(courtesy Greg Ambrose, Star Bulletin http://archives.starbulletin.com/96/08/ ... tory1.html )
The swell was kicking up 12- to 15-foot waves by the time it reached Newport Beach, Calif.
By Alexander Gallardo, Los Angeles Times
Chasing the Swell of a lifetime across the Pacific Big Island bodyboarder Mike Stewart lived a wave rider's fantasy when he caught huge waves in Tahiti
and rode them to Alaska
By Greg Ambrose
MIKE Stewart has seen and done some amazing things while earning numerous national and world bodyboarding titles.
The Big Island bodyboarder has an uncanny ability to quickly absorb the nuances of each new surf spot and grab the biggest waves and best rides.
But even after decades of world travel, Stewart was only thinking locally during each surf session as he deciphered the rhythms of the wind, swell, tides and bottom configuration to catch waves. Until he rode the storm.
Last month a beast of a storm southeast of the Society Islands created a huge swell, and Stewart rode the bands of ocean energy from their birth off Tahiti all the way to where the waves expired thousands of miles away on Alaska's frigid shoreline.
The experience changed his view of the world.
"It's one thing to be at one spot and experience all the ocean's power and energy, but to follow that from beginning to end is incredible," Stewart says.
"It gives you a global perspective to be in the same energy all across the Pacific."
Stewart was preparing to return home July 14 from a video session in Tahiti with Hawaii cinematographer Derek Hoffman when he got the call. Surf forecaster Sean Collins was wild with excitement over a fierce storm off Antarctica and begged Stewart to wait in Tahiti for waves.
Collins then planted a seed in Stewart's mind that grew into a history-making mission of chasing the storm's swell as far as it could go across the Pacific.
When the swell arrived in the Society Islands on July 20, it unleashed the ocean's power, flooding roads, hotels and houses. But all the surfers saw were epic waves.
"It was amazing to sit out in Alaska
and watch waves come in, and for the first time
in my surfing experience I knew where they had
come from. They were familiar in a way."
Many of the surf spots in Tahiti were overpowered by the huge swell, but Stewart found a spot with 10- to 12-foot barrels and no crowd. After Hoffman filled his camera with endless footage of Stewart stuffing himself into tube after tube, they hopped on a boat and raced to another spot to devour more tubes.
Sated, the two raced back to their beach bungalow, packed and headed to Papeete for the weekly Hawaiian Air flight back home.
They outraced the swell, which finally started showing up in Hawaii July 22. What started out as a winter swell became a summer swell once it crossed the equator, and Stewart immediately had visions of the fickle but magnificent waves at Maalaea.
He caught a plane to Maui and stroked wildly into perfect, peeling 6- to 8-foot waves at Maalaea. The waves were long and fast, with plenty of speed for acrobatic maneuvers and a guaranteed tube on every wave.
The waves were so delicious that Stewart forced himself to surf two sessions totaling seven hours, pausing only to stave off starvation with Power Bars. They became his prime food source on his odyssey.
He was on a roll, and when Collins called to say the swell was moving toward California much faster than he had anticipated, Stewart jumped on a redeye flight to California that night.
Stewart was fully involved in the dream of every surfer, but was sobered by the knowledge that chasing the dream can have tragic consequences. Mark Foo tried to make that dream come true in 1994 by surfing giant waves at Waimea Bay and racing the swell to Mavericks, just south of San Francisco, where waves from the same swell killed him.
The next day Stewart headed straight for the Newport Wedge and watched from the beach as 10- to 12-foot monsters refracted off the jetty to form steep, pitching tubes that exploded into the shore. It was irresistible.
"It was about as gnarly as I have seen California," said Stewart, who spent hours taking late drops and plugging into gaping barrels. The waves at the Wedge usually only break beside the second or third power poles on the jetty, but these waves were constantly breaking out beside the eighth pole. Stewart had seen that only once before, in the '80s, and then only one set broke that far out.
Stewart quickly contacted fellow Big Island surfer Mike Greenwell, who keeps a pleasure boat in Southern California, and convinced him to go on an adventure. Greenwell abandoned his Oregon vacation and with the help of bodyboarder J.P. Patterson they made the boat shipshape and headed north at 3 a.m.
Daylight found them off one of the Channel Islands near Santa Barbara at a secret spot, a deep-water place where swells boom in over a shallow shelf to create a short, hollow wave. Though delirious from time-zone travel and lack of sleep, Stewart surfed for hours, and finally passed out aboard the boat.
They checked a few other spots Friday, but Stewart was just too fried to give them a go.
Back on shore, Collins continued to tantalize and prod Stewart to keep him on the quest. Saturday they jumped on a flight to Anchorage and another to the tiny town of Yakutat 600 miles to the southeast, where Hawaii big-wave surfer Brock Little had told them about a good surf spot.
With hours of northern sunlight left, they asked the locals where the waves would be best, then on a whim hired an air taxi. When Stewart spotted good waves in a glacier-filled bay, he told the pilot to set down, then freaked when the pilot dodged giant redwood logs on the beach as he landed.
It was 4:30 p.m., the pilot had just dumped Stewart, Patterson and replacement photographer Brad Anderson on a beach covered with bear tracks in the middle of nowhere, and as he stood in slippers, T-shirt and shorts, Stewart thought "This is crazy, what the heck am I doing here?"
And then he spotted the surf, fun little shore-break waves in the glacier-melt river mouth. They hustled to don their full-length wet suits and paddled into waves the color of cement from glacier sediment. Between waves, Stewart gazed in wonder at the outrageous backdrop of the brooding glacier, 14,000-foot mountains capped with snow above a timberline of huge trees.
Four hours later the pilot retrieved the frigid surfers, and back in town Stewart passed out from exhaustion.
The next morning Stewart's crew quickly walked the length of the town, whose phone book was a single sheet of paper, and dodged biting flies the size of bumblebees and gnats the size of flies.
They surfed fun waves off the nearby point as the swell waned, and were amazed when joined by a pair of snowboarders who had flown in from Juneau to ride the waves. The Alaskans in turn were stunned to hear of Stewart's long journey, which was nearly over.
On the plane ride back to Southern California to prepare for the U.S. Open of Surfing, the totally surfed out bodyboarder reflected on his unique experience as he watched the continent slide past far below.
"It was amazing to sit out in Alaska and watch waves come in, and for the first time in my surfing experience I knew where they had come from. They were familiar in a way.
"I discovered that every storm has a fingerprint of swell, a rhythm to the sets and the cycle of the swells. It became evident after surfing spot after spot after spot. I didn't really think about that before."
From so much time spent riding the energy from the storm, he realized what an amazing amount of kinetic energy ocean storms create. "Some clever person will find a way to tap it and solve the world's fuel problems," he said.
Nearly two weeks later, reality brought Stewart back to earth. He left Huntington Beach discouraged after losing in small waves in the U.S. Open, knowing that the next day better waves would arrive from a storm off New Zealand, too late to do him any good.