Bad Days and All

Land Animals in Water

We are standing on the dunes with our hands in our pockets–land animals watching the winter ocean roar. The day is cloudless. The ocean is doing somersaults.

We are back at the car grinning, peeling off clothes in the December wind. We hop around encased in neoprene. We slip our feet into soggy pee-smelling booties. We run walk across the Great Highway and sink into sand. We look at each other and smile fear smiles. We wade into froth all the way up to the our armpits and then we’re on our boards, land creatures dashing in water.

I paddle like I am digging, plunging arms one after another, head down, shoulders dancing. On the inner bar liquid cities topple, the sounds like war, me in the middle, dodging, scanning for a route, finding a rip current, following it through anarchy. I am making progress. I have so much farther to go.

Then a wave. A fucking masterpiece–ocean architecture–right there in front of me. I feel as though it is the very first wave I have ever seen. A lifetime of water towers, crests, and then heaves down. I dive hard but I am just a land animal. The force is spectacular. It wrenches me into muffled darkness, into watery nothingness. I am in space. I am on drugs. I am a tiny little thing. Then it lets go.

I pop back up and devour the air. I laugh a crazy woman laugh. I say things out loud to myself. I am alone in a field of foam with waves thundering on all sides; overboard. I want out, I want cozy land comforts but my body is already clambering back up onto my board and then once again I am digging, moving directly at these mighty water walls. I see Will out to the left, battling his own battle. I want to bury my face in his neck. I paddle hard, digging for calm.

On the outer bar, we reunite.

That was fucking crazy, I say.

Yes, he agrees, that is what crazy is.

Outside in deeper water, civility reigns. We have time to find our bearings. We can see the horizon and we can see the shore. There are other people out here, ragged and beaming like us. I see a woman with white blonde hair paddling a school bus yellow gun. She is all muscle and laughter. She paddles past me and we exchange looks of lucky, happy people. Then in unison all heads turn and we see it together. A set. Waves come in sets. The set we see sends fear trickles running down my esophagus.

The first wave is on top of us and I am right there, right at the burly crux of it. I have to go.

For the most part, my life is standing in line. My life is BART rides and checking my email. My life is staring in the mirror and laying in bed on Instagram. But then my life is this: paddling down the glittering face of a hollow winter wave.

I drop in backside on a 4-inch-thick 7’ 6” shaped by my dad and lean into my heels. The wave is a hallway of green stretching long, growing tall, and then, so easily, folding over my head. I grab my rail and, after a million years of surfing, I am finally barreled properly. It is peaceful and soul-quenching. It is a joy like love.

Ocean Beach is known for these days. These offshore wind emerald glimmering lose your mind kind of days. But there are only a dozen or so a year. Some years, fewer. I could play it cool, I could pretend it was no big deal, but really, this day changed me. That sounds fucking silly. It’s true though.

Me, I’m a scaredy cat. I swim in doubt and I sink under pressure. I’ve always been like this–a hand-wringer. You should have seen me that day though. Me the land animal paddle soaring over a rolling emerald water city like I had fins and wings at the same time.

Summertime Sadness

The July ocean looked bored. I sat in my car and squinted down the beach for whitewater, for any sign of surf. Next to me in a truck with no hubcaps a man missing a tooth–one of the important teeth up front–grinned at me. He knew not of my plight.

I’d surfed only once in the passed two weeks. I was starting to feel unhinged. Today was the day, no matter how bored the ocean looked.

I stepped on my driver’s seat and hoisted myself up so I could reach the yellowed longboard strapped to the top of my car. It had long been in the custody of my brother who, it appeared, had chucked the poor thing in his overgrown backyard. The deck of the board was covered in a layer of old dry grass that stuck to the dirty wax like a child’s art project. I went to put in the fin and saw that the screw, the screw that should never not be there, was not there.

Back in my car, I texted my brother something mean. My fingers jabbed at the screen. This was no small infraction. One does not interfere with another’s will to surf. This is not how we were raised.

The tide rising, I needed to act. I sped off in search of a tiny screw I felt sure I would not find. I went to both stores and was twice met with confusion. This town, which contains none of the things necessary to be a town, does have a surf shop. I stomped into the tiny store, my desperation apparent. The owner, a man I grew up next door to, understood the gravity. He ducked behind the counter and came up holding the one and only screw in the shop. I went for my wallet but he waved me off.

The ocean was a mermaid’s tail; dark aqua shimmering gray beneath the low fog. I paddled the old board all the way across the small cove because my opportunities for ceremony are few. I peered into the familiar dark water and forgave my brother. A grom is a grom.

The waves were tiny but the water was not cold. Pelicans bobbed in the mist like toy boats in a pond. I was alone save for those bobbing birds. I stroked the big board into the small waves, my fin sliding inches above the rocks, and kicked out of each wave a little less frantic. When it’s that small every wave feels like a gift. 

I trudged back through the soft sand with the board resting on my head. The man with the missing tooth was gone. In his place stood a semi circle of people holding cans of cheap beer. They nodded at me and I nodded back, the derelict guardians of an overlooked paradise.

 

Bridge Tolls

I have a recurring stress dream where I don’t make it to the surf before the sun sets. I flail my body around with semi-psychotic urgency for what seems like hours, but no matter how loudly I scream or quickly I drive I just can’t get in the water before last light. I’ve been having a version of this dream since I was a kid, and each time the heartbreak grips me as violently as the time before. Each time, I experience a little piece of death.

On Thursday I finished work and drove to pick up my friend in Berkeley. We’d worked all day and now surfing was what we had. Surfing could redeem what the day had taken from us. I was a caged animal. I was desperate for the water.

It should take 34 minutes to get to Ocean Beach from my house in Berkeley. To the dismay of anyone trying to get anywhere, Thursday was 4/20: a holiday in these parts. An entire metropolis full of pot-lovers rejoicing in a traffic-inducing haze stood between us and the ocean.

This is mostly a story about traffic, not surfing.

Made brash by our hunger for waves, we took the long way—a mile less than twice as far—because we had to keep moving and the Bay Bridge was chaos like cold molasses. We took the Richmond to the Golden Gate, crossing two bridges instead of one. We passed people napping in pea green parks. The city was stoned and we were racing the sun.

We made it to a shark gray ocean with light to burn. We sprinted out of my car and across the highway at Judah and over the cold dunes and onto the wet sand where the tide had recently been. We threw our bodies down the faces of waves, pretending to know anything about anything. The peaks were shifty and and the current was strong but we made it. We beat the sun. We reclaimed the stolen day.

Eventually, all of the light did go away. Sopping wet and shivering on the big dark beach, I felt a certain kind of good. One that I want to tell everyone about but which I am able to tell no one. 

A Wednesday At Cowell’s

Sometimes, the ocean is lime green. Even when the sky is blue the ocean will be green. I’m sure there’s an explanation for it, one I don’t know. That’s what that day looked like. A clear blue sky over a lime green ocean. We were four and it was a Wednesday. The wind was light and offshore. Cowell’s was a vision, a newly mowed lawn.

It was Thomas’s first time on a surfboard. I adore watching athletic men try to negotiate with the ocean. It’s as if they are pleading with a God they don’t believe in because they’re all out of ideas and they need what they need. There is nothing poetic about learning how to surf.

Carrie was there too, trying to mask her competence with self deprecation; we all surf like we live. Carrie and Thomas, on their silly soft boards, paddled obediently when I yelled paddle. 

The ocean was full of men, like it always is. Men wielding their boards like machetes in a jungle, all hacking and thrashing. Even at Cowell’s there are these men. One day I think I’ll learn to forgive them.

Alexandra was there too. We used to be spindly little grommets together on a beach with black sand. We knew nothing of clothing, only wetsuits and sandy Doritos. My point is, she knows about the ocean. If I said things like, surfing is in her blood, I would say that about her. She rode her waves with exuberance; we all surf like we live.

I’m at home on boards that weigh over 30 pounds. On all the rest, I’m homesick. That day at Cowell’s, I rode my 9’ 4” and joy simmered in me like soup on a stove. When I am on this board, I am unsure about nothing.  

We glided across lime green walls under a crystal blue sky all afternoon. No deep truths were revealed, no lessons were learned. It was a Wednesday and the wind was offshore. We surfed until we didn’t want to anymore, and then we loaded up the car and went home.  

On West Cliff, Anything Is Possible

For the first time in six years, they called the Eddie on at Waimea Bay — I was already halfway to Santa Cruz. I arrived at high tide with two boards I didn’t want to ride. One too beautiful to put in harm’s way, the other so small I knew I was doomed. The waves were big. Emerald a-frames blitzed middle peak in rapid succession.

I grabbed my silly little board and told myself encouraging things; things that would help me paddle through the formidable current. I had no other choice. At the main stairs, a man caught my attention. He said it was not a good plan, my plan to ride that board.

“I plan on getting worked, ” I told him confidently. He cocked his head at me in sympathy and then saved my day.

“Take mine,” he said.

He was standing next to a car stacked with longboards. I took another look at the roaring ocean and then borrowed this stranger’s expensive equipment without any reluctance at all. He’d locked his keys in his car and had to run across town to get his spare. “Surf for as long as you want. The longer the better!” he yelled at the back of my head.

The waves were heaving over themselves at middle peak and then mushing out until they reformed into lengthy, round walls all the way through indicator. Each wave just like the last. A focused kind of euphoria disseminated through the inexplicably uncrowded lineup. Strangers hooted one another in encouragement. The wind threatened to turn but never did and eventually it weakened so much one could barely tell it was there. Beyond the trails of whitewater, the kelp undulated on top of the water like lace.

I surfed myself to mush, till my thoughts were abstract and inarticulate. I experienced uncharacteristic surges of meaning. I think I even briefly accepted that everything happens for a reason.

On land, the man with the board reappeared. He had a beard like a viking and apt at divulging information about himself. Though at the time it didn’t feel like he was talking very quickly. He lived in Michigan and said he had recently became famous on Youtube for having his beard turn completely to ice while surfing in one of the Great Lakes. He said he had to go back on Saturday because someone was making a movie about him (well, it was actually about his beard).

The previous night he bought six thousand dollars worth of a rare kind of crystal from The Magician. He spoke about The Magician matter of factly, like he was an old friend we both knew. He had a five gallon bucket full of these crystals, right there in his Ford Explorer. They looked like football-sized shards of ice tinted sea-foam green. He said their vibrations were high. He said they could heal people. He said these things without any of the pretentious undertones I’m used to from people who believe rocks contain secret powers. This impressed me.

He lay out six thousand dollars worth of magic crystals on the sidewalk at West Cliff while the ocean heaved and the sun started to set. Then I said I had to go. I told him he was an angel for lending me his board. He gave me a look that said, “you would have done it for me,” which he had zero proof of but which I know he wholeheartedly believed.

Visitors

I was surfing at home recently with two men and a woman — strangers, and remarkably kind. This little traveling pod of kindness was on a road trip looking for waves. They were clean and healthy like a Patagonia catalog. They shared well and were, in general, delightful people. They were very far from home.

This wave we were surfing is, despite being perhaps my favorite place in the universe, not a very good wave. For the most part, it is a weakling. Fun, but not life-altering and definitely not a wave to lose your cool over. 

The kindness pod and I had a lovely time trading waves for a couple hours and then they went in.  I watched them walk down the beach and wished they would be my friends.

By the time I walked up to the parking lot a half an hour later, everyone had retreated to their corners. It was clear that something had gone down. What I gathered from a bystander was that the clean, healthy kindness pod was changing out of their wetsuits when out of the blue, 280 pounds of local color went insecure, and attacked them in a drunken rage. Bystanders did their best to restrain him but he managed to get ahold of one of their boards and smash it Jimi Hendrix style against the pavement. There was nothing more to the story. The local guy hadn’t even suited up that day. He was too drunk.

The territorial mindset of the surfers I grew up with has always appeared to me as the desperate rally cry of a profoundly insecure group of mostly men convinced their community could be lost at any moment. Their identities are inseparable from the land they inhabit. Without this territory—these waves and these cliffs—the essence of their persons would be lost. Localism, in this context, is about much more than an uncrowded lineup. They are the self-proclaimed guardians of a history and culture that is threatened by infiltrators who know nothing of their unique plight, however abstracted and inarticulate that plight may be. The land, it would seem, is all they have.

Surfers are like this everywhere, not only this remote wave land where I grew up. The reality is, surf culture condones aggression. When I was 10 years old I internationally ran over my best friend because she didn’t move out of my way.  I put a six-inch gash in her board and I yelled at her for making me do it. We are not at our best when we surf. We are hungry idiots.

It’s a shame because surfing is one of the few things I have found that makes me feel so right in my weird skin.  Maybe that pure, bone-deep joy we feel when we stand up on a wave is just too strong. Maybe we aren’t ready for surfing. 

Who Is Really Ruining Surfing?

“What we do today is not, in either practice or spirit, the sport of kings. Those kings were eradicated and their culture clear cut to make way for modernity. What we do is the sport of kings reimagined by beach developers and marketing hacks, men–and they are predominantly men–whose world view is so caught up in the late 20th century dream of infinitely expanding economies of scale that they can’t conceive of any activity that isn’t dictated by the same goals, and rules as the New York Stock exchange. By proxy, neither can we.”

From The Inertia article, Who is Really Ruining Surfing? , by Tetsuhiko Endo.