My First Fear

posted by / Magazine / February 9, 2013

Baby Cobras winner describes two brushes with terror

ing house

I’d been to Hawaii a couple of times before, but after this trip, I can now confidently say that I have had a real North Shore experience. I’ve felt moments of personal revelation and the most fabled component of Hawaii: an intimate encounter with The Great Fear.

Apparently, surfing 8-foot Sunset aboard a borrowed 6’1” Mayhem was the previously undiscovered formula. Just sitting out the back amongst a small gathering of prominent big-wave riders was enough to invite The Great Fear into my body. My heart raced. My mind sprinted. I was petrified. And it was great.

There is something forebodingly beautiful about sticking a big drop only to watch the wave clench its fist and reveal that liquid holy ground, offering the only two options that matter: get buck or get dead. I was in a buck-ass mood, so in I pulled, albeit with fright, and handed my fate to the inside bowl. I had no idea what was to come. A stranger shrieked from the shoulder and raised both arms to the sky. My decision to get buck had pleased him. The barrel gaped, turned a dark shade of green, and then there was silence. Beautiful, screaming silence. The horizon went suddenly white, and I was pitched forth into the abyss.

The abyss is not as deep as you’d expect. When I rose back to the surface I was greeted by the kind, knowing eyes of a stranger in the channel. He understood me. He smiled. I smiled back. I had faced The Great Fear and emerged unscathed. Enlightenment was mine.

The very next day, in waves half the size, the fear met me once again. Same hour. Same location. But this time, the fear was in the calloused hands of what I may only describe as a modern version of an ancient isle warrior. Gilded SUP, sea spear in hand. He had just made quick work of an unlikely foe in the form of an oblivious teenage girl who had the audacity to make a move for the same wave — a wave that was so obviously his. In a display of shrewd superiority, he had overtaken her, banishing her fragile frame toward the semi-dry reef as he steered his high horse to the safety of the channel.

He re-entered the lineup with a fury of insults that were directed at no one and everyone at the same time. From quite a distance, he caught sight of me, an innocent young man still revelling in the memory of yesterday’s session. My spirits were high. His, not so much. We instantly became adversaries and The Great Fear overtook me in a whole new form. The grin began to fade from my face as he made his watery march toward me, sweeping up a storm as he approached. But in the soft evening light I felt an eccentric sort of calm. I could comprehend what the universe was telling me. It became apparent that it was his turn to get buck, my turn to get dead. And the blunt end of a paddle upside the head may be an honorable enough way to go.

Fortunately, he stopped a few yards short, cursed my presence, asked me a few brusque questions in a language I could half understand — and then he was gone.

This strange dichotomy of fear danced through my head as I caught my only wave of the afternoon. I belly-boarded toward shore and gave a silent thanks to whatever invisible spirit had protected me from having my head redefined by the shadowy figure atop his plastic steed. I closed my eyes and breathlessly uttered the only phrase that came to mind. “Sorry, Uncle. Won’t happen again.”—Garrett English

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