Sharks, Salt and Surf: Reenvisioning the Sea
On Tuesday I tried surfing for the first time in my life. It was a day I didn’t think would ever come to pass.
Thanks to well-meaning elementary school teachers, I was put off the idea of surfing from a young age. The memory of exactly when it happened is still clear. A school tour to the Durban Aquarium on the east coast of South Africa. Our school had arranged for someone from the aquarium to speak to us about the marine life off the beautiful “Dolphin Coast.” They did just that. When it got time to talking about sharks, the fellow giving the lecture pulled out a surfboard. Only, this wasn’t any old surfboard, it was three-quarters of a surfboard. A surfboard with a giant, semi-circular hole. Apparently a great white shark had taken a bite out of it. Fortunately, the surfer who had been riding the board had lived. Unfortunately, this was my introduction to surfing.
Not knowing of the turmoil broiling in my head, the lecturer barreled on. He told us that surfers were often the most vulnerable because to a shark swimming below, they looked a heck of a lot like a seal. Apparently shark vision wasn’t much to write home about. While he waxed lyrical about the prehistoric predators roaming our shores, I descended into a pool of gloom. The beautiful, warm waters suddenly didn’t seem a safe respite from the sun. Now, to my youthful imagination, the ocean was teeming with crazed Great Whites just waiting to take a chunk out of me.
Surfing you ask? No thank you.
It took getting into scuba diving twenty years later to realize that perhaps there was more to the story. After all, I had proved that the ocean wasn’t teeming with sharks. In fact, to this day, over the course of nearly 150 dives, I have yet to see one in the open ocean. I know they’re there and I’m sure they know I’m there, but they aren’t the worry they once were. They are not the creatures we have made them out to be. Now I am far more concerned with the currents, the exchanges, the swells and the period of time between swells. How the ocean operates is where my mind drifts at rest. To me, that is the real force of nature to contend with.
While I have always had a love affair with the water, it wasn’t until 2016 that I rekindled it with a passion. I took up swimming again and got scuba certified. Since then, nothing has been the same. My entire concept of the world has changed. There is so much more of it to see, and not as a tourist, but as an explorer of new things, sites people may never have set eyes on, creatures they may never have seen, feelings unexplored.
Today, when I consider those who do not aspire to a “drenched lifestyle,” I am astonished. It’s as though a man is sitting in front of a pile of treasure waving a sign that reads “Free Gold Bars,” and everyone is walking right on by like he does not exist.
Increasingly, my land-locked brethren seem to me to be ephemeral, stuck in a version of the world that they know and are comfortable with, unable to see there is so much more, unable to interact with the rest of it. And, when I consider how many of them are unlikely to ever give the blue part of the planet much of a try, I can’t help but feel sorry for them.
To the salsuginous of us, however, a single love of something fostered by the ocean is the gateway drug. For me, it was diving. Diving led to sailing. And sailing, by virtue of the people I met, seems to be leading to surfing.
So soon, you ask?
In the same way that diving had me hooked right from the start, this activity bears resemblance. I can feel this is something I will love and that I could spent a lifetime on. The taught feeling of skin dipped too long in salt water, the crunch of salty hair, the burning eyeballs, the thrill of negotiating the breakers as you attempt to get deeper.
Oddly, it wasn’t the terrifying experience I expected it to be.
When Kevin and I got out of the car at Otter Rock to check the sea state, I had only my experiences in diving to compare it to. And, as a cold-water diver laden down by heavy, inflexible gear, that’s never a good starting point. Ten minutes later, pattern-less waves aside, and a low period between swells, I was decked in my scuba wetsuit, gloves, hood and booties. Somehow I found myself on the beach, surfboard in hand, wondering what the hell I was doing. I had no notion of how to surf. I hadn’t even read a quick How To.
Kevin wrapped the surfboard’s velcro leg rope around my ankle and had me paddle out with him giving me only a few directions before jetting off for the bigger waves, further out. I was alone now. Alone on an empty beach with only the basics of what to do. Alone with the breakers and an enormous 9ft longboard.
Slowly, we got to know each other. I kept away from the rocky edge of the beach and a small rip current, and the breakers did the rest of the work to calm my nerves, consistently pushing me back to shore. As I gained confidence, I paddled further out. I figured out how to duck a wave, how not to get tangled in the leg rope. And then, it happened, I caught one. Though I didn’t have time to stand up, I rode it all the way in, thrilling at the feeling of flight.
While my first experience might have been more akin to body boarding, it has paved the way for a desire to have additional experiences, to really use the sea to figure out how to do this thing called surfing that I have known about all my life, and that somehow feels in my blood. So, sharks and surf aside, I’m in!