Comfort zone: noun. The range of temperature between 28 and 30 degrees Celsius, at which the naked body neither sweats nor shivers.
Or, a situation or position in which a person feels secure, comfortable, or in control.
I once paddled out at San Clemente pier with Alex Haro, even though the swell was coming in and it was already bigger than what I would have braved on my own. On most days, SC pier is an easy break. A reasonable paddle, a little hollow, not too rough, clean. When there’s swell, though, the sets can be slightly intimidating. The lips can be heavy and, somehow, unavoidable. On this afternoon, Alex succeeded (for once) in talking me into waves above my head. Literally and figuratively. At first, the waves were breaking at about the pier’s halfway mark. The pier is 1,296 feet long (17th longest in California). The longer we sat there, the further out the break moved. Within an hour, big sets were cracking at the end of the pier, and the smaller, unbroken ones left my stomach at their peaks as they rolled past. I hadn’t caught a single wave and I didn’t want to. I called it a night and met Alex on the beach an hour later. That session will remain the greatest distance I’ll be from my surf comfort zone. Until I surf Hanalei Bay with Michael.
I am sad to leave Australia. I have just become accustomed to hostel existence and have fallen in love with Sydney for a third time. All of my roommates at the Harbour YHA have already departed except Michelle, the one who initially hated me for trying to sneak a boy into our room. (He needed a place to sleep, obviously.) We spend our last day in Australia on ferries, hiking around Watson’s Bay, and eating deliciously fattening food from Doyle’s on the Wharf. I order wedges with sour cream and sweet chile sauce, because I know I won’t have any like them anytime soon.
When we return to Circular Quay, I have a few hours before my shuttle to the airport. After considering an excursion to the Convict Museum, or whatever it is that Michelle is doing, I decide to spend my last afternoon in Sydney doing something I actually want to do: visit the Museum of Contemporary Art–finally. I have been making half-assed plans to check out the Annie Leibovitz exhibition for months. Well, nothing like last minute. I pay admission, climb the stairs, and step into a white room full of Caravaggio-scale photographs. Kate Moss and Johnny Depp lay entwined in bed with sex eyes and when I land in front of Joan Didion and a bunch of male Dunnes, I feel like I’m staring straight into their souls and the weight of another transcontinental shift assails me.
I am tense the entire ride to the airport. Once I get there, I locate Hawaiian Airlines and start to relax upon spying several adorable families. I wonder if they are going home, or if this is their home? Where is my home right now?
The 10.5-hour flight to Honolulu is bump.y. And there is only one movie, the dreadful How Do You Know, which has been following me through all of my travels. I hated it when I dragged my miserably sick arse out to see it in New York and I will hate it on every plane thereafter. I opt to spend $15 for the portable movie player, which has a better selection, but really, all I want to do is sleep. Unfortunately, turbulence doesn’t have the same effect as a bumpy bus ride or a swaying train. I try to recline and ignore the fact that the plane is skittering over rough patches of air, over the vast Pacific.
I probably wind up with about two or three hours of sleep, which doesn’t help me much when I have to sprint through customs in Honolulu and catch my flight to Lihue. The guy in immigration doesn’t even stamp my passport! He asks me if I have any food or anything in my bags and I say, “Tim Tams.”
“What’s that, some kind of cookie or somethin’?”
“Don’t get all Australian on me,” he replies, amused, before telling me I’m in the clear.
The other reason I was uneasy leaving Sydney was that my accommodations in Hawaii were still pretty up in the air. I had decided to go to Kauai over Oahu because two of my good friends in California are originally from there. Bryce hooked me up with some of his friends in Lihue and Cody asked his parents if I could visit them for a few days in Hanalei, up on the North Shore.
When I get to the tiny airport in Lihue, my Aussie phone doesn’t work, so I begin looking around for a payphone. A small Hawaiian girl approaches and says, “Are you Casey?” When I say yes, she goes, “I’m Casey, too.”
I imagine that I look a little bewildered, so she explains, “I’m Cody’s sister. She’s parked over there,” and points to an SUV at the curb. For the record, this is not the same Cody whose parents live in Princeville. There are a lot of Codys and Caseys in Hawaii.
Isn’t Hawaii supposed to have perfect weather? That storm we flew through over the ENTIRE Pacific brings some heavy duty weather to Kauai on my first day: I see side-by-side water spouts from Lihue’s “mall” (more like an outdoor shopping center) (‘cause Hawaii’s weather is so lovely). It doesn’t matter that the weather’s not so stellar because Hawaii is paradisiacal, even in the rain.
I reserved a compact rental car. I was told I would need a car to get around Kauai and, as I was nearly all out of monies, I reserved the smallest (cheapest) car I figured I could fit my board into. Cody drops me off, in more rain, at the airport so that I can pick up the car from… Thrifty? I use her address and phone number on all of the paperwork, since I don’t have my own. The warm, middle-aged woman behind the counter knows Cody’s family. Already loving tight-knit Kauai. She hands me the keys to a Jeep.
“Oh wait… what kind of car is this?”
“It’s a new Jeep Liberty.”
“It’s about six upgrades, but I figured you’d need a 4WD with the weather and all. Don’t worry, I won’t charge you.”
Wow. Thank you.
The paddle-out in Lihue is a long diagonal race against small (yet powerful) waves. I only know this because I watched a couple of people do it before actually attempting it myself. The lineup seems to be populated by locals and tourists, learners and lifers. I’m not keen on getting beat up, so I decide to just float quietly and see how things go.
“Do you work on the ship?” asks a friendly guy who apparently knows everyone. Except me.
“You work on the cruise ship?”
“Oh. You look like you do.”
I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or an insult, but it makes me feel weird.
When I first met Cody, I thought he was older than me. He had a job any surfing graphic artist would slay for and was getting married in a couple of months. When I got to know him better, I learned that he’s actually younger than my younger brother. I also didn’t really consider his surfing ability, though he works at Surfer. After all, I was there, too, and I totally suck. Time also revealed that despite maintaining a kinda goofy and humble disposition on land, Cody fully rips. More specifically, in the landscape of Southern California, where every other surfer’s sponsored and most 10-year-olds would easily take me down in man-on-man heats, Cody’s abilities still stand out. Just keep that in mind.
I met this girl Michelle while hiking the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” She’s from Portland and she’s also traveling alone. Now, we’re both staying in Princeville. We meet up to check out Queen’s Bath. We start what we expect to be a short walk along the black lava cliffs, but the tide’s coming in and the waves are crashing violently over the rocks. Evidently, they sweep people out to sea on a fairly regular basis, and to be quite frank, this prospect really starts to freak us the fuck out, so we turn back without meeting any sea turtles. It’s raining anyway, and I have plans to surf Hanalei with Cody’s dad, Mike, this evening.
I should have known that if I recognized the name of a break in Hawaii, it wasn’t going to be easy. I also probably should have begun to suspect this when Mike kept asking me questions like, “How would you classify your skill level?” and “What size waves are you comfortable in?”
He showed me The Point at Hanalei on the webcam and I said, “It doesn’t look too scary.” His response was, “Well, it’s a lot bigger than it looks on the cam, because it’s so far away.” Still, I trusted that Mike wouldn’t put me in any real danger.
The next flag I ignored was the paddle out. I mean, honestly. It took me 25 minutes to get out here on my six-footer and now, I am in absolutely no condition to dodge sets. But that’s exactly what I find myself doing.
I begin on the outside with Mike. There’s kind of a lull, and he introduces me to a couple of people, like Noah Hamilton and this lady JoAnne, who adores Cody–and me by proxy. Mike offers to block for me, but the waves are too fast for my little board and noodle arms. As I mentioned, the swell is coming in. When big sets look like they’re going to break on the outside (of the outside) everyone paddles for the channel. It’s a weird and unsettling routine. After a considerable amount of time and a wave count of zero, Noah delicately suggests I might have more luck at the bowl, where the other ladies are. JoAnne waves me in. I start to paddle toward her and regret it almost instantly. A cleanup set sweeps through, catching me squarely in the impact zone. I try to duckdive, but I can’t get deep enough to get through the monster. I am properly pummeled and held down for long enough that I pop up gasping, only to be thrashed again by the following three waves. When they pass, I try to get my bearings, but as I look around me, something triggers sheer panic. It could be the realization that I’m about a half mile away from shore in conditions for which I’m extremely under-equipped. I start hyperventilating. As a sufferer of emotionally induced asthma, I know I just need to calm down and concentrate on breathing. I make my way over to the channel, where I’m safe from the now double-overhead waves. At the exact moment when I’ve managed to stop wheezing, JoAnne begins paddling over on her longboard, shouting, “Casey! Casey! Don’t play in the channel!”
When she gets closer, I tell her that I just need a second; I can’t breathe, as such.
“Casey,” she says, “we have very big sharks that live in the channel. You can’t sit here.”
Resume hyperventilation. With that, I begin the excruciating paddle toward the beach and find myself in the company of a kid from California.
“It’s scary out there,” I admit.
“I know!” he says. Verbalizing my thoughts, he continues, “I’m from LA and these waves are way bigger than anything I’m used to!”
The absolute worst part of all this is that while I’m recuperating on the beach, watching locals fearlessly hurl themselves into waves that weigh in at six foot “Hawaiian,” more than one person says, “Ahh, this is small!” I actually see a guy paddle out with his dog. His dog. As if I could feel any kookier.
A few days later, Mike finally concedes that the waves were “kind of big.” He then generously states, “That set that got you was probably the biggest one.”