PUERTO GIGANTE: By Spencer Pirdy

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Playa Zicatela sports some amazing a-frames along its north end, courtesy of a mile deep underwater canyon less than a mile off shore, which funnles and refracts wave energy perfect for big wave surfing.
Words by Spencer Pirdy - Photos by Benjamin Ginsberg/Driftwoodfoto.com

PUERTO GIGANTE: By Spencer Pirdy

My first trip to surf big Puerto Escondido

What first lured me down to Puerto was its close proximity to my home in Southern California, and the gigantic gladiator pits it produces on a consistent basis. My love for big waves had me wondering if I could handle what Puerto beatings would be dealt my way. I spent months toying with the idea in my head, going on ocean swims, training with my older brother on dry land and readying my quiver. All the time I still wasn’t quite sure whether everything would come together and I’d be able to go.

I approached my sponsor Billabong about going down there, and was pleasantly surprised when they too agreed that it would be a great trip for me to go on. Billabong put me in touch with Greg Long, a man who in my mind is one of the greatest surfers to ever walk the earth. I would soon find out that he’s this and a whole lot more. So, Greg and I communicated through email a few times. He told me what to look for on the swell charts, where to stay and other resourceful information. I was floored just to be corresponding with him.

After the first half of the summer passed with minimal big swells, I wondered whether my window of opportunity was ever going to come. Then I took a shot in the dark. I booked a ticket down to Puerto two weeks in advance with only a tentative forecast. It looked promising, but was still too far out to have a definite reading.

As the swell forecast evolved, I had friends telling me it’d be too big, and others telling me that the swell would be downgraded. I tossed and turned in the nights leading up to my trip, going through possible scenarios on how it might unfold. As the days grew near to my departure, Greg and I talked and he informed me based on the latest forecast, my timing was “perfect.” He would be staying at the same hotel as me, Dan Y Carmen’s. I couldn’t contain myself as I read his email and readied my biggest boards for battle.

Stepping off the plane in Puerto I strapped my borrowed 9’6” board bag to the top of a cab, and headed into Playa Zicatela. My first glance of the wave was a 12-foot right, wedging down the beach unridden.

I quickly checked into my hotel and took out a 6’6”, a board that would be ridden on only the biggest days at home in Newport Beach. Running down the street like an excited puppy, oblivious to what he was about to get himself into, I passed by a few locals who gave me a smile and a wave. All along they were probably thinking, “Oh geeze this guero has no idea what’s about to hit him.”

As I stood in the sand tying my board shorts and fastening my leash, I felt the ground tremble beneath me. I was sweating from a combination of nerves and the tropical heat. When my feet hit the water I was amazed at the warmth that I felt.

My first paddle out was an eye opener. I tried to get sucked out by the rip and ended up catching 5 or 6 bombs on the head. My shoulders were put to the test and my lungs were burning by the end of day one. I lucked into a few waves that, for me, were absolutely amazing. Overall it was a great warm up for what was to come.

Flash-forward 24 hours later and the big boys arrived. We’re talking some of the worlds big wave riding elite: Danillo Couto of Brazil, Kohl Christenson of Hawaii, Joao De Macedo of Portugal, and of course Greg Long of Southern California. These are guys I’ve studied, admired and idolized. I was staying in the same place as them, and we were talking about big wave riding. I couldn’t believe that what I’d always dreamed of was coming true. That night we all went to bed early. Greg and the others predicted the swell would peak around noon the following day. “Alright,” Greg had said with ease, “we’ll see you bright and early.” That night I slept restlessly in anticipation of what would come.

Around 5am I was awoken by the waxing of boards. Worried that I was about to miss the guys as they paddled out, I sprung into action, threw on my board shorts and readied my equipment. I was lucky enough to be given a floatation vest by my friend James before the trip. I’d later find this to come in quite handy as I struggled for breaths in the impact zone.

I was finally ready to roll. It was still dark when Greg, Danillo, Joao and I headed through town to silently walk down to the harbor; it was too large to make it out directly through the beach break.

As we trotted through the sleeping ghost town of Playa Zicatela, we saw Alex Grey and his filmer checking the dark ocean. We exchanged high fives and kept going. As if to give us a little comic relief an Irishman, still drinking from the night before, began walking and chatting with us. He knew who Greg was and started bending our ears about big wave riding. “I hurt myself so that’s why I’m not heading out today, ya know!?” We couldn’t hold back the chuckles.

Soon he faded and things got serious. We were nearing our paddle out and Greg began giving me bits of very insightful and helpful information. Information that could lead to my own welfare, and to my likeliness of catching one of the bigger waves that came through. It was something he didn’t really have to do, but for whatever reason he did, and I’ll always be grateful for it.

The paddle out in the dark from the harbor was an experience in itself. Danillo, Joao and I had eyes with wild excitement, but Greg was a man on a mission. He was on a different level. You could tell he was calculating his every move.

We finally reached the line up as the sun was beginning to rise. I bobbed up and down like a cork on my 9’6” Pat Rawson, and waited anxiously for my first ride. My goal that day was to catch one wave. I told myself this was an honest goal, and one I knew I could achieve. Around sunrise a few others had entered the line up. Ex-pat turned Puerto family man Will Dillon was one.

We waited nervously together and watched a few mountains roll in unridden. Then, all of a sudden, Greg made a break for the horizon. I followed suit and began to wonder if I was about to get caught inside. My mind raced. Whoosh, over the first one I went. The spray from the offshore wind showered over me. Then the next one, whoosh, was even bigger. My heart was pounding out of my chest. The third one was even larger, but something was different. Greg was looking at me from the shoulder.

I realized I was in the spot and positioned perfectly.

It was a massive wall of water- the likes of which I’d never taken part. Sure, I’d seen something of that magnitude at Waimea or Mavericks, but I was never in the right spot at that time. This time I was, though, and it was now or never.

I flipped around and began to dig my arms into the water furiously. “Here we go!” I thought. I felt my board start to get lifted up by the wave. It was time to stand. As I got to my feet I looked down the face and felt my adrenaline rushing, like a drug had been injected into my veins.

The offshores hit my board. I felt the nose lift. “Uh oh” I thought, “this is bad.” as I pressed my front foot down as hard as I could. I caught a glimpse of Will out of the corner of my eye. He had been giving the same wave a dig, but noticed I was in the spot. I passed him and began my descent. My board started to hum and I sped what felt like mach-10 down the face. The wall of water behind me crashed, and I felt it starting to hunt me down. I aimed my Rawson for the shoulder as the avalanche of whitewater reached the tail of my board, then my feet. I was next. But something amazing happened, and I was spared for this instance. I rode over into the shoulder and exited the wave unscathed, beaming with excitement like I’d never felt before.

For the next 5 hours I watched some of the heaviest surfing I’ve ever seen firsthand go down. I watched Greg catch a wave that some were saying was easily over 30-foot on the face. I watched Kohl Christenson catch numerous waves in the same realm. I had bad wipeouts, witnessed countless horrendous ones, and some mind-boggling rides- one in particular by Peruvian surfer and longtime Puerto standout Gabriel Villaran.

By sessions end I had caught 5 waves, and couldn’t believe my luck. I surfed 6 hours straight that morning, another 4 that evening.

After our evening session it was dark and I headed back to the hotel. I showered and walked out to see Greg coming down the stairs from his room. “Hey, wanna go for some Thai food?” he asked. “Of course” I said. I scurried along to gather my things. We met up with Kohl, Danillo, Joao, Ricky Whitlock and a handful of others.

As we sat there that night filling our bellies with amazing Thai food in the heart of Mexico, I wondered if I was dreaming. Here I was doing what I loved with my idols, and being tutored by them in the process. It was the equivalent of an aspiring basketball player being able to play on a court with Kobe Bryant.

That night over our meals we shared stories of the days action, and talked about the state of big wave surfing. How it was a brotherhood, where everyone watched out for one another and made smart decisions. We noted how we all shared a common passion, and that at any moment any of us could be in the right spot for the wave of our lives. After dinner everyone shared handshakes and hugs, and we headed back to where we were staying.

The days after kept pumping. Most of the big wave elite had other places in the world to go, and by the next morning many of them disappeared to other worldly locations, chasing that next swell. I stayed for the next 5 days and enjoyed some of the best waves of my life, along with some of the most violent wipeouts I’ve ever experienced.

The wave at Puerto is truly 50/50. It’s either going to be very good, or horribly bad, when you’re chasing down one of those beasts. But, that’s what makes it so rewarding. By the time my stay was over I was lucky to leave with only a few minor cuts and bruises. I had some great images to view thanks to local OC photographer Ben Ginsberg, who came for the trip and pulled out all the stops to get some of the most unique angles I’ve ever seen captured on that stretch of beach.

I’ll never forget my first trip to Puerto Escondido. And I’ll never be able to show my thanks to Greg, the other members of the big wave elite, and the Puerto locals for their hospitality and kindness. Now, I sit here back at home about to start another school year full of tests and work. In the back of my mind I’ll hold dearly the experiences I was given, and the memories of one unbelievable trip.

Words by Spencer Pirdy
Photos by Benjamin Ginsberg/Driftwoodfoto.com

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