No one will ever be so confused as to consider me a good surfer. The farmer from Iowa, having just driven west across the rest of the continent will, upon pulling up at the beach at South Cardiff, Calif., and seeing the ocean for the first time and finding no one but me in the water amid solid, quality surf, watch me ride a wave and remark, “Well hell, even I can tell that guy ain’t so hot.”
But I do know, more or less, what I’m doing out there in the water. And I continue to go down to the sea upon a board as often as able. When I can’t get into the water — the flu kept me dry-docked for three weeks recently — my life gets off-kilter.
All it takes is one thing — one moment — to keep the ocean’s grip firm. One wave, obviously, does the trick. One wave where everything comes together: my skill level on that day, my fatigue and my positioning; the wind, the tide and the swell direction; the size, vibe and location of other surfers in the lineup. When that happens, when I pick off a set wave and glide through a ride that is a flowing dance with a wave and the wind that created it thousands of miles away, well, the stoke that results is the stuff on which an industry has been built.
Other events can set the hook, too. The pelican that dives headlong after a fish close enough to splash me. A green flash as the sun sets into the horizon. A pod of dolphins passing just a few feet below me in clear water. Venus and a sliver of day-old moon overhead. A thunderhead over the inland mountains glowing orange, red and magenta in the evening sunset.
The prudent thing to do upon experiencing one of those moments is to smile, give thanks and exit the water. More often than not, I try to squeeze more out of the moment, to which the universe often just shakes its head and smiles. Then the good ride on a great wave becomes a long lull that stretches past sunset and into darkness. Or the lineup that was spread out enough for me to work my way into position for that wave becomes a seething hive of aggressive surf-star wannabes boiling the water as it paddles for every slight undulation in the water’s surface.
Occasionally, though, I have the good sense to savor that one moment and know that I’ve just experienced a peak. I’ll ride that high until the next time I get into the water and chase another wave.