Heard of Tortola? Maybe, maybe not; but most surfers out there have. It’s because Cane Garden Bay became a known entity on a very short list-the one of the hallmarks of Caribbean wave perfection. Etched next to spots like Soup Bowls, and perhaps Gas Chambers and Chatarra, there aren’t many more that are widely known. Not to say that the Caribbean basin isn’t littered with waves, but it takes a powerful swell and atypical winds to get many spots going.
A combination of many factors must merge for Cane Garden Bay (CGB) to show its face. Some winters, the wave will rarely come to life. A word here on CGB: It’s a shame the place was let out through the surf media in the first place. It’s somewhat of a rare bird, and should you catch it good, respect the locals. Some of them have dedicated their lives to the wave.
Cane Garden Bay
Which brings me to my Day at Cane Garden Bay, and seeing David Carson.
Who? David Carson is a graphic design master, widely known throughout the world for his completely unique approach to his work. Previously a professional surfer and art director of Surfer Magazine, leading the mag to radical new ground in design and layout concepts.
Carson also loves and lives (some of the time, as far as I know) on the point at Cane Garden Bay. If you catch the place breaking at the right time, you may see him in the lineup. Like I did. Watching him surf that day led me to the most damaging wipeout of my life. A fate that should have been unmet, had I only heeded the warnings of a local Rasta.
Gas Chambers, Puerto Rico
I had been to Tortola once before, hopping over on a flight from San Juan during a trip to Puerto Rico. I wanted to get over there for a day or two and just check it out. The waves hadn’t been great in Rincon, so even if Tortola was flat, it would be cool to see it, say I was there. Heck, no surf? Just go to the Bomba Shack and sip a rum punch overlooking Apple Bay, a playful reef break, and watch the sun set, turning the ocean from the clearest bubbly soda aquarium to a golden-silver that is equally brilliant.
That first trip, Cane didn’t break, but my pilot buddy and I surfed Apple Bay. He mangled his foot on a rare rough patch of reef on the Inside of Apple Bay, but lived. Luckily he missed the Urchins. We spent two days surfing Apples, driving around, eating and swimming. All of our dozen or so drive-bys of CGB revealed a perfect 6 inch swell grinding into dry reef. Perfect microwaves, not surfable.
I went back four winters later to celebrate my 25th birthday and try my luck at catching this Gem of a wave. Flying over the North coast of the island, the view below revealed a nice, even swell popping off on various reefs, all pretty much ripped up from the tradewinds. CGB was definitely breaking, but perhaps not big enough, since the swell was very Northeast and not wrapping in just right.
Straight off the plane (and waiting for the next arrival, which had my boardbag–a common thing on the tiny planes that fly into tiny Beef Island Airport), I drove to CGB first. It was peeling off the end of the bend in the point for a rolly, kinda dribbly 4-5 feet and empty. Not epic, but enticing enough to give the place a try. After all, how many times are you going to catch a place like this empty? Not often, my friend.
The gravel parking lot fronted a shack of sorts, with a small yard being tended by a local Rastafarian. “You goo’on surf point, eh? Surf dat end section dere, brueddah. Don’ surf up deh point, too shallow and fire coral eat ya’live,” he offered.
Heeding his advice, I plucked my red 6’6″ from the top of the rental and hopped in from the cement dock below the point. A short paddle later, I was lined up right where a medium-sized set broke while I was hopping in. With about 45 minutes of light left, the ocean was getting that tinted gold-silver look. As I peered up the point in the fading light and waited for a set to swing down, I saw David Carson out on a wide fish shape of some kind. He sat right where the Rasta warned not to, and caught these chest high zippers reeling 10 yards from the rocks and coral along the point, over an evidently nasty reef.
Acting on the Rasta’s advice, I stayed along the end section and picked up a half dozen rolly point waves that went for just 50-75 yards before petering out in deep water. They were fun, but nothing compared to the speed runs Carson was committing up the point. With the sun draining into the sea to the West, I let the current pull me up the point (a blessing and a curse depending on your level of comfort in surfing over urchin-infested fire coral), right to where Carson was lined up. The bigger set waves would hit out here and barrel down the point. If one and their board were fast enough, one could score a sweet barrels and peer right out at the setting sun while flying toward it.
I was lured. Lured by Carson and his knowledge of wave picking at CGB, and by those perfect little barrels. By the prospect of grabbing one, just one, and surfing it through the soft end section, then styling back up to the cement dock and heading to the guest house stoked.
Catching one was easy, as I flew down the line on a speed run that got the pulse up, but no barrel. I kicked out the back and slowly paddled back, when another wave came grinding down, setting up to let me in to one of those barrels. I spun and went, dropping in fast to a running barrel that kept me slotted for 10-15 yards of a sunset view before walling up and going dry on the reef right in front of me. Dry fire coral heads stuck 2-3 inches out of the water, now unavoidably in front of me. I clung to the wall to stop all forward momentum while trying to contort through the wave’s face. This was bad. At the very least I had time to think and decide that diving head first in any way could end catastrophically. My board endured dry reef contact just before I was driven into and dragged over a bed of fire coral and urchins. The wave left me flailing like this, having to either climb back on my board and hop-skip back out to deeper water and paddle in, several places on my body oozing blood, or crawl over the rest of the coral-urchin minefield to the shore. I crawled.
I made it in on feet that were now covered in black spots from the urchin spines that had snapped off. Leaving a trail of blood on the rocks I painfully stomped over, I made it to the car and drive back to the room. A look in the mirror revealed that I had torn lots skin from my arms, legs and back. I cleaned my entire body with peroxide and lime juice, then performed the excruciating task of pulling out as many urchin spines as I could while sipping cap-fuls Pusser’s Rum, the local spirit. The spines were embedded everywhere, and I lost count after 100 something.
The rest of the trip I surfed in pain, as the salt water would make my entire skin bark from the sting. Was it worth it to get that sunset barrel? Now I say yes. Should I have not strayed from that end takeoff spot? Probably, to save my hide. Perhaps watching Design Master Carson demonstrate his homebreak knowledge was a better bet, but I never talked to the guy, we were never close in the lineup. So, in order to get a better story from it, I decided to filet and pin-cushion myself. But I’ll have that barrel view etched in my mind forever.