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Chapter 5. Waves of Change

Dina closed the hatch to the training compartment as Sage collapsed into a chair with tears in her eyes.

“Well, that went well,” Dina said. “So much for focusing on the waves.”

Sage tried to smile. “I know. Shit, I can’t help it. He knows how to push my buttons, and he’s such an asshole in the water. He’s been doing it for years.”

Sage wiped her face and started pacing around the room. In addition to housing all their water gear, the training compartment contained the simulation chamber, which was used to teach methods for operating the Duke, Da Bull, the submarine, and other technical equipment. Sage had spent considerable time on the sim during their seven-month journey, both bored and curious about operating the different vehicles in between her workouts. Despite the long journey in space, she had avoided looking at Milo’s quiver of surfboards and tech gear designed especially for Thalassa.

“I know,” Dina said. “He just wants to win, like you, and he understands your weaknesses. He knows you’re a better surfer and your two-a-day workouts are making him nervous, hence the attacks. He hasn’t seriously hit the gym since we left.”

“That’s because he relies on his tech. He thinks he barely even needs to swim!”

Dina grabbed Sage’s arm and looked in her eyes. “Yes, and we know better. You have to let all that go and focus. I know you have a competitive history together, but his recklessness will eventually catch up with him. The worst thing you can do is try to compete at his level. That’s not our way.”

Sage dropped her face into her hands. “You’re right. But…it’s just…whenever I think of Nazaré, it’s like I can feel the wipeout all over again, and it throws me off. I’ve lost my confidence in the water, and if I can’t set a new record, then I have no future and my life is shit!”

Walking over to the wall, Dina pulled a surfboard off the rack and placed it on the floor. “Have you checked these out?” she asked. Sage knew Dina was trying to distract her, but she wasn’t sure if she wanted it to work or not. “I know they’re Milo’s, but they’re super cool. He custom-built an awesome quiver of boards.” Sage got up to look at them as Dina walked past the rack of two dozen boards attached to the wall. “Most of these have extra built-in weight. We thought they’d be too light on the low-g planet, and the heaviness provides stability. You don’t want to go flying off into space, do you?”

Sage shrugged. “I guess not.”

“Oh, come on, cheer up. Remember this one?” She pulled out Sage’s personal 9’6” gun charger and placed it on the floor. It was a heavy Hawaiian-style wooden board her father had custom-made for her. It was built from koa with inlaid sandalwood made from trees on the Big Island with a balsa wood core. It was strong and weighed 50 pounds, which made it steady at high speeds on big waves. Sage named it Kekoa, or “brave one,” and used it throughout her teens and to win her first big-wave surfing contest on Maui.

Sage knelt next to the board and ran her hand over the familiar surface. As she touched the deck, memories of her father unveiling the board on her 13th birthday flooded her brain. The grittiness from the sharkskin sanding and smell of the kukui nut oil finish reminded her of how it was carefully crafted. Her father used traditional Hawaiian methods with attention to the proper offerings, chants, and use of traditional tools. It hurt her to look at the board. As she stood up to walk away, her face went red with anger as she noticed holes in the tail of her board. “What did you do to my board?”

“Given the big potential wave here, I thought you needed an addition,” Dina replied. “So I had a pulse motor installed in the tail. It’s one of those new super small motors, but it will get you moving up to 40 miles per hour.”

“Damn Dina,” Sage said. “You should have checked with me before you did that! It’s probably good to have, but shit, I love this board, although I haven’t ridden it in years. And it doesn’t really need a motor. It works just fine paddling. Ha, I could barely carry it at first. But once you get it going, it’s like a steamroller.”

“Well, just paddle and only use the motor when you have to.” Dina pulled Milo’s 10-foot motoboard, red with yellow flames, off the rack and placed it on the floor. “Look at this one. With the rocker in the nose and tail, it’s tapered perfectly for big waves. Plus, the pulse motors are superlight and solar powered, with tiny panels built into the tail of the board, just like yours. And it has both ring and board button controls. I bet it cost a fortune.”

Sage shook her head in amazement, remembering her early days riding waterlogged boards full of holes with loose fins.

Dina pointed to the wall lined with gear. “Have you looked inside these backpacks?” She pulled a bag down. “They’re full of amazing stuff, like a rechargeable emergency breather, good for 15 minutes underwater. You’re such a little fish, it will probably last you twice that long.”

Hearing the fond nickname Dina had used for many years, Sage reached out and examined the breather, a shiny marvel of new technology. It used tiny solar-powered, rechargeable vials of liquid oxygen to supplement the dissolved oxygen it extracted from seawater.

Dina continued going through the pack’s inventory. “There’s also a locator beacon tied to the lander’s navigational system, a first aid kit, synthetic hippo sweat sunblock, laser light for signaling, and a small supply of water and high-energy snacks. Milo also had several custom full-length Lycra skins made for each of us. They have carbon-nanotube reinforcement and detachable booties. They are light, warm, shield out UV, and are virtually indestructible. We also have these lightweight emergency flotation vests.” She pointed to two small cords hanging below the shoulders. “Pull the right one, and the vest fills with air and shoots you to the surface. The left one deflates instantly, and you can go back and forth up to half a dozen times if needed. Great for those two-wave hold-downs, huh?”

“Yeah, sure,” Sage replied with downcast eyes.

Sage wished she could match Dina’s enthusiasm. There was a time when hippo sweat and space-age life vests would have thrilled her. If only she could be half the kid Dina met so many years ago, back when her energy level was boundless and her eyes glistened with adventure. Her dad was preparing for the Proteus mission, so Dina and Sage began spending a lot of time together, much to her tutu’s disappointment. Sage was so excited she bounced around telling everyone that she had a professional trainer and was going to be a real surfer.

Dina and Sage were quite the pair: the tall, lanky California blonde and the small, stout, dark Hawaiian. Dina was a world-class professional surfer who grew up in southern California; both of her parents were professional athletes. She started surfing at a young age, quickly rising through the ranks into big-wave surfing. As she started competing and riding big waves, she found—the hard way—what it took to survive a bad wipeout.

As their lessons began, Dina taught Sage to be ultra-tough, both mentally and physically, to surf big waves. The sport required the ability to hold your breath for two to three minutes and demanded a body in peak physical performance. Through free diving, Dina taught Sage to hold her breath, stretch her lungs, and lower her heart rate while relaxing and remaining still. A big-wave wipeout was a high-intensity hold-down with little chance to grab a good breath or keep calm. To prepare, Dina made Sage run underwater while holding large rocks, as the first big-wave surfers had done. Sage found it extremely challenging at first, but eventually, after months of training every day, she mastered the art of enduring the stress of being held underwater during a wipeout.

At the same time, Dina taught her that dropping down the face of mountainous waves was also an emotional challenge, and she needed the ability to face intense fear, but not let it rule her instincts. Fear was natural, Dina told her—you can’t fight it—but if it creates hesitation, even for an instant, it can kill a surfer and others around her. She had learned to respect fear because it was a natural instinct, but Sage needed clear thinking to truly assess the danger of a situation and how to deal with it. Too much fear could cloud her judgment.

Dina reached out to brush Sage’s hair away from her face. “Don’t you remember the day you won your first big-wave contest? You were flawless. Focus on that moment.”

Sage smiled. “Of course, I remember it. That day changed my life.”

It was her 18th birthday, and with Dina’s blessing she had signed up for her first big-wave surf contest at Peʻahi on Maui, a place known as Jaws, the ultimate big-wave spot in Hawaii. During the last minutes of her heat, a monster set came in, easily 70 feet, and her competitors were caught inside and washed out. But Sage had seen it coming and was paddling hard on Kekoa. On the largest wave of the set, she turned around and paddled in despite the paralyzing fear in her heart. As the giant swell crested over, she made an unforgettable vertical drop that was captured by every camera, every surf magazine, seen by the entire world on the holoscreen. The unforgettable moment was a portrait of a young woman dropping in on an ocean behemoth, her face steeled in focus, determination, and courage against insurmountable odds. Riding her traditional Hawaiian board, she made the drop with style, carved gracefully out onto the shoulder, and rode the bowl inside. When she kicked out, she had not only won the contest but through the power and realism of the holoscreen, she had also won the hearts of the world and was an instant public figure. Sponsors rushed to endorse her. In the next few weeks, Sage was on the cover of a dozen magazines, the subject of innumerable articles, and her wave had gone viral on the holoscreen.

“What do you remember most about that day?” Dina asked, mirroring the excitement that Sage couldn’t hide from her face.

“Sitting in the winner’s circle was awesome. I was surrounded by hundreds of yelling, hooting fans, my neck was piled high with leis, and dozens of cameras from all over the world were pushed in my face. It reminded me of when I won the Menehune contest. But this time it was a veritable sea of love and devotion. The feeling was amazing.” Despite Dina’s obvious pride in Sage’s accomplishment, it felt hollow because her father wasn’t there to share it. But the adoration from her world of supporters helped mask the void. I feel the love.

Dina replied with a frown. “I meant about the surfing.”

“Oh,” Sage said. “That was a gnarly day, and that wave scared the shit out of me. I accepted my fear as natural, just like you taught me, and didn’t hesitate. Focus and commit or die!”

Dina laughed. “That’s exactly right. That’s how you won. Don’t forget that.”

“How can I?” Sage replied as she picked up Milo’s red board and ran her hands over the yellow flames. “That was the first of my many titles.”

Dina obviously wasn’t impressed by her vanity, but seem to warm with the memories. After Jaws, they traveled the big-wave competition circuit to Chile, Australia, Tahiti, Mexico, France, Portugal, Oregon, and finally to Mavericks in California where Sage set a new big-wave world record by beating Dina’s previous record. As her titles and trophies piled up, so did her focus and determination, but also her recklessness as Milo appeared and she began to battle for an even bigger wave.

Only in retrospect did Sage realize she had used the sadness around her father to fuel her competitiveness. But her titles weren’t enough, and she became a wild woman in the water. Gone was the young girl with so much aloha. Now, it was all about riding the biggest wave. No longer content with her stunning accomplishments, she was addicted to the constant adrenaline of big waves and started to do crazy things. Dropping in on a huge wave was like nothing else on Earth, and it invoked an almost primal response in her body. Hooked on the thrill, she couldn’t hold back.

To win against Milo and his gang, she began taking off from suicidal positions, too deep in the wave’s peak to make it, but she usually pulled it off with her innate talent. And on those occasions when she didn’t make it, she became good at surviving, breathing underwater with an emergency air supply or blasting to the surface with an inflatable vest. Dina objected, trying to keep her focused on her mental and physical training, but Sage had learned from Milo that she had to fight to win; she had to be an asshole in the water. So she started cutting other surfers off, too, and tricking them into going the wrong way—things she had never done before. It didn’t feel right, and she could almost see her tutu looking down in shame at her lack of pono, but it felt better than losing.

After Milo beat her record at Cortes Bank, she surfed with wild abandon trying to get back on top. But with her new recklessness came beatings; she was repeatedly slamming into the reef, getting pounded by massive walls of water, and running into other surfers. As her actions grew to frenzied proportions, her body started to suffer. First, a gash across her face from hitting the reef, then a broken leg, and at Mavericks she threw her back out going over the falls and spent a month in rehab.

Dina warned her about the risks she was taking, but she was too driven to win and ignored her counsel. When her popularity grew, she became more dependent on the adoration of her fans; their love tamed her mounting anger and filled the void in her heart. But it was an endless race against the emptiness consuming her as the gulf with her ‘ohana widened. On the rare occasion she went home, her family was stunned at the change in her behavior. No longer the smiling girl with the radiant aloha spirit, she was sullen, combative, and bragged about her victories and fan base. The Sage they knew was gone, and her tutu became increasingly despondent.

Nazaré was the last straw. As she stood up on the monstrous 130-foot wave, she knew she had beaten Milo. The distraction caused her to hesitate at the top of the wave. Without a final push to drop in, she was stuck in the lip by searing winds and was pitched down the face of the wave. She was falling so fast when she hit the water it felt like concrete, then the white water rolled over her and tumbled her around until she hit the hard sandy seafloor. With her arms broken, she couldn’t reach her vest or emergency air, and without her tech she was dragged helplessly along the bottom into the raging shore break until she blacked out. When she came to, although her physical pain was excruciating, her emotional pain was worse.

She woke up on the beach with Dina giving her CPR. On the torturous ride to the hospital, Sage tried to make sense of what had happened. In her agony, it slowly became clear. “I’ve lost my pono with the ocean,” she cried. She was being too aggressive and wasn’t focusing on the wave and the flow of water as she was taught.

Few surfers had ever witnessed such a horrific wipeout, and it was on the news for weeks, playing over and over on the holoscreen. Despite an outpouring of sympathy and support, she knew her career was over. I’ve destroyed my life.

Despite the pain and injuries to her body, she rushed back into competition, hoping she could get back on top. But she had lost her passion and grit, and Dina was furious at how quickly she returned to the competitive circuit. After Nazaré, Sage began to hesitate at critical moments, and bad wipeouts became more common. And for the first time, she began to doubt herself. She had lost her edge; she dropped out of the rankings and was unable to compete.

“I’ve got to get it back,” Sage said. “I’m done living in the void.”

Dina frowned. “Big-wave surfing is an unpredictable sport. You can’t have the ultimate highs without the ultimate lows. That just the way of it.”

Sage nodded weakly. “Yeah, but I wasn’t prepared to live a life outside of professional surfing. I mean, one minute I’m famous and flying all over the world to challenge life-threatening waves, then it all comes to a grinding halt, and I’m sitting in a classroom, staring blankly at a blackboard.” After her career collapsed, she knew she needed a job to make ends meet, so she went to college in California and majored in the only subject that made sense of her life: biology. From there, she got an internship with Cutten and then a job as a microbiologist in the Natural Products division. Without her fast-paced life, her fans, and the love of her ‘ohana, her world turned dark, and she fell into a deep depression. She was a broken woman when Milo contacted her about the mission.

Dina interrupted her thoughts with her soft voice. “Looking back, I realize it came too easily, too quickly for you. One day you were a young innocent Hilo girl, the next a global celebrity. Everyone loved your natural talent, your ocean wisdom, your laidback and gritty style, and especially your Hawaiian beauty and outgoing, cheerful nature. That day at Jaws everyone saw what I saw the first time I met you: an unforgettable young girl full of aloha spirit. Don’t you see? You perfectly fit the image the public needed. They’ve been nursing a nostalgia for the old ways for decades, and you came along at exactly the right moment. Your spectacular wins made you forget about the mistakes and poundings. You thought you were invincible. Well, nobody is, because the ocean is unbeatable. And you’ve learned that the hard way. Something happened to you, Sage. You’re not the same person now.”

Sage looked up as the memories of her life flooded her brain. “You’re right. I don’t know that girl anymore.”

Dina smiled and hugged her. “She’s still there, deep inside. You just have to find yourself.”

Sage stepped back and held her friend’s hands. “I’m sorry to disappoint you. You’ve been such a great mentor, and I hate letting you down. You’re my auntie Dina. But I can’t get that wipeout at Nazaré out of my head. The ocean’s trying to teach me a lesson, but I don’t understand what it is. My tutu said that Kanaloa is unhappy with me because I’m not following my path.”

Squeezing her hands, Dina replied, “You haven’t let me down. Don’t ever think that. With respect to the gods and your tutu, you’re going to have to figure that one out for yourself.”

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