The Big Chile: Dawn’s Early Light by Matt Rott

For obvious reasons, Chileans don’t celebrate the 4th of July. It’s the US’s day of independence, after all, not theirs — which means no fireworks, no barbecues, and no parades. Yet something tells me that from now on the date will have some significance here — at least amongst the country’s big wave community.

It was Chile’s version of a Code Red swell, and came accompanied by threats of hefty tickets for nadador extrema (extreme swimming) — hefty being in the range of “five grams of gold.”

According to the Armada de Chile, Thursday marked the biggest swell to hit northern Chile in over 30 years. With roads and houses being washed away and harbours closing out, the military higher-ups made the decision to close the coast to watercraft—and that included surfers. It was Chile’s version of a Code Red swell, and came accompanied by threats of hefty tickets for nadador extrema (extreme swimming) — hefty being in the range of “five grams of gold.” This antiquated threat — along with occasional sets pushing 50 feet on the face and a death-wish paddle out through a lava reef keyhole that was sucking dry — gave our small group of would-be chargers a moment of pause, but after a bit of deliberation three of us decided that we should make an early morning run for it. We were all foreigners — from Argentina, Brazil, and the US — and figured that if it came down to a court appearance, we might be able to beat the fine (no taxation without representation, or something like that). So, in the spirit of Independence Day, we grabbed our guns and threw ourselves into the water, like so many bags of Boston tea.

Although I have prioritized large surf over the past few years, I definitely didn’t have the experience of my two fellow rebels. Carlos is one of Argentina’s best big wave riders, and is a household name in South American heavy water circles, having competed in the Pico Alto contest and being a regular on the alternate list for the Punta Lobos event. And Bento, our Brazilian brother-in-arms, has spent the past five years chasing swells around the planet, spending large portions of the year in Chile and self-funding missions to Puerto Escondido, Todos Santos, Mavericks, and any number of other hell waves. But even with their experience, they had to admit that this particular Chilean swell was historic. Bento even went so far as to claim that it was one of the heaviest sessions of his life—and he’s surfed 20-foot Mavs.

We surfed this swell old school style, without jet ski safety assist or inflatable vests or any other fancy life-preserving do-hickeys.

We surfed this swell old school style, without jet ski safety assist or inflatable vests or any other fancy life-preserving do-hickeys, and with the channel consistently closing out and the normal lineup thrown out of whack by the swell’s size and interval, we spent a lot of time sitting and not a lot of time surfing. But a handful of waves were surfed. They weren’t the biggest to come through during the day, but they were solid enough to make the potential tickets more than worthwhile. And when we finally made it to shore a few hours later—a shore teeming with hundreds of military personnel (it seems we’d get our parade after all, albeit a day late)—we did what any responsible guerrillas would do and hid in the bushes to fight another day. After all, that’s how the US won its independence 237 years ago.

Words, Matt Rott
Photography, Diego Figueroa


Matt Rott

Writer and surfer