I begin paddling out ahead of John, headlong into the largest swell I’ve yet to surf. Others undoubtedly surf bigger and more dangerously powerful waves, but for my ability, for where I am right now, I am on the edge. I have done my best to time the sets, entering in a lull after what I believe was the last wave. But I’m wrong. I’m wrong a lot. I’m still learning to hone my instincts and understanding, still learning to read what I see in the water.
A wave is building deep in the distance. I can see it beginning to grow, the face blackening as its reflection changes. I’m in the wrong place. Glancing back, John is far behind. There is a moment of inaction, a moment of frozen uncertainty in judgement. I cannot tell if I can out-paddle the wave and get over it. I cannot tell if I should hold, trying to let it break in front of me. It’s now gathering more momentum, beginning to suck water from in front of it. I settle on trying to beat it.
The wave is lurching forward and beginning to peak. Somewhere beneath my actions I’m aware of the craziness of swimming headlong, as hard as I can, into one of the largest waves I’ve encountered. I can see my timing is off. I can see I’m heading straight into the impact zone. Turning around would do no good either. All I can do is try to build speed to help me dive deeper. This is by far the most powerless feeling I encounter when surfing; knowing you’re heading straight into it, knowing you’re not going to make it. Knowing you have to surrender.
I’m tempted to ditch my board as I dive, but decide against it out of fear of getting it snapped by the wave. Already winded, I take a breath and push the nose down hard, body following, feet driving the tail down, the wave now curling above me.
It feels like a bomb went off. Not water falling on me from above, but an explosion in all directions. I’m caught completely off guard by the power, unlike anything I’ve been hit by in the past. The surfboard is ripped from my hands effortlessly as I can’t get my arms around it in time. The air in my lungs is knocked out by the impact. Spinning, tumbling, thrashing, I go for the ride, trying to make an attempt to relax and go with it. My attempts to stay calm are futile when I begin to realize I’ve been held under longer than ever before and the wave still isn’t done with me. A panic sets in. Still rolling, I begin to thrash a bit, trying to blindly get to the surface, which is the worst thing I can possibly do , now burning more oxygen and possibly even flailing in the wrong direction. I’ve choked on some water and I’m now desperately fighting not to let more in. I remember distinctly thinking that I cannot do this for any longer. I cannot tell if my eyes are open or closed; there is nothing but a turbulent whiteness engulfing me.
And it lets me go. As if it were trying to push me to the absolute limit of my tolerance. The second I was sure I couldn’t take any more, it lets me go.
I pop up, gasping and coughing, treading water in a sea of foam. I locate my board, yanking it over by the leash and feebly dragging myself on top. I can’t see John anywhere, he’s lost somewhere in the foam or washed back into shore. I tell myself to get it together and prepare for the next wave. Thankfully it’s not as big, giving me enough time to desperately paddle out and barely make it over. When I reach safety on the outside I sit up, absolutely spent, terribly winded and coughing. My hands are shaking slightly. I begin the process of talking myself down, of relaxing my breathing, of trying to let it go.
The rest of the morning was spent sitting outside the waves, making halfhearted attempts to paddle into waves that I really didn’t want to catch. It likely took about forty minutes before I was ready to actually ride one and even then, I was looking for the smallest wave of the set.
I thought I was done for the day but the swell was only supposed to be getting better and John talked me into an afternoon session. I was going to pass, but decided against it. Ending a day in fear would not be helpful. Paddling out again, regardless of what I was going to ride, was important. I didn’t want to finish the day in fear. I didn’t want to feel like I gave in to it. Going back out was smart. While I only paddled into a single, large closeout, it did help me shake some of the fear off.
That morning, while I was still coughing, trying to regain my composure, John paddles up with a certain maniacal light in his eyes that I only see when he’s around bigger surf…
He says with a grin, “Craig…those aren’t big waves. We’re gonna surf some big waves together…”.
And I wonder: What have I gotten mixed up in?