A Surfer’s Bloodbath
The road descending from Oaxaca through the mountains to Puerto Escondido is not maintained in a way that provides a safe and relaxing journey. After 10 hours of clenched fists and heart-infracting trumpet blasts, you think maybe, just maybe, Pablo, behind the wheel, takes sadistic pleasure in seeing bright-eyed tourists fearing for their lives through his rear-vision mirror. He tweaks the cassette player. He loves the trumpet, and be damned if you think he’ll let you enjoy the brass broadcast at low volume. Pablo tweaks the knob clockwise until it twists no more. Full blare. The trumpets blast on.
Dawn is breaking over a desert so barren only scorpions, stray dogs, and gas station owners survive. Distant mountains block most of the rising sun’s rays, but the odd break between peaks creates cactus shadows hundreds of metres long, like giant cowboys shooting guns to the horizon.
It’s shortly after 7am. Sweat levels are already excessive. It’s hot. Fucking hot. The day has barely begun, but southern Mexico is shrouded in a merciless, crazed heat. We’re nearing some form of civilisation, the cacti are starting to fatten up and the occasional roadside dog looks almost safe to pat. The chocolate brown water of the Pacific coastline a few hundred kilometres northwest of the Guatemala border is now visible.
Puerto Escondido is the jewel in Mexico’s surfing crown. Well, it is a jewel to those of the human race chiseled from Mayan stone, in possession of Orca’s lungs, Romanian gymnast balance. A jewel to those who relish being pounded into the fine black sand of the ocean floor by mountains of angry almond water. I currently tick none of those boxes. As we’re drawing into our 11th hour of the trumpet concerto, we pass an increasing number of houses and get a glimpse of the infamous jewel. Even from a kilometre away, I know with absolute certainty that I have no desire to surf Puerto Escondido. Line after line of the heaviest swell marches to shore before fusing into thunderous peaks and exploding forwards to produce freight train barrels almost directly on the shoreline.
Pablo turns off the main highway and we endure the final few dozen potholes to Mexican Pipeline. Sporting a flannel cowboy shirt, tight black jeans, lazy brown eyes and sparse, lengthy facial hairs, he helps carry our boardbags down from the roof as a pair of lithe Swedish girls in bikinis walk out of a hotel across the street.
“That looks like a good place to stay, hey fellas?”
The searing heat means crossing the road is accompanied by buckets of sweat. We arrive at the reception, perspiring and breathless, and book a room for three for the night.
“Shit yeah”. Once we drop our stuff in the room, there’s nothing to do aside from try to figure out a suitable, face-saving excuse for why we shouldn’t risk immediate death by surfing this world-famous break. We figure we better at least have a proper look at the break from the sand.
We take a seat on the beach, the morning sun blazing our backs. Huge, fluid slabs of ocean are erupting everywhere; there’s no order whatsoever. You may as well walk to the beach blindfolded and paddle out wherever your toes end up touching the water.
Chris is first to spot the feathering top of a gigantic set. The three of us stand immediately. The 30 or so crazed surfers in the water are scratching to the horizon. The first wave of this set is 12-foot and building. Five guys shape up to paddle for it, two commit, paddle full throttle and split the colossal peak. With barely a breath of wind, they stroke into the bomb cleanly, pushing down the face, rising to their feet simultaneously.
At precisely the worst possible moment, the natural-footer taking the left loses his footing. He’s mid way down the face of a 15-foot wave, side-lying on his board in a soon to be aborted fetal position. His body weight is completely on the tail, lifting the nose of the board and preventing him nose-diving. He reaches the flat water of the wave’s trough milliseconds before a lip, formed from a million Pacific Ocean mega-litres, descends from five metres and thunders through his stomach between his floating ribs and right hip. A wall of whitewash erupts skyward, the front half of his board flies with it. A broken board and a broken man are somewhere in the bedlam of black water.
While watching the carnage going left, I’ve missed the surfer going right. As he flicks off, his relaxed stance and spread palms by his sides make me think he’s probably just had the barrel of his life. As the second wave of the set approaches I can only assume that smile evaporates. A wall of water is about to break on his head.
We hurry to the shoreline. A pulverised ghost of a man surfaces face down in the shallows. Three lifeguards run past us, yelling something in Spanish. One motions at me to help. Even in knee-deep water, the sweeping undercurrent force of Puerto Escondido is immense. I dig my toes into the sand and pick the bloke up by the right shoulder while a lifeguard holds his head and neck and the other two hold his legs and left side. We carry him away from the water’s edge.
He’s a mess, blood streaming from the corners of his mouth. His right foot appears several inches shorter than the left, the impact of the wave on his right side has dislocated his hip, shearing it upwards and back towards his sacrum. Blood oozes from his left side. A jagged laceration runs from atop his left hip to the base of his sternum, shards of fiberglass visible, piercing his stomach. The lifeguards call in an ambulance, bandaging and compressing his wound, telling me to step back.
In moments, he is loaded into an ambulance, blood flowing relentlessly through the bandaging on his side, as well as the corners of his lips. Waves continue their march to shore and the mid morning heat is becoming stifling. Trumpets blast from every available speaker; stray dogs try unsuccessfully to find shade. We’ve seen enough, no surfing today.
Cover by Anton Repponen