but he holds true and carves down the face of a 25-footer. Offshore winds rip water off the top in a huge corona. A boiling, foaming wall of water chases him down as he makes it for the shoulder. One wave, one ride; a day’s goal already met and surpassed; a life forever changed.
As the morning rolls on so do the waves. Endless waves charging into the shore, rearing high, and throwing 30-40 foot walls of water on impact into the air. It’s like shooting pictures through your worst foggy, misty, June-gloom day. But the sun is out. The offshore winds occasionally clear the lineup. And Greg Long, every patient, ever selective while everyone else gets a wave, finally pulls into a monster.
Joao De Macedo and Will Dillon have just cruised down the faces of a pair of 20+ footers and are working their way back out. Boards are ditched as Greg grabs the rail of his bright red board, and cuts down the face of a 30-foot left. As he makes his bottom turn and stands up in the barrel I lose him behind a violent wall of water, which envelops Joao and Will as it charges towards shore. Once again grabbing his rail Greg shoots back out in front and over the shoulder. “Holy-Shit” “No way, mate.” I look over to see a couple Aussies up on the roof as dumbstruck as me.
Gabriel Villaren is next, pressing down the face and effortlessly standing up in a 25-foot tube. Joao De Macedo has marched up the hill with his broken 9’-6”x3-1/4”. It’s inch-thick, pine stringer shorn cleanly in two from the force of Greg’s wave not too long before. Broken boards are a common occurrence here, and Joao knows exactly where to get it fixed.
By the time the morning session is done, six hours later, there’s a collection of broken boards and lifted spirits throughout the town. It’s time to fuel up and catch a much-needed siesta in your hammock.
A few hours later the lineup is empty when Greg leads the charge for another four-hour session with as many giants to ride as the morning. For the paddle-in crew none seem to peak quite as big or as high as Greg’s morning monster, but Oscar Mondaca puts on a clinic for what can be accomplished with a jet ski, towing into a few 30+ foot barrels of his own.
That night in clusters of 2’s and 3’s we all seem to gravitate to the same restaurant. Aussies, Brazilians, Portuguese, Hawaiians, Americans. We push our tables together and talk about the day. The camaraderie between big wave surfers is absolute, unconditional, all encompassing. Many have known each other for years. Everyone looks out for each other, whether it is out in the lineup making sure whoever took that last wave is out back safe or has been rescued by a ski, or making sure you got what you ordered for dinner. Old pros are as eager to get a photo with their new friend as the newbie is embarrassed to ask for it.
By now the swell has peaked. The biggest waves have been ridden. In all likelihood the biggest wave of the summer has been ridden. Many of the world’s best will be taking off in the morning to chase another swell to Indo. A few others hang around for a second day of offshores and 20 footers.
After two days of epic surf, the remainder of the week saw smaller waves overall (small still being overhead). The occasional 12-15 foot bomb rolled through the back of the lineup, and Playa Zicatela offered up more barrels than could possibly be ridden. Though we left at different times during the week, everyone will be back at the same time next summer when another purple blob shows up on the charts again heading out of Antarctica towards this remote Mexican dreamland.
Driftwood Photography Studios
Check out the rest of this radical trip and big wave session in the gallery below.