When Hurricane Loke crossed the International Date Line, it got everyone on the eastern shore of Japan buzzing: Typhoon 12 was on its way and man she was a big one.
The news programs seemed obsessed with her, giving off their warnings in their usual foreboding way, the elderly people with whom I talked with, talked of the wind and the rain, many of whom knew I was a surfer and gave me the standard “Kiosukete ne” (be careful). My wife stared at me after the six o’clock evening news and gave me her best, ‘do you really have to go surfing’ look, and I was straight on the phone with all my surfing buddies, my voice strangely several octaves high with excitement, planning, anticipating and dreaming of the waves to come. The typhoon was big; way off shore and all we could think of was those epic clean lines that would soon be marching towards us from the horizon.
On the morning of September 3rd 2006, I paddled into the line up of my local beach break, Sendai Shinko, along with two of my friends James a fellow Aussie, and Alexei a Russian surfer, the day was a clean if not slightly full 3-4ft we paddled down the beach several hundred meters to the third peak along to avoid the epic crowds that had formed on the “Main peak”, all of us agreeing that it was a bit bigger and far better down the line. Japanese surfers in general are very loyal to the “main peak” often surfing it when it’s not working rather than driving an extra 20mins to find a clean ride.
The three of us traded off waves getting a few nice ones, the lip crumbling with the high tide, but providing a fair bit of wall to play with. During the lulls we sat together and talked of the swell to come, the general feeling was that Shinko gets big hollow and perfect, but it’s a straight beach break, without a boat or ski it’s a very daunting place to surf over 8ft, the water rushing out off the beach creates a vortex in the impact zone that neither wants to let you out or in, but being a port break it has great potential as a tow-in spot. A boating lane less than 600meters to the left of the break, which is sizable enough to give way to ocean going ferries, gives easy and direct access to the outer banks which can easily hold epic surf. Unfortunately none of us had the equipment or experience to attempt this. We surfed our peak for three hours or so with around five other surfers tripping out on the mayhem of the main peak, which by 8am was swamped with close to sixty surfers dropping in on each other in packs of five or six per wave. While chilling in the car park after a great session, we decided to head up the coast a few hours The next morning to surf a remote cobble stone reef break known as Gakemiaya.
That night I couldn’t sleep, my mind was full of images of the 4-5ft empty right hand reef break that I had only surfed once prior.
The trip north was made by myself, James(Aust.), Danny(Aust), Omar(USA) and Jason (CAN), what a motley crew we make, three Aussies, and American and a Canadian who calls the icy breaks of Nova Scotia home. We all piled into Danny’s 8 seater van at 3:30am and made the two hour trek north along tiny back streets of sleepy towns. Reading old surf mags, talking of barrels, the excitement level was maxing. I remember as we pulled up to the rocky car park and got a half a second peak of the waves, Danny turning around, smile ear to ear and saying “Mate, she’s cranking”. We all dove out of the car like it was on fire, scrambled up the hill to the viewing area, smiling like kids in a candy store, fingers already pointing out to sea in anticipation, the feeling only a surfer knows, but it was short lived.
It was cranking, but it was way out of control, our anticipated hollow right barrel was there but it was made of thick white foam, the place was exploding. The outer reef about one kilometer off shore was epic sending huge walls of white water towards shore with so much force it was reforming onto the inside reef. I stood there thinking those most dreaded of words, “should have been here yesterday”. We spent the next twenty minutes pointing and shouting as huge sets closed out on the outer reef, sending spray so high it looked like depth charges going off. Our eyes collectively scouring the length of the bay searching for some little pocket that might be ride able, but we all felt it, we had been skunked! I looked over at Jason and saw a look in his eyes that I was sure I had in mine, pure awe, the force of nature that exploded before us was truly amazing. Now I’m no expert on big waves but if I had to guess I would say the outer reef was some where in the 20ft range, I’m not Hawaiian so probably only 10ft to you guys. (The buoy just off the coast was registering 29ft). After we had all come down from the stoke high the call was made to try a few of the smaller more sheltered bays up and down the coast. We piled back into the car and began the search, but found nothing overly ride able, wrong swell directions etc. It was now about 8am and we headed back to the reef for another look. The tide had come up a ways and we found a wave that looked pretty wild, but ride able, off to the left of the reef, and decided to give it a go, I hit the water first with Jason right behind me and we tried to make it through the closing inside section to little avail, meanwhile Danny, the most experienced of our crew found a nice rip and made his way out, he spent about an hour or so surfing the wild swell solo, with us boys just standing on the shore hooting and hollering for him on every wave; Danny got a few good ones and we called it a day.
That same day, Back at Sendai shinko it was huge, double over and a bit and triple on the sets. Alexei(RUSS), Jerry(NZ) and Dylan(USA) paddled out and joined the few older locals who were game to test themselves against the full fury of typhoon 12 as it was by this time sitting directly off the coast. Also out was ex- WCT pro surfer Danny Melhado. Alexei took a heavy one and snapped his leg rope on the wipeout, calling it a day after a crazy swim to the beach to find his new shape 6”6’ fish. Jerry also made the drop on only one wave before deciding he was outmatched, having recently recovered from a slipped disk from an epic session in Typhoon surf a couple of years earlier which kept him out of the water for many months. Dylan took a couple of waves charging hard before joining his buddies on the beach.
While waiting for Jerry and Dylan to come in Alexei saw Danny Melhado ride one mammoth set all the way to the inside closeout, as Danny walked up the beach Alexei asked him if he was going back out, eager to see a pro tear the arse out of another one, to which Danny replied, “Nah, it’s pure survival out there” That’s how heavy this place can get. If you’ve seen Taylor Steele’s “Drive thru Japan” then you may remember a big hollow beach break that swallowed Machado and co. up, well that was shinko at two thirds of the size we had it during this swell. My hat goes off to my boys for making it out that day.
The next day I couldn’t think of anything but waves, I tried to work but I just couldn’t, so I blew it off and headed down the beach, one of the few perks of working for your self.
When I got to the beach my first thought was that it was dropping, I saw a perfectly groomed face about 6-8ft where the main peak normally broke, and I started to think about waxing up my board, when the sets came through, I have never seen a wave break that far out at shinko, it stopped my heart. The wave looked so perfect breaking left and right so symmetrically that it seemed to shrink, but it was huge. I watched this perfect wave complete with offshore blow off through the viewfinder of my camera, so entranced by it that the camera seemed to disappear in my hands, Huey the god of swell as we Aussies call him had sent me soaring with stoke, I quickly burnt up two rolls of film then decided that was enough, it was time to just sit and watch this force of nature erupt before me. I sat on the tail gate of my Toyota 4runner for two or three hours with the biggest smile I’ve had in years, god it’s good to be a surfer.
Typhoon 12 blessed us with a few days of clean, off shore 3-4ft waves as it moved northward past us, some of the best surfs I’ve had. I don’t know if I’ll ever ride 20ft waves, head to double seems pretty much perfect to me at this point, but before this swell I had no desire to try it. After seeing those waves break over and over in my mind I feel like something has changed, it may take a few years before I attempt big surf, but the seed of temptation is now planted firmly in my mind, who knows huh.
Who knows what it is about surfing that draws us so intensely to it, but it has a hold over me so powerful that I can’t function without it. As I sat there and watched those perfect empty waves break around me, I spent some serious time reflecting on my life. I’m not sure what it is about watching empty waves roll through, that makes me so reflective, having never been a religious man I wonder if it’s akin to a religious experience. I thought about so many things great and terrible that I have seen and experienced since my first wave 4 years ago. The garbage that litters the coasts of Japan wrecking havoc on it’s marine life, the great sea turtle’s I’ve seen in the tens washed up dead on the shores of Sendai, probably dying from mistaking plastic bags for jellyfish, the crowds, the constant drop-ins, a negative man could go on and on, but out of all the things that coursed through my mind that afternoon the one thing that stood out was, how surfing, a mere sport to many people could bring so many people together in friendship, the group of guys I surf with have little in common, but our bond, generated by a mutual love of riding waves is truly a blessing.