Wednesday, May 17, 2006


I realize that I write a lot about things that can’t be conveyed or explained. I feel as though I want to communicate feelings or experiences when I know it is truly impossible. Rather than relying on my ability to communicate that which can only be experienced I rely heavily on the universality of emotion, experience, and knowledge of the numinous. I really feel compelled to talk about the first time I really surfed, but I don’t know that I can communicate the main point, which is the feeling of surfing, because I had never experienced it before doing it and I don’t know how universal this unique experience is.

I had been going with my good friend to a couple different surf spots early mornings and on weekends much like I had gone fishing with my brother and cousin back home. I would join the effort for the sake of the doing of it, not expecting that I would experience any level of success, but knowing that the attempt was fulfilling enough in and of itself. And every once in a while I would catch a fish, but until one strange day I had never caught a wave.

My friend and I would most often go to a less crowded spot off of the far north point of Kailua Beach Park. The waves would break on an island probably a quarter mile off of the shore, and I could never seem to make it out past the break. I was riding his eight foot “long” board. It was not big enough to float my weight so I could jump over the whitewater and it was too big for me to duck dive the break. More often than not I would fight my way out just to get blown back in and then I would have to fight my way out again. Without fail I would get too exhausted to keep at it and would just climb around on the island and skin dive for limpets that always got away.

One day, when we were out at Diamond Head, my friend was surfing and I was battling my way out and getting blown back in. I fought my way out again to a point where I could almost get in front of the break, meaning that I could reach the wave before it threw a lip and bob over the top without getting blasted by the whitewater. I poured it on in a flat out race against the evolution of the wave. My arms ached, my shoulders and my deltoids could barely pull through the water and keep my body on the board and my skin was chafing raw against the salted, waxed fiberglass. I had decided that this was my best shot, that it was now or never. I gave everything I had to make it to the wave before it went white. I could see my friend off in the distance bobbing on the set, pumping his arm in the air, cheering me on. My neck ached too from keeping my head up while exerting every muscle in my upper body, but I could see as I got closer and closer that the wave had hit the point where the sine wave bouncing off of the ocean floor was diminishing as the depth of the water tapered up to the shore line. The wave reared, quite suddenly, and the lip formed on the back side of the wave. It was like the big bad wolf inhaling before delivering the blast of force that would blow me back to Lani Kai.

I was dejected. I gave up. I stopped paddling so the wave would go white first and push into me rather than landing on me with all of its potentially deadly weight. I lay my head on the board and held my breath. My world became a world of the instant; not even a world of connected moments. The blast of torrential whitewater was tremendously powerful. There was no thinking, there was only the reaction. Until that instance I had always tried to go over, duck under, or make something happen while being hit by the wave. I was not a quitter so I never had quit. This time I just let the wave take me, knowing that I would wind up back on shore anyway.

You have to understand how far the break is from the shore at Diamond Head. It’s pretty far. When the whitewater caught the board and I wasn’t kicking or paddling, the fin on the bottom caused the board to be turned in the direction of the shore, the way it was supposed to, as was the intention of the designers. Once the board was turned in the right direction the rest of the organic hydrodynamics took effect and the board was stabilized by the power of the wave. I was still far from the shore, but the board was caught where it should have been and I was on it. I realized in an instant that I was not going to be dumped into the water and bounced off of the ocean floor. I tried to stand up.

Have you ever been working on staging or on a ladder and taken a step and found that there was nothing under your foot, either because the planks on the staging were overlapped or because you had miscounted the rungs on the ladder? Perhaps you have been walking up stairs and thought there was another step at the top, so your foot rose and fell and did not meet a step where you thought it ought to be? (Or perhaps you’ve found yourself sliding inexorably toward the mouth of an open well with no way to stop yourself? Was that just me?) There is a split second of absolute abject terror that starts in your solar plexus and pulls your soul out of your body through that point. Stretch that split second to the entire ride of the wave, and that is as close as I can come to describing the feeling of catching your first wave. Have you ever had a dream where you were flying? Have you ever had a dream where you became aware that you were dreaming, but you were not so fully awake as to leave your dream state? Then you could control the unreal and unbelievable things that occurred in your dream. The feeling of knowing that you can keep that freefalling feeling going and control it is the same feeling as controlling your dream. Imagine the euphoria you would feel if you discovered that it was real, and that you could do it whenever you wanted to as long as the sets were rolling in. Add to that the fact that you are outside in the elements and in nature, experiencing the same feelings between the euphoric moments that you would on a mountain hike, and you have a very addictive combination. There are many, many people who give up everything else and devote all of their time to surfing. That is the draw.

Luckily, I sucked at it enough so that I knew it could never become a serious pastime for me, but I got good enough at it to experience the euphoria of catching a good wave often enough to keep me coming back. And my friend finally let me know that the long board was not really a long board for a guy as tall as me. Once I rode ten foot boards at easier spots it got downright fun. But then when you’re out there to ride three foot waves and a seven foot set rolls in…

But that’s a story for another time.


Blogger DSF said...

There is an almost magical draw to the water for me. It took a while to even start liking surfing but now I am irritated when I can't go, or if I miss a day.

I just bought a board and the other day I went out with my friend Brandon (as I usually do) and I stood up. I didn't just stand up and fall off, I really stood up. I remember riding the wave and looking back at Brandon, as if to say, "look at me!" like I was a kid who finally learned how to ride a bike without training wheels. It was awesome.

I have also found the allure of surfing and now understand why so many people devote their entire lives to it. However, I don't think I will ever be a competitive surfer, good thing I'll have a doctorate to fall back on in case I don't make it big :-)

7:42 PM  
Blogger Traveler said...

Congratulations! I don't think I could do it anymore, but it is a feeling you can really remember. Have you gotten into paddling yet?

5:06 AM  
Blogger DSF said...

I haven't gotten into paddling yet but one of the profs wants me to do it. He just sent me a bunch of propaganda. I don't know about paddling.

5:09 PM  

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