It was late at night, the sun had gone down in the Bay Area and I’d just been asked “Hey, wanna jump on a boat tomorrow morning and go take photos of surfers?”
When I thought of surfing on the west coast, I’d generally tend to imagine smaller waves, cool water, and lots of me standing on a beach with a lens that probably wouldn’t be long enough. The next line “They’re predicting 50 foot waves!” filled my imagination with a whirlwind of images of me throwing up on the edge of some boat followed by ungracefully falling overboard and drowning in the cold darkness followed shortly by some terrifying sea monster making a light snack out of my carcass. I’m not a huge fan of deep water.
I grew up in land-locked Alberta, Canada and there’s not a lot of big water hanging out there. Our oceans are wheat and canola fields as far as the eye can see and the only thing that might bite me out there is the occasional rattlesnake, coyote, or if I got really lucky, a cougar. My imagination can handle that, and I’m a decent shot with a rifle so I might stand a chance if I was out walking in the bush by myself. The most water we ever have to deal with involves waiting out the rage of summer thunderstorms with astonishing displays of lightning that look like they’re capable of splitting the earth in two, and the occasional flood. Oceans however… That shit is terrifying to me.
It’s big, unforgiving, moody, and secretive. I enjoy being on the ocean on the beach where my boots can sink in to the sand, my ears listen to the waves crashing down, and my eyes enviously observe all the little tiny dots of people, sea animals, and birds off in the distance gracefully navigating the restless water (yes, I wear fucking boots on the beach, more than one has chastised me over it before). This is however, when I am on land and the likelihood of some giant earth worm from hell coming up and chewing off one of my appendages or suddenly being thrown off kilter and being swallowed up by the ground is pretty infinitesimal – earthquakes excluded. Solid ground is where it’s at in my books, and my imagination is a complete jerk.
So against all odds, I managed to squeak out a more-confident-than-I-felt “Yes, that sounds amazing!” before the rest of my logical and safety-concerned self could shove a dirty sock in my mouth and prevent me from signing on to what my brain was convinced was certain death.
My 430am alarm goes off and off we all managed to drag our reluctant bodies out of bed and off to our first point of contact. A small group of SmugMug employees and friends were all ready to scamper down to Half Moon Bay where these waves of epic proportions were predicted to make an appearance. On the drive there, my brain started going into a complete fit and I reduced my usual chatty self to the kind of quiet that I imagine is felt before walking out in front of a bunch of angry teenagers with paintball guns waiting to take aim at every soft and squishy exposed part of the body they can hit in under 30 seconds.
My inner monologue was a maelstrom of “Holy fuck you’re gunna die in ALL these horrible ways!” “I hope you don’t drop the camera overboard cause that thing is borrowed!” and “For the love of all that is good and holy, please don’t spend the next 5 hours vomiting from sea sickness. Cause then you’ll lose the camera, and then you’ll fall over board and it’ll all be back to square one with the sea monsters.” To make matters worse, I started counting up the sides of houses and doing the math. “Ok, that’s about 8 feet, and… holy shit.” My travel partner, Anton, was very good about dealing with the quiet little leaks of the inner insanity that was unraveling beside him with grace. “50 foot waves… that’s FUCKING huge!” was Renee speak for “Oh please tell me that we’re not gunna die in all these awful ways. I really need you to tell me I’m not gunna die a horrible death in the next 5 hours.”
Upon the arrival at the docks, as soon as I put my feet on the deck of the boat, I managed to resign myself to whatever fate was ahead of me. It helped that I took probably more than my fair share of Gravol in the car on the way down and suddenly staying awake was even more hard than a 430 wake up call would normally make me. Our delightful captain reassured our giddy group of companions that he’d never lost anyone overboard and put the ground rules in place. I was asked how strong of a swimmer I was, and I admitted to being ok, but with boots and a warm heavy jacket on, I would probably be screwed. Michael, another shooter on board with us, was kind enough to tell me that even if I fell over board, I wouldn’t have to worry for very long for a different menagerie of reasons. Awesome.
We headed out of the calm bay and out to the deeper water that rolled angrily in the early morning light. I’m an adrenaline junkie, and knew that if I was going out there, I was not going to stuff myself inside the cabin away from all the fun no matter how much it scared me. Once the waves started tossing our boat from side to side and the water started to soak those of us stupid enough to sit at the bow, I slowly managed to settle in to my comfort zone as the adrenaline hit my system. I had no control out there apart from holding on to my camera as tight as possible with my right hand and grasping at things that didn’t slide with my left. More than once we found ourselves catching one another when our steady footing betrayed us. It’s somewhat calming for me when I can settle my brain in to realizing that I have no measure of control of the situation, and all I can do is at least smile and enjoy the new experience before me.
I had considered taking my Canon 5D MK2 but as much as I love my Canon, the auto-focus on it I’m pretty sure is steam powered, and my eyesight is horrendous, so I borrowed a Nikon D800E and a 70-200mm lens which I was guarding with my life. I’ll admit, that Nikon is pretty freaking awesome, even though I love my Canon in kind of a masochistic kind of way.
We arrived at the location where the surfers were dotting the waves like tall skinny penguins, riding the swells with a grace and comfort that I admired. The water was calm and quiet for several minutes when suddenly the first large wave tipped over in to a thunderous crash. To my little prairie mind, it was breathtaking. One by one, over the next several hours, we watched surfers dip down into the waves and take their chances with the ocean. I’d love to talk more about what it was like, but really, I’d like to just let the photos speak for themselves because I think they illustrate the experience far better than my words ever could.
Reality is I am not a pro sports photographer. In fact, this was my first time shooting any kind of sports whatsoever. I much prefer my life inside the studio where it’s warm and I’ve got control of everything, but I also know that as an artist I need to challenge myself and as a person I must also grow. The best way to grow is to get uncomfortable. Get itchy, let that part of your brain lose it’s fucking mind for a little while and go against your normal sense. We don’t find out who we are in our living rooms and in cozy places.
Get up and go find the person you were meant to be.
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