It picked up overnight. A lot. We drive north out of Big Sur and, between pockets of fog, watch wide corduroy lines stack toward the horizon. Tanner calls Dave Nelson to get the report in Santa Cruz. Rainy. South winds. A movie day. It’s clean here, just too big. Shit. Are we really going to spend our last day dry docked? The past three days we’ve scored increasingly better waves, surfing by ourselves every session except one. I’d hoped this pulse of swell would provide the crescendo to an already blaring road trip anthem.
“There’s one spot that might be able to hold this,” I tell Tanner. “Go left here.” We drive through a maze of tiny streets, past gazillion dollar homes to a place I’ve only heard about. We arrive to the bluff and within 20 seconds of watching the distant lineup we see a guy freefall from a 15-footer, stick the airdrop, then get exploded by the whitewater.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Tanner starts freaking out. Giddy. He’s never heard of this wave and suddenly he’s looking at a Hawaii-style outer reef reeling off into a postcard-perfect bay. We make a plan — drive to my house in Santa Cruz, get big boards, big leashes and safety vests — turn around and come back with two cars. After the session Tanner will drive back to San Clemente, I’ll return to Santa Cruz. There’s still hope for a crescendo.
Speeding north, something’s bugging me and I realize that this might be the last time to talk to Tanner for this piece. This whole trip he’s talked about competing and requalifiying, but I want to know, why will this push for the CT be any different? So I ask.
“After thinking about it last year, I realized that I’d never really given the QS my full effort,” he says. “I was always trying to do everything and not prioritizing competition. So this year I’m trying to come at it with a clear head, keep the focus and try my hardest from Australia all the way to Hawaii. Just hungry for wins.”
“Do you think it’s healthy to put so much value on qualifying?” I ask, in part because I believe Tanner has much to offer the surf world outside competition. He’s smart, creative, ambitious. I’d hate for the QS grind to smother that.
“I think discipline is healthy,” he says. “No matter what you do in life, having the discipline to chase a goal is a good thing. It gives you focus. What I don’t think is healthy is putting all your eggs in one basket, training as hard as you possibly can and losing sight of what it is to be a surfer. But if you’re committing to go to all these events and put a full year together, you need go all in. Otherwise, why do it?”
We get to my house, grab what we need and bolt back down south to the final, beautiful sight of our vision quest. It’s still pumping. Nobody out. Psych up, suit up, strap up and jump in. I look at Tanner — grinning like a drunk teenager, paddling a 15 year old, sitckerless 9’8” toward an unknown lineup without a photographer or filmer in sight — and I realize that I don’t need to worry about Tanner requalifying. If he does, great. If he doesn’t, it will be because he wasn’t able to sacrifice what it means to be a surfer. Because this, right here, is what it means.
After 20 minutes of paddling we reach the lineup. Huge swells pass beneath us, dense fog drifts a few hundred feet above. We shake our heads and laugh in disbelief — once again we are surfing alone, about to score. Deep breaths. Settle in. It’s quiet except for the lapping of water against our boards. Suddenly, the horizon grows long and dark and steep. We are nowhere near the lineup. We break toward the channel. Sprint paddling toward deep water. A 25-foot wall extends past our reach, feathering as it drags along a shallow section beyond us. It boils. It lurches. It’s breaking and we’re not going to make it. Tanner is just out ahead of me and emits an adrenaline-laced cackle just before he dives under. What’s funny about this? F--k. I take two hurried breaths, the smell of ash and salt water stinging my nose, and dive. This is our crescendo. Ironic that it’s muffled by all this water. Oh, well. Guess adversity isn’t limited to land. For the next few violent moments, beneath the weight of the Pacific, I transport myself to mental paradise. Tanner’s already there.