By James Pribram
Alone in what seems to be in the middle of nowhere, driving west on a rugged dirt road, the sunrise in my rearview mirror, the full moon setting straight ahead … My mind is free as my eyes ping-pong back and forth between the road ahead and the road behind. I’ve never experienced such a sight … or such a moment of bliss. I can’t begin to describe just how beautiful this moment in life is, perfectly captured in the most amazingly clear and vibrant colors … and then lost to the next moment.
Reds and oranges blaze the sky behind, as this pure Jesus-like white light of moon screams before me. Somewhere in the world young boys and girls are lying on their backs in the countryside staring up at the sky, dreaming their own dreams. This is my dream… searching for perfect waves.
Chile has come a long way in the world of surfing, a sport now anchored here by big-wave superstars Ramon Navarro and Diego Medina. With these two guys leading the charge, surfing is big and certain to go bigger. Just last year the country hosted its first WCT event in perfect, grinding, hollow lefts – an extreme showcase of surfing in the rugged crux of this lower east corner of the South Pacific wild.
Rugged … to say the least. And, yes, the water is cold. It’s May, which corresponds to November in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s been said that if you can surf well in Chile, you can surf well anywhere. Just getting used to wearing a 4/3 full-suit was a good start for me … then the booties. Some wear gloves and a hood. I remember my first trip to Chile in 2000. I was with Hawaiian Roy Powers, who absolutely hated surfing here because of the frigid waters, but to me the cold is only a part of what makes Chile rugged.
At most spots you have to scale down huge cliffs, often to get to an extremely treacherous beach. Then you have to negotiate the paddle out through exposed reef with cross-currents running like Class-5 rivers. At some spots the paddle out can take all your energy leaving very little for catching a wave. Then, when you finally catch one, you have to contend with kelp so thick it can stop you dead in your tracks and pitch you into those monstrous black rocks that loom straight ahead.
All in all, there are so many variables in surfing here … it’s unbelievably challenging. Despite this, the crew of surfers I’m with on this trip will likely have less of a problem than most who come here. Will Henry, founder of Save The Waves, has put together an all-star cast of surfers who rip and are environmentally active. We’re here to begin filming a new documentary entitled All Points South, which aims at detailing the sensitive environmental issues at the crux of today’s surfing in Chile. In this spirit, I’m honored to be traveling with well-seasoned journeyman Keith Malloy, Canadian coldwater king Raph Bruhwiler, surfer/filmmaker extraordinaire Timmy Turner, and Huntington Beach hero Brett Schwartz. Huge. Flat. Warm. Freezing. Hollow. Mushy. Hey, if there are waves, these guys are out there, no matter. With smiles on their faces, too – which is probably what I admire most about them.
We often try to split into two groups to soften the crowd factor and to show respect towards the local surfers. Actually, at this precise moment, cameraman Vince Deur and I are driving west towards the coast and a little secret spot we happen to know, while the rest of the crew heads for more points south.
Chile will always be a special place for me. It was only a year before this that I commenced my first ‘eco-warrior’ project with Save The Waves and The Surfer’s Path. Since then I have been to Panama, the Canary Islands, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, and Japan, reporting on the environmental issues that threaten their coastlines. I have traveled with Will Henry on
most of those trips, and along the way we’ve met rare individuals, like Josh Berry and Dave Rastovich, who are out there fighting the good fight on behalf of surfers everywhere. We’ve been to parliament in New Zealand, marched for the Rio Itata, met with government officials in the Canaries … all for the same cause: saving the waves – for this generation and for every one thereafter.
A couple of years ago the film Blue Horizon featured a segment on Rasta surfing in Chile. I remember watching in awe – not because of his surfing ability (extraordinary; he reveled in the empty lineups choosing to surf on any board except a conventional thruster) but because he seemed so inspired by all that rugged wildness and Chile’s unique character.
Watching Rasta surf Chile in Blue Horizon re-motivated me – not so much in the act of surfing, but by catalyzing a new appreciation in me of this South American land and its people’s way of life. Watching the fishermen work the seas and the rivers, using oxen to pull their boats in and out of the water, witnessing this simple but intricate way of life … it makes me want to live more like that, enjoying the simple pleasures of life. It reminds me that we don’t always need more. In fact, sometimes less really is more, especially when it comes to
considerations of our environment.
This particular day of surfing was one of the most beautiful and stunning that I have experienced. First off, the wave is one of the few in this part of Chile that you don’t have to scale down high, precipitous cliffs to get to. And it’s sheltered from the vicious Humboldt Current. In fact, it’s like a playground – a left that breaks just offshore and ropes for a couple hundred yards down the beach. And on this day, the waves that peeled down the beach were a dazzling, pure cobalt blue. Simply amazing.
On the point above the wave stood a huge white cross. The cross was connected to a seawall, which had been colorfully painted by local artists. With 4-6ft peeling perfection, it was a scene just made for the surf movies. The weather was fine: 78 degrees, a slight offshore wind blowing.
During my epic (and marathon) five-hour session, I met an Australian surfer. He and his girlfriend had been traveling all around South America and landed at this spot some three
months earlier. They found themselves unable to leave – the beauty, the way of life, the perfect waves. They had hopes of returning some day to live there full-time.
The Adventure of Travel
In life, you never know what the next day might bring, and, for me, the very next day nearly brought me a lifetime of sorrow. We were surfing a double-overhead wave that was reminiscent of a left-breaking Makaha, complete with backwash at the end of the ride. It was a blustery cold offshore day, we were all out surfing together – one of the few times on
this trip – and for me it would be my last. Trading waves with the likes of Timmy, Brett, Raph, and Keith was like surfing in full-on expression session. On each successive wave
each surfer seemed to push it a little further… and a little further… and a little further.
While there were actually better waves elsewhere this day, this spot was the one deemed best for our photo needs. In my mind, you should always try to surf the best waves, but when
traveling with photographers, it’s always about the most photogenic location, and this was one of those times and places.
I had just gotten a wave all way to the beach and was running up the point, when Will (who was shooting stills) shouted, “On your next wave go as fast as you can and do a big floater across the lip.”
So on my next wave, which wasn’t really big or gnarly (alas) but did have a lot of backwash, I came flying across the face as fast as I could and went for a highline speed turn into a floater. Somewhere between making it and doing it, I got swatted by the backwash and came unstuck, got bucked hard off my board then reconnected with it. When I landed, my legs buckled and instantly I felt a sharp, knifing pain running from the right side of my neck all the way down into my right foot. Not good.
I wasn’t wearing a leash, and my board had washed in. My legs were already somewhat numb because of the cold, and my main concern was that I could move my legs. Luckily I could, and I washed in.
Timmy Turner (who recently underwent his own near-death experience and arduous recovery) was the first to help, then came Will. The level of pain was insane, and I can take a
lot of pain. Turns out I had compressed two vertebrae and separated some ribs, all which still bother me today. Perhaps the most bizarre part of the subsequent ordeal was the ambulance ride and the ancient hospital I was taken to. The nearest one wasn’t equipped to handle the severity of my injury, so I was loaded up into another ambulance and taken to another hospital, where the doctor thought my pain was feigned, as in some sort of scheme to procure pain medication.
Personally, I don’t even like recalling this story, so I’ll leave it at this: make sure the people you travel with are people you can count on in a crisis. Thankfully, my mates had me covered.
The Path of Life
The more I travel, the more I look back on my trips with clarity. Clarity being the sense that the whole trip just seems like a dream, because in some real sense it is.
In this particular dream, I enjoy watching men and woman holding hands, walking and picking grapes off a tree with smiles. (You don’t see that in Orange County.) I see men wearing big sombreros, riding magnificent horses, traveling from here to there in the most ordinary way. I see a man in his 70s, trying with all his might to herd his sheep back together after a car had spooked his flock. These moments I vividly recall and can continue to watch in awe, watching and knowing that in some parts of the world life is still lived in a very sincere and simple way, and Chile is one of those places.
James Pribram of Laguna Beach, is an award winning environmental activist and a roving surfer who goes wherever the eco warrior’s path leads him. Thanks to XS Energy Drinks for putting Will and Jamo out there for us.