The week before we pushed off, Colt spent two hundred fifty nine dollars to add the Navionics charts to his sailboat’s plotter. Big Ben bought the hard copy for that chunk of sub-tropic sea. And the night before we got on the boat I spent hours zoomed in, doing fruitless, fuzzy laps on Google Earth.
We compared notes on the handful of small islands. A few of them have the names of old chiefs and tribes from that western archipelago. A couple are named for Catholic Saints. One C-shaped atoll, sitting alone out there, is named for a WWII general known for his silver monobrow and a crooked glass eye.
According to the store-bought map, a day’s steady sail NW from those other small islands, in the swath of blue where CK told us we were going, there would be nothing.
The low hill of bone that we invested a week of our lives sailing to, racing towards, hoping we’d beat the swell… on the nautical charts; that spot shows deep, empty ocean.
The deepwater wave- StoneHead, and the creepy little pile of white rocks next to it cannot be found on any of the available maps.
But I assure you— both of them are out there.
We didn’t have a name for the island, and after we left, none of us wanted to do the deed. None of us wanted to tie ourselves to that place. Next time… if we go back, I doubt any of us will even paddle ashore. I’ll never camp on that island again, and looking back… that’s the only thing I know for sure about the place.
If we go back, we’ll set the hook in the same safe anchorage that the Nomad told CK about. The one that the Nomad marked on his old map. We’ll sleep safely on the boat at night. And, next time, maybe, we’ll surf StoneHead clean and clear in the morning. Hopefully, we’ll sail home feeling good. Hopefully, we’ll be able to remember.
The island out there is not on the maps, and I don’t suggest for one moment that any of you try and get there.
The Nomad is the one who named the wave.
According to CK, Birk found StoneHead three decades back. He was working his own boat, commercial fishing, or crabbing, or smuggling. Who knows? All that matters is that he found an amazing wave, and during at least one real winter he surfed it. CK says the guy’s legit. A little weird, but legit. Either Aussie or Saffa- with one of those twisted wilderness accents a young Seppo can’t be sure about.
CK said that all through his sabbatical in Indo, he never once saw the Nomad surf. Never saw him touch the ocean. The two of them drank beers together. They swapped stories. The old guy wearing the same camo jacket day in and day out. Sweating and slurring, stumbling through the jungle. Him and CK hit it off perfectly. They each recognized themselves in the other, and naturally they became afternoon drinking buddies. For whatever reason, the Nomad chose CK to give his map to. And CK brought it home to us.
There was another migrant surfer who CK did share some good waves while he was in Papua. Another character who was living and working in Madang. And that guy swore that the leathery old Nomad was the real deal.
Years earlier that guy had witnessed, firsthand, the Nomad paddle into the heaviest waves that he had ever seen.
“I don’t know,” shrugged CK, just back from three months exploring the zone north of Arafura, “The guy Birk, the Nomad… when he drew me this map, he was dead serious. I believe him. I trust him. He said that this wave, StoneHead, it’s the most beautiful big wave in the world. Untouched. It’s like his baby. He wants someone to get back there and surf his wave. He’s getting old and I guess, maybe, it’s beyond him now. ‘Seems like it hurts him thinking that the wave is there, at this moment, just waking up for the winter, and no one’s around. No one’s trying. No one knows. For the Nomad, he said it’s like a sin. He swore that StoneHead was that good. He swore that this winter, this would be the year. He told me that for his wave to work proper, it has got to be huge.”
The four of us listened. We sat there quietly. I looked away. Ben stared down into his drink. Liam looked skeptically again at the dirty hand-drawn map.
I looked intently at young CK first, and then looked to Colt.
Colt was focused on the youngest in our crew, the only one who still ran long-hair and feral. CK. Looking at him steady. Not doubting him, just digesting and respecting the info.
“We’ll wait,” said Colt. “Maybe everything will line up- and we take a crack at it.” His tone was neutral. Like he didn’t really want to take his boat that far. Like he didn’t want to commit so much energy to something that might not pan out. Something that might be a fluke or bullshit.
But the slim chance of StoneHead being true- the gamble, apparently was worth it. And when the day came we had to give it a try.
Colt called me at work less than two weeks later. It was a Tuesday. “You remember that wave CK told us about?”
“Uh… yeah,” I answered.
“We’re going. 4am tomorrow morning.”
Done. That was it. He called each of us, like a challenge. The North Pacific was full of energy. The weather forecast was good. His boat was solid. We had the big boards for it. We had the gear. Hell, for the last ten years we’d been complaining and bitching about lackluster winters. And then, all of the sudden… here it was.
This was what you say you’ve been waiting for.
And now, do you really wanna dance?
“There it is!” CK yelled over the wind. “That’s got to be it.”
I was tired of being on the boat, and though I didn’t see a huge, perfect wave… or any wave at all, and though the surface of the ocean was torn and sloppy, I was happy that we’d made it. Happy that there was something for us to find out there in the empty sea. And happy that we could finally take a swim, change up the routine of three days out on a rough ocean, move our legs and explore the tiny mystery island.
“Lucky we even found it,” mumbled Colt. “It looks like a dead whale.”
He throttled down and altered his course, East, motoring a half circle around the ghost island. He zoomed in on the GPS plotter.
There was a mark on the screen, a little x, forty minutes behind us that showed where we had caught a rat mahi. Colt craned his neck and looked around 360 degrees at the empty horizon. He squinted toward the white hill poking up from the ocean and looked back to the small screen. Just blue, no mention of decent size rock hill jutting out of the water. And with the simple push of a button Colt marked the location of the wave and the island, and that whole strange week onto his computer.
We referred to the Nomad’s hand drawn map and found our anchorage just north past the tip of the island and then a half-mile east. We waited and watched. We guessed where the wave might break. Guessed when and if the swell would show.
Ben and Liam stood on the bow, and when Colt waved his finger forward and gave them a small nod, they went to work freeing the anchor, letting it softly down into the water and watching it sink. We had forty feet of good chain down there, and we put out a hundred and fifty feet of scope.
Colt waited another ten minutes before he shut down the engine.
CK pulled out five cold bottles, popped the tops, and passed them around. North wind scraped at us. Everyone quiet, nervous. The boat slapping against the chop, spinning a slow half circle around the anchor line.
We worked silently pulling out boards and some simple supplies. We packed a dry bag and looked in toward the small island.
CK was the one who suggested we cook the little mahi on the beach. He pulled it from the ice water, slid his board down into the sea, and jumped over the rail holding the fish’s tail in both hands.
I chuckled watching him wrestle the fish up onto his board and then scramble up after it.
I’m sure we all planned to come back to the boat by nightfall.
The sun was dropping in the west, and we didn’t have tents or sleeping bags with us as we paddled to shore. I think it was Colt who brought the twelvepack of cans. Liam brought a lighter, some crunchy snacks and jerky. Ben brought his good camera.
I put a bottle of water into the bag. CK, trouble-maker always, had packed his thermos, half a coconut shell and his little beaded Indonesian pouch.
We paddled in together, our spirits lightening with the movement and the relief of being off the boat.
The water didn’t feel sharky, but there’s definitely more life to be found out there than close to human civilization. I remember feeling like we were being watched, and I assumed that most of the fish life below us had never seen humans before.
The beach was made of round white stones, some coral, but most… they were like white cannon balls, volcanic rock, porous and light, weird. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
As soon as we’d climbed up… as soon as we set our boards down, and Colt tossed a cold beer to each of us, and CK started digging out his supplies, Liam collecting driftwood for a fire, Ben wandering off to find something to photograph… I think the island was already at work and we were already being altered.
CK carefully emptied some of the dried flower contents of his pouch into his coconut bowl. Colt and I sat down and watched him curiously. The little mahi was there next to us, and I thought about skinning and cleaning it, but we didn’t have a knife or a grill or anything, and so I shrugged it off, and watched as CK poured steaming water from his thermos into the bowl.
He grinned up at us, “We’ll let this sit for a bit, and then, when the fire’s going we can all have a drink.”
“What do you got there?” asked Colt.
“It looks questionable,” I said.
“Oh, just some healthy tea. Good for what ails ya,” CK smiled big at us, kolohe.
I decided that I’d take a fake, half-sip if the coconut came to me. Colt held out a hand, “Let me try some.”
Liam had the fire crackling ten minutes later. The sun was dropping lower. The coconut was empty before it got to me, but CK happily pulled out his pouch and mixed up another batch.
“Is that the Nomad’s secret recipe then?” asked Liam.
“No,” laughed CK, “I found this stuff on my own. But,” he held the coconut shell up to the sky, “this is his cup.”
Before long the sun was below the horizon. The mahi, still in one piece, was roasting on the embers of the fire. Sure, I took some small sips of the tea, but not enough for the strangeness of the night ahead. It was the island, I swear. Haunted or cursed. We got suckered into a night of monsters, female ghouls, and fear.
It was a twisted affair that somehow found us swimming out at Midnight, following strange shadowy women into black water. Howling at the moon. Screaming, surrounded by fanged mermaids. Moʻo Wahine. Hearing the deep rumble of an early set. Violence, the bass rhythm of rolling boulders, and splashing. Us, spinning in the dark water. Fear. CK yanked underwater. I thought he was a goner. The swell was arriving… we could hear deep thunderous explosions way out there on the reef.
We had forgotten to turn on the boat’s running lights. It was lost out there in the black. No stars. No moon. I remember shivering, dripping wet, thankfully back on land, crawling up those big marbles, staring down at a thick twelve-foot leash, a black snake on the white stones. And the design was some sort of writing, a glowing symbol that I desperately needed to understand.
And later, Liam stumbled up through the soupy blackness, squatted next to me and lit a new campfire. We all got close for warmth. We had all survived.
And then, the second half of the night, there were other people there, strangers. They kept showing up from the shadows. Stepping into the yellow light. Sitting down around our fire. We welcomed them in. Made friends, got festive. Loud conversation. Some sort of blurred ghost party in the middle of the sea. The mahi smoke spinning around us, and CK chanting and dancing, deep in some Papuan witchdoctor shit.
And laughter. And thunder.
The waves we found. Sure. That swell we were chasing materialized, and later… we made it out to the boat under a beautiful rosy-golden light. And we geared up, ate a quiet, fortifying breakfast. Sweet coffee. Salty biscuits, butter, mango. And it was like a dream, all of us paddling out together. A team. Further and further out, till the island and the boat were tiny behind us. And the wave, StoneHead, was everything that CK and Birk had claimed. Huge and lovely. A zenith of everything we had ever wanted. The sounds of that giant swell, pure, like music. The vision of it, mesmerizing. StoneHead. Its amazing personality, out there, rolling across the sea, standing up tall, wedging, shifting, pulling and bending on its secret reef. Wave after perfect wave. Set after set. The biggest ones, by far the best. All of us scrambling, cheering. Paddling with everything we had. They were by far the finest waves of our lives. And that magic light. Those oily conditions, the softness and slow motion beauty of it all, of giant, perfect surf…
The real dawn, when it finally came, was gray and stormy. The five of us fetal, half awake and cold. Lying on damp rocks by a spent fire. A half eaten, half raw carcass lying there next to us in the ashes. A steady North-West wind. Straight on-shore. Twelve empty cans. Empty thermos. Empty water bottle. Me wincing against the light, peering out towards the horizon… there was some swell, maybe six feet and crumbly. I heard someone groan. My vision blurred. My mouth dry and sour. My stomach clenched and turned. I closed my eyes.
My hands perfumed with the dead mahi, cold and rough with salt and blood, my body sore and old, I covered my face, pulled my knees to chest, and tried to fall back into sleep.