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Nelscott Reef: a Firsthand Account of Surfing Oregon’s Gnarliest Wave

Updated: Nov 4, 2023

“When everyone is looking at the ocean on big days, wanting nothing to do with her, that’s when I get the urge to paddle out," Andy Adams said about Nelscott Reef.

Infamous for its unconventional surf, Oregon typically isn’t akin to handholding when it comes to surfing up and down Highway 101 — and to no surprise, its big wave scene is no exception.

Nelscott Reef at its best. Photo: Richard Hallman

The Mechanics of Nelscott Reef

Breaking almost half a mile off of the beach of Lincoln City, Nelscott Reef has been the testing ground for colder water extremists — with the likes of Kai Lenny and Laird Hamilton venturing to the Pacific Northwest to enjoin on the wild expedition of surfing Oregon’s gnarliest wave. The wave comes straight out of the Pacific to break on a small shelf, about twenty-five feet deep, and produce heavy a-frames that break in open water.

On smaller days, when the beach break is somewhat manageable and getting a jet ski out of the river mouth isn’t a death trap, the wave is a perfect crumbler, breaking in blissful open ocean.

When a big swell rolls in from the North, however, Nelscott quickly turns into a beast that only an elite group of big wave connoisseurs have trifled with.

“Distance from shore” Andy said with certainty. “That’s what makes Nelscott so much more challenging than some of the other big waves spots around the world.”

Getting through the river mouth on a jet ski, about a mile south of Nelscott, is perilous enough when the beach break is triple-overhead, but Andy has a completely different and more unlikely battle ahead of him when he decides to surf Nelscott Reef.

A paddle out purist, Andy declines to use a jet ski, and thus resolves to manhandle the beach break on his own terms with a ten foot gun.

Finding a rip current through the beach break is sometimes impossible, so unless he is fortunate, Andy simply tries his hand at paddling straight through.

“There is a huge luck factor involved,” he said. “I’ve made it out on some of the most unlikely days for no reason at all other than persistence.”

Andy continues: “On top of this, you have to come to terms with how exhausting it is to paddle through fifteen-foot beach break. When you finally make it out the back, and the set of the day is waiting to clobber you on the head, you have to make a split-second decision to either test your luck and paddle hard, or start diving for lobsters.”

Meet Paddle Purist Andy Adams

Andy Adams is one of the many interesting personalities that surf Nelscott Reef.

A Lincoln City local, Andy lives out of a van with his dog, Magnum, playing pool at local bars or hunting for mushrooms in the dense coastal forests.

More often than not, however, Andy is at the beach, chatting it up with locals or tourists and waiting for good waves to find their way to the misty coastlines of the Pacific Northwest.

“I’ll never forget that first wave I caught out on the reef," he said, reflecting on his introduction to Nelscott Reef, almost six years ago — and only a few years after he got into surfing to begin with.

Lincoln City local and Nelscott Reef surfer Andy Adams. Photo: Riley Ellis

“My friend, even though it seemed to be some elementary advice, told me that I needed to commit to these waves — seriously commit. I was so tired and frustrated, but I took his advice, and with no confidence I paddled into the next wave. Sure enough, I made that nano-second decision to pop-up.”

“Sitting in the channel, reflecting on that moment — it was like nothing else. It all welled up into an extremely emotional moment. All of the fear and frustration of trying again and again to get a wave out there…it finally paid off, and I’ll never forget that moment.”

Contrary to that moment, however, Andy has found himself in some dire circumstances surfing the Reef.

“On my first bad wipeout,” he said. “I went into a real darkness under the ocean, and I suddenly felt my foot touch rock. At the time, I didn’t know how deep it was, and I had never heard of anyone touching the reef. I was scared. And just as I came up and saw the sunlight peeking through the surface, another wave came, pinning me against the bottom.”

He went on to explain how a moment like that was integral for his development as a big wave surfer, considering at some point he would have to acknowledge his limits.

But despite moments like those, he keeps going back, even now that he’s nearing his fifties. “I surf for that moment when you decide to stand up and commit, and the bigger the wave, the more that feeling is magnified," he said. "I’m addicted."

For Andy, that feeling, along with the general sensation of living on the coast is his salvation.

“I decided to live in the van when COVID happened. I had just gone through a long term breakup, and was land locked in Spokane, Washington. I was angry. Depressed. I needed the ocean.”

The Northwest is notoriously expensive, and this is especially true for coastal towns.

But there is something truly majestic about the Oregon Coast.

It is difficult not to become obsessed with the moody Pacific, tucked up against dense pine forests that slowly rise until becoming the Cascade range.

“Living in a van allows me to live in Oregon — surfing more and working less — and not having to worry about paying two-thousand dollars a month for a moldy cottage down the road," he said.

For Andy, living in the van means waking up to his most beloved place on earth, and spending as much time in the woods and the ocean as he so pleases.

When deciding between a passion or a profit, Andy chose the former. Andy Photo: Gary Patterson

“It was my therapy," he said, reflecting on his desperate moments during the pandemic. “The ocean is everything to me. And being raised in the woods and in the hills — hunting and fishing, sleeping for days on end in a tent — the van transition was a comfortable one.”

As for his future plans with big waves, Andy is certainly not as eager to make the half-mile paddle out through formidable beachbreak as he used to be.

“I want to surf in a way that allows me to surf tomorrow, as Gerry Lopez said. I’m getting old. I don’t do much training. Becoming a legit barrel rider; that is kind of where my heart has been as of late.”

It would be no surprise to see Andy attempting the paddle out to the Reef, however, as soon as a clean big swell comes to the Oregon Coast, Nelscott Reef is one of nature's marvels, and just another aspect of Oregon’s unconventional yet glorious nature that hypnotizes so many people –– and this is especially true for Andy.

So whether or not he is taking twenty foot drops on the Reef, scouring the local wilderness for mushrooms, or simply relaxing on the beach and sharing a conversation with a stranger, Andy will keep on living the dreamy Oregonian life –– without paying an arm and a leg to do so.


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