Sandbar on steroids

Healey, Long and Twiggy come face to face with the set of the day at first light. Jason Murray/Aquatech

Mid-May is still early in the season for perfect Puerto Escondido. Once the rains arrive, usually in late May and early June, the offshore winds quickly follow suit, resulting in the perfect barrels Puerto is so famous for. The sand bars are sculpted into symmetrical submarine triangles that shape even the biggest of south swells. These underwater architects do the heavy lifting so surfers from all over the world can come here and get the barrel of a lifetime.

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It wasn't just massive barrels at the Mexican Pipeline ... actually, yes it was. Check the evidence. onClick="window.open('http://espn.go.com/action/surfing/gallery?id=5225398','Popup','width=990,height=720,scrollbars=no,noresize'); return false;">Gallery »

When the swell finally peaked at the Quiksilver Ceremonial Punta De Lobos on May 19, it was 18-to-20 feet. By all accounts, it was the biggest swell of the early winter to reach the western shores of South America. Many of the competitors were faced with a difficult decision: stay in Chile and chase the swell up into the desert or get on a plane and race to Puerto for its arrival in Mainland Mexico. Either way, you were looking at some serious travel time and the uncertainty of questionable winds.

At 6:00am on Thursday, May 20, following the contest, Mark Healey, Greg Long, and Grant "Twiggy" Baker all hopped into a very small jeep and headed for Santiago. With the iPhone leading the way, they made it to the airport and headed for Playa Zicatela, Puerto's infamous beach break. It took over 30 hours of travel before touching down under the hot Mexican sun. Upon arrival, the swell was already on the rise as 10-to-12-foot sets rolled down La Puente to the south end of the beach. It was arid and dry, not a good sign -- no rain meant very little likelihood for the offshore winds you so desperately need to hold up a 20-foot beachbreak.

The crew was up in the dark the next day, paddling out from the safety of the harbor without even giving it a look. Not recommended; 35-to-40-foot faces thundered through the early morning darkness, drowning out even the early morning roosters. As grey light poured over the sand, three specs were visible paddling across the bay towards the main peaks. Even on their nine-foot guns, they looked miniscule compared to the roaring sea around them. Within minutes of getting to the lineup, a 20-foot set stood up on the horizon as to say, "What are you guys thinking paddling around out here?"

As seems to be a common theme, it was Mark Healey sitting furthest inside who took the brunt of the abuse. While Long and Twiggy barely scraped over the set, Healey took it on the head, lost his board and had no choice but to swim for the horizon. He ended up hitching a ride back to the harbor with a passing fishing boat for 100 pesos. That's a true story and probably the best eight dollars he's ever spent. There is no way you were getting back through the shorebreak, even if your name is Healey and you swim with Great Whites.

Twiggy was the first to catch a wave. After letting the first couple go, he committed to a 25-foot peak that allowed entrance, but nothing else. No barrel. No bottom turn. Just a huge drop with a massive lip exploding inches behind the tail of his board that sent him into orbit. At least he made it to the bottom of the wave in one piece. After taking the next two waves on the head and getting pushed into shore, he spent about 10 minutes doubled over coughing up salt water on the sand -- only a slightly better way to start the day than getting caught inside.

The three musketeers were soon joined by Will Dillon, Derek Dunfee, Anthony Tashnick, Don Curry, Maya Gabeira and a couple of other brave waterman. Coco Nogales, Tim West and Lael Curran were on the skis and grabbing the rope, a much more conservative and safer approach given the conditions. Healey and Twiggy soon made their way back to the lineup where they would continue to catch waves. Twiggy got one more but Healey succeeded in getting the waves of the day, first a giant left complete with barrel followed by an even bigger right.

Ultimately, this wasn't perfect Puerto -- it was, big, ugly If you were really lucky and your timing was spot on, you could find a corner for the wave of your life. If not, it was a lot of paddling without a lot of payoff. The consolation is that these guys all gave it a go in conditions that were inhospitable at best. The one consistent theme of these big-wave tales is the paddle movement is here to stay and these guys are leading by example and doing all they can to make sure of that.