Sometimes surfing is about survival. And when it’s big, one of the hardest places to survive is Oahu’s North Shore – particularly the wave known as 'Backyards' near Sunset Beach. But while the risk is great, so is the reward. When a pumping Pacific swell hits, and the outer reefs start to fire, it’s some of the best windsurfing on the planet – for those skilled enough to give it a go.
World-champion wave-sailor Jason Polakow is one such person, and early this winter, during the first big swell, he took a solo shot at one of the world’s meanest windsurfing waves. In his words, here’s what happened:
“With a very slow start to the winter season in Hawaii, I took the first sign of big swell to try my luck on the North Shore of Oahu to sail one of my favorite waves. I couldn’t convince anyone to join me, so I decided to do a solo mission.
"Unfortunately, three mistakes ruined my day.
"The first was going out solo in light winds. Backyards has three outside reefs, the first inside reef is where the best waves are ridden, the second and third reefs start to break when it's over 10 feet, but the quality of the wave is poor. The trick is to get the medium-sized waves on the first reef, but avoid the bigger sets breaking on second and third reef. It’s basically a real game of cat and mouse, which led to the second mistake…
"Being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I managed to get about three or four mid-size waves under my belt before being confronted with one of the biggest closeout sets I have ever seen at that spot. Then I realized my third mistake: I had left my flotation suit at home and all I had was a pair of board shorts.
"After I rolled over the first wave and all I could see were walls of water stacked on the horizon, one behind the other, I knew I was in trouble. I took a huge breath and jumped off my rig and tried to swim to the bottom. I came up for air and then went down again and again. Before too long I found myself on the inside. I thought the nightmare was over but it was just the beginning.
"On a surfboard I could have just surfed in on the whitewater ,but because I was swimming and had no flotation I was at the mercy of the current. I started to get dragged out again. I tried to put my feet into the shallow reef, and even dived down to try and hang onto a coral head, but it was impossible.
"I was getting sucked right back out in front of the Sunset left which is the most insanely dangerous place to be. When these waves are maxing out, all the water from the inside is getting sucked out through this little channel causing an incredibly strong current.
"Get washed in, get sucked back out – after 20 to 30 minutes of swimming, I found a small window of opportunity in the sets and I swam as hard as I could with the current to make it to the outside, where I lay in the water conserving my energy until the ski arrived to get me.
"The life guards all came to me and said that this was one of the most gnarly situations they had ever seen and congratulated me for staying calm and swimming in the right direction when I could.
"What did I learn? Always try and go out with someone else – and don’t forget your safety gear when you know it’s going to go big."