I’d been looking at satellite images of this zone for years. I’m sure other people had too—how could you not, with so many bends and breaks in the reef, so many potential setups facing straight offshore in the predominant winds?
But like any number of other A+ setups on Google Earth, this one suffered from one major flaw: lack of swell. It took a special storm to put waves on the reef, one that only popped up every year or so. And that storm had finally shown up on the charts.
Unfortunately, it can be frustrating as hell trying to convince people to go somewhere new. Maybe it’s a product of an overworked society, where we only get a few precious weeks of vacation every year, but it seems like all anyone wants to do anymore is go for the guaranteed score.
Instead of discovery, we spend our dollars and our hours chasing what has already been found. Instead of reinventing the wheel, we just roll along with everyone else. These days, what passes for adventure is going somewhere new to you—but not necessarily new to the world.
With a rare storm on the models and a lackluster summer winding down, I felt the need to do something that hadn’t been done before. The problem was, pretty much everywhere else in the world was looking at an epic forecast.
Europe was pumping, South Africa was on fire, the South Pacific was still churning out waves, the North Pacific was starting to wake up, and a steady stream of typhoon and hurricane swells had dozens of sure things prepped to light up.
In other words, convincing anyone to go anywhere new—even somewhere with a rare forecast and dozens of potential setups—was proving difficult. I called up just about everyone I knew who could keep a secret, but couldn’t get a nibble. Everybody was already going somewhere else that was guaranteed to pump.
After five days of stressing, of comparing wind and swell charts with MSW head forecaster Ben Freeston and trying to convince people that this was the storm to chase, I finally suckered a couple of friends into joining me.
With swell on the way and the wind forecast swirling, the three of us boarded a flight, together with a bunch of boards, a handful of cameras, and more than a few doubts. But we were flying into uncharted territory, so even if we didn’t score, that still had to count for something.
This was the kind of shit guys like Naughton and Peterson and all of our greatest pioneers used to do—the exploration that led to what is now a global surf map full of setups that we dream of as kids and take trips to as adults. Adventure for its own sake is what I kept telling the boys, while hoping like hell that we didn’t get skunked.
“We don’t have waves, only diving and fishing,” the local villagers argued when we began asking around for a boat The region we were visiting had never seen a surfboard—that much was clear as soon as we landed. “There is no surfing here,” we were told by customs officials after explaining what was in our bags. “We don’t have waves, only diving and fishing,” the local villagers argued when we began asking around for a boat. “We can’t take you to the reefs, because we don’t know where to go.”
We explained that we had researched the area on Google Earth and had our potential spots mapped out, but still they resisted.
There were hundreds of boats in the area, and we were offering a week’s salary for a day on the water, but no one was interested—the concept was too foreign, and the areas we wanted to explore to exposed to “the dangerous sea.”
It wasn’t until we explained that all our driver had to do was take us to the inside of the reefs and fish while we surfed that we finally convinced someone to give us a ride. By then, we’d already wasted one day of the swell.
We spent the next two days checking dozens of the setups, putting in nearly 50 miles at a time, sunrise to sunset, burning fuel and destroying our backs while blasting through head-high wind chop.
We endured open-ocean crossings, torrential rainstorms, and raging wind that hadn’t been on the forecast when we’d decided to pull the trigger. And we found swell—lots of it—the lines of white water exploding in the distance teasing us into checking just one more pass, one more bend in the reef.
But eventually we had to accept that the locals were right—there was no surfing here. As good as the reefs were great for diving and fishing, they were horrible for waves, all of the passes and reef points being too either too deep or too dry, too fast or too fat.
Maybe on a different swell direction, or a different tide, or a different decade, when ocean levels had risen three feet. We couldn’t understand how an area that showed so much promise could have absolutely nothing to offer. All we knew is that we were getting shut down—and we were over it.
By day four, the swell was on the decline, showing numbers roughly half the size of the previous days, when we’d come up empty-handed.
With hopes dashed and asses bruised from too many hours on the boat, we spent the evening flipping between swell charts and flight options.
We could change our tickets and leave the next morning, and if I made a couple of tight connections and survived a 48-hour itinerary, I could make it to Mexico just in time for a late-season pulse. We packed our board bags, threw gear in backpacks, and crashed early, exhausted, disappointed, and ready to leave.
But at 5:00 a.m. the next morning, I couldn’t bring myself to leave
But at 5:00 a.m. the next morning, I couldn’t bring myself to leave.
Mexico would always be there, and dammit, we’d come to find a wave in a region that only gets swell once every couple of years—and we still had a couple of potential setups to check. Our driver had refused to take us to one particular stretch of reef, telling us that the people who fished there were extremely territorial, and had a reputation for violence.
At first, we’d written this off as an excuse not to make the long passage, but then a group of medical missionaries had flashed pictures that made us believers—an x-ray of a homemade dart embedded in a skull, and video of a piece of rebar protruding from someone’s chest, shaking with every beat of his still-pumping heart. As it turned out, the stories weren’t exaggerated—people stayed away from that area, and for good reason.
Still, this was the only zone we hadn’t checked, and the wind was looking good. Instead of starting the long bus ride back to the airport, we begged our boat driver to take us somewhere new.
There were four potential setups in this final little zone, the last of about 40 we had mapped out while planning the trip. Having already struck out 36 times, we didn’t have much in the way of expectations, so when the first three didn’t turn up anything, we weren’t really surprised.
And the last spot on our list—the farthest from home and the closest to the “dart zone”—hadn’t really shown much potential in the satellite images, so when we motored down there, it was more for the sake of being thorough than anything else.
The setup was little more than a round chunk of reef sticking out into deep water, no different than the dozens we’d already checked over the past three days. Except that it was. We approached the reef from the outside and could see teepees stacking and bending, but it wasn’t until we could see the wave head-on that we knew we’d actually found something. Our driver probably thought we’d been hit by darts, because we all started screaming at the same time.
The sets were big and mutant, more appropriate for towing or body boarding than paddling on a 5'10"
It was a slab, that much was clear from the first set. The sets were big and mutant, more appropriate for towing or body boarding than paddling on a 5'10". But even the smaller waves were borderline unapproachable, slurping off the reef with virtually no entry.
An offshore reef broke up the swell so that it approached the lineup from three directions, and knowing where to sit was sort of like throwing darts blindfolded. But the converging waves also occasionally wedged up, turning what was now only a two-foot swell into bending, double-overhead holes that were as wide as they were tall.
The next five hours were sort of a blur, punctuated by freak sets, brutal beatings, a shark feeding frenzy, and a handful of late-drop nuggets. It wasn’t the perfect wave most people go looking for, and it had real consequences when you inevitably got smoked (especially considering the two-hour boat ride back to the nearest hospital), but considering everything we’d seen over the past few days, it was exactly the kind of setup we should have expected to find.
Looking back, I guess we could have gone somewhere guaranteed—chased a swell to a sure thing that took a lot less work and a lot less time. But sometimes the experience of searching is just as important as what you find. And while the next trip to Darts won’t as groundbreaking as the first, that wave will be an adventure for a long time to come.