This is a story of a few brave souls chasing waves on West Coast of South Island during one long weekend. How many smashed avocados on toast were consumed? Could they surf next to a blowhole? And did they manage to find the perfect ride?
“Mate, you should come down for a surf,” a voice resonated through the telephone line with a great enthusiasm.
“Yeah mate, I should come down for a surf,” I replied, hung up, and booked the cheapest flight to Christchurch where my friend Honza lives. What an awkward time to fly, but you can’t really complain for the price.
Taking the fins off Rasta, my trusted fun board with plenty of volume to catch any tiny ripples, was a standard pre-flight routine. The water was still cold so I stuffed my board bag with all the necessary rubber – thick winter wetsuit, hoodie, and booties. Locals would give me a cheeky smirk while putting on a old beaten summer neoprene lined with holes as they consider 13°C water to be almost summer.
The plan was solid. I fly down, and we decide what the plan is. Based on the swell. Catch the best rides.
Banks Peninsula was flat. Kaikoura could’ve been mistaken for a lake. And Dunedin wasn’t showing its finest. On the other hand, West Coast seemed promising. You never know until you arrive at the beach and see the waves with your own eyes.
West Coast is a spooky place. It is remote with rough and rugged coastline. The swell is almost always too big and you need to wait for it to drop and there is lots of water moving. Most of the times you are surfing in this unusual cleansing solitude next to a pristine dark lush rainforest. It is pretty spiritual experience.
Also there is a lot of marine life, from dolphins to giant seals and animals with big sharp teeth that feed on those giant seals. The shifting river banks featuring murky waters are adding to the mix of mysterious and chilling (literally as the rivers are flowing from one of many glaciers) feelings.
We stopped at a petrol station. Gauging each other with a bit of surfer’s smalltalk about the board volumes, shapes, and recent sessions. Tristan suddenly went silent. Squinting his eyes and letting the wind land on his cheek he started his divine prophecy.
“It looks like an offshore for the morning,” he whispered. All of us nodded in complete silence giving him utter respect for his arcane knowledge of the weather.
For good waves you need a big storm far away from the shore to start pushing the waves towards the coast. When they are coming closer to the beach you need a little bit of local wind coming from the mainland to smooth them over. This is what Tristan was referring to as an offshore. That’s the secret ingredient to a perfect ride.
“Or not. You know, can be anything, really.” And we knew he was right. It could be anything.
Jay looked at him. “Yeah, bro. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see in the morning, aye?” and he puffed from his electronic cigarette. He was the most chilled person on the trip. You could always tell he’s around by the sweet smell of cherries from his vape. The only time I’ve seen him remotely close to being stressed was when he thought he lost his smoking device. It turned out to be in the pocket of his jacket. Phew, that was a close one.
Honza was the last one of the crew. He put the group together, organised the trip, and sorted out our sweet bunk accommodation. He’s probably one of the top Czech surfers. I mean he would make the top 100 for sure. I guess there would be like 100 Czechs surfing at least, right? Also, he has a great talent for losing his car keys which posed a challenge on the last day when we were chasing that brief window of morning offshore winds.
Along the winding road through Arthur’s Pass and a long drive we arrived to Punakaiki. It was late at night so we all went straight to bed.
In the early morning we went to check out the nearby spots. The first one we arrived at was this uninviting beach break next to Punakaiki River and the famous blowholes.
It was gloomy, foggy, and there was a bit of drizzle. The true surfing weather for West Coast. We watched the waves for a bit. There was a lot of water moving and the sets were big but they didn’t happen too often. It was just us and the beach. Being the new guy on West Coast I asked Tristan and Jay what do they think.
“You know, I reckon we either go in, or not. Either way,” said Tristan.
“Yeah bro, I’m totally easy,” replied Jay with confidence.
So much wisdom and surfing knowledge in just those two sentences. I knew that I’m in the right company with these two experienced watermen of the South. In the end, we decided to go in.
Paddling out was a mission. It was fine if you timed it well. You could avoid getting a wave on your head altogether. But if you were unlucky and the sets started rolling in it was almost impossible to get out.
Tristan and Honza were the first to paddle out. It looked easy as no sets came through. But they couldn’t catch a wave for at least 30 minutes. Me and Jay watched them and were considering our options.
And then suddenly these giant walls started coming in. Take off as steep as you can imagine followed by a fast journey through a hollow pit. This nasty, grunty, and gnarly wave wasn’t there to mess around. If you were at a good spot you could squeeze into a small tube. Tristan caught the wave of the day – this head-high beast was steep and fast.
Me and Jay set ourselves on the quest to paddle out in between the sets. It took us good three attempts to get out but eventually we made it to the back. With the roaring sound of waves breaking just a few meters away from us it was a good introduction to the West Coast ruggedness.
We had a window of clean waves with light breezes of offshore. After a few rides the waves started closing out and there was no wave face to ride anymore. Everyone caught at least one decent ride so we happily got out of the water. It was one of these happy that I made it back feelings.
“Let’s get a feed,” said Jay. And we went back to cook some eggs on avocado toast for late breakfast.
The next day we went to the other side of the pancake rocks and blowholes. The Punakaiki beach is a sandy break with a beautiful rocky point break on the left. During high tide you get back wash from the rocks and getting out of the water could be a bit of a challenge.
The point was breaking far away from the shore but it offered long rides and clean faces. We didn’t hesitate and went for it straight away. The surf was still pumping with head-high waves, and maybe with a few overhead sets.
The easiest entry to the water was through sketchy boulders. You’d have to time it well and then jump and paddle for life. Otherwise you’d end up tumbling between big boulders and sharp reef rocks. Not a situation you’d wish to experience.
Tristan was the first one in the water and I followed shortly. Adrenaline was amped to the max while getting closer to the rocks. Time it well, jump, and paddle. Paddle fast into the safety of the deep waters.
The wave was a bit fat, but beautiful and punchy. It was glassy as and it had a kick. The rides were long with plenty of face to work with. Everyone was catching the waves and riding like there would be no tomorrow. With the arms out of jelly we all got out of the water a few hours later. Smiling.
This was the highlight of the trip. The reason why we came here. This is why we surf.
Jay took a few puffs from his ever present ciggie. “Mate, I’m looking for a feed, aye?”
On the last evening, Tristan started “Like if I was here just by myself, and I know I’m not, I think I’d try to go early. You know. I mean if it was up to me, but it’s not. I’m easy, you know.”
I looked at him with admiration and curiosity. “So, tomorrow, you wanna go early, huh?”
“Ummm. Yeah, bro. But I’m easy.”
Everyone woke up with the chickens apart from Honza. But it didn’t took long and he came down just after Jay finished his morning brew followed by obligatory sweet cherry smoke.
After a while, he sadly admitted, “Guys, I can’t find the keys from the car.” And the classic search and rescue operation began.
After we found the keys, hidden flawlessly under the chair in the kitchen, we arrived to the point next to the blowholes. We surfed one more time having another great session and then we set off back to Christchurch. This time through Lewis Pass so we could check a few other spots on the way.
It started blowing onshore and the wind was killing the waves.
Fox River, a long breaking river mouth with icy cold glacier water and hollow waves, wasn’t working. Nine mile beach didn’t look like much either. Tauranga Bay was surfable but after the perfect rides from the last two days Tristan disapproved.
“Yeah mate, it doesn’t really spark my interest. If you know what I mean,” he judged the swell.
I knew what he meant and we ended up in Westport looking at Shingles and Breakwater. Breakwater was small but clean. The last chance for catching a few. Jay and Tristan chose to pass and we parted our ways. Honza and myself were in for one last session. The water was chilly as Buller River was flowing into the ocean next to us. There were a few decent peaks with few hollow rides.
After a short session we decided it’s time to go back to Christchurch.
A few days later the phone rang again. It was my mate Honza.
“Bro, was a good weekend, aye?”
“Nah, yeah bro. Was epic! Totes rad.”
I hung up and looked into the distance. West Coast is harsh and primal in its essence. It is the most prestigious university of surfing. The Harvard and Oxford of New Zealand. When we left Christchurch we were just boys but we came back as men.
Or most likely not. Nevertheless, we had heaps of fun!