What’s it gonna take? Do I need to adopt an extra mile of beach? Rename my son Neptune Poseidon? Put wheels on a longboard, huck it over my shoulder and walk the Earth every Easter a symbol of repentance and sacrifice? What must I do to convince the almighty ocean that I’m no fair-weather fan? That I’m in it for life, for better for worse? And, as result, maybe get a little love and respect in return?
Ask anyone back East, they’ll tell you this winter’s been one of the coldest on record — not in terms of air and water temps, but quality water time. The first few weeks were all but flat; the last few, anything but epic. Hardly worth wrestling the rubber monkey-suit for some drifty chest-high chop or tiny, light-lipped lines. For a while, I joked we’d all stockpiled so many good waves over the second half of 2008 we were ‘upside down’ on our stoke accounts for 2009. After a six month streak of indulgences like epic hurricane swells and sick little set-ups close to home, we’d had it too good, too long. And like a bunch of overpaid bank CEOs, in order for our debt to disappear, first we’d have to drive more, fly less, and generally embrace all sorts of indignities to prove that we aren’t the greedy bastards the whole world knows we inherently are.
And so I suffered. Willingly. I burned hours and gas for runs south, just to get scorned by winds that instantly shifted to shit. Flirted with frostbite for one final head dip. Stroked against current upon current upon current. I did it all, then I did it again. Taking every lump on the head like a good Tina Turner, begging for just a handful of “I love you babies” between the head-spinning bitch slaps. Fully convinced that if I demonstrated undying faith without question, the ocean would stop pummeling me just along enough to answer my prayers.
Two Thursdays ago finally looked like the time. The buoys were up. The winds forecasted favorable. The sun was out, even warming the pavement to a toasty-toe temperature. After avoiding a wasted run to southern breaks still out of control, I instinctively recalled an old-school favorite, a far outside bar famous for turning long-period walls into peeling A-frames. It was hardly round but still well overhead, and though the volume of water moving made the paddle a chore, I timed it perfectly, slipping out between sets. For two hours, my luck continued, picking off peaks on a 6’0” that somehow made drops, stuck turns and offered enough float to ferry me back outside relatively painlessly, ride-after-ride. I finished that first session feeling more satisfied than I had since Christmas, barely waiting an hour before diving back in for more presents.
Maybe that was my mistake — so quickly shelving my appreciation in another self-absorbed quest for more, more, more. Or maybe it was the way I giggled as one buddy battled the inside in vain for 20 minutes before getting pushed back to shore emerging flushed, frozen and deflated. More than likely, I’d simply squandered what little equity I’d managed to amass over the previous month. Because round two was payback time. Just two quick drops in, I’d switched places with my fallen friend: upside down on the inside.
Paddle. Duck. Paddle. Duck. Over and over. Each millimeter of sinew straining against it’s neoprene casing, pulling my calves toward my cranium as I pinballed between midbreaks in an endless figure-eight rotation. While killing precious body heat along with my neck, back and shoulders, every fourth wave, I was rewarded with a piercing ice cream headache like some deranged bonus points program. I cursed. I yelled. But not once did I listen to any of the suggestions I’d had for my pal an hour earlier — “You’re stuck in a rip , dumbass. Just go in and walk down the beach.” Such sage advice from a distance, it now sounded like silly weak bullshit. All I needed to do was get past …this…next.. wave…. and all my work pay off. I could again cruise to the outside with victory and honor and assume my rightful spot out the back, where I swore not to look at another ripple until I’d rested for one full hour. (Or at least until I could summon enough energy to wipe the blood, sweat and tears from my brow.)
And just as I thought my triceps were toast — as I’d thrown myself against the last wall of whitewater — the waves stopped. A lull. Nothing but flat water between the tip of my board and the upright bodies littered barely fifty yards out the back . So I took a breath. Pushed my nose to the stringer. Dug deep. And went….nowhere.
So I dug deeper.Nothing.
I cranked my arms like an amphetamine-powered wind-up toy.Not one inch.
As I slapped the water like a tantrumming child , the surface remained insanely calm. So calm, I actually reached back and tugged my leash to make sure I hadn’t snagged on some ancient submerged piling or floating phone pull. I even turned around me to see if a smart-ass sea monster — or, more likely some asshole — wasn’t playfully tugging my tail. Nope, no beasties. Just some invisible rip, an the same damn sea bent on showing who’s boss.
Looking up, I watched my window of opportunity disappear beneath a sheet of fresh corduroy. So reinvigorated, so furious, the first wave steamrolled my sprit before it even stood up. I barely sunk my knees in the deck as it bowled me backward, letting it tumble me end over end before coming up within meters of another friend, all fresh-armed and frothing, who now took his turn to snicker. “Sucks for you”, he seemed to say, slipping seaward as I crawled back to shore humbled and beaten.
I tried again later, but by then the ocean had turned even more snooty, refusing to give it up for a single break. Same thing the next morning. Only that following afternoon, did the swell live up to its potential. It was only for three hours, but they were also the best three hours of the year so far. And the only three hours inside of three weeks that I could not put myself in the water — much less get where I needed to be.
And so I continue my penance. In the days since, I’ve surfed everything from waist-high slop to knee-high racetracks. The water’s a brisk 42. The air 10 degrees less. My mood’s sunk to sub-polar levels. And yet, I drive. I change. I duck dive. I grovel. I get back out. I change. I massage my frozen tootsies from white to rose in tepid baths. I rinse my suit under a dying sun, the wind turning fresh water to ice on my fingers. The only thing more frigid is the occasional look on my wife’s face as I walk in the door after superstitiously squandering another afternoon for my pagan aquatic puppet masters. Hoping they will finally take pity and shower me with love. Not my home. Not my buddies. Me.
And they will. Maybe not this winter. Maybe not this spring. (Damn sure not this summer.) But at some point, it will happen. I know it. And when it all comes together, look out. Because the water can only get warmer. The rubber can only get thinner. And, if nothing else, I’ll be paddling like a friggin’ god.