Every trip I have been lucky to be doing is generally designed to be a highlight of the year. Within each trip there are highlights. The general goal is to have as many highlights as possible, either by travelling more or by travelling to places for which I have little knowledge and expectations. Going back to Alaska for the 4th time gave me some slight internal trouble: what if it felt all too familiar? Luckily this vast piece of the north American continent with a coastline possibly longer than that of Australia, may not have been a total new cultural immersion but was an explorer’s treasure chest. It felt almost like looking for waves on Mars.
The goal of the trip was to explore the Bering side of the Aleutian islands for waves, which had not been researched before, although it appears there is an Aleut surfer much further north in the Pribilof islands.
During 14 days at sea I made many new friends: the most important one being a pair of binoculars in the wheels house where we spent hours after hours, day after days, looking for whitewash along the coast – a sign of waves.
My rather unsophisticated method for looking for waves was supported by the talent of my other new friends; and I am not ashamed to say that I was in awe of their intriguing personalities and in-depth knowledge in a variety of fields:
– Bob: A coastal ocean civil engineer, who came ultra-prepared. He must have spent countless hours on Google Earth to find all the shallow reefs on our route, that could be exposed to the various swell angles. He then listened carefully to the local daily marine reports to assist in making the best call for our daily wave hunt. Bob is a character, often throwing a de-stabilising and controversial comment in the middle of a semi-serious conversation…just to see the reaction of his listeners, all with a cheeky smile of a 15 year old adolescent. He does get serious when sharing his 25-year experience at Mavericks, which of course didn’t fail to inspire me (knowing full well that I am from a different breed, and much happier in 4ft surf).
– Doc: a doctor, physician, from Ocean Beach, CA, who seems to have been described numerous times before in various publications, by much better writers than me, so I will only state a few facts to illustrate his level of surf obsession… Over 30 trips to Alaska, keeps a job that starts at 5pm in the afternoon to dedicate most of his day to surfing, exploratory surf missions to Antartica, Greenland, Svalbard, a strong affinity to Mavericks and most other big scary monster waves around the globe, and a collection of several hundred surf books. What impressed me the most was Doc’s story about surfing a mystic waves he had been trying to get to for 25 years, which required paddling 5km offshore to catch a 20ft wave. I think this almost makes Doc a surf historian.
– Kevin: his modesty is only equaled by his ambition to have a lasting impact on the fight for poverty – he runs a large Foundation which funds meaningful programs in the developing world. Throughout the trip I slowly discovered his climbing & mountaineering world-class efforts fits in the Karakoram, amongst other inhospitable places. His taste for big surf is obvious. Like Doc and Bob, he prefers “Maverick big”, but like them, he gets as excited to simply find new waves even if is 3ft.
– Mike: A neurologist busy doing research on pain and addictions, recently had a substantial heart surgery…a procedure that would suggest one should avoid cold water surfing in remote places for a very long time. Similarly to Kevin, his modesty became apparent as I progressively discovered the extent of his surf travel and the type of waves he enjoyed surfing (like 8f Cloudbreak) over the past 40 years.
– Mike McFish: the captain who never stops laughing, surfing and searching. If he catches only 600 waves in a session we know he must be having a bad day. Having grown up surfing pipe, no wave is too challenging, not even on a foamy. He surfed our favourite discovery called “Red eyes”, a powerful 6ft wave with an ultra-strong offshore, on a 7ft foamy!
– Chris: he deserves a book written about him (and a medal for bringing 12 different cheeses on the trip!). He spent hours after hours typing away poems and essays. He would then sometime read them to us at dinner. I would describe him as an entrepreneur with an artist’s brain. He lives on an old ferry from the 1800’s decked out into an ultimate San Francisco pad.
– Wendy and Carlyn: Even Wendy and Carlyn who cooked hearty meals in the rockiest of conditions managed to find a wave for themselves, now named Ovation. I still don’t understand how they kept a cheerful attitude for 14-days straight, when even us with only surfing to do, found reasons to complain.
All displayed an obvious desire to learn, and to debate just about every topic imaginable; not in a the typical French argumentative way that I know, not in the typical “She’ll be right” Australian way that I like, but in a much more fluid way which made me want to just listen for as long as the boat was rocking… for days!
I smiled a lot internally when the stories shared revolved around such-and-such surf trips in the 70s, 80s, 90s, to destinations that are today described as “firsts” on social media! Catching perfect waves in Norway, Sardinia, or even Lake Superior, didn’t seem unusual to them.
Anyway, here is how the trip unfolded: we headed out of Sand Point in the Shumagin islands and zig-zagged towards Unalaska Island, going from the Pacific side to the Bering side depending on the swells and winds. Here we were surprised to find that the Bering swells were very well organised, but with a shorter lifespan.
We surfed in 70km/h offshore winds, with the occasional barrel and the frequent Willawaws, along headlands that resembled Lord of the Rings.
We found waves where the marker on the beach was a whale skull.
We learned not to worry about scraping our fins over 2ft of water and be surrounded by stellar seals and gigantic sea lions.
We navigated through a bay that had 50 – 100 humpback whales enjoying a brief moment of sunshine.
We tried to surf a left in a narrow passage between the Pacific and the Bering where the current was a good 6 knots.
We had 15 to 18ft seas but Mike’s magic navigating skills kept us dry-ish…and I kept my dinner down.
We broke boards.
We saw fewer Salmon than usual but many more Puffins and a few Grizzlies with their cubs.
We played Boggle and we can all officially be considered serial cheaters.
We didn’t freeze as one might expect, and even found the Bering sea warmer than the Pacific.
We found 11 waves which we considered a success. Not all were firing at the time, yet it was not unusual to surf waist to head high. But the signs were clear, with the right conditions the Bering sea could rival with anyone’s favourite coastline – only prettier, and emptier.
These waves are now “officially” named: Laird’s left, Glassball, Frogbowls, Willa, Waws, Pieus, Red eye, Thinpoint x2, Bonehead, Inner signal.
We returned to Fin-again, Dingos and Buffalo in the Shumagin. Dingos didn’t disappoint and more boards were ‘ding’ed’, leg ropes snapped, all under the curious eyes of a couple of wild cows high up on the cliff.
Our photographer friend Scott Dickerson was not on this trip, so sharing the beauty of these waves is not possible.
As we patted each other on the back for our successful search, Carlyn rightly said ‘It is not back to real life – THIS IS real life”.