The air is surprisingly fresh as we ride our bikes, boards under arm, weaving through the lush gardens that surround our surf shack. Dawn is always a magical time of day for surfers, and today is no different. The dark sky awakens to dreamy pastel colors, the wind barely a breath, the burning tropical sun yet to crawl its way up the volcanic mountaintops. In the distance, we hear a loud scraping of metal against road and spot a rusted-out truck coming our way; the noise is atrocious. As we pass the car, we lose it, laughing at the sight—a topless Polynesian guy with his stomach just fitting against the steering wheel, arm resting on the open window, holding the entire car door up on one hinge with his grip, casually cruising along with fresh baguettes on the dash as though he’s rolling in a Bentley. 

We already feel like a part of the family as we stash our bikes at the boat shed on the edge of a turquoise blue ocean. The shed’s iron roof is held down by chunks of coral, the floor is made of concrete, and a broken timber window is propped up by an empty vodka bottle. We tiptoe inside to see if anyone is awake, and are immediately greeted by three smiling faces. They are always stoked to see us. It’s the classic motherly Polynesian woman, always laughing and making jokes in French that we don’t understand, but laugh at anyway. Dad is the hard worker, baring a toothless grin. He does what he can to bring food to the table. Their teenage daughter is nursing her young baby. They all share a three-meter-square room, with three single beds and a cot lining the walls. They never let us go without asking us to take fresh papaya and bananas from their garden. They are so poor that we try to give money for the fruit, but I’ve never seen anyone refuse so passionately. 

We head down the sandy road, indulging in freshly picked bananas as I nervously gaze out at the reef break. The swell’s big. Usually I’m happy for the challenge, but I’ve heard of this wave’s personality, and it put me a little on edge. It seems you’ve got to earn everything here. The break sits about a kilometer out to sea, and the current on the paddle out can force you back to shore if you rest for even a minute.

We start to paddle out, and after a while, I’m happy to make it to the edge of the reef where we can finally rest. A monster wave grows out of nowhere, and it’s much more solid than I’m comfortable with—the sheer thickness of it almost outweighs its height. Fear kicks in as the current now feels like I’m being escalated to my grave and there’s no way back. We’re in water deep enough to be safe, but the current is rapidly pulling us around the back of the lineup to the thickest part of the wave. The next wave starts to appear and this time a big Polynesian guy is paddling for it—he’s super deep and committed. Digging his arms hard into the face of the wave, he swings his feet under him and grabs rail to pull into the most perfect, round barrel I’ve ever laid eyes on. We greet the two local guys out in the lineup with handshakes and they welcome us to their wave. The respect is absolutely mind-boggling here, as though every surf session is a step back in time.

There’s no resting in the lineup here. Every minute or so, we each paddle back from the current that swings out to sea. I display a forced air of confidence as one of the guys explains that the current gets so strong some days that no one will surf it, even though the wave itself is perfect. With a grin he smoothly comments that the only way to get back in to shore is to catch a wave over the reef. He then turns his board around and glides into a bomb. My idea of being a spectator to these particular waves is crushed by words I would have rather not heard. I can’t even fathom the thought of paddling into one of these giants. The current suddenly feels stronger through my heightened fear; my arms are beginning to cramp from fighting against it. I’ve never felt so intimidated by the ocean as I have in this moment.

I paddle toward the land, hoping to catch a smaller wave back to shore, but in no time, I’m scratching back out to the horizon to get under another bomb. I try again as my arms burn through exhaustion, making it quite far this time. But as another wave starts to form, there’s no way I can make it back out and under it, and I can feel the water is shallow beneath me. It is hard to tell where it is going to break, with so much current moving up the face. I charge towards the big wall of water and duck dive as deep as possible. I clear the turbulent tube of water but am clipped just before surfacing and sucked in and under. I hit the reef with my knee and hands, and it feels like concrete rain pushing me deeper and deeper. I finally surface, standing on dry reef and am faced with another bomb wave. I gaze up to the skies as the lip breaks high above me and I make a split second decision to turn around and hang on for life as I ride the whitewash in. Like a bus hitting me from behind, I just manage to cling on to my board, then all is quiet. I’ve made it into the tranquil lagoon. Breathless, but safe. 

I have a strange feeling of invigoration back on land as I go about my day, a feeling of taking on something much larger than myself, the humble pride that comes from being a surfer. The land and ocean expanse all seem to speak a different energy after a surf. Perhaps there’s a mutual feeling at the core of our being, the waves representing the challenges in life, crossing the line, facing our fears, and being brave enough to come back and take it all on again.

Images courtesy of Shannon Davidson

Read more from Shannon at www.surfchickareta.com