The biggest waves I have ever ridden were hurricane surf in my hometown of Naples Florida. Yes, on the Gulf Coast.
When was this? Honestly, I am not quite sure. In the Eighties sometime and I think it was the swell from Hurricane Gilbert in ’88. That is because of the board I was riding at the time — that, I remember! But I suppose it could have been Allen in 1980. I’m just not sure I had that lime-green long board by then.
Hey, it was long ago and the date doesn’t really matter. The waves were breaking out beyond the end of Naples Pier and that is one long pier. Feathering out there, really, not breaking hard until one got inside, past a couple more sandbars. There was no way to catch one on a short board out there but I stroked into a few, knee-paddling on the long board. It was altogether the wrong board for those waves, a thick, round-railed, flat-bottomed design that was great for the typical tiny Naples waves but couldn’t hold into a big wave at all.
And, as I said, they were big, the biggest I’d ridden then or since. We’re talking maybe double-overhead. But not particularly dangerous aside from the extremely long swim if I messed up and lost the board out there somehow. I have surfed far more life-threatening waves in the range of maybe eight foot or so on the Atlantic Coast. Surf sessions I thought I might not survive.
I wrote a fictionalized version of one of those times years ago as a short story. It wasn’t a very good short story as it originally stood, as it didn’t give the reader much beyond a blow-by-blow account of the attempt to survive. That is, the protagonist’s character and thoughts were underdeveloped. When I went back to a rewrite some time later, it became a chapter in my novel ‘Shaper.’ Fitted much better there, I think, though I suppose it works in stand-alone story form.
‘Shaper’ is set in a fictional Florida town that is inspired by several different East Coast spots I’ve visited or even lived in briefly. The most similar would have to be Flagler Beach and that is where the incident I turned into a story actually occurred, right by the pier there on a big day. Broken leash, way outside, lots of swimming — that’s pretty much the story!
I’m not young anymore (though in better shape than anyone my age I happen to know), so I am unlikely to be paddling out into ten to twelve foot surf again, wherever it might be. But one never knows.