Tropical Delirium in Samoa
“Caution is strongly advised. Do not forget what these waves break on.”
I read this online and readily forget it. I book a trip to Samoa and a few months later find myself in the most pressing 4am heat I’ve ever inhaled. My mate Ben is already bombarding me with dad-jokes but it’s too early for me to return the banter. The beach is dark and the water is like black oil, lapping at the shore. There’s the occasional chirp from the avian version of early-rising cross-fit psychopaths, but otherwise everything’s still.
Our guide Brent hasn’t updated his music since he moved here, so we hit the road blasting ‘The Eminem Show’ with the windows down and two locals hitching a ride in the trailer. When we drop them off there’s no one around except a few wild pigs. We bid them tofa and take a signless turnoff.
Half an hour later, we bounce to the end of a dirt track that makes the 4WD feel like a rusted-out bomb. We get out stretching and load the dinghy. Ben sits on the beach, struggling to put one of his fins in.
“C’mon c’mon c’mon…”
The waves are breaking on a shallow, coral reef 2km out, so all we can see from here are white plumes on the horizon. We slide the boat into water so warm I don’t want to get out and (tempting as it is to leave him behind) wait for Ben to sort his fins before setting off. The outboard revs, the shoreline shrinks, and my stomach tightens.
Not long after, we reach ‘Special K’ – a hollow right-hander. We drop anchor and, thanks to the channel, paddle out without getting our hair wet. To hide my nerves I catch the first wave that comes through. It’s pretty small so I kick out after a couple turns and sit deeper for the next one.
10 minutes go by, some of the longest of my life. Ben gets some of the best waves I’ve ever seen, while I tap my feet underwater and grit my teeth. A few come my way but I’m never quite in the right spot. Five more minutes go by. Then, suddenly, there are lines stacked to the horizon and ‘Til I Collapse’ is playing in my head. It’s the biggest set of the day. I have to paddle out heaps to get into position, which means taking a late drop or waiting for the next set. I choose late drop, free-fall for a second, and pull into the barrel.
Stretching out in front of me is an opaque cliché. There’s visibly little between the coral and me. The lip curls over my head and the nose of my board pokes out into the light. Every so often the wave flits ahead – consuming everything, batting her almond eye, then wavering just long enough for me to catch up. What is there to do but dance? Then, somehow, sexy flutters give way to an awkward first advance and the next 10 metres of lip all falls at once.
Before I can even think about pulling through the back of the wave, I’m ripped up and over the falls. I shoot through the foam on the surface as if it were nothing and am dragged along the reef for about three metres. This kind of hurts, but not as badly as when – two seconds later – I cut my feet to shreds kicking off the bottom to get back up. I surface gasping, back and feet on fire, only to see the biggest wave of the set drawing me towards it. As it jacks up I see the reef behind it. If it weren’t about to detonate in front of me it’d be quite a sight. I dive down, this time plunging my hands into the knife-like coral.
The pain forces me to exhale so I’m out of breath before the wave even hits me. It picks me up and throws me down. Bouncing off the reef with my shoulder, I start to spin – counting to reassure myself that I haven’t been under that long. 10, 11, 12… It loosens its grasp. I swim upwards and after a while half-expect the surface with each stroke. It doesn’t come. A tight sensation grabs my chest. Like gagging but the other way round. Every movement is a suppressed convulsion. All air gone from my body I suddenly realise I’m fighting gravity to just not sink, let alone move upwards.
I kick like a demented frog. I don’t know how much longer I can resist the urge to breathe. One, two, three final bursts of energy later I break the surface. The waves have stopped. The water is seething. Bile curdles indecisive in my throat. I pull my board towards me and climb on. The horizon sways and white dots prick at my vision. I’ve been pushed almost to the channel.
“Whatcha doing in there?”
Ben’s not too concerned.
“Just nearly dying that’s all.”
I hope these cuts look impressive.
“Get back out here you knob.”
I feel my shoulder and inspect my feet with bloody hands. It’s going to hurt tonight when they scrub me with iodine and lime (that’s how you stop coral growing inside you), but I guess I’m not about to die.
The next set is on its way. Reared up and feathering, each line has more taunting charm than any ‘perfect wave’ teaser I’ve ever seen. Except this time I’ve already given my right arm (or at least part of it) to be here.
Delirious, I head back out.
Cover by Ben Warren