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New challenge for Zicatela Beach

The surf there has waves that are large and, at times, deadly. Today, women and girls kick off the X Games by taking it on for the first time.

July 04, 2007|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

PUERTO ESCONDIDO, MEXICO — Surfers refer to Zicatela Beach as the "Mexican Pipeline" for good reason.

Like its Hawaiian counterpart, it delivers waves that are large, cavernous, thunderous, dangerous and, at times, deadly.

And as with the Banzai Pipeline, the lineup at Zicatela Beach is dominated by hearty and courageous young men.

That changes today as women and girls kick off the X Games by streaking steeply down the faces of overhead waves, tucking into hissing tubes and hoping to be spit out while still on their boards.

Cameras will roll and live Internet footage, as well as taped ESPN TV footage, will prove that these women, and girls, are likewise hearty and courageous.

But on Tuesday morning, as they watched locals getting pounded during an exhibition -- the first ride of the day resulted in a surfer with a rib injury being carried off on a stretcher -- some wore a look that read, "What have I gotten myself into?"

"It seems kind of scary from the beach," said Carissa Moore, 14, an amateur sensation from Oahu, who will surf against a world team for the U.S. "And I am kind of nervous but ... I don't know."

Asked how large she would like the waves to be this morning, Peru's Sofia Mulanovich, a former world champion, joked, "About four feet would be nice."

Wave faces are expected to peak at 10-plus feet. And what makes Zicatela so intimidating, aside from the sheer volume of water throwing out over the sandbar, is that it has no paddling channel -- so surfers must plow through the surf to reach the lineup.

What's more, the sandbar is constantly shifting so the break is difficult to read. Surfers who wipe out are sometimes driven forcefully into the sand while their boards are snapped like kindling.

Miguel Ramirez, 38, who owns a repair shop in town, said he has mended 40,000 boards in 25 years, and has accepted as many as 12 on a single day.

"People too," said Godofredo Vasquez, 32, a Zicatela Beach lifeguard since he was 13. "I've seen people paralyzed, get broken noses, eye injuries, shoulders dislocated. These waves are very strong."

Vasquez said that about 10 years ago, 80 people drowned on this long stretch of beach, most of them non-surfing tourists who were swept to sea in a relentless rip current.

That was before they built a jetty nearby, when the rip current deposited corpses on a beach just north of here. "Now the rip goes out there and we just don't find a lot of them," Vasquez said.

The athletes who will participate in the inaugural X Games women's surfing competition are experienced and know their limits. And many have already paddled out to get familiar with the insides of the snarling barrels.

Then again, there is the considerable pressure of performing on national TV, even on a tape-delayed basis.

Said Paige Hareb, a New Zealander competing on the world team: "When I first heard I was coming here I was pretty scared because I heard it was, like, big and gnarly all the time; so it was good to get my first surf out of the way. I had a few good [barrel] runs. I didn't come out of them but it got my confidence up just the same."


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