North Shore 2017
Sync with the Sea
by Marcus Paladino
My peripheral vision must have gotten the best of me as I stealthily watched the other lensmen repositioning themselves for an incoming attack on the horizon. These are guys like Laserwolf, Eric Tomlinson and Hawaii’s own Zak Noyle. To a world within the world, they’re considered gods among mere mortals. Documenting others execute the art of cheating death, all while laughing in the face of the grim reaper themselves, they perfectly time their dives in preparation for an approaching set wave that unexpectedly swung wide into the channel. Though I had already successfully avoided several rogue waves that session, I suppose fatigue was a factor for my indecisiveness and my poorly executed attempt was slightly delayed. I felt the roaring pound of the sea explode above me and gently caress the back of my legs as I swam underneath it, my body arched upward and I began to start surfacing, but felt the repercussions of my failure from the raw power of the Pacific Ocean in full force. It grabbed me by scruff of my neck and ripped me backwards, a definite horse collar penalty. The force simultaneously snatched the camera out of my predominant grip and I began to uncontrollably toss and turn while being dragged underwater. I was repeating to myself the wise words Zak had told me prior to swimming out together, "do NOT panic. The ocean will always let you go... Eventually."
Taking a set on the head was nothing new. I was fairly used to swimming in maxed out beaches back home and powerful slabs along the coast, but never in my life had I ever felt such intense energy like this. The North Shore has been known to make an example out of even the most experienced watermen. Time continued to pass and I wondered exactly when the ocean was planning on letting me go. I couldn’t tell which way was up. When I opened my eyes, all I saw was black. This was concerning, then I hit the bottom of the ocean floor. Thankfully the recent string of North swells had piled up plenty of sand to soften the impact. I was running out of breath, but was relieved to at least feel something limit my descent. I firmly planted my feet and pushed upwards, only to be rejected and sent right back to where I’d started. I regrouped and attempted my projection to the surface once more, but was denied again. Beat by beat my heart was pounding harder. The air was starting to escape my nostrils, bubble by bubble. I frantically pushed my fins away from the sand and started kicking as hard as could, only to continuously graze the toe-edge of my flippers repeatedly, as if completely anchored. I fought to swim vertically and was about to reach my lung capacity. Then, all of a sudden, a very real, unanticipated thought occurred. I’ll never forget the feeling of genuine curiosity and calmness it provoked. Without fear, panic, sadness, or anger, I subconsciously thought the most honest question anyone can ask themselves, "is the how I'm going to die?"
One week earlier, in the middle of the night, I was in the back of a cab at the Honolulu airport trying to recall all of Mike Brophy’s half asleep instructions on how to find the RVCA house. Through the poor service of my Canadian cell phone cutting in and out I remember hearing "just let yourself in." As if a loyal friend or family member, I was granted permission to make myself at home in a place I’d never been, surrounded by people I’d even never met. A few hours later I woke up on the couch to the sound of waves detonating on the beach, I stumbled over to the sliding glass door and pressed my face against it and let my eyes adjust. The world famous Off The Wall came into focus straight out front, steps away from the backyard. I was situated dead centre of the Seven Mile Miracle, all while simply standing in the living room in my underwear. “You get in late?” I had been startled to find a fellow underwear dwelling early riser, investigating me while I had been admiring his everyday view.
"Back in the 60's I use to draw a circle in the sand around photographers and say 'You see see this line? Do not cross it. I'll bring you food, I'll bring you beer, just keep shooting." Herbie Fletcher explained as we drank our morning coffee together. He would ask trivia-like questions, putting my surf history knowledge to the test. As a Canadian, I don’t think he actually anticipated a correct answer from me, nor did I ever end up giving him one. But he would enthusiastically explain to me about the culture his generation created for us and the impact his family had on our sport. I use to think that I knew enough about the history of surfing, the North Shore and the Fletcher family. That is, until I sat down with the man himself and had him explain it to me as thoroughly as he did. RVCA is more than a brand, it’s a family. Uniquely sponsoring all walks of life; Surfers (shortboard, longboard and everything in-between), skateboarders, body surfers, photographers, musicians, graffiti artists, MMA & Jiu-Jitsu fighters, gourmet chefs, the Hawaiian Water Patrol and iconic legends like Herbie. Their presence in Oahu is undeniable, as they spend more than six weeks every winter bringing all of these completely separate advocates together to bond and get to know each other. Masters of their own universe, misfits in another. Outcasts who would never find each other running in the same social circles, living under one roof in one of the most beautiful places in the world. A delicate balance of opposites.
The television got completely harassed with profanity and applause, as we watched our fellow advocate Ricardo Christie battle for his professional competitive life at Sunset Beach. Exhaling with him on every maneuver, as if we were surfing with him at that very moment. We were opinionated with critique for the judges and other competitors wave quality in comparison, but Ric fell short in the final minutes and just like that, his QS year came to a close. Coming short of re-qualifying for the CT, after falling off ‘The Dream Tour’ last season. He joined us on the porch when he returned from the contest site, and we all gathered to acknowledge his presence. He was greeted with gestures of embrace but no words were said, none were needed. "The best things in life are when you commit" he explained as we celebrated that night. Whether it’s paddling into a steep wave, telling someone you love them, or following your dreams. Commitment is the first step in achieving anything worth pursuing, sometimes you have to take a chance on yourself. It’s what got him on tour, and it’s what got me to Hawaii. Dedicated to capturing high-performance surfing and pushing myself to show my value and gain experience. Taking the risk of swimming out at one of the most dangerous waves, because I was invited to join one of the best surf photographers in the world. People don’t get these kind of opportunities every day, and I wasn’t going to leave with any regrets. I was committed. Though, it may have been my lack of commitment as to why I ended up uncomfortably underwater in the first place...
The answer to that grave question was no. I was released from my underwater prison and finally given room to breathe. When I looked back and saw a second wave approaching, I knew my swim that night was done. As a right of passage, I took my well-deserved beating and was quickly washed up on shore. Giving the lifeguards on duty the thumbs up as I walked out of the water, I decided to take a minute to myself, and so sat on the sand watching the sunset burn up the sky. In that moment, I realized exactly how lucky I really was. To be healthy, loved, accomplished and most of all, truly happy. To be there, in the paradise I thought only existed in the movies and magazines. Being mentored by an icon like Zak, one of most genuine and down to earth human beings I’ve ever met. Supported by this incredible company and invited to be surrounded by like-minded individuals who I’m proud to now call friends. I laughed to myself and couldn’t stop smiling. When we walked back to the house, I was awaited by my newly acquired family on the porch with cold beers probing a question of their own... "How about that set Marcus took on the head?!"