As Atlantic hurricane season 2013 kicks in, here's little retrospective look at a feature we ran in TSP94. While Hurricane Sandy was blasting Jamaica, Haiti and some of the Bahamas, Al Mackinnon and Alex Botelho made a late decision to head to the fringes of the storm's path and try to reach a remote island they figured would probably not take a direct hit from the storm. They travelled for several days to get there and on arrival found they'd been right: no direct hurricane damage, just the swell, and not anther surfer for a 100 miles. Oblivious to the horrors taking place up north, all they could do was try their hardest not to dehydrate, and gorge on the excess perfection.
Photography by Al Mackinnon
Words by Alex Botelho
I had already decided: staying home and relaxing on the couch after dinner was the ideal way to spend my Saturday night. No parties, no dramas, just a good feed and some serious chill.
Then the call came through. It came from Al Mackinnon and it would seriously screw up my simple plan.
Al had been watching Hurricane Sandy spinning north across the Caribbean, devastating parts of Jamaica, Cuba and even parts of the vast chain of low-lying Bahamian islands. According to Al it was due to continue heading north and eventually hit land somewhere up by New York/New Jersey.
“That means it’ll be throwing swell back down to where it’s just come from," claimed an amped up Al. He said he knew an island not far off the storm’s track that had, apparently, escaped the worst of the damage. He warned me it might be hard to get to under the circumstances, it may even have been flooded, and since it was a flat island out on its own, the sun would be harsh and doctors would be several island hops away. Even food and water might be hard to get. In other words, we’d need to take supplies and prepare for a tricky mission. “But, if we score, we’ll score some seriously good waves."
The catch? I’d need to abandon the couch plan and leave pretty much right away.
Next morning I flew from Portugal to our rendezvous at a London airport. This was the first time I’d met Al and from the moment we shook hands, luck was on our side. It started at the check-in counter where the lady offered us an upgrade because the flight was overbooked. For the first time in my life I saw a gap between my knees and the seat in front of me on a plane journey.
After numerous changes, island hops and airport delays that could have been worse if luck hadn’t been on our side all the way, we finally approached our destination and saw lines of swell wrapping around the little island. In fact, we saw a point so stunningly shaped that all my previous ideas of the perfect set-up were permanently altered.
Amazingly, the storm damage was minimal and we easily found a room to stay in at someone’s house. We also found a car to rent and though it lacked some of the essentials – brakes, seatbelts and windows that open and close – we soon came to love it, anyway.
On our first morning, driving out to the point, all we had were our memory of the island’s layout from the air and some vague clues people had given us. This island is so small that every time you ask someone for directions the answer is simply "Over there, man" accompanied by a finger pointed vaguely in the way you should go. No left or right, just a straight line to … somewhere over there.
So we drove in a straight line until the road turned to mud. Yes, much of the island had been flooded and what once was a road had, since the storm, become a lake. Soon, water was flowing through the rust holes in the car’s floor, then over the hood. At this point we were so deep in that if we stopped, we’d be stuck and submerged, so were left with no choice but to plough into the dense bush that lined the edge. We made it out of the water, bumped, crashed and scraped through the bushes and at some point landed immobile on a sand dune with a smoking motor and much of the lake inside the car.
There was complete stillness – a dazed, stunned silence but for the quiet hissing of steam on the engine. And then suddenly, a loud ‘BOOM!’ followed by a deep rumble as a wave crashed violently somewhere just out of sight. As instructed, we’d gone in a straight line – and we’d found the beach.
Al had gear to gather but I just needed wax and my board, so in a second I was ready to go. Desperate to see what was really going on, I apologised to Al and ran through the bush and out onto the open beach. I looked around and there it was, a vision that was truly hard to process – an empty, never-ending, double-overhead righthander grinding down a sandy point.
The wave stayed empty the whole time we were there. In fact, until the end of the swell when Al paddled out to join me, I didn't see a single wave surfed. It was strange to be out there and not see one ridden. All those spitting, spinning vortices just passing by, empty. I wish I could gather them in a bag and use them on days when they’re needed back home, or on future surf trips, which may never again yield such purity of perfection.
Of course, there had to be a down side. I’ll always think of this place as 'Mosquito Point' because here we faced the most brutal and continuous mosquito assault in the history of the world. After three days, Al's white t-shirt looked like a four-year-old had worn it on a ketchup binge, so red was it from the blood of all the mosquitoes he’d smashed. Any part of our skin that was exposed swelled up resulting in the most intense itchiness imaginable and therefore fitful, sleepless nights. Every morning, our bodies were red raw.
Even so, we can forgive the mosquitoes. Before this trip, if I were asked to hypothetically describe the perfect wave, I don't think my description would be as good as this wave was. I literally hadn’t conceived of a wave so flawless. If it weren't for having Al’s photos as evidence, I’d think it had all been a dream – the kind of dream, in fact, that you might have on a lazy Saturday night when you fall asleep on the couch after dinner.
Alex Botelho is a professional surfer, half Canadian, half Portuguese. He lives in Portugal and is sponsored by Volcom. He was pretty darn good in hollow righthanders before this trip. Now he’s like a creature from another planet.