Whenever I return to Plum Island, I cross the drawbridge onto the island and there’s a palpable feeling of lightening in my shoulders. No, Plum Island is not Xanadu or any other vision of utopia, but it’s home, warts and all. And home just feels RIGHT.
But as good as it feels to be back on the island, it feels even better — even more like home — once I get into the water there. My preferred method for getting into the water is to surf, but even a swim or just a brief dip in the water between suntanning sessions is enough to make me feel like I’ve really made it back to where my heart and soul feel comfortable.
Truth be told, the surf at Plum Island isn’t very good. The swell window is rather small, meaning wave-generating storms need to be in just the right spot or we won’t see anything in the way of rideable waves. Most of our best and biggest waves come from nor’easters, two-day (or more) storms that blow fiercely, pushing locally generated waves onto Plum Island’s sandbars and beaches.
And those sandbars are made up of very course grains. As such, they are very malleable and change dramatically with every storm. It’s not uncommon for a sandbar that has recently been the site of a decent break to get trashed by a storm you were looking forward to riding there.
On top of all that there’s the tidal swing, which is large enough that unless the swell is quite big, there’s too much water at anywhere near high tide for the waves to be rideable.
Because of these factors, most area surfers bypass Plum Island for the more reliable and higher-quality breaks in nearby New Hampshire. And they are high-quality breaks: on good swells, the points and reefs in New Hampshire can be spectacular, and on average swells the denser sand at Hampton Beach makes for more reliable conditions. That means Plum Island’s waves are typically uncrowded — which is a good thing.
On top of that, there’s something comforting about being able to wake up in the morning, reach from your bed and pull the curtains back, and see what conditions are like. It’s so easeful to don your wetsuit in your basement, grab your board and walk a hundred yards to the break — no cars, no parking, no towels, no changing on the side of the road…none of that.
In that kind of situation you come to know the waters and the breaks at home very intimately. You learn what swell and wind and tide conditions are going to combine into the best surfing conditions. And when you’re able to hit those optimal moments in an instant, when no one else is out — or even better, just you and a couple of friends who grew up in the same place are out — magic can happen. It’s fleeting, but that’s scarcity is what makes magic special.
I’m happiest when I’m in or on or at the ocean — any ocean — but I have ties to Plum Island’s waters unlike anywhere else in the world. I spent three years surfing Seaside Reef in Solana Beach, California, and while I got to know the nuances of the break I never felt like a local. I never felt like I could talk to the break and get a response. When I’m out at Plum Island, when I’m waiting for a wave or actively riding, there’s a dialog taking place between me and the Atlantic. It’s a comfortable, joyous, heartfelt occasion every single time.
I feel a particular affinity for Plum Island’s waters, too, because that’s where my younger brother died in 1985. He drowned while surfing and though his body was resuscitated and he hung on for another couple of days in a Boston hospital, I knew he was gone when I pulled him from the water. We spread his ashes there a few days after he’d passed and though I don’t feel like I’m talking with Scott while I surf there, I do feel like he’s part of the ocean I’m surfing — like we’re connecting still, 25-plus years later. And I do sometimes feel like he’s listening, if not talking back, when I’m on the beach or in the water.
And as I sat in the water at Plum Island yesterday having a spectacular session all by myself, I settled back into my discussion with the ocean, Mother Nature, the universe, and a thought occurred to me for the first time ever: I wondered if my 20-plus-year sojourn to the mountains wasn’t a subconcious escape from this place, from the site of what is without question the single biggest happening in my life so far, even though it was home. Yes, I’d continued to fancy myself a surfer and a sailor, and I’d surf whenever I was visiting my parents and waves happened to appear, but for more than 20 years I don’t know that I was ever actually in a place that felt like home, even when I was at Plum Island. It’s like I was fighting this place, not realizing that I should have been embracing it.
Yes, I’m very comfortable in the wilderness and the mountains — moreso, in some ways, than even the ocean — but it’s still not home on the level that the Atlantic at Plum Island is. I will say that Alaska is the only other place in my life where I’ve felt that sense of home; in some ways, even more since it was a home that came not by birth but as the result of a discovery I made on my own. But through all my time in Alaska I always felt like northern New England was where at least half my heart lay.
Did Scott’s accident take not only his life but also my comfort, my sense of home? Subconsciously, was I torn that this place that had always been so special to me had also wrought such pain and anguish on my life? Maybe I was running away from that anguish — and anger — for two decades, and it’s only now that I’m older and, theoretically, more mature, that I can come to grips with the fact that home is precisely where such tragic events happen, that the ties that come from such losses are precisely what make a place home for generation after generation. Not that my family is exactly Waltonesque in its manners or because it’s been in one place for hundreds of years, but there’s never been any doubt that northern New England in general, and Plum Island specifically, and the ocean at Plum Island even more specifically, was where my heart and soul always wanted to be. And as a result of Scott’s accident, I just couldn’t be there, not for a while, until I’d become several different people and lived several different lives over the course of two decades.
So surfing Plum Island isn’t just fun and it isn’t just thrilling, it’s also personal and spiritual and comforting. I don’t imagine I’ll ever find a break or an ocean where I feel that level of comfort, no matter how much time I spend exploring. I don’t know that I’m done living some of those other lives yet, but I do know where my heart lies. And getting to touch that feeling yesterday goes way behind sliding across a wave on a board. That’s how good the surf was yesterday.