It was early in the morning when I first got to the beach. A heavy mist hung over the ocean, and you could hardly see the set waves break out the back–it all seemed so far away. But through the mist you could make out the perfection of the waves: barrel after barrel, spitting out eternal glory and satisfaction. I had been tracking this swell for weeks, its hype building day after day as the swell maps turned from light orange to purple. I had a board especially shaped for a swell like this. It had been sitting in my garage for years, waiting for the ocean’s call, and today was the day. I analyzed the ocean for hours, it seemed; there was no easy paddle out. The foamy channel looked sketchy–no waves broke there, but you could sense the strength of the current beneath it. Just beyond the channel lay an isolated sand bar, where wave after wave broke in a ceaseless barrage. The only way out was to endure the beating and dive deeper and deeper each time. I didn’t want to go in. My heart was beating out of my chest. Sweaty and shaking, I looked around. There was no one else in sight. I felt so extraordinarily alone. “I should get back in my car and head home,” I thought. “But when is another swell like this going to show up? You know you’re ready, you’ve been surfing for years, progressively catching bigger and bigger waves; this is the next step,” I continued convincing myself. “You’ve never been more fit. In this last three years you’ve worked hard on your fitness, dropping weight and gaining strength you never knew you had, it is time to put all that to the test.”
Apprehensively, I put on my wetsuit, still wet from my last session. That somehow comforted me, reminding me that I have done this before, countless times. I warmed up like I have never warmed up before–mentally, not physically. “You owe this to yourself. It is your turn to rise up to the challenge. It’s time to grow up.” I strapped on my leash and walked to the water’s edge.
As I began paddling across the channel toward the sandbar, it seemed as though nothing was happening. The waves weren’t getting any closer, no matter how hard I paddled. After what seemed like an eternity, I sat up on my board, breathless. Giving up was suddenly an option, and it was growing more attractive the more I fought against the current. It had a tight grip on me, commanding where I went. When I turned back towards the beach, I spotted someone sitting in the sand. Not wearing my glasses, I don’t know who it was, but for some reason, they waved at me.
“Fuck,” I thought. “I can’t give up now.” So I put my head down and started paddling, harder this time. The further I got from shore, the less current there was. Finally, my hands touched sand, and I knew I had reached the sand bar.
Standing up, I looked ahead at the indestructible walls of white water: massive white barriers protecting the pureness of the distant waves. A fortress of foam, battering the edges of the sandbar, threatening me. I wasn’t going to make it. Turning around again, I looked back at the beach. The current I had fought so hard against to get to where I stood would take me so easily back there. But now more people sat watching. They all waved this time. There was nothing to do but try. Duck diving deep, I made it past the first set, then the second. The third disconnected me from my board and threw me in all directions under the water. Disoriented, I came up to catch my breath at the same moment another wave hit me. My attempt to suck in air proved fruitless, and I choked on what seemed to be gallons of salt water. I tried to resist the ocean’s power, pushing up against it, my chest bursting. I was quickly out of energy, and still beneath the surface. It seemed like an eternity. I struggled until I couldn’t struggle anymore, then I began to let go. At some point, I felt my feet hit the bottom. It was my chance, and I took it. Pushing downwards with all the energy I had left, I shot towards the surface and penetrated the white water. The air tasted so sweet. Choking and gasping, I gulped as much as I could, desperately happy to be breathing again.
I’ve been surfing for as long as I can remember, and never have I been as close to drowning as I was that day. I thought that was it, I really did. As I filled my lungs with oxygen, I was unaware of everything around me: the perfect waves, the treacherous channel, the people on the beach, even the whitewash I floated in. In that moment, I was nowhere. I was out of my body, all of my energy directed towards my lungs, reviving them, teaching them to breathe again. When I finally was breathing normally, I began to realize that I had almost died. I looked around for my board, and turned tail back towards the safety of the shore. I was not coming back.
When I got back to the beach, the people there turned out to be my family. They care for me. They knew today was going to be a big day for me. They wanted to be there to support me. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one following the forecast. It was heart-warming seeing them all there, but part of me was embarrassed that I didn’t make it out. No one even mentioned it. All I wanted was to strip off my wetsuit, go home, and have meal with my family. We’d laugh about it. So what if I didn’t make it out? Then I looked back at the ocean, and saw an opening. There was a lull. I could make it out now, if I started paddling right then. The ocean was silent, if only for a minute. And then the silence ended with a perfect set. So perfect, in fact, it was beyond description. I watched the first perfect wave break in front of me, and all I wanted, all I cared about in that moment, was to tap into that energy, to consume it… to be consumed by it.
I had to go back out. This time, no current held me back. I didn’t even stop to catch my breath at the sandbar. I pushed through one, two, three pounding whitewashes. Then I was in the impact zone, where waves come to die–where they take their last breath before the throw themselves with all their might towards the sand beneath them. Still paddling, I looked up to see a monstrosity of a wave standing above me like some rusting skyscraper. “If I paddle hard enough, I can make it under it,” I thought. But I hesitated, and before I knew it, it was too late. The wave crashed onto me, pushing all the air from my lungs and trying to rip me limb from limb.
When I resurfaced, I was back on the sandbar. I felt defeated. Thoughts of returning to the beach flooded my brain again, just as the ocean had flooded my lungs. But as I turned back, I saw my family on the beach. Through the mist, I could hear them cheering for me.
“Go!” they screamed. “We love you!” I have never felt so supported. Have I always been this loved? Have they always been there like they were that day on the beach? Why did I feel so alone that morning?
I had to try again, for them as much as for me. This time, luck was on my side. The fortress opened its gates and let me through. The ocean went silent again, beckoning me back out. I found an energy within me that I hadn’t felt since I was a grom: boundless excitement, no matter what the conditions. Where did that energy go? It’s back now, and I am suddenly out in the line up, a joyous smile on my face.
Peacefully seated at the peak, I waited for a set. The horizon darkened as it approached. There is no crowd, but I am not alone; I never was. The set grows as it approaches, but I am not afraid. If I fall, I will paddle back out. My family will still be there. And there will always be another wave.
But for now, the wave is here. Head down, paddle hard. Hopefully, I’ll get barreled.