Mortal Compass

| posted on November 09, 2011

Rob Gilley

Previously in denial about his photographic past, Rob Gilley now rummages through his trove of mediocrity.

Tavarua Island, 1990: one of my first official photo trips for Surfer Magazine. I’m pumped as you can possibly be.

I’m not only excited about shooting talented surfers in photogenic surroundings, I’m secretly amped about something else: my own surfing. The opportunity to ride Tavarua. A possible chance to get pitted at Cloudbreak.

As soon as the lighting gets bad, or when it rains even the slightest amount, I’m clocking out and I’m out there. I’m on it.

It’s Day 4, and my opportunity comes. Light rain, light offshores, and Cloudbreak is about 4- to 6-foot Hawaiian.

I’m on the first morning panga to Cloudbreak with two boatmen and a Tavarua resort guest: a surfing plumber named Rob from San Diego. I thought I was amped—this guy is frothing—he’s had to snake a lot of drains to get here.

We pull up to the reef, jump off the boat and paddle out. With gray skies and glassy conditions, it’s kind of hard to see sets coming, and it’s even harder to figure out where to sit—the inside ledge isn’t consistent enough, and the outer point isn’t really connecting with the middle section. There are perfect waves, but it’s random. Really random.

I sit wide on the middle section and stay cautious. I keep my eyes open, trying to study the sets. My new plumber friend, meanwhile, makes a beeline for the outer point.

I grab a set wave and get a fairly long, decent ride, but as soon as I kick out, I see that I’m in the middle of the inner ledge impact zone. A set comes, and I barely scratch over it. As I paddle over the last wave, I look behind me. I can see water draining off the reef. It looks shallow and scary in there. No wonder they call it Shish Kebabs.

Back outside, I look up the point just in time to see my plumber friend get pitched and subsequently pummeled by a set. He paddles over to where I’m sitting and looks rattled. He seems to carry a forced smile on his face, and then he asks me how it is over here and I say something to the effect of, “kinda gnarly.” He doesn’t say anything. He just stares at me, paddles up the reef, eats it on a late drop, and wears another set on his head.

I catch a few more waves, but they’re disappointing because the whole time I’m riding them I’m paranoid about what’s coming after and I’m looking behind the wave while I’m surfing. I want to make sure I kick out at the right time and place so I don’t get smashed by a set and become a human shish kebab myself.

Adding to this disappointment is the fact that the boatmen we’re surfing with are currently getting shacked off their gourds. Worse yet, they look completely at ease—air drops, casual stalls, deep cover-ups. Even getting caught inside doesn’t seem to bother them: they just paddle aggressively straight at the foam, violently duck dive to the bottom, and pop out the back. No worries.

I paddle back to the boat and watch for a while. Plumber Rob gets a couple more waves, and then a set swings wide. It’s the wave of the day, and he’s in the perfect position. He pulls in to a nice section but ultimately trims too high, gets sucked over the falls, and then dragged over the reef face-up and backwards. He paddles back to the boat cut and bleeding. His back is hamburger.

Back in the boat, Rob is crestfallen. Not because of his injury, but because of his situation. His once in a lifetime opportunity—his dream trip—has become a nightmare.

Although I’d like to tell you that this Cloudbreak story is an anomaly, I have to report that I’ve seen it repeat itself the world over. All over the planet, traveling surfers are forcing themselves into waves and conditions they probably shouldn’t be surfing. Not if they actually want to enjoy the experience, anyway.

That day at Cloudbreak made it painfully clear that there are certain waves on the planet that surfers like Rob and I should probably stay away from, or at least not purposely seek out. When they’re breaking properly, waves like Cloudbreak, Teahupoo, Pipeline, Desert’s, Kandui Lefts, Green Bush, Coxos, The Box, Ours, and Shipstern’s are basically double black diamond mountains that should only be attempted by pros, hellmen, and masochists.

Why this isn’t common knowledge isn’t perfectly clear, but to be honest, the surf media is at least partly to blame. Because of visual one-upmanship, the surf magazines have created a misleading reality by constantly publishing photos of big, hollow, razor-sharp, shallow reef waves and promoting them as dream locations. Unfortunately for normal surfers—for mortals like you and I—they’re anything but.

The problem is that surf photos don’t come with a rating system or a disclaimer. The truth is that many of the ‘sick’ waves you see in magazines are only sick in the sense that that they would make you puke if one broke in front of you.

So given this reality, here’s what I suggest: choose your next surf travel destination based on your surfing level. Assess your talent, and be honest with yourself. Even if you are an experienced surfer, chances are very slim that you should be going to Tahiti, Western Australia, The Canary Islands, The North Shore, or much of Indo and the South Pacific.

The good news is that there’s plenty of incredible ‘mortal’ destinations all over the planet. Some of them include Costa Rica, New Zealand, Baja, The Maldives, Peru, El Salvador, Eastern Canada, and most of the Caribbean and Europe. If you’re a really good surfer but not quite a pro or hellman, you can step it up a bit and try places like G-Land, Southern Mexico, Chile, Ireland and Nicaragua.

The bottom line is to talk to fellow surfers and ask them about their experiences and really think about where you should be going. Study guide books, and read online testimonials. Do your homework.

Pick your destination based on maximizing your potential surfing experience, not on a misplaced Pipe dream.

Mortal’s Gallery:

Mainland Mexico. Photo: Gilley

Costa Rica. Photo: Gilley

New Zealand. Photo: Gilley

Baja. Photo: Gilley

Canada. Photo: Gilley

Scotland. Photo: Gilley

  • namotusurfer

    We took a trip to Namotu for the first time this year, mainly to surf uncrowded, warm waves and Swimming Pools in particular. Knowing the skill level of the group, Namotu seemed like the better pick overall and we had a killer trip! Got barreled on a big, clean day at Swimming Pools as planned… We also surfed small Restaurants and took the boat over to check out Cloudbreak one of the days. Cloudbreak was a relatively calm 3-5ft california size, inconsistent, dark, menacing and shifty. It just looked mean, even from the boat and no one was out surfing it… So we didn’t get in, but we’ll be back this April and maybe, just maybe we’ll give it a rip this time 🙂

  • Mikester

    Great post and sage advice!
    I’ve set myself against some of these double black diamond waves (Cloudbreak, Mentawaiis) as a mere mortal and would add (as advice to other mortals like myself) that facing these waves requires a different approach: don’t surf hard. I’ve witnessed many a crestfallen mortal have the worst session of there lives because they were applying the same amount of pressure and power they would apply on their home waves to surf that was easily 4 or 5 times more powerful yet the same size. It usually takes me a couple of waves to remember this, but once I do the magic of perfect surf happens. One of my most gratifying life moments is having a longtime veteran Tavarua boat driver paddling over to me after watching from the panga and saying, “You’re having a great session, I better sit with you.”

  • Mik

    I surfed Cloudbreak in ’96. Mostly 4 – 6 ft. Very easy wave to surf compared to Pipeline. Depends on swell direction, and intervals however. I wouldn’t dissuade anyone who can make hollow take-offs, and who can do backhand off-the-lips; and knows how to duck-dive in powerful surf. One day it jumped to double overhead. Then it gets intimidating…. But every spot is more intimidating at that size. So get used to bigger waves at home first, and then venture forth… The better the surf, the easier it gets… Unless it is radically hollow.

  • Whitey

    Spot on Rob! Thank you for reminding everyone they should think before they surf, or at least think before they plan their surf destination. Because it is all about having fun.

  • Ben

    I partially agree. I learned to surf as an adult, and I have left much of my skin on reefs in Indonesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Hawaii, and Samoa. I have also been to, and thoroughly enjoyed, East Australia, Mainland and Baja Mexico, and Costa Rica. However, the best waves in the world do break over coral reefs, and the best waves I have ever had in my life were on a five-foot Hawaiian day at Salani lefts in Samoa. In other words, if you push yourself, you may be rewarded. BTW, I think that G-land is actually a more dangerous wave than Cloudbreak: Thinner lipped, but every bit as shallow and hollow the whole way down the reef.

  • Jdubbs

    I surfed Pipeline on an overhead but not too menacing day and got 3 memorable tubes (well, 2 headips and one tube). That reef is crazy though, it just rushes at you while your making the drop and you can’t focus on it.

    The speed reminded me of Montara of all places, really heavy and fast.

    Luckily OBSF is my training ground, and after you deal with those massive, shifting peaks, everywhere else isn’t so bad. I surfed Playa Hermosa on a macking day and was the only one in my crew to make it out where I got some really tasty waves.

    Good blog though, you are spot on.

  • juls


  • Whamo

    Only those who face the dangers of the sea can comprehend its mystery.

  • Jeremy Rumas

    Rob, I was laughing so hard halfway through this my stomach hurt. Great honest read.

  • Brett

    G,land leaves more open wounds than any break in the world.

  • Mark

    Spot on. Plenty of powerful surf out there that’s not dredging square.

  • Lolo

    I know where he’s coming from. CB gets seriously intimidating once it gets double overhead.


    Broken bones heal!

    Chicks dig scars!

    Cloudbreak Barrels last forever!

  • billyboy

    is this why there are so many more aussies than us on tour?


    well done… very interesting post.

  • K surf

    The post was so right on. I have been to many locations around the world and not only witnessed hairy days that I should have sipped coconut water on the beach but also watched way under experienced surfers attempt to challenge surf way over their ability. It is part of surfing to step it up and challenge yourself but do it in stages and do your homework before striking out to some expensive location where only locals and pros have the knowledge. It is a good comparison with snowboarding double blacks vs blue runs, only difference is that you can walk down a mountain……..

  • eLmuchacho

    Interesting. Theres something crazy about hell in paradise. Feels like venom has infiltrated you.

    This is something I actually absolutely love about surfing these waves. They can actually be frightening in their powerful beauty. To ride them can be serious and it should be that way, kicks the kooks away. It is the most amazing experience when to catch the best waves is hard work and hugely rewarding.

  • ROAR

    So true. Good to see someone in the surf media acknowledge this.

    Personally, I aim for point break perfection. Always a defined channel.

    I would add South Africa to your list for mortals. Tons of great point breaks for mortals like me(east coast guy who surfs 30 days a year). Needed to get accustomed to rockier bottoms, but had the time of my life. The ‘bricks’ at JBay were scary at first, but you learn to manage yourself.

  • clint

    for once, I actually couldnt disagree with Rob more. What Rob calls a media trick to make us think that these intense locations the normal dream is just the media focusing on the fringes of our sport. However, history is rife with examples of the imprtance of the fringe. it is how species expand their ranges, it is how the political process is checked. Sometimes those on the fringe do indeed expire escpecially when one, like plumber Bob, is not well suited to live on the fringe. But without people like plumber bob going out there and testing his skills against the fringe we would never know the range of our possibilities. Rob is an excellent surfer and I imagine that he got the way by pushing himself…not by staying within the confines of his ability. I do agree that there are times when people put themselves in situations they do not belong…..but very few actual kooks paddle out into situations they do not belong and even when they do they will often not repeat the same mistake twice. Id imagine that plumber Bob got a little more than he bargained for but he deserves that chance to get flogged. We all deserve to strive and challenge and overreach …if we dont we are moving backwards and losing the opportunity to live

  • Truth

    I have a tendency to get annoyed with Rob’s self-satisfying rants, but this one is a no-brainer. Why would you waste your hard earned money to get worked for an entire trip? Sure…everybody has the right, but having fun in surfing is all about getting good rides. If you can’t get a good ride…surfing is not fun anymore. It’s frustrating as hell. Not only that, but it’s even more frustrating when you’re out in the lineup getting in the way of people that have the ability to get good rides and those people get angry with you. Entire sessions are hindered by people’s unrealistic surf egos. Think I’m lying? Go search desert point on youtube and watch how many guys who are out there who don’t know how to ride the tube or are afraid of it. It’s ridiculous. There’s guys racing in front of the barrel the entire wave. Why not just go to a pointbreak? The whole point of surfing Deserts is the barrel!!! Go look at Blacks a on a medium NW when Surfline says good conditions. There’s 200 guys out in the lineup and 140 of them have a look of fear in their eyes when they scatter like cockroaches as soon as a peak comes near. Even Mavericks has felt the kook affect. No kidding right? How could a wave that scary attract kooks in the lineup? Simple answer…the surf ego. Guys just sitting on the shoulder gazing for four hours get out without catching a wave, drive home to SoCal that evening and brag to their friends about their killer Mavs sesh.
    Now this being said… on the other side of the coin there’s the machismo type locals who’ve been surfing heavy locales for decades. Some of these guys resent anyone short of pro-level paddling out to these spots and are real vocal about it. F-those guys. Everybody should be given a chance to dabble in heavy surf if they are a decent surfer. Just make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. And for God’s sake, don’t travel to G-Land, Cloudbreak, or Deserts if you are scared of the barrel.

  • Buccaneer

    Good post and good comments from Clint and Truth.

  • Mike

    I sort of agree and disagree. Yes, you probably shouldn’t paddle out at Pipe if you’ve never gotten barreled on anything larger than head high. Or paddle out at Mavs if you’ve never surfed a wave that required more than a 7’0″. But I always pushed myself when I was younger. I surfed most of the North Shore (excluding Pipe and Waimea). I’ve surfed Mavericks a handful of times. I really don’t do it much any more because I am nearly 40, and am kind of over the crap my pants fear I used to like.

    But I never regret doing any of it. I think everyone needs to push themselves, even if you are eating crap. If you don’t how would you ever know what might have been, what you could have done. I definitely realize there are limits to everyone’s abilities, but pushing yourself is the way to find out what those limits are. Yes try and stay out of the way of people that can take advantage of everything a certain wave can offer if you aren’t up to task, but still, give it a shot at least.

  • Loneranger

    I know where you’re coming from in one sense but for the most part I totally disagree with you. Provided somebody is not getting in the way of any other surfer, or a danger to another,it’s up to the individual to decide where he or she should surf. There’s so much judgement and presuming that goes on about peoples ability… I’ve been told by a stranger ”a girl my size shouldn’t go out in waves that big” as he stood on the shore…That’s up to me to decide. I’ve surfed plenty of waves over the years that were ‘beyond my level’ at the time…only to end up getting the best waves of my life. Sure I’ve been shredded, and injured every so often but it’s not as if you ever regret it…it’s always been worth it on the off chance you get the best barrel of your trip. If everyone had this mentality surfing wouldn’t be where it is…eg Cyclops, Shipsterns..etc….even the pros take risks.waves like these looked beyond anybodies level a few decades ago but look where we are…you don’t know unless you go…you just have to break yourself in gently and not go for the biggest set, at least not right away anyway!

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  • Greg Pero

    Great post! It is interesting point that other outdoor sports have some type of ratings to give people an idea of what level their getting into so they can make a more educated decision on whether they are up to it or not. In climbing – each established climbing route has a rating – so a climber depending on his/her ability can understand ahead of time whether they are getting in over their heads. Same goes for river rafting, mountain biking and of course snow boarding/skiing. It helps with planning a vacation – for instance if you’re an intermediate level snow boarder – would you plan a trip to a mountain where the majority of runs were double black diamond? Probably not – not to say that you might want to at least try one to challenge yourself but you also want to go to a location that had a balance of runs you could enjoy. I think the same could be beneficial for surfers trying to decide where to go on a surf vacation ….