Surfer’s log: day 3.
Today we learned one of the most important lessons in surfing, taught so effectively that it will forever be seared into the soft tissues of our little brains. The ocean is a strict master, with little sympathy, and today’s lesson was about humility.
After yesterday’s success and our constant hungering for bigger and bigger whitewater, Margaret boldly began proclaiming this the day we would push through. “We can do it. I really think we’re ready,” she said with confidence and a serious nod not unlike that of Evel Knievel before jumping a canyon. I myself was getting pretty good at standing and turning and thought that maybe she was right. I mean, it’s just a lot of water, right?
The waves we had been riding were in water about waist to chest deep. Just to get out to ride these, we had to duck under or try to leap over waves that came in well over our heads. The force of these impacts were already enough to rip the boards out of our hands or knock us over. In order to ride “real” waves, the swells before they break, we would have to paddle out to where these waves were really getting serious and the water beneath would be well over our heads. We needed some new tricks.
We sat on the beach watching other surfers paddle out. We noticed that they were either riding over the top with their heads lifted high or somehow managing to duck under the waves. We practiced first in the shallower water. I tried ducking my head down to the top of the board and as the wave hit it felt like I was punching my skull through a sheet of drywall. Riding over the top went a bit smoother until my timing was off and the curl grabbed the top of the board and rolled me backwards.
In the end we just decided to power through. I walked and hopped as far out as I could and then started paddling and punching my way through the waves one after the other. Each one threw me back or rolled me over and each time I spit water, climbed back on and made a little more progress. My arms started to burn as I paddled for dear life, trying to get as far forward as I could before getting pushed back again until suddenly, everything was quiet. I was still pushing water as hard and fast as I could but the tremendous crashing noise was behind me. My arms slowed and I looked up to see only smooth, flat horizon. From beside me I heard Margaret shout, “we made it! We’re here!”
I pushed myself up and sat on my board. The ocean before us was rippled and beautiful. Swells built towards us like little hills on the water. They lifted us gently up and just as gently rolled under us and set us back down. Behind us they grew to became huge angry jaws who’s white teeth slammed down onto the beach as they relentlessly tore at it one after the other. Here all was peace and love. We sat and looked out over the tranquility, resting and feeling the chest swelling elation of having triumphed.
But there was one thing left to do. I turned my board towards the beach. As a larger swell came towards me, I paddled as hard as I could and felt myself lifted into the air… and set back down. I’d missed it. In the process I’d moved a little further in so I was better positioned for the next swell. Again I paddled as hard as I could and felt myself being lifted into the air. This time I could feel the massive force of the wave starting to take hold and suddenly the front of my board was protruding before me, unsupported, terrifyingly balanced several feet above the water and still rising. I struggled to get control and felt the nose diving forward down the treacherous slope. I threw my weight back as hard as I could but it was too late. The nosed plunged in and I felt my body thrown over my head as I was sucked into an angry washing machine on high. The force was incredible. I had no control of my arms or legs and I was whipped around and around, my chest screaming for air. My lungs were on fire and I couldn’t hold my breath any longer but the water wasn’t done with me yet. Above the roaring in my head I could just make out my brain thinking, “woah dude, maybe this is it.”
I felt a little bit of control returning to my limbs but without air I felt like I was beginning to pass out. I could push a little, but I had no idea which way was up, which way to the air… to air… air… My lips just pierced the surface and I sucked in all the oxygen I could before the next wave hit. I bobbed to the top and struggled to reel in my board, now bouncing at the other end of the elastic leash. I climbed on and, still coughing, started paddling back out. It was a combination of a desperate desire for the peace beyond the waves and for another chance to prove I wasn’t going to be beaten so easily.
Then I saw it. A huge wave, already cresting and towering well over my head. The thought of being hit by it was too much. I had to ride it in to safety. While I saw this as my second chance to prove myself, Margaret, who watched this one happen, perceived it more as a desperate attempt to flee the wave. I turned and used what strength I had left to force my aching arms to paddle again, pushing and pushing with everything I had. The wave lifted me, grabbed me in its fist, and slammed me back into the washing machine. I turned blue and spun and spun again. Again I felt certain I was going to die.
When I cleared the surface I weakly fought my way back to the beach and crawled up onto the shore. Margaret was already there waiting. We sat huddled beside each other, defeated, and looked out at the ocean for a long, long time.