The common wisdom in surfing is that the further outside of the ‘impact zone’ you are, the safer you will be. However there are times when you might need to ‘cut and run’ and give up the battle of trying to punch your way out of the impact zone.
On our recent Lanzarote trip, we encountered exactly this situation at the right hand point break of La Santa. The right at La Santa may not appear to be the hollowest or meanest wave on the island, but it can be shockingly heavy and deep-water waves push in here with an incredible amount of thickness and momentum behind them. It gets to the point where you are no longer able to duck dive the set waves as a) you won’t get deep enough to avoid the turbulence and b) your board will probably get ripped out of your hands and smacked into your head.
Unlike your average beach break where you can turn tail and head for shore, the treacherous reefs and currents at La Santa don’t give you that luxury. Heck, I even found Sunset Beach in Hawaii to be an easier place to negotiate size for size, as there you inevitably get blasted into deeper water.
So you’re in the situation where you’re halfway through the long paddle out, wisely using the channel, and a wide set swings in on the horizon and suddenly all bets of you making it out to the point are off. The first wave rears up and slams down feet in front of you and with no choice, you bail the board and dive for the bottom. Slam! The force of the wave propels you straight down into the deep and despite all the talk of ‘relaxing through the wipeout’ you can’t help but scrabble desperately for the surface. Then the next one does exactly the same thing. Slams you straight down. You come up again, more exhausted, and maybe unaware that there are at least three more monsters lining up ready to do the same thing again and again.
This is an in incredibly overhwelming, exhausting and demoralizing experience. During the pounding, you aren’t blasted back to the shore but begin to drift out in line with The Slab – a horrible, heavy, nasty piece of water thundering down on a shallow lava reef. It is exactly where you don’t want to end up.
You haven’t got the strength to survive many more of these down-up poundings, you can’t make it out through the set, and a direct line back into the shore will put you straight onto The Slab.
What now skipper?
It all comes back to site assessment and risk management. Exciting stuff eh? Sounds like we’re about to plan foundations for a public building! Look at the map above. The key is thus:
Light blue lines: these are the ‘west’ sets that wrap around the point, and that you ideally want to take.
Darker blue lines: these are the ‘north’ sets. They are quite dreaded and will catch you out and push you into The Slab if you get caught by them and don’t react, or are kamikaze and take off on them.
Red lines: this is where you really don’t wanna be, The Slab!
Green line: this is your channel for paddling out. Hug the inside of the point, then swing out past The Slab and hopefully before a north set arrives.
Yellow line: your escape route! Getting hammered by a west peak might not be so bad as you will just get pushed in by the white water close to the point, but getting caught by a north swell is different. You can’t come straight back in, so you need instead to start swimming / paddling hard towards the point headland (the big land mass on the right) and let the walls of white water push you into the narrow channel of sanctuary.
Any tips then for surviving the beatings as the white water slams into you? My great friend and spiritual guide in these matters, Rob Small*, told me the best way is to just spread out and let the white water take you. Resist temptation to dive deep as this will put you into the down/up cycle of terror described earlier. At this point an impact vest would be a lovely thing to have on – surviving big waves is not about swimming under them, but about enduring the battle for survival in the overwhelming conditions once you end up near to where you don’t want to be. You probably won’t have an impact vest on though so it’s just as well you’ve been keeping on top of your cardio 😉
First time I tried La Santa in larger surf (you still wouldn’t call it ‘big’ surf) I didn’t know this and got absolutely nailed. Next time, and after a briefing from Rob, I used the above method and was washed in without drama and able to paddle out for another go.
Time for a quick recap then:
1. Watch the ocean carefully and look out for wide sets that will catch you out.
2. Look out for hazards and currents that could affect you in the worst case scenario.
3. Swimming under large waves and getting pounded in the down/up motion is incredibly fatiguing – time to cut and run.
4. Let go of your board, spread out and let the white water smash you back towards the shore. This drubbing is less tiring than the down/up drubbing.
4a. Don’t try and swim to shore in the rip! Remember it’s a river flowing out to sea – you’ve got to go where the water is coming in, and that’s the breaking waves.
5. As the wave washing you in subsides, start swimming parallel to the shore to avoid any hazards on your inside.
6. Find your way back to sanctuary, take a few breaths and you’ll be fit to head out for another wave.
6a. Didn’t find your way back? No worries, you’re probably in the rip getting sucked out to sea, so get ready to give it another go! Get it right this time, not many people make it past the third cycle in these situations.
No amazing photos exist of me surfing at La Santa on this day, but I was there and below you can see a ‘speed blur’ capture of the only wave I got. I think I’ve surfed bigger waves at the Cribbar, definitely surfed bigger waves with the kite, but this wave felt like quite an achievement. May I humbly add there were four of us out that day – my mate Jacko and I, and two local chargers. Not a bad effort, but the reward for me was more in the learning process than the waves I caught.
*Rob lives in Lanza, gave me pretty much all the info for this article, and you could say was on of the pioneers of surfing in the bigger stuff at La Santa.