Everyone went to bed early with the alarm set for two hours before sunrise. Carol was eager to see the predicted surf arrive, and Zeta called Mark to find out if he’d like to come along. He was all for it, and Carol volunteered to drive the short distance to Pacific Beach and get Mark when she got up. Mark was making considerable progress with his new prosthetic. The beach goers loaded up several folding beach chairs, a large beach umbrella, and a pair of binoculars. Zeta made some sandwiches and put them in a cooler with ice and cans of ice tea.
Zeta first thought of going to Windansea to check out the huge surf but after realizing it would be overrun with surfers, vehicles, and a mob of spectators she decided going back to Swami’s would be the better choice. Even getting there before sunrise, they might be counting on lady luck to get one of the fifty Swami parking lot spaces.
She’d checked the Internet and found sunrise was at 6:52, so the alarm was set for 5 am. Everyone was sound asleep when Zeta started hearing the noise in the distance. The condo was less than a quarter mile from the beach, and the crashing of incoming waves became loud enough to disturb everyone’s slumber. No one got out of bed. They laid there half-awake while the crashing waves increased their crescendo. As each set broke over the reefs and pounded the shoreline, the waves sounded nature’s aqua cacophony.
The largest waves in a set were hitting with such resounding seismic force on the beach they registered at the San Diego U.S. Seismic Geological station. Zeta had never heard anything like this before. It sounded like distant rolling thunder. Justus was cuddling with Zeta the way they’d fallen to sleep, in the spooning position. They were warm and comfortable, like two sleepy puppies, dozing in and out of shallow sleep awaiting the alarm.
Everyone was up and out of bed when the buzzer sounded. Carol got ready and went to pick up Mark in her car, and the two surfers loaded their boards on the surf racks. “We’ll be using these big wave surf guns for today. These longer specially shaped boards are what we need to catch big waves. Some of the Hawaiian pros will be towed into waves today by jet skis. They’ll be using a short strap on board,” she explained to Justus.
Carol arrived back and everyone loaded into the Escalade. Zeta introduced Justus to Mark as her Sedona friend and they all munched on a trail mix of nuts, seeds, and raisins. Zeta and Justus each ate a dark chocolate high protein energy bar. As they drove along the beach in the dark, they couldn’t see the waves coming in, but Zeta knew the swells were coming out of the northwest. Zeta pulled into Dunkin Donuts for coffee for everyone, and she and Mark got a couple of hot glazed donuts.
Arriving in Encinitas, they drove to Swami’s parking lot and pulled into see that only a few spaces remained. “Sure didn’t get here too early for this epic surf,” Zeta said as they left the SUV and walked over to look at the ocean. There was enough moonlight to see the white foam crests of breaking waves. The roar and crashing of the waves demanded serious trepidation for any surfer considering going into the raging ocean at dawn.
With their wetsuits on and boards waxed they carried their beach chairs up onto the cliff and waited for the first rays of sunlight to arrive behind their backs to the east. “Are you still thinking of getting a running prosthesis?” Zeta asked Mark.
“Damn right I am, little sister, just as soon as this here stump gets a bit tougher. It sure feels great just to be out here with you. Are you sure you want to take on these waves, they sound violent and humongous?”
“Only if the sets get organized. Right now, things are somewhat erratic. We’ll see what the stage looks like when we get some light on the subject.”
“I wasn’t the surfer you were, but I know this surf is radical, it’s way outta my league, so be safe sister.”
“I will Mark,” Zeta assured.
“Have you heard from any of your buddies still in Afghanistan?” Carol asked.
Mark was quiet for a few moments then said, “My best buddies, my brothers, were standing between me and the suicide bomber when it all blew up. I wouldn’t be here with you today except for their bad luck.”
Now feeling embarrassed and awkward Carol said, “Oh I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to …”
Mark interrupted, “That’s ok Carol, it’s just the honest truth. I didn’t hear a sound, just saw an instant of flash and I woke up a week later in our military hospital in Germany.”
Zeta went over to Mark and hugged him saying, “Mark, we’re just so happy you are here with us.”
“We sure are,” Carol added.
“I love you both, and I’m lucky, relatively speaking, to have my one good leg and eye. I saw guys in Germany who lost both legs or both arms, and one who lost both arms, legs, and his eyes. I can’t say I love you yet Festus. We’ve just met.”
“It’s Justus, Mark. Justus like what sometimes occurs in the criminal justice system, but spelled differently,” Zeta corrected.
“Sorry Justus, my memory is still a bit shaky from the blast. I’m sure if you’re a friend of Zeta you must be a good guy.”
“I try to be Mark.”
Dawn began creeping across the sky, and it wasn’t long before darkness was fleeing west and out of sight. Surfers were already gathering down below the stairs on the beach, but no one had yet dared to venture out into the surf.
Zeta assessed the situation, “Alright, the waves are looking more organized and surfable. This offshore wind should make for a good day but those are some monsters already and the surf is still building. I think we should watch longer, see how things are shaping up, and identify where the rip currents are and use them to paddle out and return to the lineup after a ride,” Zeta observed.
The rip tide looked like a small river running along the shoreline and then back out into the ocean. Justus posed a rhetorical question, “So you use the rip current like a skier uses a ski lift?”
The sun pushed up over the eastern horizon like an enormous egg yolk and the brighter view from the cliff revealed the waves breaking on the outer reefs. Waves were almost breaking over distant reefs where a wave hadn’t broken in over a century. Waiting for a lull after a sizeable set, four surfers pushed off on their boards and started paddling furiously to make it outside the breakers before another set arrived. It looked like they would make it but they didn’t hook up with the rip tide and another set came in and hammered them before they could make it safely outside. “Timing a lull and reading the rip tide is going to be critical today,” Zeta said to Justus and added, “Are you sure you want to try this?”
The unsuccessful surfers got thrashed around, pounded underwater, and forced back towards the beach. They dragged themselves and their boards onto the sand looking like sewer rats that just survived being flushed a few miles down a New Jersey storm drain. Other surfers continued to study the situation that was steadily improving in wave organization. Another group of three gave it a try and made it outside before the next set came in. The crowd on the beach and along the cliff cheered.
All along the southern California coast from Oceanside to Imperial Beach on Coronado Island, the surf spots were lined with cars and crowds pressing to watch Ms. Pacific venting her stormy emotion. Pilings were being knocked out on some piers. Lifeguards posted warning signs and flags about dangerous rip tides and undertows. Over one hundred reckless thrill seekers would be rescued, and seven fatal drownings occur. Two small boats with inattentive captains would capsize when seized by large breaking waves. Local TV news teams were there with their remote units. Some coverage was broadcast on CNN, FOX, and NBC television.
Many of the surf spots could not handle this size surf, and the waves were closing out which made it impossible even to attempt surfing. Meteorologists were predicting waves as large as 35-40 feet. Not wanting to miss this epic surf, top pro surfers from Hawaii bought last minute airline tickets and would be challenging the surf on their small tow-in surfboards, towed into the waves by trusted Jet Ski pilots. They rented reliable jet skis and headed to the ideal spots for tow-in surfing in small charter boats. There would be no dangerous paddling out through the surf today for the high-tech pros.
Some surfers were now in the water, and others joined the pack in the lineup outside Swami’s Reef. Several had been able to catch a wave but had dreadful wipe outs. All the surfers were using their longer gun boards so they could paddle faster and catch one of the mountainous waves.
Zeta finally said, “Let’s hit the surf,” and she and Justus waited for a lull and paddled into the surf, over some roaring lines of white water, caught the rip current and made it out to the line-up. Zeta only counted nine other surfers in the pack, not even a third of normal. Some who made it out and took a close up view of these waves, or had a bad wipe out, went back to the beach and comfort of terra firma. None of the surfers were talking smack or joking and cutting up today. This was life or death caliber ocean sport and no time for clowning or trash talking. There were several decent rides on smaller 15 foot high waves, but when the largest sets rolled in, the pack paddled in a panic over to the wave shoulder, and outside to safety.
“Justus, pick me out a medium one, ok?”
“Sure,” Justus said, and he felt the vibration from the distant swell. “In the next set after this one coming, ride the third wave.
Zeta waited and when the set appeared she paddled hard and dropped into the third wave, shot down the huge face, made her bottom turn and ripped up and down the wave face for a spectacular ride while the crowd on the beach cheered in appreciation. She paddled back into the rip and returned to the line-up by Justus. “That was the best ride of my life!” she told him smiling ear to ear. My legs are shaking from riding that monster. It was over 20 feet high!”
The next few sets saw some bad wipe outs with surfers cascading over the falls before they could surf down the wave face. Some others got caught inside and took a near drowning beating. Two prudent surfers decided this was way out of their league and went back in while two others were paddling into the ocean to test their skills.
“Let me pick out some more for you,” Justus told Zeta.
“Aren’t you going to give it a try?”
“Not yet, we’ve got plenty of time. This set coming right now, take the fifth wave.” She did and had another good ride but not like the one that excited the beach crowd. Zeta rode a few more he selected, and she told him, “You know Justus this surf is continuing to build. I’ve had some great rides and one stoking ride of a lifetime. But I think I’m going to go in because I twinged an old Achilles injury on my last bottom turn. I’m taking the next wave I catch in. Do you want to stay out here?”
“Sure, I’ll be fine.”
“Ok, I’m not going to doubt you. Be careful, please pick me out a smaller wave.” Justus did, and she rode it in without any high-powered turns or cutbacks, just a cruising return to the beach. Then Justus selected a sizeable one for himself and rode it, getting a feel for the larger waves. The surf continued building and the farthest outside reef started to catch the larger swells, but no wave had broken there yet.
Zeta rinsed off in the beach shower and climbed back up the stairs to watch Justus with Mark and Carol.
From the vantage point of the cliff, they saw what Justus sensed. Far outside moving over the kelp forest was a dangerous set approaching. The small lineup pack could not see the incoming set. “Outside, paddle out!” Justus yelled, and he paddled fast to the horizon. “Hey dude, don’t be hallucinating, ain’t nothin’ comin’ way out there, mellow out bro, … hey, where the hell ya goin’?” a well-built surfer with short curly black hair shouted at Justus while the rest of the pack laughed at him.
Zeta heard a commotion behind her and saw the KFMB-TV remote van with the station’s well-known personality coming over to the edge of the cliff with a microphone and the cameraman following her. She faced sideways to the ocean, and the camera shot her. While she started talking the cameraman panned a view of the ocean, beach, and the crowd. “I’ve lived in San Diego County all my life, and I have never seen or heard surf like this,” she began. “Not only can I hear the giant crashing waves from up here but I’m feeling them shaking the ground where we’re standing.”
“I can see, wait a second, I see a huge wave set coming in, and the surfers are frantically paddling trying to get outside, but it doesn’t look like they are going to make it. I see one surfer in the distance who has just paddled over the first incoming mountain of water to safety. The crowd here realizes the desperation of this situation. No, no, the wave is cresting and starting to break, and they are not going to escape. The wave has caught them all inside. Richard, I hope they survive. I’m no expert, so I’m going to ask someone. Sir, you sir in the wetsuit, how big would you say that wave was?” “Oh, it was easy something over thirty maybe thirty-five feet. These waves are still building. I sure won’t be going into surf today,” the bystander said. “Thank you for your wave estimate sir,” Rita told her viewers.
Zeta was feeling scared and guilty for getting Justus into this dangerous situation. She was hoping he would stay outside the breaking waves and be picked up by a boat or a Coast Guard helicopter. Several of the pack could be seen making their way back into shore. The others were not in view. Carol could see Zeta’s fear and held her hand, “Do you think he knows what to do?” “I hope so,” Zeta answered. “How long did you say he’s been surfing?” Mark asked. “I didn’t, but it hasn’t been very long,” Zeta said looking worried at Carol.
During the lull between sets, no new surfers entered the ocean to test their big wave skills. Then another monster set was seen in the distance. The crowd on the cliff saw it, and there was some gasping and hushed talking. A sense of awe and reverence swept over the scene. The giant swells, born in a powerful North Pacific storm several days ago, were rolling in to finish their life and die in a blaze of glory on this beach.
Zeta saw Justus getting into position. “Holy Moses, I can’t believe it, he’s going for it.” Justus let the first three massive swells roll under him lifting him and his board several stories high. Then the fourth appeared, and he paddled fast while the crowd screamed and Zeta tried not to cover her eyes.
Rita and her cameraman sprang into action, “This is Rita Crowley for News 8, and I’m watching a lone surfer attempting to surf a huge incoming swell in what is being called the One Hundred Year Monster Surf. He is paddling and must match the speed of the wave to catch it. There he goes. He’s crouched and up on his board. And now he’s streaking down the face of the wave leaving a white wake that looks like a jet contrail. I hope you can hear me Richard back at the studio over the noise of this crowd. He is leaning almost parallel to the water making a swooping gigantic bottom turn and is now rebounding back to the top of this giant, that looks to me to be at least a forty foot wave from what our surfer said earlier.”
Mark, Carol, and Zeta were now standing watching the spectacle in complete disbelief. Justus shot up and down the giant’s face then suddenly he dug a side rail of his board into the wave while making a turn and went flying off his board. There was a collective scream from the crowd. The wave’s massive white water wall was angrily crashing down to demolish Justus. Zeta held her breath and terror gripped her like when learned Briana died
Then the crowd suddenly went quiet and then cheered in stunned disbelief. Rita signaled the cameraman to shoot her and held her mike, “Again I hope you can hear me over the crowd noise. What our video is capturing is beyond amazing. A surfer was riding a gigantic wave when he wiped out in what seems could be certain death. Somehow he managed to stay in the wave, body surfing up and down the massive wave face and then he continued in the white water all the way to the beach. This crowd here is just going insane!”
Zeta couldn’t believe her eyes, but she realized this wasn’t the first time she had trouble believing her eyes with this Justus. She watched with the crowd as Justus body surfed the wave all the way to the shore. Then he walked up through the electrified crowd as surfers and beach goers slapped him on the back, shook his hand and shouted verbal surfer accolades at him. He made it up the stairs to Zeta. “And I thought it would be crowded at Windansea, we need to get out of here right now,” Zeta said while moving quickly to the SUV. “That was quite a show, Mr. Marcus.”
Justus strapped the surfboards onto the Escalade’s surf rack, toweled off, and they drove out of the parking lot through the cheering admirers. Rita Crowley had tried in vain to get through the crowd and interview Justus. She faced the cameraman and spoke, “This crowd has just witnessed one of the most amazing surf rides ever in southern California, maybe in the world. There is a rumor going through the crowd that the mystery surfer is the world famous big wave surfer Laird Hamilton, but I can’t confirm that. No surfers are in the water now, the waves are just too large and are closing out, this is Rita Crowley for KFMB News 8 from Swami’s in Encinitas.”