At first, there’s a sense of disbelief. Surely, this can’t be happening, I think to myself as a giant wave rises up from deep water to fill the horizon with gloom and menace. I mean, yes, sure, I’m in the ocean on a day when uncomfortably large waves are breaking, and I put myself here on purpose, but this wave—this is simply too much. I didn’t sign up for waves like this. It’s an affront, really. How dare this wave put me in this uncomfortable position. I’d almost be offended if I wasn’t surging with adrenaline.

Next, a quick plan of action.

I can practically count the strokes it will take to paddle close enough to this watery guillotine rushing toward me to dive beneath it. If I can just reach the pocket of calm at the trough of the wave as it gathers itself to full height and starts to pitch its lip forward, I can pass below, unmolested (ish), riding a little conveyer belt of water pulling through the bottom of the wave, rising to the surface just behind it, safe from the total fury the breaking lip is unleashing just shoreward.


But I can’t reach that pocket. Not this time.

I’m going to wear this wave right on the head. I’m going to try to dive beneath it, but the lip will punch down through the surface, find me frantically kicking away from it, grab me in its inescapable fist like it’s a damn tractor beam right out of Star Wars, and then shake and thrash me like a dog tearing apart a ragdoll.

If the water’s sufficiently deep, I know, I’ll flip and twist seemingly for minutes, as though I’m in a giant, psychotic washing machine, no idea of which way is up or down, at the mercy of an uncaring sea.


If the wave is breaking in shallow water, it will try to erase my existence by smearing my body into a pulp on the sandbar, or worse, sharp reef, below.

I’m thinking of all of this, weighing my odds, as I’m frantically clawing at the water, begging the ocean, god, anything really, to let me reach the wave before all hell breaks loose, and one of the above doomsday scenarios comes to fruition.

But then, always, that flash of courage. You’ve been here before. An infinite number of times. There might be a whimper that tries to bubble to the surface, but: no, not today. Instead, an excited hoot, meant to remind me this is all fun, isn’t it? Maybe catch the frantic, crazed-animal eye of the paddler next to me, playing out his or her own game of what if. If there can be a shared smile, a laugh, in that brief moment of eye contact, the fear evaporates. What’s there to be afraid of anyway!

Mercifully, all thoughts cease when the wave finally arrives with the explosive power of a derailed freight train. There are no more actions to take, other than to remain calm, let it happen. To let it pass. No more what-if scenarios to run through the mind. A zen-like state of acceptance. A marveling, perhaps, at the awesome power of the ocean.

Then, as quickly as it began, the grip lessens, and there is peace. That wasn’t so bad. Gather the board, make sure it’s in one piece.

Then do it all over again.