Chapter 24 – May Day
[ 24-MayDay.pdf ]
The eyes of the passengers were glued to the portholes and observation domes. They had all seen the original video and the computer graphic version of what the waves might look like . Now the real thing was only two hundred feet below them. Victor Sanchez was all business at the sluggish controls, keeping the Skyhook in an easy circle while his wife gave him a final set of observations and clearance to set down.
“Apparent wind southeast five knots. Light chop. Wave train interval five minutes. All conditions go.”
“Roger that,” said Victor. He clicked on the intercom. “All passengers prepare for landing in one minute. Seat belts mandatory. Mac, cargo secure?”
“Affirmative, Victor. We’re go,” said Owens.
Victor Sanchez had executed hundreds of open ocean ‘landings’ with the Skyhook in the prevailing southeast trades that blow across most of Polynesia. The only variable was timing his final approach and splashdown between the sets, so he waited until the last wave of a set began to break at the southern end of the reef before setting up the Skyhook ’s final approach and aiming for the shelter of calm water in the lee of the reef. Two minutes later, the seaplane’s V-hull sliced into the sea about a hundred yards from the entrance to the lagoon at the northern end of the reef. Sanchez quickly throttled back to maneuver the Catalina towards her anchorage. It was a textbook execution of an open sea landing in a large groundswell, and he brought the Skyhook to a rest exactly as planned.
“Ok, Heath,” he said over the intercom, “Here we are, and I hope this is what you wanted.”
* * *
Surf season in the Southern Hemisphere began with arrival of the first swell at Bell’s in the hours just after the contest ended. Those waves came from the lead storm of a series of low pressures coming up to full winter strength while whirling around Antarctica like spinning tops. For days the surf grew steadily, as did the storms, until one broke out and up into the Roaring Forties and metastasized into a major surf producer.
At its birth in the Indian Ocean twelve hundred kilometers south-south west of Australia, the system produced waves that lit up the reefs of Indonesia. The storm rolled eastwards in a path comparatively close to the Antarctic continent, broadcasting swells all across the southern coasts of Australia and New Zealand. The core winds weakened a little when the low slowed its eastward motion for almost twenty hours south of New Zealand. There it sat until a jolt of energy from cold Antarctic winds powered it up again. The result was unusual. One day the surf was only two to four feet along the eastern shores of Australia. The next day it was twelve to fifteen feet. The surf report companies completely blew the prediction. Intermittent technical delays often caused a full twenty-four hours to elapse between satellite snapshots. Hence, surprise was still a factor when it came to surf in the Southern Hemisphere, and this swell was a prime example.
After shocking surfers up and down Australia’s east coast, the storm resumed its march eastward loaded with wind. The “coconut grapevine” began to hum all across the Pacific, thanks to cell phones and satellites, with a simple message: drop everything and go to the best surf spots because great waves were on the way. Hundreds joined the frenzy, including Heath Larson.
With a phone call from a friend in Australia, Larson was alerted immediately when the surprise swell hit Australia on the last Sunday in April. He had done some data mining to get the information about what had produced the surf in Clark’s video. He knew what he was looking for. He quickly checked the US Navy Wave Action Model site – and saw almost the exact same swell pattern.
Despite his considerable intellect, Larson succumbed to the siren call, “Surf’s up!” A surge of anticipation washed through his brain, a feeling known only to surfers when the anticipation of great waves overpowers all reason. His eyes lit up with energy and euphoria.
He knew the Wavelife-Skyrider agreement didn’t kick in until June 21. But all the jetskis were waiting in Tahiti and Mac Owens had completed all preparations, including the electric hoist system, necessary to turning the Skyhook into a floating expedition base camp. There were no technical issues that would preclude the run to the reef.
So he knew exactly what to do. But when he picked up the phone, his euphoria met its first challenge. Cheryl Corlund was too busy running the Easter event at the shelter and had no time to talk to him. And he had no way to contact Clark on Sunday, so he did the next best thing. He skipped Clark and went straight to the people he’d need to get to the reef. But again, he struck out when he called the offices of the Skyrider Foundation, only to be told that the Skyhook wasn’t home. And then he slapped himself in the forehead. He remembered Owens telling him that they’d be ferrying a selfcontained medical clinic around the outlying atolls of the Tuamotus on a UN grant to check for genetic anomalies in new-borm Polynesians that could be traced to atomic testing by the United States and France. But then his luck changed and he was able to call the Skyhook direct and got Victor Sanchez over the radiophone patch through Tahiti.
* * *
“Hold on a second, Heath, let me get her up and level,” he said, pausing to make sure he wasn’t distracted until he had the Skyhook at cruising altitude,
“Ok, so what’s up?”
“The surf, Victor, and I think we need to make a run out to the reef in the next three days. I know about your contract, but this swell will be perfect and we need to practice.”
“Well, there’s no way I can help you, Heath. We can’t just drop everything and go surfing. We won’t be done out here for a while and then its twenty hours back to base and we’ve got a maintenance scheduled ‘cause we have two charters next week. So no can do.”
“I understand, Captain, its just that - - - “
“Listen Heath, I like what you are about and how you conduct yourself. But this whole thing is Clark’s deal, and going out of my way for him just isn’t in the cards.”
“Well, yeah, but - - -“
“No yeah-but, Heath. Now let’s shoot straight here, shall we? As far as I’m concerned, this whole thing is about nothing more than money. So I’d rather not spoil things between us, you know what I mean? Skyrider has a contract with Clark and Wavelife, and we’re yours starting June 21. Unless that changes, there’s nothing I can or will do.”
Heath Larson appreciated Sanchez being direct, but he could think of nothing in reply. Then he thought about Sanchez’ last sentence for a second.
“Aye-aye, Captain, understood loud and clear. Let me make some calls. Maybe something can be worked out tomorrow morning.”
“Yeah, maybe,” replied Sanchez, “but don’t count on it.”
* * *
“Wow, Heath, sounds great, but no can do,” said Roberto Mercante, answering his first call of the day, “Bad timing. The LBO and all that. We just have to wait until the contract with Skyrider kicks in. Too bad. I hear its going to be a really good swell.”
“What about Clem Charleton’s plane in Florida? Can’t you call him and tell him you’re interested in buying it and would pay for a quick charter?”
“C’mon Heath, you know how that would go over with Cheryl.”
“But Roberto, there’s got to be a way to make this work.”
“Well, call Ian Clark. He’s the travel agent. I bet he’s in his office right now even if it is Monday morning. Good luck Heath!”
* * *
“I’m sorry, but Mr. Clark is in a meeting. Would you like to leave a message on his voice mail?”
“Uh, yeah, sure. Thank you.”
“Ian, this is Heath. The surf is gonna be unreal at the reef, and we need to be out there three days from now. You need to call the Skyhook - - - ”
Clark was listening to the message without letting it distract him. He was always ‘in a meeting’ when calls came in. But at the mention of the Skyhook, he picked up the phone.
“Heath! Just got out of the meeting and heard your voice. What’s up?”
“We’ve got to get down to the reef, and we’ve got to do it right away. There’s a swell coming from a storm in almost the exact same place as the storm last October that you, or uh, - - -“
Clark quickly interrupted the conversation.
“I know about the swell. We’ve been swamped with last minute bookings to Fiji, Tonga, and the Society Islands. I’m really busy right now, so what can I do for you?”
“I got in touch with the Skyhook , and they aren’t available without a contract modification. So you’ve got to call them, and right away.”
“Oh, really?” said Clark barely containing his irritation that Larson had jumped him in contacting the Skyhook , “Well, that’s something I can’t do, Heath. We’ve got a contract with them and after June 21, we’ll be able to practically live down there waiting for a swell. But now’s impossible.”
“Ian, we both know you can’t count on the ocean! It may be flat June, July, and August! It’s happened before, and if it happens again, we’ll be SOL.”
“That’s true,” and Clark realized what that would mean, “but, uh, I don’t know, Heath, even if we can get the Skyhook by some miracle, who’s gonna pay for it? Wavelife won’t.”
“Yeah, I know, I just called Roberto. But can’t you pay for it? I’m sure you are doing ok out of all this.”
Clark’s clear thinking turned to anger. His end was none of Larson’s business.
“No, Heath, it doesn’t work that way. Look, I’m really busy right now. I’ll call you if I have any ideas, ok?”
“Ok, I get the picture,” said Larson, bristling at Clark’s “don’t call me – I’ll call you” attitude, “I’ve got more calls to make, Ian, and I am going to make this work. And when I call YOU back, don’t have your secretary tell me you are in some fucking meeting. I don’t like being lied to.”
* * *
“Heath! Good to hear from you! How’s the surf, my friend? Stupid question! I bet it’s always perfect in Hawai’i!”
“Not quite, Ben, but it is going to be perfect out on the reef, and we need to be there.”
“Well, I don’t surf, so why do WE need to be there?”
“Well, not you exactly, Ben, but the company you are buying has a big interest in me surfing the place, and Aleja, and Sonny-boy. So we need to get out there and get started.”
“Heath, I’d love to help, but everything is on hold right now while the SEC scrutinizes the deal. In fact, as a current stockholder and member of a potential investor group, I can’t be talking to a Wavelife employee outside the due diligence process. It’s called ‘passing on insider information’. It’s a big red light for the Feds. How’s the weather been over there?”
Larson didn’t know what to say except simply answer the question.
“Just fine, Ben, just fine. Looks like it’s gonna be a beautiful summer. You should come over sometime. We’ll hunt pigs and have a luau for you,” he said, making some friendly small talk to get back in synch with Jeffries.
“Yes, Heath, that would be great. Let me check my calendar, and I’ll give you a call. Gotta go, Heath. Best wishes!”
“Same to you Ben. Bye!” he said cheerfully, having thought of who he could call next .
* * *
“Heath, let me tell you for the last time,” said Cheryl Corlund, “the contract between Wavelife and the Skyrider Foundation cannot be modified. We are in the quiet period mandated by the SEC. I can’t do anything other than work within the business plan established before the date I tendered our offer. If I spent company money to enhance the value of the corporation, I’d have to tell the whole world about the place or the Feds would pull the plug on our deal in a heartbeat.”
“So, uh, ok, I get the picture. If I wanted to go surf the reef, I’d have to pay for it myself, is that it?”
“You would be free to do that, yes Heath,” said Bill Massara, speaking clearly so the conference phone in Corlund’s office could pick up his voice,
“Just don’t involve the company in any official or financial manner.”
“It would have to be a freelance expedition on your part, Heath,” chimed in June Wilson, “though as a Wavelife employee, anything you learned about the place as it relates to increased value to Wavelife would have to be disclosed publicly.”
“Okay, I gotta do it on my own dime, and if the place turns out to be what we expected, I’d have to go public with the news.”
“Well, not quite, because if it turns out to be anything less than a sure thing,” said Corlund, remembering her strategy concerning the reef, “then the value of the reef would be of a speculative nature, and we wouldn’t have to disclose it since there would be no value-add. So that’s about it for now, and unless you have something else?”
Larson knew Cheryl had just told him something important between the lines but off the top of his head he didn’t know what it was.
“No, that was it. Sorry to take up your time, Cheryl,” he said.
“No problem Heath. Give our love to Bruddah and Sonny-boy. Oh, and if you figure something out, be sure and call Aleja at the shelter.”
“Will do,” said Larson. He clicked off his cell, and broke down the problem. He needed the Skyhook, but he’d have to pay for it himself while convincing Victor Sanchez to take his money. Then he remembered why Sanchez was flying charters in the first place.
* * *
“Maui Real Estate, Maureen Nirema speaking.”
“Maureen? Heath Larson. Good to hear your voice. Say, how much is my place worth? Including all the acreage?”
The top real estate agent on the island didn’t waste words.
“Two point five as is . Thinking of selling, Heath? I’d love to have the listing.”
“Well, if I was thinking of selling, of course I’d call you first. But right now I want to pull some money out of the place.”
“That would decrease the value of your holdings, but with the market as strong as it is for properties like yours, you would probably be back at par within a few months.”
“Good. Who do you like for a loan broker?”
* * *
“Hello, Heath. What’s up?”
“A contract is a contract, Victor. You were right about that. Can I have a few words with your better half?”
Sanchez pressed a button on the headset.
“Tina! Heath Larson calling.”
There was a sudden increase in the volume of the engines as now two microphones were picking up the roar of the Pratt and Whitney turbo props.
“Got it! Hello Heath, how are you?” said Tina Sanchez. Then the volume of the engines was halved as Victor clicked off.
“Tina, I have a proposition to make to the benefit of your Foundation.”
“Well Heath, Victor already told me of your idea, and I don’t think there’s any way we can - - -“
“What if someone put a million dollars in a new endowment fund for Skyrider? Would you have any special customer services available for such a benefactor?”
She instantly knew what he was doing, because they both knew that when it comes to running non-profits, money doesn’t just talk, it screams.
“We certainly would, Heath. How can I help you?”
* * *
“That’s brilliant, Heath, and for such a good cause! My wife has always wanted to own a time share in Hawai’i, so I guess our partnership in Sartre will now extend to the hills of Maui. Who do I make the check out to?” said Ben Jeffries.
* * *
“Let me get this straight. You’re putting up five, and raising the rest by selling time shares in your place at two-fifty each. How did you come up with this, Heath?”
“By thinking about how a non-profit works and by having a great real estate agent down the road. And don’t forget, Cheryl, I’m only doing an endowment, just like you’ve done for Aleja, though without the tax advantages. But that’s ok, because the waves will be worth the price of admission.”
“Well, you certainly don’t take no for an answer when you want to go surfing! Ok, if Ben’s in, so am I.”
* * *
“Yes, Heath, what is it?” said Aleja Gracellen in a strictly business voice sitting behind her desk at the shelter.
“We’re going to the reef day after tomorrow.”
Her composure had no chance against visions of perfect waves.
“But I thought we weren’t going until June at the earliest! And oh shoot, we have a special event for the kids coming up. I don’t know if I can - - -”
“Well, I hope you can miss it, because the reef will be firing. Isn’t there someone who can fill in for you?”
“Uh, no, there - - -, wait a sec, let me put you on hold ok? I’ll be right back,” she said, hitting a preset on the phone.
“Cheryl! Remember our deal about the May Day event? I hope so, ‘cause I need you to take over for me, ok? Thanks!” Click.
“Ok, Heath, when’s my flight?”
* * *
“Randy Laine? Heath Larson. You busy right now?”
Surfing’s premier jet ski and safety expert had exactly the answer Larson wanted to hear.
“Nope, and you’re lucky, Larson. I heard about the swell, and you’re the first phone call. So what’s my flight number?”
* * *
“No can do, Heath. After that last run to Cortez, I’m not gonna get lowballed for surf photos ever again.”
Bob Rowe was once a premier surf photographer who had been crowded out of the field by a new generation of auto-focus wanna-bes who worked dirt cheap. He was now a L.A. County lifeguard but did the occasional freelance for the mainstream outdoor magazines because they paid him what he was worth. Larson knew what he was worth.
“Name your price, Bob. You’ll be working for me . At full rate. You retain all the rights. And all expenses paid.”
“I assume you want me to bring all-digital and the steady-cam chest harness and the helmet with a heads-up display on the visor?”
“Absolutely. Bring everything you can, but don’t check anything with the airlines that might hang us up.”
“Heath, for the kind of money you’re gonna pay me, do you think I’d make a rookie mistake like that? Where are we going, and when’s my flight?”
“Call you back in an hour. We’re gonna be in Papeete to meet a seaplane at dawn day after tomorrow.”
* * *
“Ok, Clark, it’s me and I know you are listening, so get on the phone. No, wait, I don’t need to talk to you right now. Bill me for five first class roundtrips LAX Tahiti arriving Papeete thirty six hours from now. Names are Aleja Gracellen, Randy Laine, Bob Rowe, Roberto Mercante, and of course, you. And three more from Honolulu for Sonny-boy, Bruddah and me. Get back to me with flight numbers in an hour. We’re meeting the Skyhook at sunrise on Thursday.”
* * *
“Heath, if you weren’t such a nice guy, I’d hafta give y’all a piece a’ my mind ‘bout this, this - - -“
“Chinese fire drill, Mac? Yeah, I know, but we’ve just got to get out there and get a feel for the place when it’s big. Come this summer, we may only get one chance, and we won’t be able to afford any screw-ups.”
“Well, why aren’t the Wavelife honchos payin’? I unnerstand ya took out a loan ‘gainst yer house or sumtin’? Fer a surf trip?”
“I’ll get it back, with interest, if this all goes well. If it doesn’t we’ll all be screwed anyway, except you guys, of course.”
“Tina Sanchez keeps us flyin’, that’s all I know,” said Owens, circumspect about his boss and her financial acumen.
“Speaking of flying, let’s talk about the waverunners. Have you flown with them in place yet?”
“Yup. Wing mounts worked jes fine, but I had ta reinforce tha landin’ gear ta handle tha side mounted units. Now ‘bout tha rest a’ yer stuff, let me git the list.”
“Don’t bother, Mac, I’ve got it here.”
“No Heath, I’ll git mine an’ we’ll go through ‘em together. I don’ want no screw ups.”
“Well, actually, Mac, the more screw ups the better on this trip. That way we’ll be able to fix them before the real deal this summer.”
* * *
“Tell me one mo time, brah. We go surf da place now?”
“Pack it all up, Bruddah. The locator stuff, the suits, everything. Sonnyboy, you’re on the boards, the ropes, the - - - “
“Heath, if we be flyin ’ Tahiti tomorrow, we gotta be outta heah inna bout two hours ta catch the last inter-island tonight. We no got time fo’ standaround and yak. You got da reservations?”
“Uh, well,” for the first time in hours, Heath Larson came up short, “I’ll be making that call in a minute. You guys got your passports?”
Bruddah and Sonny-boy looked each other, knowing Larson was trying to get back in total control.
“Passport? What passport? No need a stinking passport! Tahiti is Polynesia, and anyways I thought use ‘m once, den trow ‘em away!”
“Yeah, Heath, mine go lost inna laundry, or mebbe leave wid my pops? Or wait a sec, no, I no see him fo’ one long time. Maybe my agent got it.”
The two Hawaiians looked at Larson, with deadpan faces, and then all three started laughing.
* * *
The Skyhook arrived just before dawn outside the harbor where a fishing boat was waiting with eight people, ten surfboards, and a good number of equipment cases . It took a good half hour to methodically load and position everything for the flight to the reef with Mac Owens giving directions. Finally the cargo and passengers were ready, the engines roared to full power, and Victor Sanchez got her slowly in the air and soon she was heading straight towards a weak sun rising higher in the east. By the time the sun was overhead, the Skyhook was once again floating on the Pacific Ocean.
“Looks pretty good! Looks REALLY good! We gonna geevum! Dey peelin’ all down da reef! Hey, Aleja, check out da lefts! Dey perfect!”
“Oh, yes! This is gonna be fun! Wait till Ben and Cheryl see me dance on these waves, Roberto!”
“Yeah, it looks like what you showed us back in October, doesn’t it, Ian?”
“Yup! I told you, Roberto, this place is the best big wave ever!”
Noaloa, Gracellen, Mercante and Clark were too stoked to notice that Bruddah, Heath, Laine and Rowe were not saying a word. They knew what they were looking at. Larson finally put it into words.
“No, Roberto, it doesn’t look like what we saw, because the wind isn’t offshore. So no, Ian, it isn’t the best big wave ever. In fact, it’s no good.”
“Huh?” said four incredulous voices.
“You guys take one mo look. See da chop from da trades?”
“Winds, Barbie, da trade winds. Dey called dat by da old sailors ‘cause dey blew right way fo trade routes. But dey blow wrong way fo’ us.”
“Take a closer look,” said Randy Laine, “We’ve got a southwest swell with southeast trades – that’s like skateboarding down a hill with speed bump s coming at you from the wrong angle.”
“So now what, Heath?” asked Bob Rowe.
“Well, basically I don’t think this place is going to work for us.”
“What do you mean, Heath?” said Clark nervously, “It looks pretty good out there!”
Rowe and Laine knew they were not a part of this conversation and retreated to the ‘sunroom’ in the aft section of the plane. Bruddah kept an eye out the porthole, but he gave Larson a look and shook his head.
“Yeah,” said Roberto Mercante, “I mean, for sure it’s too big for me, but you should be able to handle it.”
The next set began to break at the far end of the reef. It was hard to tell exactly how big it was. Soon the set was breaking from one end of the reef to the other, and the Skyhook was starting to rise and fall from the swells in lee of the reef.
“Listen, Roberto, I paid for this trip. I really want to understand this place, and right now, the only thing I know for sure is that the prevailing wind is from the wrong direction and the waves are shitty.”
“But Heath! You were so sure! You got us all out here! What happened?”
“Aleja, I was amping, just like so many surfers who let surf reports and the promise of perfect waves turn their heads like Midwest tourists oogling bgrade whores in a Waikiki bar.”
“Heath Larson, don’t talk to me like that!”
“My apologies, Aleja, but I saw the wave models and thought we would get what we saw in the video. But I didn’t think to check the prevailing wind direction, and so I blew it.”
“Oh, come on, Heath, you saw the video from the plane! This place can get unreal!”
“Yeah, Ian, but from the original video you showed us you really couldn’t tell exactly what the wind was doing to the waves. It looked offshore, but in waves this big there’s a lot of spray coming off the top even if its glassy – or blown out. It wasn’t sharp enough, so then you showed us two minutes of computer generated graphics that looked really amazing, but in fact was not real. You sold the whole thing like a tent-show barker selling snake oil, and you,” he looked at Roberto, “bought the whole thing. And so did I.”
He waved his hand around the compartment. Victor and Tina Sanchez had joined the group, and Mac Owens was standing in the bulkhead passageway.
“Sorry to interrupt your meeting,” said Victor Sanchez, “but I’ve got to ask you to pull this whole show together right now. You either surf it or you don’t. Either we stay, or we make ready for takeoff. What’s it going to be?”
As usual, Tina Sanchez spoke up immediately after her husband’s frank appraisal of things.
“Heath, why don’t we deploy the waverunners and test all the equipment, especially the locators and the grid system. And Mac! Let’s see the hoists in action and practice deploy and load-out. And who knows? Maybe the wind will change.”
“Yes, maybe the wind will change,” said Clark, looking for something, anything to get him off the hook.
“Yes, that’s true, maybe the wind will change,” said Larson was a hint of sarcasm and a look at Bruddah.
“Yeah, dey change,” he agreed with a friendly smile, “Get stronga all day, jes’ like island side. Dey steady and blow strong an’ you can depen’ on ‘em. Dats why dey call ‘em trades! Good for sailing! But not fo’ surfing.”
“Then you’d better git out there right now, Heath,” said Mac Owens.
Larson gave his best friend another look. This time there would be no joking around as the minds of the two men met eye to eye to consider the situation. Nobody said a word, and when Bruddah spoke, he was talking to no one but Heath.
“We go geevum one short sesh. Keep in shape, yeah brah?”
“Ok, everyone, we’ll work out all the systems, and we’ll learn what we can in the next two hours,” said Larson, surprising everyone with his aboutface decision, “Captain Sanchez, does that work for you?”
“Roger that, Heath. You’re in charge. What do you want us to do?”
The Chinese fire drill proceeded apace. Victor Sanchez monitored the weather radar and kept the engines idling while Tina Sanchez was on anchor watch to help him keep the Skyhook from swinging around during the sets. Mac Owens, with Mercante’s help, deployed three Yamaha SUV Waverunners and fueled them. Bruddah fired up all the engines and Larson went through the electronics. Sonny-boy set up the boards and tow ropes and Gracellen got all the suits, safety vests and helmets organized. Laine and Rowe double checked all the emergency medical equipment and then got the cameras set up.
Ian Clark went to ‘sunroom’, opened the port-side dome, jumped up on the fuselage and climbed high onto the center of the broad wing. From there he had a clear view of the entire reef, an elliptical stadium of energy almost a mile long and three-quarters of a mile wide. He saw the trade wind chop, and he remembered his spur-of-the-moment story about offshore winds was based on nothing more than his needing a check with a lot of zeros on it. Now he was facing the possibility it might not be written at all. Then he thought of L.J. Merrill and realized he’d better stop thinking.
Larson and Bruddah had spent the entire flight from Papeete explaining his part in the whole thing, and it was time to get ready. He opened an aluminum case and powered up a high-speed laptop modified specifically for use with a personal locator beacon system. Every person on the water would wear a small transmitter and their positions would appear on the grid coming up on the screen in front of him and on digital displays on the waverunners. His computer also served as a radio unit to monitor and communicate with all the jetski drivers and with the Skyhook . It was the ultimate safety setup, and he felt the irony of being the guy in the middle of it all.
The three waverunners motored slowly away from the seaplane and out through the northern entrance of the lagoon. Heath and Bruddah were on unit one for tow surfing and rider retrieval and Laine and Rowe got unit two for safety and documentation. Gracellen and Noaloa had put aside their differences and were becoming fast friends in the face of the challenge of sharing driver duties on number three to gain experience with the big Yamaha in real conditions. The fourth unit was tethered to the cargo bay, ready to go in case of an emergency.
The wind had not increased, but the chop was undeniable. When they were well outside the impact zone, each driver went through a five minute double check of all on-board systems, including a comm check with the Skyhook and Clark. With all the locator beacons communicating with the laptop, everything was ready. Heath Larson was wearing emergency orange from head to toe: thick reef walker shoes, a lightweight wetsuit with padding around the knees, hips and elbows, and a thick lifevest. His helmet didn’t have a radio, by choice. He didn’t need the distractions, especially if he was inside a wave seeking perfect solitude, and so he had to raise his voice over the roar of the waves.
“We’ll set out the grid, then two dry runs, and right back here for input. No deviations from plan, no fun and games. And that means you, Aleja!”
“Oh Heath, you’re always such a crashing bore!” Her laugh eased a lot of the tension amongst the five men around her. “Anyway, Bruddah tells me after all this is over you’re gonna retire and go longboarding at Malibu for the rest of your life! I’ll get my revenge then!”
The big Hawaiian pulled his visor down and gave her a thumbs up. She turned to Laine who returned the signal. Noaloa and Rowe signaled their readiness, and Larson tapped Bruddah on the shoulder. They eased out into the open ocean as Bruddah slowly opened the throttle, mindful of the aviation fuel in the tank. Laine waited a few seconds, and then followed about twenty yards behind and ten yards to the left of the lead ski. Gracellen waited, then brought up the rear, maintaining the angled formation that precluded any collisions if a ski suddenly failed for any reason.
They came around the east side of the reef and rode up and over the large rolling swells well away from the surf zone. Clark monitored their positions on his screen, and at five second intervals he pushed a button on his control console to establish the outer perimeter of the personal locator grid system as the formation did a complete ring around the reef and arrived back at their starting point near the northern entrance to the lagoon. Clark’s computer processed all the gridpoints to establish a coordinate system, and a grid of concentric rings was now displayed on not only Clark’s computer, but also the displays on the consoles of each waverunner so that no matter where a surfer went, either riding on a wave or being swept underwater after a wipeout, the system could pinpoint the position of the personal beacon in an arena as large as twenty football fields.
When the formation arrived back at its starting point, the drivers moved in close so that Larson could clearly hear every word of the designated spotters, Bob Rowe and Sonny-boy Noaloa.
“Forget the lefts. Wrong angle. Too much west and too close to the reef,” said Rowe, “The rights are much better, but the wind is dicey. Let’s do the dry runs and take a closer look.”
“Sonny-boy, what do you think?”
“Fo’ reals, Heath. No go left, least not on dis swell. But da rights You can make, but stay doin’ ollies coming down a face. No go inna tube.”
Larson now had baseline perspectives from the two people who had never taken their eyes off the waves. He was ready to hear more.
“Aleja? Any input?”
“The right looks Rincon with a south wind. You can make it if you stay ahead of the double up wrap-ins, but if you get behind, you’ll never catch up.”
“Good analogy, Aleja, and good advice. Bruddah?”
“Barbie gots it right, brah. Maybe fun you get one. Not so fun it gets you,” he said, and Larson knew that safety was on Bruddah’s mind above anything else. He turned to the best jetski safety guy in the world.
“Hold on a sec, Heath, I want to get some real data. Skyhook, what’s the wind doing?”
“Holding steady at five knots, but I don’t know what its going to do. I wouldn’t count on it for much longer,” said the voice of Victor Sanchez.
“Heath, Victor says the wind’s ok, but we’d better play it safe and not count on it too much longer.”
“Ok, two dry runs down the rights. Formation at wave-crest intervals. Here we go.” Larson tapped Bruddah twice, and this time he opened up the throttle to seventy percent. Gracellen and Laine formed up at the same angle and followed him to the take-off zone. When they were all off the extreme southern tip of the locator grid, Bruddah led them in a wide circle to meet a new set. He set up on the second wave, staying out on the unbroken shoulder of the wave and concentrated on nothing but maintaining a course well away from the impact zone. Larson did nothing but watch as the swell felt the reef and the face steepened rapidly until its peak pitched forward into a breaking wave. Laine and Rowe did the same on wave number three, followed by Gracellen and Noaloa on number four. She had never seen anything like this in her life and she looked to Sonny-boy for some assurances.
“You think its thirty feet? Or twenty? Or how much?” she yelled over her shoulder, “It looks so much bigger when you see how much water is moving!”
“Yeah, Barbie, dats why twenty Hawaiian would be thirty at Malibu.”
“Well, it looks a lot bigger than that! How big was the wave that won that XXL deal two years ago?”
“Who knows? Musta been eighty feet ‘cause dey made out da check fo eighty grand.”
“Well, this looks just as big. How come Heath never won it?”
“He hate dat stuffs. Said was stupid pay cash for courage. Dey try to git him in da ting ‘cause he da best, but every year he tell ‘em no way.”
“Well, if Heath won’t enter it, why do they even want to do it?”
“Dey don’t anymore, Aleja . Da guy who won da eighty grand, he try’ to surf one mo biggah last year so he get mo’ money. But he drown and dey nevah find his body.”
The drivers all stayed with their waves until they reformed back into rolling swells at the north end of the reef. Bruddah led them back up to the takeoff zone and the process was repeated on the next set of waves, only this time, they drove all the way to the Skyhook to take a break and talk things over. Victor Sanchez poked his head out of the cockpit window and gave Larson a thumbs up. He pulled back in and then Tina Sanchez did the same and pointed to the cargo bay where Mac Owens and Roberto Mercante tossed bottles of water to everyone. There was a lull in the waves, and everyone let their guard down a little to relax. Everyone except Heath Larson.
“Ian, any problems?”
“Some shadowing from the troughs, but overall it’s working perfectly.”
“How’s the view from up there?”
Clark paused. He wanted to say “Overwhelming!” but thought better of it.
“Beautiful. Looks like the wind might be backing off a little.”
“Randy, give me a data set from the Skyhook , will you?”
Ten seconds later, Laine had answers from Victor Sanchez.
“Good eye, Clark. Wind southeast decreasing to four knots.”
“Bruddah? Think we can ride this place?”
“Gots plenny fuel, and we surf worse, brah. But not dis big not dis far from home. Maybe get a couple, tree maybe. Den outta heah.”
“Aleja? Any more ideas?”
“If it was California, I’d be outta here right now and home under the covers waiting for the storm to hit. I hate surfing with wind chop coming at me.”
“Bob, what’s it look like through the viewfinder?”
“Give it a go, Heath. Just remember what Sonny-boy said.”
“Yeah, Heath, ollie da chop and stay out ahead. Like Aleja say, you get caught behind, you fucked.”
“I never said that, Sonny-boy! Goodness gracious, such language in the presence of a lady!”
She turned around and playfully slugged the former world champ in the arm. Once again, her spirit loosened things up for the men.
“Ok, two waves. Shoulder only. Aleja, station oh-two. You and Sonnyboy keep an eye on what I’m doing. Maybe you’ll be next . Randy, oh-five, then form up when I come by and Bob, start shooting. Let’s get on it.”
The first wave of a new set exploded at the far end of the reef, and Heath Larson threw the handle of the tow rope out into the ocean. He checked to see that it was securely attached to the tow pillar on the back of the waverunner. Roberto Mercante slid a tow-board out of the cargo bay into the water. It was bright orange with yellow stripes around the rails for easy visibility. Larson dove off the ski, positioned his feet in the safety straps and grabbed the towrope handle. Bruddah looked over his shoulder and motored forward slowly.
When the rope went taunt, he and Heath played a quick game of tug-of-war to insure the integrity of the handle, the rope and where it attached to the waverunner. Everything was a go, and Heath Larson was ready.
“Geevum brah!” he shouted, and Bruddah rolled on the power. The waverunner’s big engine had horsepower to burn and Larson popped up out of the water like a water skier, a move he and Bruddah had perfected over the course of many years working together. Bruddah looked back, Larson nodded, and Bruddah headed for the takeoff zone. Laine and Rowe got going and followed Bruddah up the reef. Gracellen and Noaloa motored slowly to their station to wait for Heath’s first ride.
Bruddah had his eyes on the horizon, turning in a wide circle to maintain speed while waiting for the next set of waves. They didn’t wait long. When the first swell hit the reef, Bruddah was nowhere near it. He had studied the sets, and it wasn’t until the last swell of the set approached the reef that he swung around and lined up an approach. He came in wide as the wall formed up into a centered peak over the reef. He glanced over his shoulder and Larson signaled for a launch.
Bruddah rolled on full power and carved a hard turn away from the wave. Heath Larson came around in a whipping arc going almost forty miles an hour. At the apex combination of speed and angle, he let go of the tow rope to match the speed of the wave with a margin of error before he began to slow down just as the wave stood up. He began gliding down the face of the rolling hill of water. No longer tethered to the machine, Heath Larson was now a surfer in every sense of the word.
The muscle memory from countless rides came to life instantaneously. He could see the white water from the previous wave. That told him where not to go. He made a long easy turn away from the impact zone. He angled sharply back towards the energy before turning away from it again to remain in the failsafe zone. Another cutback, another turn, another cutback. His sealegs were strong. He tightened the interval between turns and ran his board through a slalom course of moguls -in-motion across the face of the wave.
Bruddah was driving the waverunner parallel to Larson’s track about twenty yards out on the shoulder. There was no way Larson would fall, yet there was no way Bruddah ever relaxed when Heath was up and riding. Ten seconds into the ride, Bruddah could see Rowe standing up on the back of the ski with Laine in full readiness at the controls . Rowe was seeing double watching Larson ride the wave. He could see from edge to edge across the horizon of normal vision, from the far left where the unbroken hump of the wave was formed to the extreme right where the wave was exploding across the reef. With a turn of a knob under his right hand, the steadicam mounted on his chest zoomed in to frame Larson alone in a transparent image projected on the inside of the visor. As the wave and surfer moved past them, Rowe hit stop and Laine fell into formation in the trough behind Larson’s wave.
Larson kept turning and flowing until he neared station zero two where Gracellen and Noaloa waited. Gracellen had her hands on the controls of the waverunner, but Noaloa was standing up behind her, his arms in the air, cheering loudly as Larson swept into his last turn. Bruddah anticipated his move and got out ahead of him so the tow rope crossed Larson’s path. With the grace of a ballet pas de deux, the two executed a perfect re-connect as Larson picked up the tow rope handle, leaned back, and Bruddah rolled on the power to get them back out to the takeoff zone.
Laine set up again at zero five and the entire process was repeated, with one exception. Heath Larson was starting to get stoked on surfing a wave unlike any he’d ever ridden.
He began to play with the trade wind cross-waves, at first jumping them as if he was on a skateboard, then banking off them to come around in extra tight turns back towards the maelstrom in the tube behind him. His rhythm was remarkable considering the size of the wave. Had it been at Waimea Bay or Mavericks, even the best surfers would have been racing for the safety of the shoulder. Not Heath Larson. He was, in fact, beginning to toy with the energy as playfully as if he was fooling around at Waikiki on some waist-high rollers.
Clark was watching it all from his perch on the wing and the sight of Larson having fun in waves almost four stories high was simply amazing.
“Hey, Mac! Tina! Victor! Check this out! Roberto! Get up here!”
Noaloa and Gracellen needed no such encouragement. They’d seen Larson surf before, but this was different. To watch a man riding a huge wave out in the open ocean was simply and truly ‘awesome’ in the most powerful sense of the word. And he looked like he was having a lot of fun.
Laine and Rowe, too, were transfixed by Larson’s performance. They’d seen it all in more ways than one when it came to cutting edge surfing. But this was a master in his element, and the performance was only beginning.
Larson was tapping into power with skills acquired from riding thousands of waves and decades of dedication, his body always in motion while complementing the curves of the wave with pure balance and timing, all the way to a smooth conclusion right in front of Noaloa and Gracellen. He let go of the tow rope and slowly sank into the water. He leaned back and closed his eyes to fully absorb all the sensations of what he had just done. Bruddah waited at a distance, knowing exactly what his friend was doing and why, until he saw Larson’s head come forward and an arm raised, the signal to come get him. Gracellen and Noaloa watched the ritual, as did Laine and Rowe. Then Heath got out of the straps on his board and climbed up behind Bruddah. He was obviously in a special space, but Sonny-boy Noaloa couldn’t wait.
“Heath, maybe I go, yeah? Dat looked great!”
“If he gets to go, so do I!” said Gracellen.
Larson just smiled at the two surfers, but his first words were to the man who made it possible.
“Thanks for the setups, Bruddah.”
“Same like home, brah. Dis place mo longer, maybe mo betta no wind.”
“Yeah, and I think its glassing off a bit, Heath,” said Bob Rowe. Laine confirmed Rowe’s observation.
“Skyhook says the wind’s down to three knots in the past twenty minutes.”
Like a race car driver getting the feel for a track after a few laps, Heath Larson felt he could trust the wave to be free from surprises, at least for now.
“Ok, you two, go get ready and get back out here as fast as you can. If the wind stays down, we’ll get you on a few. And check in with the captain and make sure he’s in synch with the plan. Randy, Bob, let’s go. Ok, Bruddah?”
“Yeah, but just a couple, brah. We no wanna push it da first time.”
Heath Larson nodded, but with the cross chop dying down and the memory of his last wave still fresh, he was ready to redline.
From the cockpit of the Skyhook , Victor Sanchez saw one waverunner coming towards him and the other two heading back out to the other end of the reef. The wind had died down completely, and he quickly guessed what was going on. This was not the plan, and he didn’t like it. His wife, however, was excited to see Heath heading out for more waves. As always she was thinking about the big picture that included not only the endowment fund, but the big payday under the contract with Wavelife.
When Aleja and Sonny-boy pulled up next to the seaplane, Mac Owens and Roberto Mercante were in the cargo bay door to greet them. After securing the waverunner to the seaplane, they helped the two surfers onboard so that they could get into their orange “flight suits” and double check their boards. Up on the wing, Ian Clark was happier than he’d been in a long, long time.
Larson was shredding the place, Noaloa and Gracellen were going to join him, and suddenly everything was falling into place. And all thanks to a simple shift in the wind.
Larson took the whip from Bruddah and headed straight towards the reef.
Unlike his initial approach on the previous waves, he didn’t turn away from the building energy. This time he kept going.
He dropped down the face as the peak built up high above him. He could see the white water ahead marking the impact zone. He took a last look out towards the unbroken face where Bruddah was driving the waverunner. The chop from the trade winds was almost gone. Caution turned to commitment in the snap of a synapse. He was now in himself, and there was nothing else in the world except mind and energy.
Carve a turn hard off the bottom at full speed. Legs like truck springs absorbed the g-forces. Arms out, hands up, and leaned over, knees brushing the surface, slight arch to his back. Slingshot up the face, pause, then casual lean back, assess, then hard cutback to drive straight towards the wave’s detonation point. Hit the base with two seconds to spare. Carve an arc at full speed, board at its design limits. Shoot out and up across the open face, relax.
... and look back at a liquid canopy arching into mid air behind him.
Heath Larson was beyond strategy, beyond calculation, responding with infinite articulation to a world of curving power and symmetry. Back to the bottom to gather speed. Another heavy g-force turn to the very top of the swell and the purest pinnacle of energy about to leap into midair. Launch off the lip and out into midair himself, weightless and detached. Free fall twenty feet, then re-connect down the face with a thousand tons of exploding power right behind him. Hard gouging turn and once again shoot out and up across the open face, this time towards a finale of mindless release.
Laine and Rowe came up outside of Bruddah to establish direct visual with Larson and witness the epitome of modern surfing’s potential.
The wave was now halfway through its course. With a smile and a nod, Larson acknowledged the friend who made it all possible. Bruddah gave him a quick chaka with one hand and rolled on a bit more power with the other before pointing back to Laine and Rowe. Larson saw them and let his mind wander towards ego and performance. It was but a fleeting thought and he easily brought his focus back to himself to re -engage with the flow of his mind without any intrusions from the outside world.
He turned back into the heart of the wave for a final moment alone as the wave curved towards the entrance to the lagoon. Inside the tube for just an instant, Larson felt the energy dissipating and let his thoughts find equal rest.
He emerged, and the wave was gone.
Heath Larson let his mind go where it always went after a great wave, conscious that all he knew only moments ago was gone forever and yet was waiting for him all over again, surfing in a realm all his own where the reality of time inside the wave became an absolute and centered experience. Then he snapped out of it, like he always did, when Bruddah was right there to meet him. Within seconds they were headed back out to the other end of the reef to do it all over again.
Victor and Tina Sanchez watched Larson from the cockpit of the Skyhook and were more than impressed by what they saw.
“You know, dad used to talk about grace under pressure,” said Victor, “and I’ve got to hand it to Heath in that category. I bet he would have made a great pilot under battle conditions.”
“Well, a wave isn’t flak from anti-aircraft guns filling the sky, but I know what you mean, dear,” said his wife, “One mistake and it could be all over, that’s for sure.”
Victor Sanchez watched Larson and Bruddah reach the southern end of the reef. He got out his binoculars to zero in on them, and immediately saw that the horizon behind them was no longer a sharp line. He glanced at the weather radar screen on the control panel in the PBY’s cockpit. Across the southeast quadrant, a well defined form had appeared. It was a squall line, and from its shape he knew it was generating extremely fierce winds pushing ahead of the wall of rain.
The sea was glassy and smooth all around the Skyhook , but Victor Sanchez knew it was the calm before a storm. He flipped the intercom switch.
“Mac, Roberto, prepare for takeoff. Hey Ian!” he stuck his head out the cockpit window, “Get down off the wing. We gotta get out of here.”
As the voice echoed throughout the fuselage over the intercom, Sonnyboy Noaloa and Aleja Gracellen looked at each other in disbelief. Mercante and Owens stopped helping the surfers with their vests.
“Roger that captain,” said Mac Owens, “Ready in five minutes.”
“But da waves is perfect out deah! And Heath say we go fo’ surf! Fuck, I wan’ go surfin’!”
He looked at Roberto Mercante, but the millionaire surfer was for once at a loss for words. Not so Aleja Gracellen, who always had her wits about her.
“C’mon, Sonny-boy, we’ll be back soon enough,” she said, turning to Mac Owens, “How can we help?”
“Sonny-boy, jump on tha ski, grab tha lift cables an’ connect ‘em. Aleja, help ‘im get outta the water, stow all yer stuff an’ strap in back in the ‘sunroom’. Roberto, go help Clark, then cum back an’ help me with the winches an’ the side mounts when they get back in here. We gotta bunch a stuff to do, so let’s all git!”
“Units one and two. Bruddah, Randy you guys hear me? Squall approaching. Black flag.”
“Confirm black flag. Bob, we’re outta here.”
”Gotcha, Captain. black flag. Comin’ in right now.”
Bruddah turned away from the on-coming wave before Heath was in exactly the right place, figuring Heath would know exactly why the run was being aborted. He did, but his focus was on the wave, his last wave, and he didn’t take his eyes off it. He kept the pressure on his board to increase the speed of the whip. He was living for nothing but his next ride, so far into his instincts that he was out of his mind, and yet in total command of his chosen reality. When he knew he had all the speed he needed, he let go of the towrope and sped towards the forming peak.
Bruddah felt the waverunner engine race and looked over his shoulder. He saw what Heath was doing and knew there was no stopping him. He let off the throttle and got on the radio.
“Randy, Heath taking one last one. We betta stay.”
The ocean had turned to sheet glass. The waves were now a little bigger, with almost perfect shape. Bruddah and Laine turned to watch Larson maneuver perfectly into the peak. Then Bruddah noticed his waverunner roll awkwardly as a small swell came across the ocean’s surface. He looked over and saw the same thing happen to Laine and Rowe. He glanced at Larson about to catch the wave when his waverunner bobbled again. He quickly realized the squall was sending out cross-swells on a different wavelength – and they were much stronger than the chop from the trades.
“Randy, we betta be ready. Mebbe this cross chop screw up da wave.”
“Roger that, Bruddah. I don’t like it.”
His heart was pumping and the wave was building but his mind was far away inside a closed system of thought detached from the full spectrum of life around him.
Deep fading turn to the far side of the building peak. Sharp turn back and up into the very highest pinnacle of the wave. Pause, then aim straight down to the triangle of white water marking the detonation zone. Behind him vertical liquid rising ever higher to meet the reef. Ahead of him the base of power. Slight adjustment to his left into a perfect turn to the right and into the curved wave space arching over like a cathedral dome . Heath Larson entered his church and disappeared.
Out of the tunnel immediately in a blur of orange and yellow only to hairpin turn back into the huge tube. This time he remained inside. All around him, a liquid sphere thirty feet in diameter spiraled and exploded. He adjusted his weight slightly and slowed his speed to match that of a universe his and his alone. He saw nothing ahead except the horizon running up into the wall that curved into the transparent roof far above his head. He was exactly in the moment with nothing to do but stand there and let his mind run free.
For almost ten seconds Heath Larson was motionless at thirty miles and hour. The wave began to feel a new part of the reef and responded with newfound momentum. Larson was ready for the change. His frame of reference, the open mouth of the tube framing the outside world, became ever more distant ahead of him even as he raced towards it. The inverse relativity of the moment enveloped his senses, and for Heath Larson, time stood still.
Bruddah was out on the rolling shoulder of the wave. He looked back for a second, but the angle prevented him from seeing his friend. Then a sudden wave about two feet high hit his waverunner coming out of the southeast.
Seconds later it was followed by another almost twice as big. He almost lost control, but he recovered in time to gun the engine and leap over the next cross wave, almost five feet high. He realized what was happening, and for the first time ever he felt a deep anxiety about his old friend.
But Heath Larson felt nothing. His detachment was complete. All he knew was in and of himself. He was in control. He felt fully alive. He was exactly where he wanted to be: apart from the world and in his own reality.
The cross swells moved towards the heart of the wave, rippling across the face and changing the beautiful curves into broken chaos. Larson was so far back in the center of the tube he couldn’t see what was happening. His ultimate freedom was about to become a disastrous trap as the symmetry of the world he trusted was instantly destroyed.
He barely felt the first cross-swell as it passed under his board. He paid it no heed and plowed through the second one with sheer mindless strength.
Then the horizon disappeared from view as the next cross-swell completely transformed the wave, and the perfectly curved wall of the open tube ahead of him became a closing hemisphere of energy from which there was no escape. The huge tunnel collapsed on itself and exploded in all directions. A cloud of spray was violently expelled fifty feet in the air. White water avalanched into a grotesque maelstrom. The wave seemed to pause in a moment of stasis before its forward momentum added more energy to the churning cauldron of seemingly limitless power.
The men on the waverunners waited for the world’s best big wave rider to appear, but deep instincts of dread told their hearts he wasn’t coming out. And there was nothing they could do about it.
Heath Larson was driven straight down through twenty feet of water in less than a second. His mind did not register a thing until the fins of his board were driven into the coral, followed by the board itself, and immense pressure forced him to his knees . Only then did he snap into awareness of his true reality when he realized he was thinking about what to do. He was strapped to the board. The board was impaled on the reef. In the snap of a synapse he knew there was nothing he could do, but it was too late to even admit that he was no longer in control. His mind broke free of its logic. An involuntary gasp and his mouth, throat, and esophagus filled with water. He couldn’t expel it.
His lungs convulsed. His heartrate tripled. The water around him calmed down, but he began to struggle, not able to breathe, not able to think clearly for the instant it would have taken to reset his mind with the logic of survival. Then he heard rumbling white water coming toward him. Then he heard nothing when the next wave came down hard and exploded his eardrums.
His body went into fight or flight panic. He could do neither as the final wave of the set sealed his fate. The float vest strained to bring him to the surface, but the foot straps held. There would be no release. He lost mo tor control of his body and his eyes rolled back in his head. His last conscious moment was strangely one of pure bliss.
Foam lay almost three feet thick on the slowly calming surface of the water. The waverunners could not go through that any more than a car can go through liquid mud. Even if Larson had come up, it would have been next to impossible to dart in and get him before the next wave bulldozed through the impact zone. Bruddah, Laine and Rowe watched the second wave of the set roll over where they’d last seen him, but they didn’t panic. With Bruddah’s experience, Rowe’s EMT knowledge and Laine’s mastery of big wave rescue, they were fully prepared personally, and the personal locator beacon system gave them all the advantage they needed.
But when Laine glanced at his display screen, he saw nothing. He pushed the reset, and got all the data about the waverunner, and then pressed the button to bring up the locator grid. Nothing happened.
“Skyhook ! Rider down ! Rider down! Where’s the grid? I repeat, where’s the grid? Bruddah, you got the locator grid?”
The Hawaiian looked at his screen, saw nothing, reset the display, and got the same results as Laine.
“Fuckin’ bullshit! I got nothin’!”
“Skyhook , where’s the grid? Where’s the grid?”
Victor Sanchez heard the distress call, and his heart stopped.
“Randy, this is Victor. The grid is down. Repeat, the grid is down.”
He’d ordered the crew to prepare for takeoff. He’d told Clark to get ready to leave immediately. Clark did, and turned off the system.
The worst case scenario for a big wave wipeout was unfolding to the horror of the three men on the waverunners . The last wave of the set followed through twenty seconds later. They would have to wait for the foam to dissipate before beginning search and rescue. Randy Laine began thinking fast.
They had almost a mile of reef to deal with, and Larson could have been swept along by the wave that had eaten him, as well as the next two. And then there was the constant current from the motion of the giant waves. It was exactly why they had deployed the locator system, and now when it was needed most, it wasn’t there. They only had a few minutes before the next set, the waves from the squall were getting bigger, and the wind was starting to come up. He ran through every scenario in his considerable experience within a few seconds and then took action as the last wave of the set rolled through.
“Bruddah! Go down to oh-two and wait for the last wave to go by. Give it twenty seconds, and then zigzag slowly into the wave field. Keep your revs up but your speed down. Don’t let her choke . We’ve got to get a visual on him. Stay on the radio! Go!”
Bruddah took off. Then Laine remembered what had happened to Mark Foo at Mavericks. He had not come up because his board wedged itself into the undersea rocks and he had been unable to release his leash. Larson was not wearing a leash, but he was strapped to his board. Laine also remembered what had happened at Todos Santos when the rescuers had been unable to find the downed surfer because they overreacted in the tension of the moment and went searching without a plan.
So he and Bob Rowe waited the longest minute of their lives as the last wave of the set rolled through, waiting for the thick foam to dissipate sufficiently, so they could make headway without the waverunner stalling out.
Rowe took the opportunity to detach the steadicam from his chest and remove his the helmet. He stowed the camera unit in a compartment, but the helmet wouldn’t quite fit, so he strapped it loosely around a handhold. Then he positioned himself on the rescue sled and got ready to pull Larson aboard.
Laine turned towards the reef and went in slowly, looking down into the depths but unable to see much at first in the flat light of an overcast day. But the water was as clear as any on earth, and within seconds Laine’s instincts paid off.
“I’ve got a visual on him, Randy,” said Rowe,“I’ll go get him.”
Rowe peeled off his orange safety vest, threw it out of the way and dove overboard.
Randy Laine spoke into his headset.
“Skyhook , we’ve got him.”
The wall of rain and wind was fast approaching the south end of the reef. A mile away, the Skyhook was taking off under maximum power headed north. Victor Sanchez was pulling her up fast while Mac Owens was controlling the throttles to redline the engines while making sure they didn’t blow up. Tina Sanchez was on the radio trying to raise Tahiti air control.
“This is Victor Tango Three Niner Three. Mayday. I repeat Mayday. Request ambulance harbor entrance at fifteen hundred hours . Repeat. Mayday. This is the Skyhook . We’ve got a passenger with no heartbeat. Request immediate assistance our arrival. Over.”
In the cargo bay, Randy Laine was administering CPR to an inert Heath Larson. Bob Rowe prepared the shock paddles of the defibrillator. Bruddah held the hand of his best friend. In the ‘sunroom’, Aleja Gracellen and Sonnyboy Noaloa were sitting across from Ian Clark and Roberto Mercante. They were not looking out the canopies as another set of huge waves roared out of the storm and exploded on the reef. They were not looking anywhere except inside their hearts with their heads bowed in prayer.