“You’re tougher than you look.”

Several weeks ago, I was checking the surf report as I packed my truck for the following morning. The report read something big, I think it was 5-7 feet. I’ve surfed waves of that size before, but not often enough to feel 100% confident. But the forecast also called for glassy, offshore winds and bright sun, both of which I was desperately craving after a bout of messy, windy, small-wave sessions.

The next morning as the sun began to break through the, I pulled my truck up along the side of the road, walking out to the shore to see a series of set waves rising up from the horizon and crash down; the two lone surfers catching waves were barely half the height of the wave as they raced down the line. I knew it wouldn’t be the easiest of days, but the sun was beginning to heat up the air and as the skyline turned from soft lavender to rich pink, I figured even just paddling out would be worth it. I made my way back to my truck, applied my sunscreen and yanked my still-damp wetsuit up over my arms, twisting my hair into a tight braid, and walked out to the beach access.

We started the long paddle out to the lineup, where the rising waves crashed in slow-motion, speeding up upon detonation as we circumnavigated the impact zone. I made it out to the lineup, panting lightly as adrenaline surged into my blood stream. I waited a while, which in a heavy lineup can feel like hours, until I saw a smaller wave cresting toward me, spun my board, paddled, and slid down the face uncontrollably.

“I should’ve brought my bigger board.” I thought as my smaller board wiggled and skidded beneath my feet. This fast, powerful swell direction wasn’t ideal for the break we were surfing, so the wave ended as quickly as it began. I turned to paddle out, angling left so I would be closer to the peak. But after 10 or 15 strokes, I saw a set wave building, stretching across the horizon.

When you’re surfing, you can expect most wave sets to consist of anywhere from 3-8 waves; Each of those sets will typically be similar in size and speed. Based on how big the waves are, you can anticipate where it is safest to paddle out.

But the larger the swell, the more often you’ll see anomaly sets: sets that come through every 3rd or 4th or 5th set that stretch wider, taller, and more powerful than the others. They are called rogue sets, freak sets, closeout sets, or bombs, but whatever you call them, they amount to the same thing—very large, unexpected waves that you cannot escape, even if you’ve followed the “safe” line back out to the lineup.

I braced myself for the pounding sets, paddling as hard and fast as I could to the left of the main peak of the wave, knowing there was no way I’d make it, but hoping I could outrun the most critical section of the wave.

Whitewash broke along the top edge of the wave as it slammed down on itself; I breathed deeply and clutched my board, submerging the nose as the wave and I collided like cruise ship slamming into a dinghy. As I rolled around under the water, I squeezed my fingers tighter and tighter on my board. I knew so long as I could hold onto my board, the buoyant foam would shoot me back up to the surface, to air, eventually.

After what was probably only 10 seconds stretched into seeming minutes, I resurfaced, taking a deep breath and preparing for the second wave of the set. With barely enough time to catch my breath, I sank my board again, feeling the swell’s power tug and shove me underwater once again. I broke through in time to see the sun, now high and hot in the horizon, and the final wave of the set breaking just feet in front of me.

After the 3rd wave, I caught my breath and bee-lined hard to my right, toward the safety of the channel. I steadied myself, sitting up to roll my neck, now taught and coiled from the underwater spinning.

The ocean is a strange surreal space; Suddenly there were no waves: the horizon pulsed gently, as if nothing had happened. I paddled gingerly, swinging wide into the channel.

I made it back to the lineup, where I yelled, “Holy shit!” to my friend. We laughed at how worked I’d gotten. I settled, rolling my shoulders to release the tension. I looked out to the still calm horizon, awed by the drastic shift from just a few minutes ago. My heart slowed as my breathing turned from panting to deep, slow inhalations through my nose.

We sat looking out, waiting for the next powerful set to rise, to offer its unbridled energy to us once again. My friend looked over, said, “My friend says you’re tougher than you look,” and I laughed again, thinking about what I’d just gone through. Those 3 waves were scary, but I wasn’t afraid; those massive waves that just a year ago would have kept me from paddling out had become a playground, space to push my rapidly expanding limits.

Those words rang in my head— “You’re tougher than you look,” and as I saw another wave rising toward me, I knew it was true. As afraid as I’d been, I’d made it through. I turned, looking back over my shoulder to read the wave, looked down the edge that made my heart beat. This wave was mine to ride, and this moment was mine to live.

And so, I did.

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