The nervous thrumming of our hearts was silenced by the crackling of the rusted red pickup truck’s stereo; an indecipherable combination of Metallica and Vivaldi, both fighting to be heard over the static of an empty radio station. Pulling to the side of the dirt road, we parked the truck along the edge of the rugged sea bluff. The mutant static of the radio station clamored on, being put to rest by the hard scratching of wax against surfboards. The scratching of surf-wax was deafened by the thunderous clap of water against jagged rock.
My buddies and I approached the shoreline just as the morning sun began to rise, glowing dim and white like a glorified moon, hidden behind a blanket of heavy coastal fog. There were a dozen of us about to enter the water, soldiers of the surf, outfitted in wetsuits five millimeters thick, neoprene hoodies and boots, and armed with surfboard and leashes. Some of us rocked back and forth on our heels, gritting our teeth in anticipation. Others reached their hands behind their backs, and with well practiced hands, zipped up their wetsuits. All in silent preparation of the paddle ahead.
Wave after wave struck the shoreline, just barely touching our toes, as we waited, watching the water, counting the number of waves, the time in between each one, every crest, every left, every right. We devoured them hungrily. All as the water rose with each impending moment, each crashing wave. The ocean drew us in, pulling at our frames, tantalizing us with its terrible beauty. Yet we waited impatiently, for the silence, when the roar of waves was to die out to no more than a steady echo. Then came the signal we had been waiting for; the lull in the sets.
The water hit us like a wall of ice-coated glass; not even those among us who had been wise enough to wear their hoodies could have anticipated the cold. It was the type of cold that seeped under a man’s wetsuit; the type of cold which grabbed at the inside of his booties and numbed his toes; the kind of cold that, upon first duck-dive, clasped its fingertips around his brain and sent frostbitten shockwaves straight to his synapses. We paddled onward, dismissing the temperature as irrelevant to the greater goal; the outside.
A bump rose on the ocean’s horizon. Silently, it grew closer, stronger. We could feel its hungry pull. Our troop was not as tightly packed now. The faster of us had nearly reached the outside. Those weaker widened their eyes, biting their lips, quivering in fear. Some quickened their paddle, desperate to make it over the crest of the wave, before it broke, tossing them ‘over the falls’, to their demise.
In a well-practiced routine, the stronger among us fastened our fingers in a steel grip on the rails of our boards, frantically tightening their leashes, before pushing under the wave just as the avalanche of white-water was about to consume us. I closed my eyes, holding my breath, and pushed my surfboard as far beneath the surface as my strength would allow, the water holding me under for what seemed like hours.
I felt the rush of the wave tumult overhead, carving its path across the surface of the water above me. The familiar roar of the water gave way to silence just again, the pressure which held me under subsiding enough for me to propel myself to the surface once again. Lungs burning, arms as heavy as bricks, I continued my paddle, exhilarated.
We were soldiers of the surf, riders of the waves, masters of nature, playing God to the elements. This is the type of ocean they don’t show in the movies. There aren’t any crisp blue, rolling waves. There’s no clear, picturesque sky, no admirers on the beach, waiting for us in adoration, throwing themselves onto their long lost ocean warriors. We aren’t counting dolphins as a Beach Boys soundtrack plays loftily in the background. We aren’t laughing.
This isn’t a surfin’ safari, this isn’t a dream.
It’s a wake up call.
It is a cold, hard, truth, set in the stone of the jagged rocks which crowd the inside like a snaggletoothed beast, ready to swallow us whole.
Our fingers and toes may be numb- but our hearts are alive. Beating in sync with the thunder of the waves, the lightening in the angry sky, the water below us, a deep and envious green.
Science says every drop of water, every molecule of it in your entire body, was once a cloud, a stream, a teardrop, an ice cap. Through billions of years, that water travels around the world, and somehow ends up as part of little ol’ you and I. Pretty incredible, right? Well get this: The ocean is ancient. Formed on this earth 2.6 billion years ago in a crash of lightening and chemicals. A surge of molecules-
And now, in this moment, we’re fighting it. We’re riding it.
A force of nature as old as time itself, and we’re taking it on with nothing but fiberglass, neoprene and adrenaline.
Ah, but here’s the catch- the loophole, the fatal flaw- he whom believes he may conquer the ocean, is he whom must be conquered by it.
I’ve learned this lesson the hard way; my arms and legs kissed with scars, wetsuit rash on my neck so bad that strangers can’t decide if I’ve had an impressive string of hickeys or a violent run-in with a noose, my lungs filled with enough saltwater throughout my lifetime to bring down the Titanic.
I’ve reached the outside, rising up to sit atop my board, squinting out into the vast and stormy sea. A few other guys have made it to the outside with me, and we sit, spaced apart. I’m the furthest surfer out in the lineup. In other words, today’s Shark Bait.
My fellow watermen and I float on our boards in silence, some still catching their breath, others taking small kernels from the kelp beds below and tossing them at each other, jokingly. All of us, however, note the seal drifting, immobile through the outskirts of the lineup. At least, we think it’s a seal. It’s hard to tell, given the animal’s head had been torn off. We all know the truth: these are shark-infested waters.
So why do we do it?
We embrace our battle scars and taste the saltwater for the sweet nectar it is. We don’t ride waves for the photos, for the fame, for the parties.
We ride waves for the adrenaline.
We ride waves because in this fucked up world it’s our silver lining. It’s what we have. It’s what makes sense.
Travel around the world and talk to surfers. They’re all the same, all speak the same language, of “yews”, shakas, and a general hunger for waves. We’re a community. Wave riding fills our minds and our hearts, lingers in our sleep and invades our dreams, until we must give into the sea, or face insanity.
Which brings me to my current state of being- sitting here in the lineup, caught in my thoughts. The rise and fall of the rolling waves rocking me like a cradle; toes numb, blood pumping, the shoreline a distant spec. All the guys sitting closer inside, towards the shore have already gotten waves. They holler that I’m sitting too far out, but this morning isn’t a day to settle.
I didn’t skip out on work, get pummeled on a marathon paddle-out, suffer minor hypothermia, and share a morning swim with Jaws just to catch a mediocre wave of the first winter storm surf.
I can wait.
I can feel the wave before I see it. It begins with a lurch in my heart and a pulling in my chest- that’s how I know that something is coming. Instinct.
Like I said, every water molecule of your body has been an ocean, an ice cap, a stream, a river, a storm.
My theory? As lifelong surfers, our bodies are so in-tune with the ocean we can feel the waves coming long before we can ever begin to see them- perhaps we are able to sense the pull of those cohesive water molecules in our bodies being drawn to the water molecules collecting kinetic energy and gathering in the distance.
The wave grows on the horizon, sucking water from beneath it, growing, hungrily, larger, and larger.
Here I am, a spec, a drop of water in an endless sea, a salty dog wrapped in a neoprene wetsuit, floating over a dark, ominous, emerald green water. Let me tell you, I might as well be an ant clinging to a leaf flying down the face of Niagara Falls.
Yet I keep paddling. With where I am in position to the wave, I have no other choice- there’s no going back. It’s either ride the wave, or be consumed by it. Ride a force of nature, or become tangled in the kelp beds and shish-kabob’d by the rocks on the inside. That’s the thing about surfing- it snaps life into perspective.
With no other choice and a hunger which overtook my bones in an overwhelming force, I turn by board around and began paddling for the wave.
My heart sped from a steady pulse to a pounding that resonated against my entire chest. I was incapable of thought, as my mind disconnected from the rest of my body; and a surge of adrenaline poured into my veins. I wasn’t a human being, in nature. I was nature.
It was all muscle memory from here, all instinct.
I was not riding the wave. I was the wave. I was the rush of the water beneath me. My rail dug into the face of the wave, carving across the water’s surface. I was powerless to the might of the water, but flowing together, we were one, unstoppable. Beneath me, the water shone green, racing by. Above me, the blanket of fog in sky was eclipsed by the crest of the wave, closing over me, as I entered the green room.
I was everything. I was the sky, the water, the breath which left my lungs and filled the air.
The sound of the barrel- it was like a chorus of angels. It was heavenly, hauntingly beautiful- spiritual.
Like a blank station on the radio, the static of the barrel echoed around me, shooting through the tube of the wave.
The ruthlessness of rock and roll. The vibrance of Vivaldi.
Until the song ends. It always ends. Yet the notes echo in our heads. Long after the adrenaline fades from our veins, the saltwater lingers in our blood. The song, remains, echoing in our ears. The taste of the wave still sweet upon our tongues- the wave that leaves us thirsting for more.
So we turn our boards around and paddle back out into the lineup. Endure the winter cold. Risking everything; laying our lives on the line.
Identify. Commit. Execute.
All or nothing.
Just one more ride.
Living to better the best wave of our lives.