Bluebirds are moments in time when the magical intersects with the mortal, and in process, one’s grasp of one’s ability, is re-defined.
A Bluebird moment is about education, preparation, trial and conquest.
I have had a few of these in my lifetime. Here is an account of one of them.
I began my pilgrimages to the North Shore of Oahu late in my Surfing life. As a young Pro, it was basically part of the ritual of a Surfing Education, that you go there and test your ability.
Though I always sort of sucked at tests in school, I seem to thrive on those moments in sport and life. I see them as potential instances of great opportunity. I always have sought out, and planned for those moments, and hopefully, they would be bluebirds of happiness. I guess they are. Because no matter what the outcome, my perception, in hindsight, is one of never having failed. I only learned.
My friend Shawn Alladio, of K38 Rescue, writes a a little bit on the concept of courage, as she examines a phrase she coined which is called Weakenology. Maybe scroll up and down her blog a bit. You may enjoy what is an increasingly rare perspective in Western Culture today.
Big wave riding is an avocation peculiar to a select few people in Surfing. I am not, nor have I ever been, a big wave rider. My cousin Mel is though, as are my friends, Jeff Clark, and Garrett MacNamara.
In a conversation with Mel one day, he told me that I should join a club that the Makaha boys have. I think he called it the screaming 20’s club. The concept, big Mel explained, was simple, one had to ride a wave of 20 feet (Hawaiian scale, approx 30 plus feet) or more, through the bowl.
When I asked him how many members the club had, he said 12. I laughed. “Oh I get it. Lucky 13! Mel are you nuts? Is that fun to you?” His eyes lit up, and he smiled. “Yea it is a LOT of fun. You should do it” I declined. “Mel, that is NOT my idea of a good time.”
I have been alone with Jeff Clark out at Mavericks, as he sat in the saddle alone. Looking through the lens, I would see Jeff smiling happily to himself. Garrett too. It seems that on Bluebird days when I am there filming, he just shows up. Some of his challenges are so heavy in fact, that I have opted out of a few which he kindly invited me to document.
But that attitude, which is framed by perspective, is what really defines a Bluebird moment.
Duke Kahanamoku spoke of the Bluebirds. Big waves that would come soaring in to the offshore reefs of the South Shore of Oahu. Rare events that would occur maybe once a decade. He was ready for a few of those. His experiences became the stuff of Surfing lore.
In every life, one must prepare. Preparation is about comprehending scale. You want your Bluebird moments to increase your scale. Why would one want to be anything but challenged, on a high order?
As had become my habit as time rolled on, and my surfing life matured, I rang Mark Foo, and arranged for a place to stay on the North Shore. Mark had a big house at Wiamea, and adjacent property where he housed traveling surfers. I never stayed there. He would find a place where my wife and I could stay, and have some privacy.
This particular season, he had placed us in the old Log Cabin, after which the break offshore was named. It was a great venue from which to experience the North Shore. Removed, yet in the middle of everything. On small days I would hop in the water and swim from in front of the house to Sunset Beach, and jog back on the deep, crunchy, sand beach. (We did not have many small days that season)
The rattle of the windows woke me early one morning. As I unwrapped myself from my wife, and peered out the window, I saw empty waves unloading on the reef at Log Cabins. A new North swell. The second reef was just beginning to cap.
I got up, had a little coffee and a banana. Ronnie (my wife) came out into the living room still sleepy, and saw the surf rolling through. She and I traveled together whenever we could. Ronnie was a freelance photographer at the time, with Surfer Magazine and worked for a few others as well. She wandered off about her morning routine, and I grabbed my 6’8″ rounded pintail, which I had made for days just like this.
As I made my way outside, on the partially overcast, cloud strewn morning that is typical of Oahu, the ocean still had a slight bump on it. We term that “morning sickness”, and it is daily groomed out by the trade winds, as they rise later in the morning.
Big, thick, slabbing barrels, thundered over the notoriously craggy reef of Log Cabins. Shaun Tomson had warned me about the bottom there, saying that he could never tell exactly were he was in relation to the lava pinnacles which stretched to within a couple feet of the surface. My swims on the flat days confirmed their location. I had sort of figured it all out.
The session proceeded without incident and I got a half dozen pretty radical barrels. The swell was rising, and the Third Reef began to cap every once in awhile. The wave would move inside and heave on to the second reef before closing out inside.
As the sun began to break and I had seen third reef cap, I found myself sprinting for position having out paddled the small pack that had collected as the morning evolved. And I saw it. A bluebird. The wave gathered everything in it’s path and reared up in front of me as I paddled full speed out to meet it.
At the last possible moment I spun and began my paddle into the wave. I could hear the boys screaming on the inside: “GO”. I was.
I knew this sort of wave. I understood the physics involved in a long interval swell, which draws water from very deep. So I sprint paddled nearly to the bottom before springing to my feet. In spite of that, I still was almost pitched.
Driving off the bottom, I catapulted backdoor into a 10 foot barrel, and remember clearly the intense focus I had, and the sound, and saw everything in ultra slow motion. As I was spit out on to the relative calm of the shoulder, it was as if someone had pulled the string on a child’s doll, and my knees literally folded under me. I rolled onto the deck of the 6’8″ and off into the water.
The boys were laughing. “Man, that was heavy”. Inside I could see Ronnie set up on the Log Cabin porch. She had been shooting. I got a couple more waves, but I was done emotionally, and came in as the break began to max with the pulse of the swell, and the lineup shifted to the outside reefs.
As the day turned beautiful, I had something to eat and sat and watched the playing field morph. For hours. Both Ronnie and I noticed that every once in awhile, a big peak would heave offshore and spin empty and perfect, through the outside. This went on for a couple hours. In my mind I was done. I had experienced one of those defining waves that morning.
But there it was outside. The Bluebird. I had never seen one like that before. In time, Ronnie asked if I was going to go out? I actually snapped at her. “What, are you crazy? I would die out there.” She was silent. We had been together for almost 14 years at that point. She knew me well, and how intense I can get when challenge rears up.
An hour or so later, she asked me again though. I said nothing. But I was watching and timing the set,s and examining the route off the beach which had turned into a maelstrom.
I saw a way. And in the time frame of 15 minutes I went back to our room, got my 7’8″, which was waxed and ready, walked down the stairs and with a short “see you” walked down to Ke-Iki and hopped in. The ocean was alive with pulse. In short order, I found myself offshore.
Ronnie told me later, that as she watched me jump in through the long lens, that she immediately lost sight of me. She had seen many defining moments through that lens, and later said that she thought she had killed me.
Outside, I knew the deal. Since the sets were so far and few between, and running out of deep water, the wave would be moving fast. I would need to take one on the head in order to figure out where the lineup point was. Then I would follow the whitewater triangle to the pinnacle, sit off shore of it, and maintain my position in the saddle (that spot where you are far enough outside to have position, yet be close enough to the impact zone, to be able to catch the wave)
And right on time (I wear a watch riding big surf) in they flew, a massive spectacular three wave set of Bluebirds, moving majestically, and mirroring the blue of the Hawaiian sky. The first one exploded about 75 yards outside of me.
Diving to the end of my leash, I was served a little washing machine treatment. I was not really coming up, so after awhile I climbed my leash, found my board and hung on. We popped to the surface a scant few seconds later, I grabbed a breath or two of salt spray filled air, paddled a few strokes, and was sucked back underwater by the roiling turbulence. This had never happened to me before.
I relaxed, clung tightly to my 7’8″, and remember distinctly thinking: “wow I am not coming up”. But I knew that no matter how aerated the water, that I had the best option right underneath me. And as I ran out of air, the surface cleared and I popped up, in sudsy foam a couple feet thick, and caught a deep breath. I then paddled out and up the whitewater triangle, found my spot, marked a couple lineup points on the distant hills, held my position and waited.
40 minutes later the wave came and I caught it. The moment in retrospect almost seems anticlimatic, and my actual recollection of the ride is somewhat hazy. But I know that I rode it through to close to where I had ridden that barrel earlier in the day, and kicked out in relatively deep water.
Then I did something which even today, I still find rather peculiar. I swung the nose of my board back to sea, and paddled back out. You see, I had a rule for myself. I would need to ride three waves under challenge. If I did not do so, how could I really know if my choice was a suitable companion to my ability? It was me who needed the convincing. So three waves did that.
I remember the third quite clearly. I rode it all the way through on to the inside and let the maelstrom blast me on to the beach. The Ocean is funny that way. Barring a few quirky breaks, generally it will deposit you back on the beach from whence you came. You just need to make sure that you are in the heaviest part of the lineup so that the energy carries you furthest. I did that. Oh and do NOT fall. Falling is bad. It equals punishment.
Back at the house, Ronnie walked down to meet me, obviously relieved. Years later I ran into a couple friends of mine who were lifeguarding that day, who told me that they had all been highly entertained by my antics, but that no, they had no plans to help me. If I had needed it.
And that is the crux of this story. You only get a few real chances in life to make an exponential leap. Everything builds and grows on precept. Humans are funny that way. Think of a man as a house. You begin with a good foundation, and work your way up from there.
It always made a lot of sense to me, the saying about seeing the Bluebird of Happiness. I get that. I appreciate it.
Later that day, up at Mark’s house (Ronnie was interviewing him for a feature) he and I were talking about his incremental steps in converting from pro tour participant, to big wave rider. He asked if I had surfed that day.
I told him I had just come in from surfing the outside reef off of the Log Cabin. He sort of smiled. “Dave, we don’t surf out there” “Why not?” I had asked. “It is too dangerous. Man, stupid Californians”.
Mark and I had been friends for many years. I trusted him a lot more than I trusted myself in big wave assessment. But I knew where he was headed. I knew he was looking for his own Bluebird, and I knew that what I told him, had set his wheels turning, just as Ronnie’s suggestion earlier had my own.
Years later, as I was shaping late one night in Santa Barbara, my phone rang. I think it was Kristjan Higdon, who told me first. “David, Mark is dead, he drowned at Mavericks today.” If you want, you can download and read the story of that here. It is called The Road to Half Moon Bay.
Today, in a culture which elevates weakness, amorality, situational ethics, and places things like Political career, over the more pure and vital aspects of real courage and leadership, some may want to seek out and prepare for those Bluebird moments. In this life, no one gets out alive. You must leave this world at some point. It is best to do it with a firm grasp of who and what you are, bravely, and with hope, having compassion and care for your fellows.
No great leader ever wants to be such. They only are doing so, because circumstances and compassion demand it.
Here is a story about a person some consider to be the last great American President, John F Kennedy. Some today may not know that he was both a waterman and a leader. JFK is a sharply pointed example of why Bluebirds matter. The author sugar coats none of the account, and in fact, even grinds an axe a bit. (Never a bad thing when examining History)