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All Aboard The Tunnel Express

Get it exactly right and there is a moment when everything around you is water, as though you had just jumped into life's great spin-dry cycle. And for surfers like the one at right and on the next pages, the tube can be a dream come true

Surfing off into the Sunset

Scientists tend to describe waves by category, giving them such labels as spilling, surging and plunging. To an oceanographer, a plunging wave is steep; it falls neatly over itself as it breaks and it forms a rolling tunnel. If called upon, oceanographers will deliver a lengthy dissertation on the physics behind the wave's creation.

Surfers are more pragmatic about plunging waves. Few surfers have ever heard the word—they call the hollow waves "tubes." Nor do they question how they got there; they just surf them, and they call a ride in one "getting tubed." That is in a tube, not on it. The object is to surf completely inside the wave, isolated where there is nothing to hear but the roar of the ocean, nothing to see but a curtain of water crashing in front, knowing there is a wall of water surging behind and a fragile ceiling of water waiting to crumble over your head and pound you into the bottom. The only successful escape from a tube is out one end, and only the best surfers can make it before the wave collapses.

"Getting tubed is probably the ultimate experience in surfing," says Neil Grider, a fireman who lives in San Clemente, walking distance from a surfing beach called Cotton's Point that produces memorable tubes on occasion. "You're just gliding along and the wave starts swelling, and then it breaks over your head and covers you like a blanket. Suddenly you're inside this moving mass of water, and time gets suspended for one intense moment. It's so precarious and it happens so quick that it's just a flash: you're inside it, you get a quick mental image of it, and then it begins collapsing and you either blast out the other end of it or get buried. Most of the time you get buried.

"Part of the ecstasy of getting tubed is knowing you're so close to wiping out. The more you hang in there on the brink of disaster, the more elated you feel about it. Just getting into a tube and coming out again is its own reward. Once you get a taste of being in there and the elated feeling of getting back out, it sticks with you. You will never forget the experience. You keep going for it again and again."

There are two ways a surfer can get inside a tube. He can stall and wait for the wave to catch him, or he can be bold and catch the wave. Corky Carroll, a five-time national surfing champion, describes the bold method: "You come down off the swell as hard and as fast as you can, and you watch when the wave sets itself up in front of you. If you time it right you're hitting the bottom of the wave just as it begins to pitch, and you set the edge of your board just like it was a pair of skis. You take all your momentum, push, and turn forward into the wave just as it breaks over your head. You're right in the pocket then, the position of the most energy, and you want to stay there for as long as you can. Which usually isn't very long because you're at the mercy of this unpredictable wave. Sometimes the tube is only two feet high, and you have to crouch down in an embryo position—if you're really speeding it seems like you can do anything. You're pushing into the wave, at the edge of this crashing wall of water, and then it just shoots you out with an explosion, like you were a cannonball. It's absolutely incredible."

In California tubes are plentiful, if not as intimidating as those found at Oahu's famed Banzai Pipeline. La Jolla's Big Rock is a favorite spot. Another is Salt Creek at Dana Point. Still another tubesville lies off Coronado, near the Mexican border, where Allan Seymour had a memorable ride. "It was after seven one evening," he says, "just before sunset and the sun was really low in the sky. I saw this wave swelling and I knew it was going to be a perfect tube. I got up on the board and sped down the wave and turned into it, and suddenly a giant shadow swept over me and put me in this roaring darkness. There I was in this giant tube, looking up into the face of the wave, and I could see the sun through the sheet of water. Then the wave started crumbling over my head as I watched, so I crouched down and just hoped I'd get out of there before it collapsed on top of me. Just as it crashed I burst out into the sunlight. I've been surfing 20 years, and it was one of the greatest rides of my life."