I guess I’ve never considered how strange what we do is—at least until I tried to explain it to the older gentleman sitting next to me on the plane the other day.
“So you all came out for a contest?” he asked, after I told him that 15 of us had flown in from Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Hawaii, New York, and California.
“Well, no. For logistical reasons the contest wasn’t called on.”
“But it was an event of some sort?”
“Well, not exactly that either.”
The crew behind the Nelscott Reef Pro Am had pulled out all the stops to host us, with sponsors providing hotel rooms, two huge houses overlooking the reef, food, beer, and a 10-person media production team. But it wasn’t an official “event,” per se—more like a two-day house party, except that the invite list was open to everyone, and “everyone” ended up encompassing the who’s who of big wave surfing.
“So they spent all of that money and did all of that just to host a bunch of surfers? And you all flew in from all over the world just to surf for one day?”
When he put it like that, it did sound a little bit extreme. But then again, I realised over the past two days that the Nelscott Reef community are extremely passionate folk.
They are proud of their wave, they want big wave surfing in their town, and, as they proved this week, they are willing to invest in their passion. I’ve been to professional contests with less sponsor support, less media production, and less infrastructure than this tiny town pulled together for what was essentially a freesurf.
And as for the athletes that flew in? This was just another day on the job. Hawaii has been windy and flat for weeks, Europe is in the midst of a lull at the moment, and Mavs looked windy and shadowed, so it was a no-brainer for everyone to put in the long yards, with some guys flying 50-hours round trip for a six-hour session. That might sound crazy to someone who doesn’t understand surfing, but for us, this is completely normal.
What weren’t completely normal were the waves. When we woke up, all of the elements were in place—perfect wind, smooth seas, and a ton of energy. But that energy was doing things to north reef that had half of the world’s best big wave surfers scratching their heads.
Huge sets would feather and break in the channel between north and south reefs, making it look like we were about to get steamrolled by 60-foot monsters. But then the waves would start bending and shifting—sometimes breaking way out the back, then backing off before doubling up again on the inside; other times sneaking through without capping before putting on a freaky bathymetric show on the inside reef.
What should have been 50-foot waves would double up into two 30-foot faces, one on top of the other, oftentimes both breaking at the same time. Jamie Sterling said it felt like he was surfing a tidal bore, with chaser waves riding on the backs of the ones we were trying to catch.
And then, without any explanation, a nugget would come through, feeling the reef perfectly—no double-ups or imperfections, just a huge, dreamy barrel running the length of the reef.
Everyone agreed that it was one of the most challenging swells ever at Nelscott. Kealii Mamala has been there a lot over the years, and he was as perplexed as everyone else. Most guys only found two or three good ones over the eight-hour session, which was a testament to how tricky it was. But when the good ones would come, they were pretty dreamy.
Axi Muniain and Nic Lamb both snuck into mental double-ups from under the wash-through, while Kohl Christenson and Andres Flores rolled into bombs from a few hundred meters out the back. Just about everyone found their way into at least one nugget, including Paige Alms, who was back for the first time since the women’s heat during the 2014 contest.
But if there was a winner of the unofficial expression session that went down, it was unquestionably Kai Lenny. People have said it over and over, but until you see it with your own eyes, you’ll never realise just how far ahead this kid is of everyone else when it comes to the waterman pursuits.
While most had to be satisfied with a few good waves, he paddled into a dozen, including a no-bullshit five-second barrel—the kind where you are so deep you completely disappear, except you are doing it on an XXL wave and a 10'0". Then, once everyone else paddled in to warm up in the hot tub, he foil towed 40-footers at south reef for two hours.
As I attempted to explain all of this to my seatmate on the plane, it was clear that he didn’t really get it. Sure, he understood that the waves were big and challenging, and that the crew was charging. But he still couldn’t really wrap his mind around the fact that we’d all flown in for what was essentially 24-hours in Oregon, and were now already leaving to go back home.
So I didn’t bother to tell him what Kealii said as he jumped in the van and headed to the airport. Winter is only just getting started. Chances are, we’ll all see each other again in a week or two.
Special thanks to the Nelscott Reef Pro Am team, including 10 Barrel Brewing Co. and Roby’s Furniture and Appliance, for being such gracious hosts.