“So Greg, how did you quit smoking cigarettes?” – “Surfing in Dominical,” is my answer. In 1998 I had moved there to learn Spanish, surf, shoot photos, and take a break from teaching teenagers. In the first few sessions I was taught some painful lessons in rip currents. Over the course of a year I broke four boards there, one with the lip driving my forehead through the board. But the first one was the scariest. And the reason I quit smoking.
I didn’t smoke a lot, maybe half a pack on the weekend, and a few each day. In Costa Rica tobacco is cheap and they sold cigs individually. Derby Rojos o Suaves. So my routine was I’d surf at first light, run down Sesame Street to the beach swatting at the ‘bichos’, and then catch it offshore until about 8 a.m. Then run back through the mosquitos, grab a quick desayuno, and walk to my Spanish lesson – which at the time was right on the beach with a view of the surf.
So on this one morning in October there was a big Southwest swell. The rivermouth was cranking the current southward, and the sets were the type that when you sat on your board they would block out the horizon. The sky was grey which meant it was a little harder to discern the deeper shades of blue as a set came up. And the water wasn’t blue, it was just a dark murky mix of coffee colored riverwater and brown volcanic sand. I was the only one out as the local crew usually paddled out at about 7 a.m.
I had been out before in the same size surf and it was high tide which softened the takeoff and provided some long walls if you made the drop. Then you could ride the rip back out. But this morning was different. It was bigger. And the sets came in 10-12 at a time. I caught one wave, gave it a few schwacks off the top, and remember paddling forever to get back out. I sat there catching my breath and thought it was time to go in. But the tide had started to drop out, so if I mistimed my exit a sandy sucked out bomb could break boards and bones.
I mistimed my exit. I tried for the ‘bait wave’, the first wave of the set that looks good to drop in on, but either is too steep or too weak so you turn for the next one. I was baited, I waited, I turned back and saw the biggest stack of the morning headed right for me. Paddling fiercely, I was eyeballing where I would have to duckdive to get underneath each beast. It would suck out the water in front of me giving me momentum to go deep and use the wave’s energy to push out the back. Each duck dive had to be perfect or I would pulled back and left in a position where the next wave would land on my head.
These waves were spaced about 15 seconds apart so I had time to come up, paddle my tail off, take a deep breath, and dive deep. But each wave in the set was getting bigger, and after seven duck dives my shoulders were on fire. I didn’t give up, but I knew that as deep as I could dive with the board, this one wave was going to explode on my back. You just know. So I bailed – and it exploded. The ‘getting dragged like a rag doll’ analogy fits fine here, and when I came up only half of my board came with me. OK, I made it, but the set wasn’t done yet. Another freakishly large wave was coming, and now all I could do was ‘grab sand’, go to the bottom and lay as flat as possible so the wave doesn’t push you into the impact zone. I was in the impact zone so this method wasn’t particularly effective for the next three waves, and my energy level was at zero. There was an interval where as I was coming back to the surface I saw the next wave from under water about to break on my head and I had to stay under. I was in survival mode.
Normally you don’t want broken fiberglass near you to slice you up, but in my case I needed some floatation to stay above the foam. I could always know which way was the surface by feeling for the leash and following it up. The set had passed and in that moment I pledged to never smoke another cigarette again. By this time I was far enough inside where I used the back half of the surfboard to catch one in. I lay in the sand about a kilometer south of where I paddled out and looked up at the sky as the sun burned away the morning mist, enjoying each breath. No one had seen the incident as only a few people were on the beach.
This was a year before the Dominical lifeguard program was started. That year 18 people drowned on the same stretch of sand. The experience was my motivation to help the Dominical Lifeguards get started and to help keep it going. Currently I donate the time and resources to keep the website up, promote all activities on my Costa Rica surf travel site – www.CRsurf.com, and each year I donate prizes for their annual 4th of July fundraiser at Roca Verde.
Since the lifeguards were put on the beach in Dominical, hundreds of locals and tourists, surfers and swimmers, mothers and children have been saved from the dangerous rip currents that can occur there during swells. The lifeguard program has no support from the government and only is paid a salary when the local businesses can pool enough money to save the program. Even the fundraisers hosted by Roca Verde, Tortilla Flats, SoCosta, and Rancho Ramy (plus Patrons, Mono Congo, and Maracatu) can only pay a few months salary.
Ideally, the ICT would realize the importance of having lifeguards at all beaches since over half of the two million tourists come to visit the beaches. My hope is that the government would help provide the financial resources to fund a service that saves hundreds of lives each year, protecting the safety of its citizens and visitors. They could adjust the number needed to the time of year when a beach is more popular or when the waves are bigger. But until that time, all they have are the contributions from the local community and you. If you have a little to give, visit lifeguards.strikingly.com and donate through Paypal.