Is big city living getting you down? A story about sailing through the doldrums and giving thanks for small blessings.
It’s Monday afternoon. You’re brandishing a residual hangover from Saturday night. You need to get in the water, wash the chaos from your body. You run down to the beach with your surfboard underarm and note the crowd littering the peak. They remind you of ravenous ants. It’s fat, gutless and closing out. The southerly is blustering up the coastline. Outside of the city, there might be three surfers out max, on an afternoon like this. But this is Sydney. You haven’t surfed in two weeks and you feel guilty about it. You’re not exactly sure who you are letting down. Yourself? The sea? Your old buddy Huey? You tell yourself, It’s cool. I’ll go for a paddle. Call it a swim with my surfboard. Get wet. Gotta keep your expectations real low. You paddle out, finding you’ve developed two soft tissue bumps just beneath the skin around your upper ribcage. The act of lying on your board becomes quite painful: a clear sign you haven’t been getting out there enough. The first wave you get a guy on an eight-foot foamy drops in on you and nosedives. He pops up grinning from ear to ear. Woo! Yeah! He yells in your direction, as if the two of you just experienced something special together. On the second wave you have to bail because somebody is paddling out right where it’s lining up. On the final wave, you spot the section up ahead, trim, trim… yes! You think, finally! You get overly excited, bottom turn too late and cop the lip in the shins. It’s an incredibly underwhelming finish. In disbelief, you watch the remains of the wave roll towards the shore. You turn to catch the next line of white-water in. It flips you on your head. You resolve to paddle in. On your way up the beach some well-meaning stranger asks you how it was. You know the drill. You are supposed to say not bad, or there’s a couple out there ay, or bloody beautiful. Instead you say, pretty shit. He smiles awkwardly and looks away.
You are in the doldrums. Don’t worry, I find myself here on the reg’. The doldrums are defined as a state or period of stagnation or depression. But the term has its roots in historical maritime usage, referring to areas of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that fall between the northern and southern trade winds. A belt of water known for its calms and light baffling winds in which sailing ships often found themselves caught for days or weeks at a time.
Your boat is stuck, your sails hang limp. As a surfer you are going nowhere.
It’s easy to become jaded, especially when surfing around the eastern suburbs of Sydney or similar. At around this point, you need someone like my good friend Itgel Chuluunbaatar, born and bread in landlocked Mongolia, to drop you a line and remind you what it’s all about.
At age 27 she arrived on our sun-kissed coastline having never seen the ocean before. Her initiation into the sea was far from ideal, in my books. We headed down to the south coast, but Mama Earth hadn’t got the memo. The sky was monotone grey, and the water mirrored the heavens – dark, choppy and strewn with weed. We found the most sheltered spot on offer and got comfortable. I was disappointed that the weather hadn’t turned on for her, that the south-coast hadn’t welcomed her with the groomed easterly lines that dominate my memories of the place. But she shared none of my pessimism.
As one might expect, the harsh Mongolian climate mostly marked by snow and freezing temps doesn’t allow much opportunity for getting in the water. Hence, learning to swim isn’t that high on the list of priorities. I watched Itgel bob and flail around in the shallows, trying to figure out the best way to submerge her little body in the drink. She got horizontal, face down and attempted to generate some forward momentum. Then she started to sink. She flapped her arms and legs and managed to clamber up, hair awash across her face, beaming. She said afterwards that seeing the ocean has been a big dream of hers for many years. Other dreams have included riding a motorbike and getting a scholarship to study a Masters in International Law at one of Australia’s top universities. Tick, tick and tick. The physical intensity of the wild, white-capped ocean blew her mind, she later told me, as well as the surreal, booming sound of the swell.
It’s not just about appreciating mother nature in all her glory. It’s also about appreciating your own knowledge and physical ability to swim and paddle, stand up and move along with this piece of surging water. The fact that you understand the undulations of the sea, the ebb and flow of the currents, that you can feel comfortable in all that churning energy, is actually completely fucking amazing.
If you’re having a Monday arvo like the one I described above, just remember that after the doldrums come the trade winds, and they can come in many different forms. Even in the form of a sinking Mongolian.