I know a dark place. Dark and deep, beneath the sea. A place I visited once, un-voluntarily held hostage actually. A place I don’t ever want to revisit; a place that changed my entire outlook on my role in this universe. The lesson I learned in my brief captivity, there in the dark deep, is: I. don’t. matter. It was a wave I suppose. But more than the single wave that nearly ended me, my lingering haunt, is more with the place where that wave broke, where countless waves have broken, both before and after my time. Fox Hill Point.
Unlike its sister spot across the bay, Rye-on-the-Rocks, (often misnomed by local surfers as a point but in reality a rock reef,) Fox Hill, is a true point-break. A spot where swells first encounter a headland, then wrap long lines into a bay. On really good days rides can approach 300 yards. It breaks with power and force as it heaves and plunges on the outside take-off, then barrels and grinds over submerged rocks and boulders. And unlike the mostly beach break spots that predominate the East Coast, Fox Hill can hold a really big swell, the biggest it can get around here.The day I almost drowned there, was the biggest, baddest swell I have ever surfed in New England. The year was 1988. The month was February. About the coldest, gnarliest month of the year in these parts. The water has usually bottomed out in the low thirties by February and when the nor’easters that generate winter swells would spiral off into the North Atlantic, frigid northwesterlies would banshee in off the Canadian tundra. When most of New England would be shoveling their driveways, or inside drinking hot cocoa, surfers (not a lot of them in those days) would spastically contort in their vehicles, frantically tugging into their wetsuits, engines running, heaters maxed and thermos mugs of hot liquids, gulped before the go-out.
Surfers have traditionally embellished the small sized waves they surf, always saying it’s bigger than it really was; three feet when it’s barely thigh-high, or perhaps, “chest-high”…when measured to the chest of a ten year old. But oddly, they conversely downplay the size of big waves. Go to Hawaii, and what you or I might look at and say is obviously twenty feet (the stacked height of two basketball nets) they would scoff at as being only 8-10 feet; basic rule of thumb being to halve (and then some,) the true size. “Ya don’t measure da wave by da front, brah, you gotta measure da back.” Silliness. Somehow it seems more macho to diminish the wave’s height if it is truly big. All I know is, I don’t surf the back, but the front, or “face” of the wave. And on this particular day at Fox Hill Point in New Hampshire, the faces were a solid basketball, hoop-and-a-half high; you do the math.
I was in my surfing prime. Peak condition both physically and with my surfing skills; I’d been surfing for 14 years. I thought I knew it all, had experienced everything the East Coast surfer could experience. I was about to be schooled…harshly.
I should have known better. I didn’t see anybody paddling out on shortboards or longboards that day. Everyone was “gunned” up with 7’2″s, 7’6″s, and even 7’8″s. It wasn’t merely the size of the sets coming in, but the screaming offshore wind. The biggest board I owned, my “big-wave” board was a 6’8,” but I’d stupidly left it at home, not anticipating the magnitude of this swell. This was in the days before buoy and internet reports and webcams. Before cell phones even. If you wanted an accurate surf check, you drove to the beach and checked it. I’d seen the big red “L” (indicating a low-pressure system)on Joe Cupo’s Channel 6 weather report the previous evening, but I never expected it to be anymore than maybe a foot or two overhead. Driving by my local spot though, I found it was big, big, big…closed out whitewater way, way outside the usual lineup. I should have turned the car right around and gone home to retrieve my 6’8;” better yet, I should have drove home and stayed there. I stupidly told myself I was gonna rip it up on my standard 6’2.”
When I pulled up at the Fox Hill overlook I could see a handful of surfers already out. I waited to watch a set; was stoked beyond measure when one rolled in. Not only was it way, way overhead, but it was clean and perfect! It surprised me though that most of the guys seemed to just be catching waves, setting their lines, and racing across the huge walls. “They’re only riding, not surfing the waves,” I told myself. I was gonna surf. What I’d yet to fully learn and appreciate was that when waves increase in height, they also magnify in power. Exponentially. The other surfers were riding big boards mostly just so they could catch the waves. They were rolling in fast and the stiff offshores blowing up the faces made them very difficult to gain the momentum to launch.
Woefully undergunned…woefully, woefully undergunned…I struggled for a good hour trying to get myself into a wave. Everytime I stood up, thinking I had it, the wind kept pushing under my board, blowing me back over the top behind it. It was frustrating beyond measure to see waves thundering down just inside of me…from the back of the wave. And I kept watching other surfers get incredible rides. That whole day I never saw more than maybe 10 or 12 of them out in the lineup, and every one of them seemed to know what they were doing. I’d surfed plenty of overhead days and I knew how to surf, but I didn’t know diddly about big waves. Whole ‘nuther league when it gets to double overhead and beyond. I wanted to cry…instead I just got mad. Really, really mad.
“Next set, no matter what, I’m catching one!” I inwardly screamed.
Careful what you wish for in this life. Spray blinding me, chin down, I pulled, and scratched and clawed my way over the crest, hopped up when I knew I had it, and then…felt the wind under my board…s***! Only this time, instead of blowing over the back, the wind held me up, suspended for a few horrifying seconds in the lip as it began to throw…I had time to think: “Oh s***. Ohhhh shiiitt!” just as I free-fell into the biggest wave of my life.