With cousin Alex in the waves.
The wave grows soft and Alex steers off the back of it, falling in the water oceanward of his board. He climbs on the nine-foot funshape and strokes for deeper water. He ducks under a wave. I look toward the beach and see by the houses that the rip has dragged us a half-mile from our entry point. Another good ride and I'll take to the sand; I'll walk to a place beyond the enclave of our family and enter the ocean again. It has been a good, wild year--a new job, a move to the country--since I last saw the ocean or rode a surfboard, and I intend to surf today until I am too fatigued to see crooked or straight or even see at all.
Our families mosey about the beach, attentive to kindred swells. They ride waves of novels or gauge the sand's slope for the projected path of a bocce ball. They chat, catch up with one another--ten people who live in five different states and a foreign country. They daydream, think. They watch the other beachgoers. They listen to the surf and examine the clouds and cover their books when the squalls spit brief showers of rain.
I check the horizon again for humps, a set of waves. Nothing gives. I like the waiting, the watching. I like it as well as the wave riding. The wind shifts now and then from offshore to sideshore, creating a chop that wrinkles the faces, making them bumpy and wedged, harder to read.
Three peaks build--dark, long walls approaching. It appears the last wave is the tallest; that has been the pattern today. Alex sits on his board. He watches, touches the water with his hands. The water is tepid but refreshing with the moil of salt and motion. I let the first wave pass. The second looks good, but the third towers as though peek-a-booing over its shoulder. I wait for it.
It is hard to discuss surfing without falling victim to the wistful, decidedly useless sentiment that plagues any treatment of the act that doesn't involve doing it. Yet, I secretly love such sentiment and the feelings of superiority it breeds. It is a fine tonic to traffic in nouns like dude and barney, adjectives such as rad, meaty, gnarly, and killer. It is especially pleasing to say them with a surfer's drawl, the bratty, nasal one Sean Penn made famous in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Recently, I watched a surf flick--Step Into Liquid. While a feast of scrumptious cinematography, I wished several times that it had been muted. The narration was imbecilic, but my feelings of superiority were equally imbecilic and rewarding.
Surfing has a mystical side and it is fair to say that such energy fertilizes the sport's weedy vernacular, fashion lines, music, and art. Such is America. We love our primitive side to death. There's probably some truth when I say that being in the water with my cousin connects me to a waveriding family that extends back to the ancients of Polynesia and other coastal regions, that I feel a kinship with dolphins and manta rays and all the other large and small creatures--jellyfish, seaweed, plankton--that use waves to travel, feed, flee, mate, play, or die; that I'm in touch with light and sound, too, all that travels in waves.
The more tangible truth is I'm sitting on a board off an island where high dollar homes in what used to be the dunes make the beach look like an afterthought, something a landscape crew installed. My father's new wife happens to own a house here. She's a good, loving lady, and they are happy together--what else can you ask for.
For me, playing in waves is a distinct pleasure because, while it demands a certain discipline of the body, it is simple. There's little gear involved, save a board and some trunks, maybe a wetsuit. It is also effective; among gravity sports, surfing is unsurpassed in my experience for the way it empties your mind, demanding focus and attention and rushes of adrenaline, punctuated by calm and a gentler focus as you wait and watch for the next wave.
One of the more dangerous aspects of the sport is the way, for any surfer, the sound of breaking waves and the taste of salt water stokes the fire of memory. As much as you want to worship irony and avoid the grip and itch of nostalgia's wool turtleneck, past surf trips and surf companions always merge with the present one. It just happens. There are all the strangers with whom I've paddled and sat and stood in water off beaches from Tortola to Nova Scotia. I see their faces, their stances, the shapes and graphics on their boards. I see the folks from my favorite surf magazines and surf flicks. Of the big wave riders in Hawaii, Gerry Lopez in the best surf movie ever made, Big Wednesday, comes to mind. There are many others. I think of J.T. McMillan. We are at Otter Cove in Acadia National Park with the beast of Hurricane Bonnie stalled five hundred miles off Hatteras, sending fifteen foot swells into the Gulf of Maine as it has for three days straight. He takes off, drops. He carves into a hasty, almost graceful turn, avoiding the chunk of ledge and then banking off the wall and speeding down the curl, spilling into the channel after another nice ride.
Memory is more than image, of course, more too than taste and smell and feeling. It is sounds of peeling surf and sounds of names--Bomba's, Wrightsville, Higgins Beach, Small Point, Hurricane Bonnie, Hurricane Fran. Because we face long periods of nearly flat ocean, East Coast surfers are perhaps more dependent on storms than waveriders elsewhere. I remember a nor'easter in Nova Scotia, conifers bending on that point near Lawrencetown where we'd set up camp. Ted Gilbert, Andrew Herring, and I--college kids on fall break--are in water the day after the storm. It is cold, but the locals are friendly, generous with the long, strong waves.
The first surfboard I rode belonged to Alex's father. My uncle and namesake Thorpe is my dad's younger brother. Like my father, he is cordial and outgoing but you're not sure who he is. There are worse traits than elegance. You won't find two more generous, enigmatic people. In my youth, we made summer beach trips for a week or two at my grandparents' place in Jersey. Each year, I eyed Uncle Thorpe's graceful La Jolla Surf Systems single fin collecting dust in the corner of the garage near the fishing rods. Around age twelve, I started to flail on it in the waves in front of the convent at 111th Street--Villa Maria by the Sea. God Beach, Uncle Thorpe called it; it had been his hallowed surf ground before back trouble prohibited him from riding the board. Women in their habits often walked the beach. My little brother lames referred to them quite innocently as penguins when he was a tyke. It took time, humiliation, and a few scars for me to gain proficiency on that board. Snippets of advice from other surfers made all the difference. "Move up on your board when you're stroking for a wave," a guy told me after another nasty nosedive. It helped.
I stroke four or five times. The wave, last of the set and a good one, approaches, sculpts itself, and then takes me as though I was bait. It has a left forming curl and I dig the rail to carve that direction once I stand. There is a gray wall ahead of me now and a gentle trough forming. The wave is soft and slow. I shuffle back on my board to stall it, to try not to get too far ahead of the shoulder. Now, I shuffle forward, trim the board to generate speed for a bottom turn. If it sounds dramatic, it is. Yet, it isn't. I slide the board for the shoulder. I set a rail to turn it back to the trough, but I have come too far. The wave kisses me goodbye.
My favorite part of surfing might be the paddling out, and not because picking your way through and under the waves is a condensed version of life, which it is. There are times when you don't make it out and then there are times when you think you'll never make it, when wave after wave pushes you beachward and you dive and dive and your arms burn and your chest and your sinuses are all salt with another nasal douche and then you emerge from a dive, the energy of the wave lingering, having passed through as much as over you, and there is an opening, a lane of calm water extending beyond the impact zone, and you take it and--yes--though you may be coughing, it is easy again and you breathe and you stroke calmly and rest. That is all well and good, but I like paddling out because the reward is great--you get away from the mainland, and, best of all, you get to catch a wave. After all the hoopla, surfing is simply a glorious escape.
The surf isn't bad today. To have waves at all in South Carolina is lucky. Waist high sets, maybe a few waves at the chest--they approach from the north. If the forecasters are correct, the tropical storm will threaten the Outer Banks tonight. Sea oats sway in the breeze. Clouds billow like marshmallow puff above the palmettos and crepe myrtles that picket the beach houses.
We ride one after another. The waves are long and hold their shape well. The southerly rip seems to be diminishing a bit. The walls are smooth with a light offshore wind. Alex is after another one. No longer my little cousin politely munching his Thanksgiving dinner or glimpsed like a shadow as he's whisked to or from football or hockey practice--he is eighteen now and headed to college on a lacrosse scholarship, He's more than a cross between Jude Law and Russell Crowe, and to say there's as much antelope in him as bluefish and bear is reductionist, but that's what comes to mind as I watch him crouch to race the curl of another playful juicer. It tickles me in all the right places; watching my cousin surf is as fun as riding the waves itself.
I see my family, small figures on the beach. Though I like to think otherwise, we are not unusual. We are an edgy, fragile lot, as dependent as our independent facades are honed. Love and despair course through our motions, the disagreements spoken or not. Nobody mentions politics for long anyway. We laugh at each other. We can make each other cry without meaning to or knowing it. If it is brutal, it is tender too. We need beach trips, the sun to bleach us out, the salt to mend our sores, season our tenderness. The relaxation of rest and bracing activity stills our bonds, both calls and quiets us to the beauty in one another.
It is afternoon. It has felt like afternoon all day. People walk on what's left of the beach, a few bending now and then to gather shells. The storm makes for a flood tide. A sudden rain slackens to drizzle and then is gone. I sit on my board, a 1960's Cutlass longboard, the deck misshapen from water damage. The board, great for smallish waves, was a gift from Ted Gilbert with whom I co-founded the Bowdoin Surf Club in college, a hare-brained endeavor if there ever was one--we weren't even close to a club, much less a society or gang or ministry. Ted found the board rotting under a house in Wellfleet on Cape Cod in 1993. Fiberglass patches dot the board's deck. It weighs nearly thirty pounds and requires a good bit of shuffle up and back for it to turn. It is too heavy for a leash and the skeg is triangular, solid and similar in shape to a shark's fin. Though I don't ride it as much as I used to, once or twice a year now, I am always learning new ways to love and hate it--especially as it leans against the shed at our home far inland, as it does most of the year, shade for crickets and spiders and slugs.
We are on surfboards in the ocean, so talk is technical, of equipment, weather, and the demeanor of the waves. Our words lose their meaning as soon as we utter them, and maybe we say them just to feel the pleasure of that happening. Mostly, we speak through our motions, our choice and style of rides, and the way we watch the horizon. We communicate with all the innocence of two toddlers in a playpen, though there is something of hunters in our bearing as well--the wait, the stalk, the chase. Still, the beach houses are not far away, the trappings of modern life as close as the epoxy, fiberglass, and foam in the boards we ride.
A good wave approaches. Four pelicans soar a few feet above the wave's ridge. I look at Alex to see if he's going for it. We have been taking turns with wave choice. Not looking at me, he says, "Let's ride it together."
"Yeah dude," I say, promptly lying on the board, stroking beachward. There is a long shoulder to the right. Once on my feet, I glance at Alex. He stands two arm's length away. He's locked into the wave with all the amped attention of those cars on the electric racetrack I had as a kid. Riding a wave is not often a social event, less often a family affair, and maybe this explains why the ride feels slower than normal. Everything is quite loud and quiet too. With telling smiles and nods of our heads, we both put our hands behind our rumps and arch our spines backwards in matching, goofy poses. It isn't entirely inappropriate.