Addicted to Perfection - Chapter 2 of Part 1 of WAVES OF WARNING by Glenn Hening
[ Also available in Word format at: 02Addicted%20to%20Perfection.doc ]
L.J. Merrill strained to keep his camera steady against the porthole window of the rear door. The reef ten thousand feet below him was shrinking in his viewfinder as the turboprop began to turn back towards Easter Island. He pressed a tiny button on the camera to use the digital zoom and get a last few seconds of data. Then the pilot made a final adjustment to his course, and Merrill lost sight of his target completely. He pressed the stop button, lowered the camera, and pushed his face sideways against the glass to get a last glimpse of the nameless reef with perfect waves all around it.
Turbulence rocked the plane and Merrill instantly wrapped his arms around the camera and crouched to the floor. Then the turbo-prop fell into an air pocket, leaving him weightless for a second before bouncing him hard on his ass. For a moment the plane steadied, and with a surfer’s grace and balance he stood up, ready to make his way back to his seat. Though he was wearing a button down shirt tucked into pressed khakis and a leather belt with matching walking shoes, he looked every bit the consummate waverider as he gracefully stepped across the floor moving unpredictably beneath his feet.
The turbulence worsened and the plane’s tail began to flex. Merrill stayed low, as if going through the tube of a wave, while protecting the camera like a baby. Passengers were starting to panic, but not him, not with his goal only a few steps away. Oblivious to the erratic roars of the engines and the frightened cries of the passengers, he waited for the precise moment when opportunity would come out of chaos. Years of surfing gave him perfect timing. His chance came in a split second, and with two quick steps and a lithe movement, L.J. Merrill was back in his seat.
He quickly placed the camera between his knees and buckled the seat belt. Then he held it tightly to his chest and closed his blue eyes. The plane did a sudden turn to the left, and then back to the right. It went into a dive and came back up, all the while shuddering and shaking like an off-road racing jeep on Mexican dirt road.
“Shit, maybe this is really it!” he said loudly.
He heard the man next to him begin to pray in a soft voice. Merrill’s thoughts raced through his life the way he heard it happened at death’s door.
Suddenly the turboprop was flying perfectly steady, almost as if nothing had ever happened. He continued to grip the camera tightly until he realized they were flying in “clean” air again. He heard passengers talking excitedly to each other and the voice of the captain apologizing for the rough ride and promising smooth going for the rest of the flight.
He loosened his arms, and looked at the camera. He was not going to die. In fact he had a whole new life right there in his hands. He smiled, until a jolt of desire shot through him with the urge to power up the camera and see the images he had recorded. But he resisted the impulse, though not without a conscious effort. He put the camera in his aluminum briefcase and snapped closed the latches. He did not need to look at the forty five seconds of digital images right now. What he had witnessed through the viewfinder was clear in his mind’s eye, having seen it in his dreams for years.
* * *
For the cognoscenti of world-wide surfing adventure, L.J. Merrill was a legend. He always traveled alone, showing up solo on the epic days at surf spots around the globe, from France to South Africa, from Central America to Western Australia, in jungle zones, lonely atolls, offshore islands and the inaccessible edges of every continent. He had survived in the most primitive conditions imaginable without giving it all a second thought: third world trains, malaria and dysentery, buses bulging with peasants, fetid ports full of thieves: nothing fazed him. His survival instinct had seen him through tight spots time and again as he discovered new destinations while always searching for the same thing.
L.J. Merrill was strung out on the rush that could only be found inside the liquid tunnels of perfect waves.
However, L.J. Merrill was no ordinary surfer addicted to the adrenaline and endorphins of surfing’s ultimate moments. He was meticulous and focused as he chased the dragon around the world. Meteorology, topography, oceanography, wave physics and historical research were the keys to getting what he needed. He had been able to turn his jones into a career scouting for surfing’s largest commercial travel company, Geosurf, and escort clients to the company’s resorts.
But as with every junkie, the threshold high became harder to find. Although the waves were great at the Geosurf resorts, to L.J. Merrill they were now little more than methadone. He was able to maintain, but the craving of those pure first hits never left him. The time came when he became convinced he needed one more big score, one final discovery of a high that would last.
For years he had used archival satellite imaging and detailed hydrographic maps to discover new surf spots. But now what he needed seemed to be in the gaps not covered by the photos or the charts. He turned to the Internet, but the results were disappointing. The on-line satellite images of the distant regions of the seven seas were crude at best and he was unable to locate what he was looking for.
However, out of all his research he slowly distilled data pointing toward a zone of seamounts and atolls in the far reaches of the South Pacific. He re-focused, knowing he needed to dig even deeper by seeking out eyewitness accounts from those who had actually sailed those waters.
Whenever his flight paths gave him a day or two of layover anywhere near a maritime museum, he would spend every possible minute looking for clues in the charts, logs and voyage reports from the age of sail. Once, when Geosurf needed him to get from the Caribbean to Southwest Africa, he arranged to fly from Miami to London instead of directly to Cape Town so he could spend a day at the British Navy’s Admiralty archives.
Though he was researching primary sources as if he was a doctoral candidate, the information was sketchy at best. Sea captains of tall ships were rarely more than cryptic in their daily logs, and their end-of-voyage reports were usually just as terse. Occasionally he found an entry such as, “Water discolored brown. Breakers.” or “Reef sighted. Course altered.” If the latitude and longitude had been recorded, he’d check to see if the ship had been within range of known seamounts, atolls and islands.
He then scoured maritime museums and on-line catalogs to find the original charts used by captains sailing through nearby island archipelagos. One in particular attracted his attention. It was from a voyage of a French ship in 1827 to the Gambier Islands, southeast of Tahiti. The chart had a number of handwritten annotations, which translated into “Hazardous Reef” and “Large Breakers”. The zigzag of the captain’s course through the reefs and low-lying atolls showed how lucky he had been to escape after risking his ship by sailing through those waters. To Merrill, the chart looked like a beautiful, celestial constellation. To that lucky captain, however, his chart was a navigator’s nightmare.
Merrill then cross-referenced the chart against de-classified undersea topo surveys done for the U.S. Navy by NASA. When he found some rough evidence corroborating the account of the French captain, he knew he was on to something.
His next step was to research ships reported lost anywhere near those remote waters before charts were printed delineating sea lanes giving wide berth to the archipelago. He found a smattering of data from survivors’ accounts, and one or two logs that had survived along with the captains who wrote them. But this turned out to be a dead end as there was no indication that the ships were wrecked by running aground on the type of reef he was looking for. In the end he could only conclude that if such a catastrophe had happened, and indeed several ships were reported missing with all hands lost and no wreckage found, then the logs would never be found since they – and the captains who wrote them – had gone down with their ships.
For a while he was stymied until his thoughts turned to a story familiar to anyone interested in the history of the sea, the famous tale of the mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty. The course of the mutineers might have taken them through the archipelago in question. Perhaps they had witnessed what no man had seen before or since and, other than the French captain and his crew, survived to tell the tale.
After almost two years of digging, L.J. Merrill finally found exactly what he was looking for in the research library of the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. The librarian gave him a reproving look as he let out a surfer’s hoot of excitement while turning pages over two hundred years old of log entries written by Fletcher Christian.
After deliberately setting a course into uncharted waters to avoid capture, the mutineers sailed for days without sighting any atoll or island, only to be suddenly surprised at night by the sound of booming explosions. They dropped sail and waited for dawn. As the sun rose they could see, dead ahead, a reef that surely would have sunk them. Only through sheer providence were they able to sail around its perimeter and avoid catastrophe. Christian’s account concluded with a key phrase: “The large rollers became breakers when obstructed by the reef. Our ship could have been swallowed by their gaping mouths had fortune not been with us. We avoided the shoal and stayed with the swells to continue our voyage.”
Merrill closed the log, knowing the reef narrowly avoided by the mutineers of the H.M.S. Bounty could very well be where he’d find the waves of his dreams.
He began to build up his theory piece by piece. The mutineers had sailed from Tahiti to their last redoubt, Pitcairn Island. Since they took no latitude and longitude sights, he had to recreate their probable course by comparing the speeds of normal winds and currents with the hull speed of the Bounty. Double-checking the mutineers’ diaries, he narrowed his search to a triangular zone of a hundred square miles due south of the Actaeon Islands.
Now he needed to directly address several critical issues.
First, he needed reefs fully exposed to the south and thus well outside the effect of any swell “shadowing”, or reduction, caused by blocking atolls and islands, a common situation throughout Polynesia. He went back to his database, re-checked all his charts, and found an area free of any shadowing. There were several seamounts in the zone, though no reefs were indicated. But he pressed on as if there were.
Next he needed water temperatures warm enough for the propagation of certain species of coral which grow gradually into long, gently sloping reefs. He checked existing temperature data for that part of the Pacific, and though the data was rough, there were indications of warm currents flowing through the area.
This was a major advance for L.J. Merrill because it solved what had been a recurring problem in his explorations to find perfect waves in Polynesia. The biggest waves were often too hollow and too powerful to ride because they came out of extremely deep water and broke all too abruptly on shallow coral shoals. However, there was an excellent chance that, thanks to prevailing water temperatures, the reef that almost sank H.M.S. Bounty would have a gentler slope that would build waves more gradually and cause them to break less precipitously.
He began to feel he was definitely on the right track. All the preliminary indicators were in place: the ship sinkings, the mutineers’ diaries, the lack of swell shadowing and the water temperature. When another piece of the puzzle fell into place, L.J. Merrill knew he was closing in on the reality of his surfer’s dream in a very remote region of the South Pacific.
He knew that El Niño, a warm water phenomena that caused sea levels to rise, was being exacerbated by the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a large scale transfer of heat around the Pacific Ocean. And now, global warming was accelerating both natural phenomena, resulting in sea levels rising as much as a meter in a few specific areas of the South Pacific. One of those areas included the zone identified by Merrill through his research. There might be a chance that the reef, if previously too shallow to ride, might now be surfed safely thanks to an extra cushion of water.
Finally, one last body of information had to be acquired. He needed to know about the prevailing winds in the triangular zone, and he got what he wanted from the oceanography department at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. His contact there, an old surfer and world famous scientist named Bill Patzert, had helped him find the water temperature data he’d used to solve the coral species problem.
Merrill gave him another call and was lucky that Patzert had the time to find and analyze the detailed wind information Merrill needed. He was even luckier when Patzert called back and told him it was possible for passing fronts to generate northerly winds instead of the normal southeast trades that dominated the area. Those rare winds would be critical, because the raw power Merrill wanted would have to be refined for the waves to be ridden safely. When Patzert told him the northerlies could occur any time from August to October, Merrill knew there was only one piece left in the puzzle. And he already had it.
He knew there could be some big swells coming up from the Southern Ocean during those months, and in fact, the biggest Southern Hemisphere swell to ever hit Malibu had occurred in August.
L.J. Merrill knew what he wanted, he knew where it was, and he knew when to go. The totality of his theories indicated a high level of probability concerning the reef, the weather, and the waves. He was ready to score his high. Now he had to figure a way around his next big problem: he had a job.
Merrill’s scouting skills had once been the key to Geosurf’s success, and in the beginning he had been treated like a partner by the company’s owner, Ian Clark. However, the relationship had become strained over the years as his love of the far frontiers began to clash with the facts of life in the surf travel industry. Clark had more than enough business at existing sites and didn’t need him making more discoveries. But Merrill had never saved up much money, and when Clark offered him contracts to guide tours to places he’d discovered years ago, Merrill signed them.
Yet despite the fact he was on a short leash, L.J. Merrill felt blindly optimistic when he sent Clark an outline of his plan to find the last, best big wave arena on earth. Without divulging too much of what he knew, he tried to convince Ian Clark that chartering a seaplane simply had to be done.
The response was not what he expected. Even though he had found all the company’s prime surf sites, Clark told him in no uncertain terms the days of chartering seaplanes to follow his hunches, with Geosurf paying the bills, were over.
Merrill was stunned by Clark’s rebuff. But like a child who just cannot face the realities of a divorce, he convinced himself if he just tried hard enough, he could make everything all right again.
Then L.J. Merrill got lucky. After giving surfing lessons to some French millionaires at the Geosurf resort in Tahiti, he received instructions from Clark to catch a flight to Chile where he would shepherd a group of California surfers to the rugged southern coast.
Merrill knew the flight would take him close to the remote archipelago of his research. Since Geosurf flew clients on Trans Pacific Airlines quite frequently, he tried to go through channels to see if the pilot could make a change in course to allow Merrill to possibly shoot some video from the plane. The flight operations manager at the airline office in Papeete listened politely to Merrill, and then just as politely refused the request.
That only made him more determined. He had been in situations like this before, dealing with officials in countries around the world, and he knew what to do next.
On the day of the flight L.J. Merrill arrived early at the airport. Having learned the name of the flight’s pilot, he waited until he saw the man coming through the lobby an hour before the flight was scheduled to depart. He struck up a conversation with him, and a minute later an envelope changed hands containing a slip of paper with several sets of latitude and longitude figures. The envelope also contained a thousand dollars in cash.
Two hours after take off, the plane made a change in course. The captain radioed he was avoiding some threatening clouds, and thus nothing was perceived to be amiss back at Trans-Pacific’s flight operations office in Tahiti.
A few minutes later, L.J. Merrill checked his GPS unit. It confirmed they were flying over waters once sailed by the Bounty’s mutineers and now affected by both the cycles of natural change and the follies of man’s excesses. He turned on his digital video camera as he took it out of his briefcase before heading to the rear of the plane where he would get the most unobstructed view possible. He was looking for the ultimate wave, and though it was October and late in the season for the Southern Hemisphere, he knew a big swell was running – and he might never get a chance like this again.
* * *
L.J. Merrill had a familiar warmth inside him, that of an addict who had just scored. He had found the ultimate perfect wave breaking in the most remote archipelago in the South Pacific. No one but him knew of its existence. Certainly it had never been surfed, since the ruler edged waves breaking perfectly along both sides of the wide, elliptical reef would have been impossible to ride before the latest and most powerful El Niño had raised sea levels to all-time heights. He was sure of his data and sure of his instincts. This was it, the last great find in modern surfing: the most distant, the most powerful, and the most beautiful waves on earth.
He pulled the seat belt a little tighter as he stared out the window and watched the Southern Hemisphere’s panoply of constellations begin to brighten the deep blue of the heavens. He finally let go of all the tension in his body and thought of the wonders of the universe and life itself.
But just as he began to float on his high, anxiety sliced through his mind. He came down fast, but it was a familiar feeling and he reacted with the aplomb of a veteran addict. He opened his briefcase, put a data stick in the side of the camera, and downloaded the image stream to make sure the data was secure. Then he put the seat back and ran the images over and over again behind his closed eyes, knowing that this time the high was going to last for a while.
Four hours later he came to when the captain announced they were approaching Santiago. He buckled up and considered Clark’s instructions to meet the tour group and guide them to surf spots he had discovered years ago. But, like a junkie who knows exactly who he is, he knew he’d have no second thoughts about blowing off an appointment that clashed with his need.
And how long do you plan to stay in our country?” asked the customs official.
“Unfortunately my plans have changed and I’ll be leaving for California as soon as possible,” said Merrill.
The official stamped his passport, and he went to the nearest payphone. He knew Geosurf’s owner would not want to hear about any change in plans. And even if Clark was willing to listen, he’d tell Merrill now was not a good time and any ideas about scouting would have to wait.
But patience is not a word from an addict’s vocabulary.
“Ian, this can’t wait! This reef has got the best waves I’ve ever seen! I’ve got to get out there right away!” Merrill said to himself, rehearsing his pitch as the call went through.
Coming up in Chapter 3:
Veteran surf scout LJ Merrill has 45 seconds of video of the most perfect big wave he’s ever seen – and he’s ready to tell his boss all about it. But Ian Clark realizes that Merrill’s discovery is worth much more to surfing’s largest corporation than it would ever earn as another resort in Geosurf’s worldwide chain of surf camps. The only problem is that Merrill would never agree to selling out to Wavelife International – for the kind of cash Clark needs to stay out of jail... Chapter Three – Two Seconds.