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The Paradox of Schrödinger’s Peak

Tony Butt  /  April 3, 2018  /  9 Min Read  /  Surfing

La Caldera: big, windy and empty. Photo: Miguel Arribazalaga, 2013

It was about an hour before dark. The spot had been a lot easier to find than I thought—five minutes from the main road and within easy viewing distance from a cliff. A few weeks earlier a friend had told me he had seen “something breaking” along this stretch of coast. This must be it, I thought. The waves seemed unremarkable: perhaps three or four feet and flopping down onto a reef before backing off into deep water. I had no idea whether this wave had been ridden before, or, indeed, if it was even surfable.

I decided to give it a go. I walked down to a small beach at the bottom of a winding cliff path, from where I figured it would take about ten minutes to paddle to the break. I took two boards and left one on the beach. If I snapped one, I thought, I could quickly paddle back and swap it for the other one.

In the end, it took me a good ten minutes to get through the shorebreak and another twenty to paddle out to the lineup. Once I got there, I looked back. The beach from which I had paddled now seemed like a tiny strip of yellow sand in the far distance, surrounded by white foam and grey rocks. And what had looked like three-to-four-foot waves “flopping down onto a reef” were more like six to eight feet and crashing onto a boil-infested slab. I also remember being annoyed with myself for being nervous and not enjoying the beautiful orange sunset as it disappeared behind a mountain.

I caught one wave and headed back. When I got to the beach I climbed up to the car and got changed in the pitch dark. I forgot my other board, so I had to fumble my way down the cliff path again to get it. I smiled at a fisherman on the way back up, but he just glowered at me. Maybe he thought of me as competition, didn’t like me using his ocean, or maybe he just didn’t like foreigners.

I didn’t care. I rushed into town, found a surf shop and asked them what the name of that wave was, and whether anybody had ridden it. They didn’t know what I was talking about. That seemed pretty weird to me, so I bought a block of wax and left. For the rest of the evening I strolled around town on my own, wondering whether what I had just done had the slightest significance.

Looking for the best channel to paddle out through. Photo: Juan Fernandez, 2004

Looking for the best channel to paddle out through. Photo: Juan Fernandez, 2004

After that first session, I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days afterwards. If it really was a good surf spot—and I was convinced that it probably was—why weren’t people already surfing it? After all, it was in plain view from the cliff, near a fairly large town on a stretch of coastline that had a thriving surf culture. I felt like a child who had discovered a new place to play, puzzled as to why no other children were playing there.

In fact, what really happened was a bit fluky. It turned out that the wave was already well-known by the local surfing population. They had known it existed for at least 15 years before I turned up, but nobody was interested in paddling out there and trying it. To most people, Schrödinger’s Peak was an unpredictable, dangerous and inaccessible place that wasn’t worth the effort or risk. But that also meant that nobody really put in the work to check it closely under different combinations of swell, wind and tide. Therefore, the good days went unnoticed, buried under a veil of whitewater, rocks and lack of interest.

About a week later I convinced a friend to paddle out there with me. The swell was a lot more lined-up than the first day, and I felt a lot more confident. We scrambled around the rocks on the other side of the break from that first beach, found a place to jump off and rode a handful of waves each. We were the blind leading the blind, fumbling our way around in uncharted territory. My friend agreed that the place had good potential as a surf spot, but doubted it could be surfed much bigger than those first two sessions. I mean, where would you paddle out? And how would you get back in? What would you do if you lost your board? Perhaps, in the end, Schrödinger’s would just end up on my list of tried and forgotten surf spots, and that first day, so exiting at the time, would just become a distant memory.

That was in 2004. Now, in 2018, Schrödinger’s is anything but forgotten, and the memory of that first day is anything but distant. In fact, looking back and thinking about my “first descent” at Schrödinger’s Peak, I can say that it was one of the key moments in my life as a surfer.

Early session at the inside reef, La Mesita. Photo: Juan Fernandez, 2004

Early session at the inside reef, La Mesita. Photo: Juan Fernandez, 2004

Over the next two or three years I had a lot of sessions out there on my own, mostly on relatively small swells. On bigger days I would just sit and watch for hours, trying to make sense out of what looked like a confused mix of shifting peaks, waves sucking dry onto jagged rocks and nowhere to go if you got caught inside. It took me a long time before I realized there was a second reef—further out and to one side of the one I had been surfing. The outside peak was actually more predictable and less scary than the inside one, even though it broke bigger. On the right swell the outside peak connected with the inside one, giving a much longer ride and the chance to drive through a fast inside section.

I started to venture out on bigger days with a bigger board. I gradually began to see a channel here, an opening there and, step by step, the big days began to look a lot more practical. With the right combination of swell and tide, and long enough calm periods between each set, you could surf it much bigger than I had originally thought. On the bigger days I wouldn’t risk jumping off the rocks; I would paddle for 25 minutes from the same beach as on that first day. Once I got out there I would be very careful to take off on waves I was sure I could make. On big days with low tides you could see huge swirling boils at the bottom of the wave, which gave the place an extra scariness. I called the outside wave La Caldera because of those boils, and the inside wave La Mesita because of its slab-like qualities.

A bigger day at La Caldera. Photo: Fran Sanchez, 2008

A bigger day at La Caldera. Photo: Fran Sanchez, 2008

As the “map” revealed itself, I began to see things I had never imagined at the beginning. From what at first seemed like an indecipherable jumble of whitewater, rocks and swirling currents, a clearly defined layout was starting to emerge, containing fast sections, slow sections, boilers, bubbles, rips, channels and places to avoid at all cost. It was like listening to a complex piece of music or a new language: at first all you hear is a rapid fire of garbled sounds, but then you gradually learn to isolate those sounds and make sense of them. By this stage, I knew I was becoming very fond of Schrödinger’s Peak. I had gone from knowing practically nothing about it, to becoming familiar with every part of its anatomy, all of its day-to-day mood swings and its behaviour in every combination of wind, tide and swell conditions.

For about eight years after that first session, my biggest problem was getting some company in the lineup. I would frantically phone and send messages to other surfers up and down the coast. If they couldn’t make it, I would beg them to ask around just in case anybody else was interested. If nobody came, sometimes I would paddle out on my own, but other times I would just sit on the cliff and mind-surf those waves. Whichever the case, I always learned something new.

A lot of surfers who came to join me were still relatively inexperienced in big waves but they were good surfers, strong swimmers and, in some cases, half my age. So I would lend them boards and leashes, show them where to paddle out, where to take off and how to get in. A lot of people came and went, and a small crew started coming back on a regular basis.

Taking a left at La Mesita while the Caldera is just capping. Photo: Andrés Suarez, 2011

Taking a left at La Mesita while the Caldera is just capping. Photo: Andrés Suarez, 2011

There was no point trying to keep Schrödinger’s Peak a secret. That would have meant me being even lonelier out there. More importantly, I didn’t feel I had the right to deprive other surfers from going there. I’m not a competitive person, and I’ve always felt better sharing my discoveries than keeping them to myself. Then again, it didn’t feel right to overexpose the place either. If it became overcrowded and started to attract disrespectful, aggressive people, I’d feel I was betraying those who had put in a lot of initial effort to maintain a good atmosphere in the lineup.

As if that wasn’t enough, there was another dilemma. It was one that I had discussed many times with my colleagues at Save the Waves. What would happen if Schrödinger’s Peak suddenly became threatened by some sort of coastal intervention? Would there be enough interest among the surfing community to save it? If not, is there no alternative but to give the spot more exposure and, in the process, risk spoiling it by overcrowding?

This problem was brought to light with the famous case of Jardim do Mar on the Island of Madeira. Before Surfer Magazine published an article in 1994, the world was mostly unaware that there was a world-class wave there. Jardim do Mar was just a tiny village isolated at the bottom of a giant cliff on a small island in the North Atlantic. Before 1994, the handful of European and American surfers who had been going to Madeira had been pretty hush-hush about it. So, when the government decided to build a massive sea wall that seriously interfered with the natural coastline and almost destroyed the wave, the surfing community didn’t have the lobbying power to stop it. In Lost Jewel of the Atlantic, Sam George, Surfer Mag’s editor at the time, said:

“Surfers have a voracious appetite to see articles and photos about new places. On the other hand, they don’t necessarily want those places exploited, because they don’t want other surfers—just like them—to go there. There was still that, ‘Ooh man, don’t tell where it is.’ And I’d say that that probably contributed mightily to the frustration that you might experience trying to get people to rally together to protect a place like that.”

So, according to some, if you are worried that a surf spot and coastline you love might be ruined by some future human intervention, let the whole world know about it. That way, if and when the time comes, you’ll have enough lobbying power to stop it. But according to others, you should never publicize or tell too many people about a surf spot, because that might ruin the spot by overcrowding. After all, an excess of people coming to enjoy a spot could also be thought of as a kind of human intervention.

I’ll never know what it is like to have been born and raised near a good surf spot, or to have lived all my life in a place that I love. But maybe having the privilege of being able to nurture a surf spot from birth, see it gradually come to life and watch it mature for more than a decade, can bring a similar feeling of attachment. When I first stumbled upon Schrödinger’s Peak I had no idea that it was even surfable, but now I know that on the right day it can be a world-class big wave spot. It would make me very sad if some sort of human intervention took away the magic that Schrödinger’s Peak still holds for me, all those years after that first innocent day.

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