The author’s wife, Kristy Finstad, was one of the 34 people who died on September 2, 2019, in the Conception boat fire off of Santa Cruz Island. A UCSB grad like his wife, Chua posted this on Facebook on December 19.
Baja had always been a sacred place for me, even before I had met Kristy. I “discovered” Baja during my UCSB college days on a surf trip with a bunch of buddies. We were so naïve and clueless. But we had a blast, and that trip sparked a lifelong love of Mexico, and especially Baja.
I’ve had some of my most memorable, wild, life-changing, and unforgettable experiences in Baja: swimming with orcas (intense), getting hassled (appropriately) by Federales, sailing through remote islands in the Sea of Cortez (divine), driving (stupidly) straight into the teeth of a hurricane, surfing big waves, spearing huge yellowtail, and getting engaged to Kristy while lounging in a tide pool at our favorite spot.
I’m not sure what I wanted in Baja; I just needed to get away. It was partly to retrace some places that we loved and I hadn’t been to in a long time. It was to bring some of Kristy back. It was to get back to the ocean, feel its healing salt solution, and live again by its moods, the tides, and weather. It was to disengage from reality, to check out for a while, run away, ease my pain and stress. And it was to surf.
Surfing is a selfish indulgence. Chasing waves doesn’t help society; no one but the individual benefits from riding a wave. Most of the time, especially in Santa Cruz, where we lived for many years, you have to, selfishly, outfox the next person to get a wave.
But there’s something about catching a wave that radiates energy through your body. And Kristy always liked me better when I’d been surfing. Something about my attitude changed. I was more positive, healthier, and happier. And that usually translated into being a better person. Maybe it does help society?
My first full day in Baja, the waves were small but fun. I paddled out at sunset and got some fun knee-high longboard peelers. As the sun was setting, the moon was rising, and it seemed like the perfect time. I zipped back to the truck and grabbed the vessel with Kristy’s ashes.
There was one other guy out; he must have thought I was odd as I paddled way outside. I released her ashes into the Pacific, the ocean we had spent so much time on together, at one of our favorite spots, as the moon rose and the sun fell. I cried my eyes out, but it felt good to bring part of her here. Never saw that other surfer again.
Along the way, I got to visit a few special friends down in Baja. People whose connections to Kristy ran deep. We had thoughtful, intense talks, spent enjoyable time together, and drank tequila with tears in our eyes. Initially, I was scared, the bringer of a bad reality. It’s an odd situation to be in: I want to visit friends, but it used to be Kristy and me both, and then I show up alone. It makes it “real” for people who haven’t been in the near vicinity of this tragedy. But ultimately, my fears unfounded, each friend helped heal my wounds just a bit.
I’m usually a private person, one who doesn’t bare their soul on social media. But I’ve been amazed by the strength of Christina Quitasol, the sister and daughter of four victims of the fire. She’s been a rock for the victims’ families, incredibly helpful with information and support for all of us. And an inspiration and good listener for me.
So here I am, a recovering wreck, on a hard road, taking one step at time, baring my soul, and thankful for Baja, friends, family, and the ocean. Catch a wave.