The first time the sea told me it could kill me is something not easily forgotten. It was one of those days where the waves broke like bombs - exploding in blasts of icy shrapnel. A strong onshore wind made a chaotic mess of the waves that pretty much closed out in a singular booming collapse. If I walked to the beach today and saw those same conditions, I’d have no problem turning around to go home - but I knew less then.
Clad in 4/5 neoprene, hooded, gloved and booted I took my borrowed foamy and with the eagerness of a young giraffe ran toward the roaring ocean.
After 30 minutes of furious paddling and enough rolling to make any turtle blush, I punched headlong through the top of a cresting wave and into the safety beyond the break. Turning round to see my progress I saw my heroic effort had delivered me some 20m from the shore - a momentary cognitive dissonance rang in my brain, wondering how such effort could yield so little distance. But having overcome such a force I was still swollen with a notion that was something like “I beat the sea”. A moronic sentiment that was to be slapped out of me just a few minutes later.
Taking some time to catch my breath I looked around to see… no one, because no one else was stupid enough to be here and in hindsight that was a pretty obvious signal.
After some strength returned to my arms I started to position myself for a ride; adopting the position I chose my guy, head down, arms pumping again I felt the first lift - 3 more strokes and it had me, we were off to the fucking races! I grabbed my rails like a kook and popped up faster than a jack-in-the-box, sliding down what felt like a mountain of wave face. By some miracle I stuck the landing and rode it out, water hissing as my rails cut through it - spray-salt-wind and roar and not a single thought passing through my head. Only presence and sensation.
I’d never known such a thing and was shaking with excitement. Eager for another I battled my way out back all the faster with every cell in my body soaked in adrenaline. In position again I spied the next one, my white horse that I would tame and ride like Neptune God of the sea! Head down - Paddle - Lift - 1,2 more - jack-in-the-box and I’m up but its different this time. I’m too far forward? The wave is steeper? Faster? All I know is it’s wrong and my last instinct as a vertical man in that moment was to jump away from my board. I can still visualise this moment, frozen in time like a photograph that I often look at. A divergence point where a change occurred from my understanding of the sea and surfing as it was then to what it became 2 minutes later.
As I fell the interminable distance to the trough I didn’t feel concerned, after all it was only water below me - lovely soft water.
SLAM. It hit me like a damn sledgehammer, knocking the wind out of me and like a 1-2 punch the wave fell on top of me covering my senses from everything they knew, sun, sky, land, light and in their place the directionless confusion of being the unwilling entrant into a world unknown. Roar and tumble - dark and airless. Is this what birth feels like?
When some sense did return I felt the passing of bubbles - full of air and optimism - across my face. I tried to follow their path but immediately another wave fell on top of me and the bad trip began again. With the little air that was in my lungs to begin with now being spent I tried for the surface and in that moment learned the uselessness of fighting such a force as it bullied me back down once again.
Another moment or two and I broke the surface, reunited with the sweet taste of the atmosphere, one breath closer to home. I dragged myself to the shore, no fancies of Neptune God of the sea - tamer of white horses passed through my mind again, but instead an unuttered thanks for being let go.