“The ocean is at its most seductive, don’t you think, when it’s most dangerous?”
-Alan Brennert, Moloka’i
Alex and I left Ometepe in time to catch the swell, which arrived as promised with overhead waves and clean conditions. On Saturday morning, I surfed Popoyo, alongside all the rippers in town for the upcoming contest, as a crew constructed a massive tent on the hill in front of the break.
As I fought to catch waves, I gazed out longingly at the Outer Reef, a good 200 yards out to sea, to the south of the main break. Popoyo’s Outer Reef is the premier big wave spot in Nicaragua, one of the only places capable of handing huge swell, notorious for its dangerously shallow shelf and violent beatings. A blown drop or a pinched barrel has been known to send top notch big wave surfers back to the beach bloodied and broken.
I desperately wanted to surf it, and Maykol, one of the local rippers, offered to take me. I met Maykol on my first night in Popoyo. He had drunk a few too many Toñas and his demeanor was a bit too familiar for my liking. When my verbal rebuffs proved ineffective, I delivered a firm kick to the seat of his pants, to get the point across. He switched gears and started berating me, saying that he didn’t love me anymore, that I looked like a man in my cargo shorts. Nice.
The next day, he apologized profusely, promising to lay off drinking for a few days in penance. I respected him for having the courage to own his mistake, and attempt to make amends. He had a notorious reputation, a radiant smile, and a powerful command of the surf. I decided to give him another chance, and we became friends.
On Saturday afternoon, as the tide began to fill in, Maykol asked me if I was serious about surfing Outer Reef. My answer was an emphatic yes. He examined my boards and we agreed that I should take the 7’0. We paddled out at Popoyo main break and caught a few waves while we waited for the wind to calm down and the tide to get higher. Once Maykol deemed conditions to be safe, we began the long paddle over to the Outer Reef. Twenty minutes later, we reached a substantial field of boils indicating that there was a large patch of reef just below the surface. Maykol stopped paddling and sat up on his board. This was it.
We were so far out to sea, I couldn’t see the beach, just rugged, featureless cliffs towering above the ocean. Typically, I use two fixed objects on the shore to triangulate, so that I don’t inadvertently get sucked into a bad spot by the current or the lure of an errant wave. With absolutely no bearing in this massive playing field, I asked Maykol how he lined up for the waves. He pointed out an antennae on one of the cliffs, which offered little help as it stood solitary and off center, ambiguous and far from where we were sitting. Maykol said the best way to line up was with the boils, to position myself at the apex of the rocky reef. Wary, I hung out on the edge, near the shoulder, and watched Maykol catch two waves.
One of the most important skills that I’ve learned for big wave surfing is patience. The waves that I don’t go for sometimes have a greater bearing on my session than the ones that I do. My first time at a new spot, with a steep and technical takeoff, and a reef of real consequence, the last thing I wanted was to be overeager, to chase an inside wave or go over the falls, get caught inside by a big set, get mangled.
I sat near the relative safety of the channel for a long time, watching the sets, seeking to tap into the Outer Reef’s rhythms, to merge with its dynamic seam of energy. I inched farther onto the reef and began to paddle cautiously for waves. Still too far on the shoulder, I needed to fully commit if I was going to catch one. And I wanted to catch one, badly.
I paddled deep and positioned myself at the top of the boils, noting that I would have to drop in directly above the shallow ledge if I succeeded in catching a wave. I had noticed that each subsequent wave in a set was slightly bigger, and decided to let the first few go by as the next set approached. I paddled over the first wave, and the second. As I crested the mountain of water, I saw a bigger wave standing up against the horizon line, shining with a seductive light that told me it was the one.
Paddling purposefully, I ignored the rock ledge, looking down the steep, bowling wall as it morphed into a liquid half pipe. As I got to my feet, I felt the water under my board drop out. I grabbed my rail, trying to keep my fins engaged and stop my board from plummeting into the reef. As I shot along the wall, it seemed impossibly long, feathering at the top, ready to drill me into submission. I had doubts that I could make the wave, but there was no going back. I braced myself. Miraculously, my speed carried me past the terminal force of the section and back out onto the face of the wave. Somehow, I had made it. I relaxed, carved playful turns, rode all the way to the inside, exclaiming incoherently in joy and relief.
Elated, I paddled all the way back out for one more. Maykol was nowhere in sight. Straining and squinting, I saw a faint figure with a board making its way along the beach. I was all alone. Seized by a bolt of feat, I thought about how stupid it was to paddle back out. Now I was stuck trying to get another wave. And what if I fell or got caught inside? I could feel my mind starting to go down the rabbit hole of doom, so I sat on the shoulder and gave myself a pep talk, out loud.
“You have all the time in the world,” I told myself. “No one is waiting for you, no one is watching you, and you get to surf an amazing wave, by yourself, in a beautiful place. This is what you want, this is the dream. You can do it.”
And I believed it, because it was true. Maykol had paddled over with me, had showed me in general where to sit. But that was it. He didn’t tell me which wave to go on, how to stick the drop, how to make the section. I did that myself. And I knew I had the potential inside of me to do it again.
I took a deep breath and paddled back onto the reef, went for another, less critical wave. My board glided in smoothly, on a fluid line. There was no doubt, no fear, no section to make. It was easy. I rode it almost to the sand, having fun with it as the size of the wave gradually diminished and I tried to see how far I could draw it out.
Emerging on the beach with a smile that felt like it stretched almost as far as the wave, I walked toward the main break at Popoyo. As I approached the beach front bar where I knew Maykol was waiting, I heard clapping and hooting. I looked up to see the people from my hostel, all of the friends I had made, cheering for me like I had won a contest. Everyone had seen my two waves, and was stoked.
The attention stroked my ego like a seductive caress. I loved it, which in days past, I would have been ashamed to admit. There is something noble and soulful in the lone surfer, content with the glory of the experience, shunning the spotlight of praise. But I’m only human. It feels good to be complemented, to have the significance of my experience validated by others who shared a piece of the same awe that I felt. I don’t have any pictures of my day at Outer Reef, but I will always have the memory of my friends cheering, and the smile on Maykol’s face as he said “Te ví,” I saw you.
In subsequent days, I met a group of girls, Celia and Lucía, from Spain, and Loretto, from Chile. They organized boat trips to remote breaks, hired a water photographer, had a sunset photo shoot for Maria Elena’s bikini company, Caramel Clothing Company. A group of smiling and scantily clad women toting surfboards, we stood out like bright peacocks in Nicaragua’s sepia-toned landscape. We giggled as the nicas turned their heads, staring as we strutted by.
I’ll admit it, I liked the attention we drew. Owning what’s true for me, celebrating it, rather than cowering in shame, is part of the work on my path of self-discovery. And I’m finding that as I admit and cherish these traits within myself, I have more willingness to accept and love these traits in others, in places I previously felt judgement and distaste.
What tangled webs we weave, unraveling the shapes of who we really are, trying to knit a garment that suits our culture’s demands, fits everyone else’s expectations. It’s no wonder I’ve felt suffocated, choked by a corset of my own creation. No more. I choose to be naked, to bare my wrinkles of insecurity and scars of imperfection, to walk proudly, to have the courage to hold my head high.