Are you serious?! I just surfed at Punta de Lobos, just a few hundred meters away from the massive waves and Day 1 of the World Surf League’s women’s event in Pichilemu.
Livestream archive of WSL Pichilemu day 2.
Up on the cliffs crowds gathered near the tournament headquarters to watch the women competing and surfing the monster swells at this world famous surf spot. The most badass women surfers from across South America and around the world took turns in groups of four in timed heats to impress judges and try to score enough points make it to the final round on Sunday. The waves were massive, some easily over 15 feet. The women surfed with style, grace and courage — some wiping out disastrously and some riding waves for hundreds of meters towards the coast where I took lessons.
My teacher, Emilio, an amazing big-wave competition surfer himself, first took me up to the cliffs with everyone else to look at the waves from a distance. He said he always watches the water for at least 15 minutes before surfing to figure out where the waves are breaking and where the current runs and to watch the length of the sets and the pauses.
I started to sweat a little when he pointed down to where we would be surfing. We drove down to the beach and Emilio knows everyone there because he is very active in the Fundación Punta de Lobos which does a lot of work to protect the special environment and wildlife and integrity of this world class surf spot. He told me some of the history of Punta de Lobos and about this perfect and mystical place.
Emilio explained the currents of the worlds oceans and the spinning of the earth and said this place was indeed a magical place with a lot of incredible energy flowing through it. And after just a few hours here on Tuesday and seeing the waves again today I believe it.
He said waves are a great representation of the flowing energy in the universe — of course, how could I never see it before this clearly. Everything in known existence is energy flowing and moving and pulsing, waves and particles at once, moving in concert. How amazing is it then, symbolically, to grab a board and hop into the water and try to ride those energy waves
“The Fisherman’s Son” – an incredible short film about Punta de Lobos and Chilean surfer Ramón Navarro.
Let me back up a little though… before we left for the beach I met Emilio’s girlfriend Valentina and their sweet little baby Aliya back at the beautiful beach home they shared with another surfer. Natural light bathed the small kitchen that opened into a living room and a patio area filled with surf gear. We all passed around a gourd of yerba mate in the kitchen as Emilio gathered the soft, long learning surfboards and full body wetsuits and boots. We hopped in his truck and drove off to Punta de Lobos which itself was starting to swell and pulse with crowds of competition surfers and spectators.
Now out on the black-sand beach after watching the waves for a while and learning about this incredible spot we put our surfboards down and Emilio taught me the basics of paddling and standing up, something that I had started to learn the day before. It was much more engaging and effective in English though.
After some more direction about the cycle of the currents and the waves, Milo points to the whitewater about 100 meters from the rocky coast and we grab our boards, strap the leashes to our ankles and hit the water.
Paddling is much harder than yesterday and the wind and waves are bigger and stronger, and much more intimidating. It is taking all of my effort just to paddle at a ludicrously slow pace and every time a wave breaks in front of me I have to push my body away from the board and try to float over the whitewater without it flipping me over or tossing me sideways or cramming a liter of salt up my nose. As soon as I make it over the top, another wave in the set stares me down with some more of the frothy business.
Finally with a lot of paddling, some necessary nudges from Milo and a lot of time and patience we make it out to where the bigger waves (still < 1m) were breaking.
We didn’t have to wait long there were so many of the long and slow-growing swells coming toward us every 15-30 to seconds.
“Look behind you Michael, this is another surfable wave! Paddle, paddle harder,” he would holler as he started to paddle on his own board just a few meters to the south of me.
But he was so much more efficient at paddling and could pick up enough speed to catch the wave and stand up in demonstration. The same wave would just wash over my back as if I wasn’t even there.
But then finally after a few waves passed me by I finally caught one and stood up for a few seconds, overjoyed and even laughing still as the tiny waves died underneath my feet and I plunged into the lagoon below. Resurfacing I would grab my leash and pull my board back to me and hop back on only to have to paddle back out to the whitewater. Exhausted I repeated this a few times, missing a lot of waves and wiping out more than not. But I did catch some more great waves and even rode one for what felt like forever but was likely only 8 seconds or so, almost back to the rocky beach break.
Milo clapped from his seat on his board, still back in the deeper water. He rode one in with incomprehensible grace and ease. After paddling to the shore we walked back to the rocks, a shortcut to the best waves, instead of trying to paddle against the current all the way to the whitewater again.
We stopped to enjoy some chai tea, cookies, banana and a Peruvian fruit called Tumbo, or banana passionfruit. It has small little globular capsules — each bubble with a small seed like a pomegranate and the whole fruit had an edible soft yellow rind. It was delicious. He told me about the properties and spices of the chai tea that jump-start liver function and burns fat to give you energy to keep surfing without making your body too acidic and tiring your muscles out like coffee. Milo is woke as shit…
“You know some people really like coffee and they have to drink it every day, and a surf day is no exception,” Emilio said. “But for me, I prefer this or mate for energy.”
I thought about the huge cup of Nescafé I enjoyed this morning and felt my shoulders and abs quiver with exhaustion from all the paddling.
We drank from small steel cups he pulled from his picnics basket, filled by a giant steel thermos.
“After the tea and sugar, we will go back out again,” he said.
Exhausted despite the break, I strapped the leash to my ankle and we plunged back into the wild ocean.
“This current here, by the rocks, is like a river,” Emilio said. “And we are very lucky to have this pause right now. The ocean just opened itself up to us Michael, and we could have paddled out past the women’s competion waves and to the deepest ocean with ease just now if we wanted to.”
Catching my first wave after the energizing snack, I enthusiastically paddled back out and tried to catch another. Picking up some speed with my arms, trying to start as early as possible like Emilio told me, I felt and heard the wave crashing all around me.
As I tried to stand up I shifted my weight too far forward with an unexpected nudge from the breaking wave and my nose dipped under the water hurling me over the board and under the water. My body twisted and contorted as the wave broke all around me and for a moment I felt nothing but panic. But within seconds I was back above water, blowing saltwater from my nostrils a meter into the ocean air like a surfacing whale.
I laughed and looked at Emilio as I grabbed my board for dear life. Of course it wasn’t that big a deal and he knew it but it was enough to remind of the courage and skill it takes to surf for real, out in the open water with the monster waves.
After a while I was exhausted and Emilio said it was time to start heading home anyway so we paddled and caught a few small waves back to the shore.
As we changed out of our wetsuits at the truck, Emilio told me the first waves he ever surfed were here in Pichilemu when he was 14. He told me all about competition surfing at Punta de Lobos and the big wave tournaments he has entered into since about 2003. This year is the first year he has lived at the beach year-round though and he has improved a lot this year because of it.
He showed me some videos from competitions he’s been in and one incredible wave that he drops in on and rides, eventually disappearing into a massive 15-foot barrel and popping back out seconds later to ride off to the end. But he’s never won a big-wave competition here he said.
One of Milo’s entries in La Ola de Chile 2017 competition.
Then he told me the incredible story of the worst wipeout of his life, earlier this year.
He got to the top of a massive wave and started to drop in very quickly and felt pretty good, but then for a second lost contact between the water and the board, he said. Finally, the fins of his board left the water too and he floated down.
“Your board can be out of the water entirely, but if you still have some fins touching you can bring it back,” he said as we stood by his truck putting on warm, dry clothes. “But if you lose the fins too, it’s over.”
He said he could feel his feet leave the board for a brief moment. As he fell he landed on the wave again with his board underfoot — but he knew it was too late. He had lost his balance already and he gave up on the wave and went into “full survival mode.”
I felt my body slam into the water, turning over and over again, pounded by the monster wave breaking down on top of me, he said with the biggest eyes and psychotic smile. In the big waves you don’t sink under the water, you stay on top and skip and smash underneath the crashing wave, he explained aided by some aggressive hand motions.
But he knew not to panic and just let his body get tossed, flailing under the immense power of the massive wave crashing over him. He could feel his arms and legs and body getting tossed and pulled in every direction and then finally he was pushed under the ocean.
He was wearing an impact vest which added a little buoyancy but once he was stuck in the spin cycle under the Pacific he said he instantly thought of his real flotation vest back at home in his garage, the one he usually wears.
But that’s not all he remembered in those terrifying moments.
“And I remembered my little daughter back home and knew I had to make it,” Emilio told me with the most serious face I’d seen all day.
“I grabbed at my leash and started to pull myself toward the surface as the wave crashed down,” he said. “Then finally, the sky and the air”
He took a huge breath and as the jet ski medics rode up he refused their help and paddled back. It was the end of a heat and he said he could hear the announcers from the beach telling spectators that everything was okay and that the rider didn’t need help.
With my mouth agape and emoting like crazy as he told me this story, all I could blurt out was “Holy shit dude.”
While surfing he has broken his nose three times and almost lost sight in both eyes because of bleeding in the back of his eyeballs from violent spills — injuries that almost made him quit the sport forever, he said. But he walked away from the most epic wipeout of his life totally unhurt.
“The worst thing you can do is panic and tense up, that’s when you hurt yourself,” he said. “I remembered this and just let the wave throw me in every direction it wanted.”
He laughed and shook his body violently, limbs flailing to show me what it was like.
“And now I am famous in Chile for what could be the year’s worst wipeout.”
We got in his truck and I packed up my things.
The best big wave surfers aren’t young, they’re 40-year-old guys or even 62-year old-guys, Emilio told me as we started to leave the beach towards Pichilemu proper. It’s because only practice and experience can get you ready to drop into the wave of a lifetime. A lot of younger guys will try, but when they finally get the chance at 10-meter wave, it will be the first one of they’ve ever seen and they probably aren’t prepared for it, he explained.
“But surfing, most importantly, is about having fun,” Emilio said with a genuine smile. “If you aren’t having fun, you aren’t doing it right, no matter what your skill level.”
He talked about managing expectations as you grow within surfing and other outdoor sports. He two spent years as a professional guide in Patagonia in Torres del Paine park where I am headed in just a few days. His wife loves to ski and misses the mountains, but they will be able to go back as soon as their daughter grows up a little, he said. He loves to ski too and has passion for rock climbing and mountaineering as well. But when he had a chance to focus on surfing and his family here in Pichilemu year round, he took it gladly and put his other passions on hold. What an amazing and exciting life for these beautiful beach people.
“Surfing is incredible and so different from all these other sports though — every single wave and each day is totally different and you will never see the same exact wave twice,” I said as he fired up the engine of the white truck. “With rock climbing you can keep coming back to the same wall each day trying to perfect your route.”
“And if you miss the perfect wave you’ll remember it for the rest of your life,” Emilio said as he turned his head toward me and looked me in the eyes.
“I guess everything in life is like that,” I mused. “Every moment only comes once in a lifetime and if you miss it, it’s gone forever.”
“That’s right,” my teacher said as we drove down the dirt road away from Punta de Lobos, boards strapped to the bed, fins jutting up and bouncing in the sea air.
On the short drive a short drive back to town we exchange WhatsApp numbers and told him I will definitely hit him up if I’m here again. We drive by the house that he and Valentina are buying and he beams with pride at the rocks and local plants he has started to put in around the front gate. He asked me to pass his business name and number along to friends if they ever visit Pichilemu: Superfun Chile — look him up online!
As we pull up to Atlantis we slap five and I say thanks again. It has been building all week but it’s in this moment that I decide I must absolutely make it back to this town sometime. If it’s next year or in 5 years or 10 years I don’t know, but I do know that I will stand on this beach and surf these waves again.