It was another perfect day at Salsa Brava, around double overhead, with perfectly shaped right and left barrels. I was having a blast surfing with my rastaman friends, and had gotten two left tubes already that morning, wide open barrels with perfect shoulders, that sent me smoothly out of the tubes and out onto the clean shoulder, close to the main outgoing channel.
That's the thing about paddling out at Salsa - it can be huge, triple overhead, and you can still have dry-hair paddle outs, due to channel formed by the underwater topography of the reef, that flows out like a river, bringing you right out to the lineup. Coming in is a different story - you have several choices. The preferred method is to catch a wave, get barreled or carve it up, basically doing whatever the wave offers you, and then once you've gotten to the correct place to head back in, you prone out on your surfboard, and let the whitewater drive you in, sending you neatly into the inside channel and safety. From there on it's a pretty easy paddle back out to the lineup, or back to shore. The other way to get is to simply swim in while getting driven in by a few broken waves, until you're far enough in to be out of the impact zone, where the waves are drilling into the coral.
If you don't know the reef, at Salsa, or if you just plain get unlucky, you can get in yourself in a lot of trouble. If you take a left, wipe out, and there's another wave on the way, you're in a bad spot, and there's not much you can do about it. You'll find yourself swimming around right in front of a very shallow section of reef that you're almost certain to hit and be raked across, if you can't get your butt out of the way, and fast. If you get caught here, you are probably going to hit the reef, and then emerge into deeper water on the other side, bleeding, privately crying in your head, and wishing you were anywhere else than there. On a right, you can take off on the first peak, ride the wave, then prone out and head in to the protected area inside the main part of the reef, circle around to the outgoing channel, and then head back to the lineup. You just have to time it correctly. If you take a right on the second peak, a bit farther down the lineup, make the mistake of riding the wave too far, and then try proning out and heading in, you may find yourself in the worst place possible - a wide, expansive field of coral heads, with no way to get straight to shore; the only thing you can do is to paddle as hard as you possibly can, back out through the coral heads, dodging and duck-diving big waves, and praying that no big ones come and slam you into the reef. You can imagine the injuries that result... and then you're still in a terrible place, but now you're hurt and bleeding and still have to keep at it, paddling hard for the horizon to escape the minefield you strayed into.
A fair amount of people have had near-death experiences surfing bigger waves, with Salsa Brava having more than average, and that's the place where I had mine.
There were good sized rights on the first peak that day, with a light crowd, and heavy, double overhead surf, with thick lips pitching out onto the reef, just a few feet under the break. I saw a set approaching on the horizon, and I took the first wave. I dropped in, backside to the wave, with a nice, clean drop, leaned into my bottom turn, but instead of getting a nice, fat tuberide, my fins skipped out from under me, landing me flat on my back, and knocking about half the air right out of my lungs.
I didn't have time to catch a breath; I was picked up by the wave, pulled up and over the falls, imbedded in the lip of the wave, and driven down to the bottom, bouncing around on the coral. Things eventually started to let up a bit, but I was still on the bottom and being pushed down onto the reef, facedown, and I knew I couldn't overcome the force of the water, so I didn't even try. I just held onto the coral. I knew that eventually the wave's energy would start to dissipate, and it did, and I knew that I could then make it up, but I also knew that I had been held down for a long time, and would surely get hit hard by the next wave, possibly not getting a breath first, and then I'd be up you-know-what creek, without a surfboard.
Really, I was only underwater for 20 seconds or so, but when you're getting drilled by a big wave with not much air in your lungs, every second feels like a minute, and you have to fight that urge to panic and scramble hard for the surface - calm, easy stroking to the top is the way to go, even if you feel like you absolutely must have air that very second. Well, I knew I wouldn't make it to the surface before the next wave hit, so I held onto the coral, tight, with both hands, tried not to think about my diminishing air supply, and wham! The next wave hit, ripped me up and off of the bottom, and tumbled me... and that's when I truly began to panic.
I was doing exactly the wrong thing, scratching hard for the surface when I should have remained calm, but I had no air left at all, and was so completely desperate to get to the surface. I would have given everything I owned for just a tiny little sip of air at that point. Somewhere in the fray, I must have blacked out, because I have no real memory of the time between panicking, and being on the surface, other than one thing - a wonderful feeling of complete relaxation, at the very last second, as I was telling myself that this is it, I'm dying now... wow, this is it...and I felt the most amazing feeling of peace and serenity.
One of the strongest memories of my life is of that second of time - it was, by far, the most easy, peaceful feeling I've ever had. Then I guess I blacked out for a few seconds, and somehow, I came to at the surface. I really have no idea at all what happened during those few seconds. But I did surface, and that's when my memory returned. I found myself in thick foam at the top, trying to breathe while throwing up a gallon or two of foamy saltwater mixed with that morning's huevos rancheros, and somehow, between heaves, I managed to choke down a few quick breaths before the third wave of the set hit me. I had enough air at that point to make it, and though my board was gone, washed away somewhere into the channel, I knew I would be alright. It took me about three minutes to swim to the channel and safety, and between the already-broken waves and my own swimming, I made it in alright. I didn't see any visions of heaven, no tunnels with light at the end, and no fiery places, thank God... just full on panic followed by a feeling of utter and complete peace, followed by a few seconds of time that I cannot remember, and then that sweet yet sick emergence from my very near watery grave. I didn't come out from my closet-sized hotel room for anything but food and water for about three days after that, I was so freaked out about the experience, but I did get back on the horse a few days later, and must admit that I was just a bit more cautious about that particular wave...