Wish You Were Here: Endless Rights on Frozen Nights, New Zealand

by Owen James Burke

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Photo: Owen James Burke.

This quiet little cove lights up but a few times every winter, but when it does–provided the sandbar is well-situated–it produces what I won’t hesitate to call a world-class wave, which is why I wouldn’t dare say where it is. That, and despite its size, it can be a deceptively critical wave. A conveyor-belt ebb tide running along the rocks to the right is what holds its 100 yard long perfection; it’s not the swells that threaten to swamp you–they’re generally no bigger than head-high–but the fearsome outgoing tide.


You can never really see how the surf’s breaking from the top of the hill, but when the bay is this cloudy, it’s a safe bet that you won’t be going spearfishing. Photo: Owen James Burke.

After careering over several icy passes on dirt roads, it didn’t even cross my mind to take the time to watch for rips and unseemly rocks lying under the takeoff zone. I’d gone spearfishing here more times than I could count. Arrogantly, I told myself I knew this bay well enough to paddle out effectively blind–I’d never seen in producing surf.

A more astute human being–and any seasoned surfer–might have taken the twenty minutes to learn this seascape, but when surfing and traveling alone, the voice of reason is wont to escape us.

I paddled out along the rocks to get into position for the first set, already coming. I let the first wave roll under me. What little sense I did keep with me that day at least told me to let one go by to get a feel for the takeoff zone. But as the second wave approached, slightly larger, I paddled out to meet it. No, not this one, the third looked larger. As I drew a line and started to paddle diagonally toward shore for the next wave, I felt a rush of water, which I figured the wave behind me was drawing. But just as I thought the larger wave would crest, it backed off and broke further inside, closer to the rocks. My realization was instantaneous: a massive full-moon tide was in effect, and I was sitting in the middle of a rip tide. I knew I didn’t have the arms to hold position in this lineup. I had to make for shore or risk being washed into the South Pacific with not a soul in sight.

I’d paddled my way across the tide and was nearing the middle of the bay where, although free of the seaward conveyor belt, I was still battling a formidable, menacing tide.

It was a good twenty minutes or more, in my estimation, before I made it back into the surf zone where I lazily paddled into a cracking left-hander, limply and exhaustedly slouching my way in without the frivolity of even the slightest turn.

Panting, alone, and worst of all defeated, I made shore and watched the sets pass by in endless, flawless symmetry.


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Photo: Owen James Burke.

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