Balaram Stack. Photo: Mike Nelson
From ages 12-18, I honed my unexceptional surfing skills in shin-slapping Atlantic rollers. With very limited access to long-period swells and a coastline that couldn’t handle them anyway, we north-east-siders are subjected to windswell mediocrity for the majority of our surfing tenures. But there is one saving grace. Every once in a while, usually during the winter months, a storm will be strong enough to truly awaken our side of the Atlantic. For a day, sometimes three, the wind blows onshore with the force of a nuclear blowback while snow paints the whole world white. The gales create an ocean-surface resembling modern art: crazy, undistinguishable, and completely useless in practice. No man, not even Laird, could subdue this salty cauldron. But the wind can.
Eventually, it’ll go offshore. The waves will be a world-class winter wonderland for a few hours, and then the same wind that giveth decides to taketh away. This is what life is like for those few hours. —Michael Ciaramella
It’s snowing sideways and a frigid wind is trying to sneak through the insulation of your weathered home. For some reason, you can’t help but smile.
You’ve been here before, but somehow the hundredth time leaves you feeling as anxious as the first. A new mission, a different sandbar, a deeper and darker tube — all born with a wind shift and the rising sun. But for now, you wait. And that frigid wind just keeps on blowing.
There are different methods to waiting, depending upon who you are. Maybe you like to shotgun beers, smokes cigs in the blizzard, and watch What’s Really Goin On til you pass out. Maybe you’re scanning buoys and charts like a tech-savvy lion stalking an elusive brown beast. Or you’re just a kid concocting an elaborate Powerpoint presentation in an attempt to convince your mom to let you skip school tomorrow. All in the name of frigid, brown tunnels. You live for this.
By some form of divine intervention, or perhaps just weather patterns, that cruel wind will switch. It will become offshore and firm. The relentless gusts meet their predecessor’s repugnant creations, and over time, they smooth away the blemishes. Lumpy faces turn clean. Thin, chapped lips become glossy and supple. The transformation happens quickly, often overnight. As the sun rises over the Atlantic, her once-monstrous daughters are now ogled by hordes of men, usually wearing wool hats and expelling hot steam with each breath. Their shapely silhouettes taunt the onlookers, who try in vain to stare through the golden morning rays. “Let’s go,” one of the spectators finally declares. And just like that, the battle begins.
Photo: Corey Frank
Well, wait just a second. It would be rash for a soldier to enter this melee without the proper armor. 5 millimeters thick, black, and almost stretchy. This is what you’ll wear, literally from head to toe. The only exposed skin is a circular gap in the facial region, so that you can see and breathe and yell for help if need be. Have fun changing in the snow.
The initial step into the foamy environment is surprisingly nice. Unlike the lies doctors tell children about immunization shots, you truly don’t feel a thing. Yet, the cold is a witty foe. It works its way through every seam, every crevice, until you realize that it’s there, waiting for its chance to attack. The first duckdive is humbling; a slap in the face followed by a heavy blackness. Your suit acts as flotation, bringing you to the surface faster than anticipated, only to be met by another short-period swell face. Duckdives 2-5 are progressively more painful, and by number 6, you feel like your brain is being chiseled at from the inside.
Finally out the back, you check the shore for landmarks. Your face is still freezing from the underwater ventures, and it is met with a brisk offshore breeze that cripples the senses. Suddenly frozen by the elements, you turn and examine the horizon with a gargoylic focus. Soon you spot your prey moving northwesterly at an alarming rate. Although fast, the wave lacks lateral movement, meaning you can track its trajectory and position yourself fairly easily. In this deserted playground, you most certainly have first priority.
Paddling vigorously, you force your board over the ledge to avoid the unfaltering offshores, and quickly pop to your feet. You see the face has very little curve, so you stomp on the tail. Free-falling from the apex, you tell yourself that you must commit. Today you are John John. You land hard on the bottom, catch the inside rail, ride into the wall, and backflip around the barrel. You are definitely not John John.
While underwater, your hood detaches from your face for just a second, and the entire Atlantic seems to wrap itself around you. In shock, you breach the surface but are unable to catch a breath. Gasping, pleading, but the merciless waves refuse to stop. Eventually you wash to shore and crawl limply onto the icy sand.
You’ll never do this again.
You paddle back out.