The Buzzer Beater

I’m looking down the line at a peeling right-hander from the best possible vantage point. I’ve dropped in, my feet are set, I’m coming out of a shallow bottom turn, and I’m rising up the face of the wave to make sure I can get enough speed to make the next section.

These first few seconds are critical. If I don’t get enough speed off the takeoff I won’t make it around the first section that slingshots you down the line. Not making it usually results in a nice hold down and taking a few more waves on the head before being able to scramble back out to the channel. If you’re unlucky it can mean getting pushed up into the rocks that line the point.

Off my initial bottom turn I’m picking up more speed than I expected. This wave is a bit bigger than the last few I’ve caught. It’s also more powerful. It pushes in to the shallows faster, with more determination, the upper lip throwing toward the shore rather than crumbling from top to bottom.  This must be one of the set waves from the West. Its shoulder is wrapping far into the channel, unlike the some of the sets with more North swell whose shoulders gently taper off making for shorter, softer rides.

I selected the right one. In a stroke of luck I could mistake for skill or intuition, I had paddled up the point and a bit outside of the pack just as the set was arriving. With a quick flip around, jam of the board, and only 2-3 paddles, I’m in. I’m on one of the best waves of the day at the best break in town.

The wave is big and dark. The sun has just risen over the mountains and is behind the lip of the wave, putting me in its shadow. There’s enough daylight to see everything clearly and thankfully no blinding glare as I look far down the line, but there is a mass of faces dotting the shoulder. Like sprinkles on the ring of a donut, there are people everywhere except in the curl.

At a break of this calibre it’s crowded before the sun breaks the horizon with surfers of all skill levels. Some are taking off deep and shredding the wave all the way through the inside. These surfers have either developed a personal relationship with the wave over hundreds of sessions here or are the lucky few with skills of a professional that make every perfectly-timed turn look effortless no matter what wave they surf. This group is the minority.

The majority are sitting on the shoulder hoping for a set that swings wide or someone at the point to blow the takeoff. For many, even getting in on the shoulder can result in a life-changing ride. For a few, it seems their goal is to just make it back to shore alive to tell the story. I know this is the case because I’ve passed through those phases (painfully slowly) myself, in my own surf journey.

But today I’m taking set waves from deepest part of the point.

In no more than 2 seconds I experience a drastic fluctuation of emotions. Off the takeoff I’m ecstatic. On the bottom turn I’m relaxed – in the flow state – not thinking, just reacting to the wave. Traveling up the face I’m surprised at how perfect the wave is lining up. Reaching the top of the wave I’m struck with a dash of anxiety.  People are peering, waiting, hoping I eat it or don’t make the section. I a little bit of anger flows through me. “I’m gonna make it you mother fuckers! Don’t doubt me!”

And I do. I’m triumphant. Not only do I make the section but I cut a deep drawn-out bottom turn, pivot up the face of the wave right in the pocket, and spray a cluster of onlookers with my top turn. I’m vindicated. I’ve silenced the doubters. They’ll have to wait for someone else to blow a wave. Not me.

I imagine this is what it feels like to make the winning shot of the game just as the clock runs out: the buzzer beater. The suspense building, time slowing down, an array of emotions flooding the body all at once, and then immense relief to know you didn’t blow it. 

I’ve spent countless sessions on the shoulders of waves and caught many a stoke picking up the scraps of a wave someone else blew. I’ve been the one who falls – more times than I’d like to admit and in ways I care not to remember. Holding these memories in the back of my mind feeds the internal suspense and ads to my personal vindication. I’ve proven to myself more than anyone else that I’m worthy of such an awesome wave.

In an afterglow of the suspenseful moment, I’m off down the line with all the time in the world. Feeling my board flex under my feet as it responds to the pressure of each bottom turn and the release of each top turn. I’m amazed at the perfection of this wave and can’t help smiling. I know I don’t look like the pros. I know I’m not as consistent as the locals that ride it daily. I know I’m lucky to get one of the few sets out the back today. And damn does it feel good!

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