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Still Open in Baja by Matt Rott

by on Friday 26th July, 2013   27758 Visits   Comments

IT didn’t feel real until the plane flew in. The mental patchwork of images I had accumulated from dozens of dated magazine articles featured draining, steel blue barrels fronting a makeshift tarmac filled with Cessna 205s, and with only one of these two elements in place, the entire setting seemed slightly askew. Not that I was complaining—after all, I was the only person out at one of the best beachbreaks in Baja, and at the risk of sounding cliché, the waves were nothing short of pumping.

With the swell’s forerunners registering an impressive 23-second interval and peak numbers ranging between 4–7 feet at 20 seconds, this was possibly the swell of the decade, and unquestionably the swell of the summer — except that it filled in 16 days before summer officially opened (which might explain the complete lack of crowds which I found myself enjoying). Still, as the drone of the small plane’s engine began to reverberate across the water, signalling the potential arrival of as many as six bourgeois wave-hunters, a small smile creased my face. Crowds or no, the mental image was finally complete.

Whoever designed the sleepy fishing village’s airstrip was obviously not a pilot, as it faces perpendicular to some of the strongest sustained winds in all of Mexico, the 30-knot+ cross-wind making for an incredibly dangerous and nerve-wracking landing.

Fortunately for me, of the four men to crawl white-knuckled from that plane, only one was there to surf (the rest serving various roles that included pilot, photographer, and magazine hack). Fortunately for them, they landed alive and in one piece — although their survival was surely in question for more than a few seconds. Whoever designed the sleepy fishing village’s airstrip was obviously not a pilot, as it faces perpendicular to some of the strongest sustained winds in all of Mexico, the 30-knot+ cross-wind making for an incredibly dangerous and nerve-wracking landing. The fact that no one has crashed upon arrival in the past 40 years is tantamount to a small miracle, particularly considering how many private planes used to fly in to chase every ripple of swell not so long ago.

Indeed, sometime after Scorpion Bay faded from our notice and long before Harry’s got destroyed by a poorly located gas plant, for a short time this may have been Baja’s best-known photo studio. While George Bush Sr. ordered sorties over Baghdad from the comfort of his Washington, D.C. stronghold, dozens of California-based mercenaries spent the early ’90s flying into a much closer desert in search of different kinds of bombs. During that period, it wasn’t uncommon for this particular airstrip to house a dozen planes at a time, the adjacent lineup crowded to the point of frustration. Then, as is inevitable in the over-saturated world of online surf media, our collective focus waned as the media directed us to new discoveries in Mozambique and the Maldives and Micronesia, and just as quickly as it was exposed, the world’s most photographed beachbreak retreated quietly into obscurity.

I’m as guilty as anyone of this trend toward destination ADD, and despite having grown up in California, I’ve spent the past 15 years chasing en vogue pipe dreams in far-off lands, disregarding the gems that lie forgotten mere hours to the south. Even this trip — my first to this particular wave — was a last-minute change of plans, a Plan B that only happened because a friend made an off-the-cuff suggestion that I broaden my horizons and surf someplace new for a change. And as it turned out, the suggestion proved to be a good one. After an early morning border crossing and a lengthy drive, we arrived just as the midday offshores picked up on the first day of the swell. Large, nearly out-of-control sets were already pouring through the lineup, and in our excitement we threw bags and coolers and still-stuffed camping gear in the sand, scrambling to pull on wetsuits and screw in fins.

This particular beach is probably best at around head high+, and our swell was producing sets that were consistently twice that size — and what was normally a peak with equally impressive lefts and rights had turned into a long, speedy righthand sand-bottom point, where walled-up closeouts were interspersed with perfect, Kirra-esque freight trains.

For three days the fortunate few of us camped along this sandy moonscape gorged ourselves on cervezas and salt water, until our noses peeled and our ribs protruded and our eyeballs felt like they had been sanded with 60-grit paper. The size and period of the swell made the conditions incredibly difficult to navigate — this particular beach is probably best at around head high+, and our swell was producing sets that were consistently twice that size — and what was normally a peak with equally impressive lefts and rights had turned into a long, speedy righthand sand-bottom point, where walled-up closeouts were interspersed with perfect, Kirra-esque freight trains, making it tricky to pick the right waves. Stiff currents made our job even harder, as it was virtually impossible to maintain position on the largest day, and more than anything it was often a case of getting lucky and being in the right place at the right time — a frustrating situation when your arms start to tire or you fall out of sync with the ocean. But as challenging as the waves were, they were well worth the effort, the best of the lot draining for a hundred yards before going mutant on the end bowl section, a slabby double-up that went as wide as it was tall before either spitting grotesquely into the rip or closing out in an ugly, twisted, board-snapping mess. Waves of this nature are not for everyone, but for those who are equal part barrel-fiend and masochist they were pretty damned near perfect. Besides, there were never more than three people in the water at once — a fact that I never quite got used to, especially considering that we were surfing one of the most hyped swells in recent memory at a wave that used to grace magazine covers.

A koan is a tool utilized by Zen Buddhists in the pursuit of enlightenment, a nonsense riddle with no discernable solution that serves as an analogy for the paradoxical nature of the divine. The best-known of these riddles famously asks, “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” More appropriate to those of us seeking oceanic nirvana might be the question, “If a wave barrels and no one is there to photograph it, does it still count?” Those who make their living in front of a camera might debate this point, but for the everyman surfer whose precious tube time is measured only in intrinsic value, the answer should be quite obvious. This is why, as the media flits from one new destination to another and our focus wanders with the latest articles or blog posts or brand-scripted travelogues, timeless classics continue to do their thing unobserved, rewarding those few who have remained loyal and committed despite an inevitable decline in popularity. Waves like G-land and Nias and Raglan — and a certain strip of Mexican beachbreak — remain today as they always were: timeless classics relatively forgotten by the current pop culture, like homes abandoned with their doors still open, waiting for an aimless drifter to discover them all over again.

Story: Matt Rott
Pictures: Sean Jansen and Tyler Reid

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