It’s full winter surf season here in Northern California and the scenario below has already happened this year. It happens every year, the first really scary moment in the surf. As I practically soiled my wetsuit and prayed that my newly surgically repaired shoulder would hold through the impending violence, this essay popped into my head and I chuckled a little, just as the lip of a wave as thick as a Chevy Silverado just exploded on top of my head. – Ed.
At first there is a terrible sense of disbelief. This can’t be happening, I think to myself as a giant wave rises from deep water to fill the horizon with a dark wall of water that looms with gloom and menace. Of course I’m in the ocean on a day when uncomfortably big waves break and I put myself here on purpose, but this wave – it’s just too much. 30 years of surfing has not prepared me for a wave like this. It’s an insult, really. How dare the sea put me in this terrifying position. I’d be mad if I wasn’t surging with adrenaline. In fact, being mad helps because it staves off the panic.
Next, a quick action plan.
I can practically count the strokes it will take to paddle close enough to this watery guillotine hurtling towards me so that I can dive under it. If I can just reach the pocket of calm at the wave valley as it gathers to full height and begins to slap its lip forward, I can pass below, unassailable(ish), riding a small conveyor belt of water pulling through the bottom of the wave, rises to the surface just behind it, safe from the total fury that the breaking lip unleashes just offshore.
If there can be a shared smile, a laugh, in that brief moment of eye contact, the fear disappears. What is there to be afraid of?
But I can’t reach that pocket. Not this time.
I will wear this wave right on my head. I’ll try to dive under it, but the lip will crash through the surface like a brick wall, find me kicking frantically away from it, grabbing me in its inescapable fist like it’s a goddamn tractor beam straight out of Star War, and then shake and beat me like a dog tearing apart a ragdoll.
If the water is deep enough, I know, I will turn and turn seemingly for minutes as if I were in a giant, psychotic washing machine, no idea which way is up or down, limbs twisted and twisted – is it my heel kicking my head? – at the mercy of an indifferent sea.
If the wave breaks in shallow water, it will try to obliterate my existence by smearing my body into a pulp on the sandbar, or worse, sharp reefs, below.
I think about all this, weighing my odds as I frantically claw at the water, begging the ocean, god, whatever, to let me reach the wave before all hell breaks loose and one of the above doomsday scenarios comes true.
But then, always, that flash of courage. You’ve been here before. An infinite number of times. There might be a whimper trying to bubble to the surface, but: no, not today. Instead is an excited tumble, meant to remind me that it’s all in good fun, isn’t it? Maybe catch the frantic, crazed animal gaze of the paddler next to me as he plays his own game of what if. If there can be a shared smile, a laugh, in that brief moment of eye contact, the fear disappears. What is there to be afraid of?
All thoughts thankfully end when the wave finally arrives with the explosive force of a derailed freight train. There is no further action to take other than stay calm, let it happen. To let it pass. No more what-if scenarios running through the mind. A zen-like state of acceptance. An astonishment, perhaps, at the amazing power of the sea.
Then, as quickly as it began, the grip eases and there is peace. It wasn’t that bad. Assemble the board, making sure it is in one piece.
Then do it all over again.