Taming the Tropical Storm
By Brandon Dallaqua
As a veteran surfer, my life has been a never-ending pursuit of the perfect wave. I’ve ridden everything from the tiny ripples of the New Jersey coast to the liquid mountains of Oahu’s North Shore, plus countless breaks on four continents and five oceans in between. So when I heard about the potential tropical storm brewing in the Gulf of Papagayo in May 2008, I had to make a trip out to one of my favorite spots: Witches Rock. My friends Diego, Ernie and I piled into a boat and left Playa del Coco at daybreak, highly anticipating an epic day of surf.
The morning started off fair enough - some clouds, but still good sections of blue in the sky. As soon as we reached the lineup just east of the gigantic rock formation jutting out of the ocean, we knew we had made the right decision to come. Six to eight-foot waves assaulted the shore before us, and we were the only boat that had made the trip.
We all jumped into the water and began catching wave after perfect wave. The winds howled offshore, as they do more than 300 days per year, making the swells stand up more than usual and hollow out for us to grab the occasional tube ride. While paddling back after catching a mini-barrel, I witnessed one of the most amazing sights of my life: a spotted eagle ray directly in front of me, dancing and darting in the surf before disappearing into the deep blue.
Around mid-morning the rains started, much to our relief. Between the precipitation and offshore wind, the swell, which continued to build in size, was as smooth as glass. We rode wave after wave, always emerging at the other end with enormous smiles. I quickly lost track of how many times I said ‘that might have been the best wave of my life.’
Just after noon the skies had grown very dark, a fog was rolling in, and the rain became relentless. Diego decided to head back to the boat to get some relief from the weather, but Ernie and I wouldn’t hear of it. At this point, the waves were around 10 feet tall, with some sets above 12 feet coming through. With the lineup all to ourselves, there was no end in sight to the succession of massive swells we were catching.
I made a mental note to check for land after each wave, both east and west. Sure enough, just after 3 p.m., I lost sight of the coast in all directions except for that immediately in front of me. As much as we hated doing it, we had to call it a day. This was turning into a tropical storm fast, taking our situation beyond risky and straight into reckless. So we caught one last ride each – a nice heavy roller for me with lots of cutbacks, and a solid tube ride for Ernie – and begrudgingly paddled back to the boat.
On board, the rains continued to pound down and the swell had picked up all across the gulf. When the pellets of pounding rain became too painful, Diego crouched in the tiny hold toward the bow. Ernie and I just looked around and laughed. The boat rode up huge whitecaps that broke in the middle of the gulf, then slammed back to the flats so hard I was convinced the vessel might break in half. The winds surged, the rains battered, and all was dark and cold. We cracked beers that quickly turned to rainwater, fully embracing everything mother nature could throw at us.
Somehow our captain got us back to shore safely, ending one of the most legendary days of surf I’ve ever experienced. My arms felt like wet noodles after so many hours of paddling, aching in that gratifying way that can only come from the intense surfing of one of the world's most incredible breaks.