Finally, I am rescued.
My arms are numb. My shoulders burn with pain. It feels like my stomach muscles are being ripped out of place, from one crushed rib after the other.
At least the water is warm.
Squinting through salt-stung eyes, I see the surfing instructor gliding effortlessly towards me. She spins her powerful five-foot frame around on her own board and somehow, using her feet, scissor-pinches my bulkier beginner surfboard, pulling me back to the safety of the sandy beach.
I had been stuck in the current, flailing around helplessly, for 30 minutes.
I am not a surfer.
Back home, on the solid frozen ground of New England, the trees are bare, the days are dark, and it's starting to snow. But here in Hawaii, this panorama of paradise is an entirely different early winter scene. It may as well be another planet.
Fifty yards further out to sea, where the big waves crash about majestically, the world's best have gathered to warm up for the Super Bowl of surfing's professional competitions, Hawaii's Triple Crown.
"Today the Triple Crown is the illustrious year's finale for the World Championship Tour," I read in North Shore News, a sort of program for this year's competition. It's a few days after my unceremonious inaugural surfing adventure, and we're back in Haleiwa, on Oahu's legendary North Shore, for day one of the Hawaii Pro, the first leg of the Triple Crown.
"There's winning the world title…" I continue to read. "And right behind it, winning the Triple Crown," claims Sunny Garcia. He should know, I suppose. Sunny Garcia has won the Triple Crown six times.
Sensitive skin hidden from the mid-November summer sun by the lid of my Red Sox cap, I scan the beach, wondering if Sunny Garcia is here today. There are people everywhere. Families picnicking, buff beach bums sunbathing, two separate fan-filled grandstands, T-shirt stands, someone on a microphone announcing the scores for the various surfers who magically dance along the glistening waves, cameras on tripods trying to catch that perfect moment when a rider catches the perfect wave, and a federally protected green sea turtle, possibly napping, definitely not in a hurry, apparently unconcerned with all of the hoopla going on at this usually forgotten, beautiful beach.
Just over an hour's drive up one-lane Kamehameha Highway from the urban enclave of Honolulu, the North Shore is dotted with a few small towns, lots of surf shacks lining the beaches, and some of the biggest waves on the planet. The most notorious of these waves is Banzai Pipeline.
Half a century ago, Pipeline was considered too dangerous to surf. In 1969, large ocean swells "destroyed five dozen North Shore houses and flattened telephone poles, with a high-water mark of 38 feet above sea level" writes Honolulu Weekly reporter Adrienne LaFrance. But in 1971, a mere two years later, the first Pipeline Masters competition was held anyway. And the world of surfing was forever changed.
Today, Pipeline Masters continues to be the most desired as well as the most dangerous of the Triple Crown events. "There's big coral heads that look like anvils underwater. When you hit those, it just splits you open," confesses four-time Triple Crown champ Andy Irons. "I'd rather win Pipe than anywhere else in the world."
"To win at Banzai Pipeline is to permanently write your name in surfing's history books," concurs the North Shore News.
Taking place this year from November 12 through December 20, each Triple Crown event will have a "holding period" of about two weeks, even though only four days are needed for the competition to determine a winner. But the extra time is needed to be able to wait for days that offer good waves. By seven every morning, officials determine whether that day's waves will be up to the level of the professional surfers who will be riding them. If the swells seem too small, that day's competition is postponed until the following day. Or the day after that. Or even the days after that. This logic of simultaneously waiting patiently on Hawaii's beautiful sandy beaches while preparing to compete at a world-class level seems to encapsulate the essence of the Triple Crown, if not the entire surf culture, perfectly.
This year the North Shore welcomes 230 surfers (50 women and 180 men) from 13 countries to its tiny, legendary surf towns. Free admission to the events will help draw thousands more. For many, the trip is nothing short of a devout pilgrimage. "You're combining art, nature, and rock stars. It's riveting," notes Jodi Wilmott, a former pro surfer who is now on the Triple Crown's executive staff.
Hawaii's Triple Crown was created in 1983 by former surfing champion Fred Hemmings. Today Hemmings is a Hawaii state senator—not your typical road to a career in politics, but less of a stretch in a land whose ancestors are said to have invented the sport.
What could be more Hawaiian than surfing?
"See that woman over there?" The surfing instructor points to a gray-haired woman driving a jeep. "That's Don Ho's sister-in-law." Having learned to surf from her mother decades ago, she passed on the family's surfing ways to her sons, who were both championship-level competitors. Today her grandson and granddaughter are carrying on the tradition, which now runs four generations deep.
"Hi, Megan. Good luck this year." Standing enthusiastically on the beach, naively looking out at the waiting surf, the instructor greets the woman who won the Triple Crown last year. Looking at my program guide, I realize she is speaking with Megan Abudu from nearby Waialua, "the first North Shore daughter to be awarded Triple Crown champ." Who knew?
Well, lots of (other) folks, of course. The sight of wet-suited surfers off the shores of Massachusetts or Maine, as well as the stacks of glossy surfing magazines being sold in communities that are far closer to the freezing Atlantic than to this Pacific paradise, is testament to the sport's far-reaching appeal. Today surfing is as big a business as it is a sport, let alone a lifestyle. And with that reality come all the complications—corporate sponsorships, prize money (over $1 million to be split by this year's Triple Crown champs alone)—of any other outdoor hobby-gone-wild.
Not that anyone outside the surfing community seems to care. Which seems to be part of its appeal. What could be more noble than devoting one's life, mind and body and all, to the pursuit of an apparently largely misunderstood pastime which is best pursued at the far reaches of the earth, where our terrestrial ways finally give in to the salty liquid that dominates our planet?
"Surfing changes you," admits local Hawaiian pro Pancho Sullivan. "It's dead quiet and all of this power is folding over you. It's the most peaceful few seconds you could possibly have."
And the surf life seems as decent as any. Celebrity and success for its own sake. Which is nothing. And everything.