It’s full-on winter surf season here in Northern California, and already, the below scenario has happened this year. It happens every year, the first truly scary moment in the surf. As I was practically soiling my wetsuit praying my recently surgically repaired shoulder would hold through the imminent violence, this essay popped into my head and I chuckled a little, right as a wave’s lip as thick as a Chevy Silverado exploded right on top of my head. – Ed.
At first, there’s a horrifying sense of disbelief. This can’t be happening, I think to myself as a giant wave rises up from deep water to fill the horizon with a dark wall of water looming with gloom and menace. 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. 30 years of surfing has not prepared me for a wave like this. It’s an affront, really. How dare the ocean put me in this scary position. I’d be pissed if I wasn’t surging with adrenaline. Actually, being pissed helps because it staves off the panic.
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 so I can 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.
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?
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 like a wall of bricks, 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 in a giant, psychotic washing machine, no idea of which way is up or down, limbs twisted and torqued—is that my heel kicking my head?—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.