Patrick C. Crowell
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The surfer straddled his surfboard in the tepid, dark-green water of the Golfo de Nicoya, staring out to sea. He was a happy young man, anticipating a special day.
The ocean was almost never blue there, at least not during Costa Rica’s lengthy rainy season, because he was at Boca de Barranca—the mouth of the Rio de Barranca—near the pungent city of Puntarenas. The river was one of multitudes rushing down from precipitous mountains blanketed by humid rain forests, carrying truckloads of dirt and rock as though the usually protracted process of erosion was in hyper-drive. The brown, muddy river spit forth into the ocean from the narrow continent like vomit from a sick baby's mouth, especially when the rains came; and the liquid projectile would disperse and a foamy, brownish ring formed an irregular radius where the roiled river-water mixed with the warmer, jaded sea.
Boca Barranca was famous—at least as a surfing spot among surfers. It sported one of the longest left-breaking waves in the world; and on a big day, a surfer’s legs would grow weary and cramp from riding too many waves in a session. It was the configuration of the land against the river mouth that formed the great point break. A verdurous cliff jutted into the Golfo de Nicoya like a strong, pointy chin and, from the southwesterly point, large swells would advance, having been generated by storms far south in the Pacific. There was no continental shelf slowing the swells like in the Atlantic off Florida, and the waves would roll northward, unimpeded, into the Golfo like lines of soldiers marching to battle. Toward the cliff they’d undulate, wrapping the point and suddenly meeting the dirty delta; and when the distance between the sea level and the rocky bottom became less than the height of each wave, they’d break, transforming into foamy soup rushing toward the rocky, river mouth.
Facing the sea from the brown-sand shore, myriads had been mesmerized by the lines of breaking waves day after day, week after week, and year after year. The hypnotic attraction of symmetrical repetition was soothing, wave after breaking wave, each curl churning toward the viewer’s right. Conversely, sitting in the "lineup," where the walls peak to their steepest and surfers waited, they faced shore and paddled to catch God’s breaking creations, and the large walls of water stayed open-faced to the left and invited surfing in that direction.
The surf spot broke well at only lower tides, high tide rendering depths too great where the waves normally peeled over and collapsed, much to the delight of local and international wave riders. The swell couldn't reach shore at high tide, instead smashing on the rocks on the far side of the stony cliff to the south. The surfer had many times seen the point break transform from solid eight feet and cranking, to one foot un-rideable mush, in the span of an hour at critical points in the tidal flow.
Right place, right time—to nothing did the old adage apply better than surfing, and to nowhere did it apply more than Boca Barranca.
Surfing’s like life, the surfer thought in Spanish, realizing the bromide applied to surfing and life, and that its flip side—wrong place, wrong time—did also. Like an unsuspecting bug squashed by an unknowing man strolling a sidewalk, the daily array of confluences in surfing symbolized the chance occurrences of life. The surf-spot would change from long-breaking, overhead perfection to flat river water emptying to the accepting sea in a matter of minutes, for numerous possible reasons—the masses of liquid would neap, the swell would die, an offshore wind from the mountains would squelch the waters; or the river would flashflood into the ocean, meeting the waves at the line of scrimmage like the ‘85 Bears met opposing offensive lines, standing them up and flattening them without gain.
But the surfer didn’t dwell upon chance and circumstance. Though full grown, he was too young and, in truth, too uncaring. Things were as they were, and there was a characteristic acceptance about him. Solomente las olas—only the waves—y su amiga—his girlfriend—invoked real passion within him. He survived the drudgery of his job with thoughts of her and surfing. He was called Miguel.
His skin was the color of the muddy river, and his cropped hair was straight and black. Short by American standards at five feet and eight inches, he seemed taller, because there was no fat whatsoever on his chiseled body. Though their circumferences weren’t great, his muscles exhibited fluid contours like those on topographical maps with every movement he made.
Miguel’s friends nicknamed him “El Gato” because of his lightning-quick reflexes and uncanny balance, proven again and again in the swells of Boca Barranca—his spot—and the only place he’d ever surf. To travel elsewhere took petrol and a car, both of which he didn’t possess. Thus, at Boca, he was as local as a "local" could be—a term used by surfers to describe those living and surfing a break daily, and exercising territorial privilege. He surfed every day the waves were up and the fickle tide was right, and neither work nor his girlfriend interfered.
This day, Miguel could surf longer than his usual two-hour session before work. He’d pulled double duty at the nearby Coca-Cola plant for a friend and his amigo was making it up. Though all the other “Ticos,” as the Costa Ricans were called, left the lineup at eight to make their jobs, he enjoyed the luxury of being able to surf as long as he wanted. Only he and two middle-aged Americans remained when the Ticos departed, each counting their blessings … and waves.
Right place, right time.
The Americans had been there for a quick four-day surf trip to catch a swell predicted on, and stayed at the Fiesta Resort to the north of the break on the far side of the gradual bay. It was a quick diversion from the intense rigors of their law practices in Florida. They normally had several companions on surf trips, but this time the others couldn’t break away.
Protecting each other in the lineup, they earned spots in the inveterate pecking order. Good surfing breaks were like that—there was a standard pecking order and a daily pecking order, established by who arrived first and surfed better from the most critical spot, and who performed day after day, though other factors could certainly come into play.
Miguel had been one of two or three of the most highly regarded surfers at Boca for years. The Americans, on the other hand, had surfed with veneration—without hogging waves as the bigger one of them, Peter Cromwell, could do on his “longboard” if he’d wanted. Longboards paddled faster and could catch waves easier and further out. The other American, John Pfeiffer, surfed a “shortboard” as well as any young hotshot, but the two of them appreciated the liquid turf of the locals and had thus been accepted.
The Americans were fit and serious about their sport. Back home in Orlando during months of preparation for a trip like this, they’d undertake hour-long paddles on backyard lakes four to five times a week. They were good-sized men and even the smaller of the two, Pfeiffer, was bigger than Miguel.
Miguel was earnest, and he seized this special time to do more than simply enjoy. It was an opportunity to practice for an impending contest sponsored by Quicksilver, for which he possessed the discipline and talent to win. For the Americans, it was their last session before packing their bags, licking surf-wounds and making their way back to San Jose to fly home, tired but happy men.
The silent trio surfed and surfed until their arms were close to dropping off from the long, tiring paddles back to the lineup after each super-long ride. There were two ways to “get out” to the lineup at Boca: one by jumping into the cold, filthy river to the left and letting the current carry one out to the breakers. But timing was crucial, and there was a significant chance of being pounded by the breaking waves, after which the river-current would sweep a surfer over to where he would otherwise paddle out anyway, around the long swells to the right.
And there was always another worry—crocodiles straying from the untamed river into the brackish junction. Though they preferred fresh water, crocs could tolerate saltwater and would occasionally stray into the ocean searching for food. So generally, at least after their first wave, surfers would paddle the long route around the waves on the right, eyeballing others performing to their left while feeling the ache of tired muscles, as they paddled for what seemed to be forever. It was the conventional wisdom that the only real predatorial danger in the ocean came from species to which surfers were almost indifferent—sharks. Surfers dealt with the reality of roving biters lurking below their feet every session, especially in Florida around the jetties. But the thought of nature’s other perfect predator—the crocodile—lunging with lightning quickness to grab and drag one under to be drowned and devoured, chilled even the most insensitive of watermen.
With only three of them out and plenty of overhead waves, the surfers fell into a rotational pattern of one sitting on the inside toward the base of the stoic cliff until taking a wave, and then the next moving over to do the same, and then the next; and they would watch each other "take-off" and perform on the liquid mounds. Admiration grew between them like a good feeling in a warm room, for what they were enjoying was extraordinary and they knew it. Though Miguel spoke very little English and the Americans spoke very little Spanish, as they wowed each other with the size of the next wave or a new maneuver, their looks, nods and shouts imported a pleasant meaning. A special camaraderie developed without a full sentence being uttered.
Though the waves were still fantastic, the trio tired and each decided to catch one or two more good rides and call it a day. It was then that three new surfers paddled out, one of them hoping to beat the others by risking the way of the river, only to be pummeled by a set of large waves. A hostile man, that his amigos chose the longer way and yet were going to get out quicker, and without having been pulverized, frustrated him as the streaming current tucked in his tired body well behind them. The distant, taunting laughter of his amigos didn’t help.
Wrong place, wrong time.
The thin, fit man scowled, as Miguel surfed by on a wave. Miguel wouldn’t have paid any attention to the newcomer except that as he cranked a turn off the top, a shiny flash caught his eye. He noticed the man was toothless on his bottom front jawbone except for two very large canines capped in silver. A significant tattoo on the man’s left shoulder also caught his attention—a replica of a vicious velociraptor straight from Jurassic Park. Miguel assumed the toothless, tattooed man was Costa Rican. At least he looked that way, but Miguel’s thoughts disappeared into the cresting water below his speeding foam and fiberglass.
The two Americans were in the lineup waiting for the next set when the first two of the three new surfers arrived. Peter Cromwell was next to take a wave, and Pfeiffer let out a hoot, as Cromwell took off and dropped-in, gliding down a clean, mountainous wall of water.
“ Gringos,” sneered one of the two newcomers to his mate.
Pfeiffer heard something, but wasn’t sure what. “Hola,” he said to the Latinos, both large and muscular, and shortly thereafter he spied the fierce-looking, toothless man bringing up the rear. None acknowledged his greeting. Instead they scowled at Pfeiffer with rancor, as though sizing him up before a Wrestle Mania match.
Drifting in the vast Golfo de Nicoya and seeing nothing but ocean, minacious cliffs and mountains, in a foreign country without knowing the language, and now surrounded by the three unfriendly Ticos, Pfeiffer suddenly felt very alone. Wishing his other buddies could have made the trip, he turned his board and paddled further to the inside section of the lineup, where he’d be sure to catch the next wave and head in.
If there was a universal rule in surfing, it was that one didn't take-off on the shoulder of a wave when someone else was catching it closer to the peak. Because a surfer was at the peak, it was his; and surfers on the shoulder were required to back out and wax jealous as the surfer with better position took off and sped by. Everywhere in the vast world of surfing this rule was respected, unless an exception applied, like when surfers decided to ride a wave together, or when it was clear by the nature of the wave that the surfer at the peak wouldn’t be able to “make it” through the section to the shoulder. Of course, the rule was broken all the time, but usually not on purpose. It most often happened on crowded days when competition for waves was intense, and one surfer thought another wouldn’t “go” or make it. Usually on such occasions, contrite “sorries” were offered and all was forgiven. But when there were only six surfers out, there was little excuse for breaking the rule.
Pfeiffer sat way to the inside of the break, right at the very most critical spot. He was tired, and didn’t particularly care for the intruders uttering swear words in Español and laughing. Things went from bad to worse when, not more than fifty feet from him, he spied the largest grey dorsal he’d ever seen, thrashing about a school of fleeing baitfish.
Great, he thought, a shark. That’s all I need. Intimidated by its size, he lay prone on his shortboard, as though picking up his feet would somehow help if the monstrous mouth decided to attack.
“¡ Coño madre, tu puto!” Pfeiffer heard the toothless one yell at one of his mates. He knew enough Spanish to recognize disparagement of both the man and his mother. Vicious laughs followed, making him shudder as he watched the sleek predator hunt.
They obviously don’t see the shark. … Where’s Peter? He glanced toward shore, relieved to spy Miguel paddling back out at a boisterous pace. Having fallen while attempting a difficult aerial off the lip of his last wave, Miguel pushed himself to try again. Paddling by, he disliked the looks of the new hombres even though they were Latinos like him. He moved beyond them without a word to sit in the lineup by his English-speaking comrade, eyeing the scattering baitfish and the ominous man in the gray suit heading out to sea.
Pulling up and straddling his board, he looked over at Pfeiffer and said, “El tiburón grande,” pointing to the large retreating shark with his eyes. “Me cayi,” he added, explaining to the American that he had fallen, and smiling.
Pfeiffer didn’t really understand but smiled back, relieved to have company as the swimming jaws went away.
Then they both saw it off in the horizon—the wave of the day, its advancing left flank already breaking over the rocks off the second point beyond the cliff—a long, steep wall coming right at them. They looked at each other, and Miguel nodded with approval, as it was Pfeiffer’s turn in their makeshift order. With this signal, Pfeiffer realized he was too far inside and lay prone on his board to paddle out to meet the splendid form. Miguel did too, intending only to get out of Pfeiffer’s way and root him on. To the right where the shoulder would steepen further inside, the unfriendly trio didn’t need to paddle, and different intentions filled their minds.
“¡ La ola es mia!” the toothless one bellowed for all to hear—the wave is mine. His two amigos backed off, but Pfeiffer and Miguel didn’t, Pfeiffer not understanding the toothless man’s declaration. Miguel did, but certainly didn’t expect the American to heed the words—Pfeiffer had better position and had proven to be quite competent. It was his wave under the universal rule. Miguel watched with unselfish satisfaction as Pfeiffer whipped his shortboard around to catch the crest, not for a moment believing the others would actually interfere.
“¡ Rema! ¡Rema!” Miguel yelled for his new friend, bobbing up and down some twelve feet from the wave rolling underneath him, while observing Pfeiffer paddle into the magnificent creation and pop to his stance. He twirled his board toward shore and checked it out from behind, the erect American disappearing into the bowels of the tremendous formation. Then he witnessed something he couldn’t believe: over on the shoulder the toothless man was paddling like a maniac, intending to commit the sin of “taking-off on the shoulder.”
“¡ La ola es mia!” the toothless one yelled again, more determined than before as he stood and faded to the right in order to force the gringo off the face and into the breaking curl.
“ Hey!” Pfeiffer was by this time screaming through a vertical section, right at the guy, not believing his eyes.
“¡ Oye! ¡Oye!” Miguel yelled to like effect, appalled at what he was witnessing.
Before the two boards hit, Toothless cranked a turn back left, in order to make the wave, flashing argent incisors as he laughed, believing he’d forced the gringo out. Never one to quit, the nimble Pfeiffer snapped his board to the top to avoid collision. Turning far up the peak, with the great speed he was carrying, he almost flew over the lip. A lesser surfer would’ve been airborne, but with exceptional agility and balance, Pfeiffer leaned to his right rail and dug in hard with his back foot, causing his board to rotate back down the green face. Just at that moment the toothless bastard was turning up, thinking he’d be enjoying the beautiful wall of water alone.
“ Crunch!” was the unpleasant noise as Pfeiffer’s board crashed onto the Latino’s and his surfboard fins ripped into fiberglass. Both men were plunged headlong into the brackish water; and bubbles, flashes of surf-leashes, surfboards, and parts of each other, were visible as the wave rolled them like bums on a street.
Somehow in that mess Pfeiffer submerged further, taking longer to scramble to the surface, and when he finally popped the membrane from liquid to air, his immediate instinct was to satiate his burning lungs. The toothless hombre, furious and having already gathered his wits, cocked his arm high out of the water and clenched his fist, and punched the American square in the nose.
“¡ Gringo puto!” the toothless bastard yelled. “¡Dije la ola era mia!”—I said the wave was mine.
The blow nearly knocked out the breathless American, but instinctive urges compelled him to gasp for precious oxygen. Huffing, his head was spinning from the assault, as his nose gushed. For the moment, he was defenseless.
Miguel watched in horror, his first instinct being to stay out of it. His second was one that defined the young Tico—his sense of fair play.
In the meantime, Peter Cromwell approached the lineup from the right, soaking in the scuffle. Infuriated, his lone thought was to aid his woozy, bleeding friend as soon as possible, and his longboard skimmed across the water from his long, powerful strokes.
The two other newcomers laughed as they anticipated what was coming, their amigo pulling a small switchblade out of his boardshorts and clicking open the blade.
“¡ Gringo estupido! ¡Me voy te cortar!” he howled, intending to cut the stupid American’s face in order to teach him a lesson. But as he pulled back his right arm to deliver the slash, he was caught off guard when he felt a vice-like grip around his wrist and couldn’t move. It was Miguel, who’d paddled over and straddled his board just in time to thwart the attack.
“¡ Alto!” Miguel commanded. “¿Esta loco? ¡Alto!”
“¡ Callate la boca!” The toothless man commanded, using Miguel’s grip to pull him closer, and he swung around and delivered a horrendous blow to enforce the point, knocking Miguel off his board. Then, Toothless slid off his, and appeared intent upon carving Miguel to pieces. But Cromwell by this time had paddled closer and realized that his longboard was the perfect weapon, and he jumped off and grabbed its tail and aimed it at the ugly head of the menacing aggressor. Rearing up like firing a water polo shot, he skimmed the board across the water so hard he felt a pop in his aging shoulder.
A split second later and “smack!” was the sound of the ultra-hard Surftech assaulting the temple of the toothless one and knocking him out. Water traded places with gas in the man’s cavities, and he began to sink. Cromwell looked to Pfeiffer and saw his friend clambering onto his board. The Tico! … Cromwell turned back and observed Miguel climbing back onto his … Okay!
Exchanging understanding eyebeams with Pfeiffer, Cromwell exercised unforgotten lifeguard technique in order to approach the sinking body from behind. Piking, he lifted his legs high in the air, using their weight to drive his body down, and in a moment he was underwater arching his back behind the man’s limp shoulders, clamping a death grip across the chest with his long, strong arm. Scissor and flutter kicking, he pulled the Latino up and over to his longboard. With a forceful swish of his legs and a mighty heave, he thrust the flaccid body halfway onto the board as Miguel paddled over to help.
By this time Pfeiffer had regained his strength and, though still bleeding from the schnoz, had paddled over to give aid. Straddling his board, with Cromwell's confirming nod, he knew to administer mouth-to-mouth. A cop before law school, he wiped blood from his lips and expectorated, then pinched the toothless bastard’s pockmarked nose and covered a hideous oral cavity with his own as Cromwell held onto the two surfboards, side-stroking the whole conglomeration away from the dangerous break.
In the meantime the toothless man’s amigos paddled over, at first intending to kill the Americans and Miguel, but when they discovered the Americans saving their friend, and Miguel warning them off, they watched in suspicious amazement. After two puffs into the sun-parched mouth, and two hard pumps onto the man’s stomach, salty liquid came bursting out of the languid Latino, and he began to cough and gasp. Cromwell stroked over to the man’s cracked surfboard and climbed aboard, paddling it back to Pfeiffer and jumping off.
“ Here!” Cromwell commanded the Hispanic goons from the water, as Pfeiffer and Miguel lifted the toothless one onto the board. “¡Vaya!” he yelled, shoving the tail of the board at them and pointing to shore, commanding them to go. The larger of the two men scowled and the water-confident Cromwell thought for a moment that he’d have to drown him. But the Latinos said something to each other in Spanish, and then positioned themselves on either side of their toothless friend, and headed to shore.
Relieved, Cromwell turned to Miguel. “Oye, amigo,” he said, using some of the little Spanish he knew. “Muchas gracias.”
“ Aye yay yay … denada,” Miguel said, and then uttered something so rapidly in Español that Cromwell didn’t have a prayer to understand. Body language told him that Miguel was mortified at the bad manners of his countrymen.
“ Hey, Peter, let’s go in,” Pfeiffer said. “We’re all surfed out here. Ask him to lunch. I’d like to buy him lunch.”
“ Yeah, sounds good,” Cromwell replied, tired, and realizing they wouldn’t be able to concentrate on waves anyway. “¿Amigo, almuerza con nosotros?” he said, asking Miguel to lunch.
“¡ Ah! ¡Si! Tengo hambre,” Miguel said. “¡Vamos!”
Paddling in, Cromwell and Pfeiffer wondered whether the treacherous trio would confront them in shore as they noticed an almost everyday occurrence—navy blue storm clouds rushing out of the mountains toward them, on the coattails of howling winds and herded along by violent whips of lightning.
“ Man, that storm’s coming fast,” said Cromwell.
“ It sure is.”

Copyright © Patrick C. Crowell 1995-2004.
All rights reserved. Rev. 3-2



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