When it comes to big wave surfing, the key ingredients are time and location. The two came together in supreme fashion earlier this year in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, when a big, long-period southwest swell conveniently coincided with an event-planning trip for the Big Wave Tour's (BWT) Puerto Escondido Challenge.
Packing for one of these trips is the hardest part. These days, thanks to Surfline forecasts, we have a good idea of the kind of waves that will greet us. But that doesn't factor in to the waves we ultimately decide to try and ride. Questions like "How big will it really get?" and "What size will it be coming up and on the downswing?" make board selection tricky.
When you feel a wave take over, there's an overwhelming feeling that you won't make it.
I knew it was going to be big but was I really going to go for the sets? I don't know why I even ask myself these kinds of questions: After all these years, I still can't seem to keep myself from sitting out the back and waiting for the biggest waves of the day.
OK, I guess I'll take my 9'4". Since I only carry two boards, board number two was going to be for the smaller days and maybe the points to the South. This was going to be tough, as I had to pick a board in between the two wave types. I chose a 6'8". Major decision over. I threw some clothes in a bag and was ready to go.
The first day of the swell was big. In fact it was the biggest I had ever seen there. After getting used to where it was breaking, I paddled for a wave. But I missed! And when I turned to paddle back out I was faced with the biggest set of the day looming in front of me. It was massive.
I instantly went into survival mode, or at least I-hope-I-will-survive mode because in the moment it did not seem like a sure thing. I paddled halfway up the face and went over the falls backwards -- but thankfully landed in one piece. After being held down so long I thought I might not make it, I finally surfaced and got a short breath of foam and air before getting pulled back down by wave number two. I got small gasp of air when this one let me up and by the time wave three released I was on the shore struggling with the current to get to my feet.
We had decided the night before that the day's two hardest-charging locals would fill the remaining spots in the Puerto Escondido Challenge. Jimel Corzo and Roger Ramirez Jr. both made huge statements. Growing up at Puerto it's natural to become a surfer, but riding waves of this intensity requires a lot of determination no matter how much opportunity you have at hand.
That's the way it goes for most of us mortals who attempt to challenge the waves at Zicatela.
The next morning I was back in the water. The offshores were coming up strong, making conditions just that much more difficult. But I waited for a calm interval as the winds changed direction and caught one big one. So stoked! Making the drop on a wave like this is absolutely incredible. When you are paddling for a wave and start to feel it take over, there is this overwhelming feeling that you just won't make it. You have to force yourself to believe you will, stand up, and prepare for the worst. They call them "air drops" for good reason. When -- or if -- you land, the adrenaline rush is indescribable.
On day three the swell had gone down, the sandbars had found their form and the locals were ripping! Guys like Oscar Moncada and Coco Nogales, two locals who are slated to rep the area in the Puerto Escondido Challenge, know this place so well that they make it look easy.
Since it was an early season swell without a crowd to deal with and we had all surfed together many times, I got caught up in the excitement and was perhaps a bit over confident from the day before. I tried to catch one a little too late and ended up free-falling from the top of a beauty. Fortunately I didn't hit my board and, as gruesome as it looked, I was able to paddle back out and catch a redemption wave. Final score: Puerto, 2. Gary, 1. And that's the way it goes for most of us mortals who attempt to challenge the waves at Zicatela.
Three days of the huge waves that pounded this legendary beachbreak was enough to convince me that we had made the right choice in selecting Zicatela Beach as the newest site on the BWT. Puerto is overall one of those magic places that defy reality. Besides having some of the world's most challenging waves, there is also the most friendly vibe in the air that makes you never want to leave. You don't need a car, as it is all right there in front of you. The steady rotation of tourists provides a variety of cultures to mix and blend into its own unique blend. When I am there I never want to leave and this time was no exception. To say I want to return is an understatement. I can't wait to go back.
Surfline, the official forecaster for the Big Wave Tour, tracks swell systems all over the world waiting for those that will produce waves higher than 25 feet for one of the seven world-class big wave venues. The Puerto Escondido Challenge event window opened May 15, 2015. Stay tuned.
Photo Sequence: Gary Linden at Puerto Escondido. Plus: Watch the trailer for the BWT's Billabong Pico Alto contest, which World Champ Makuakai Rothman won in 2014.