Sometimes it’s necessary, but is it preferable?
Pull into the car park where your only company is the few gulls flailing against the relentless onshore; their tinny squawk somehow adding to the loneliness of the setting.
The heater is dialled high while slugs of coffee from the traveller cup attend to the internal temperature gauge. As the sideways rain hammers the windscreen, the car feels like a sanctuary, the safest place in the world.
Might be a good day to just sit and marvel at the cruel sea. Watch the white horses stampede across the grey surface; the rips scour at the shore and wind towards the horizon; maybe even mind-surf a few peaks before they become too ugly to consider.
But then you see it, between water-laden flicks of the windscreen wipers, a bowling wall that’s somehow making sense amongst all that chaos. One of those milky rips is pulling enough water up the face to make it stand up and spool down the line.
You half hope that it was just a one off wave, slung sideways at just the right angle because of a fluke collision with another wayward swell, but then another one does the same thing. Coils and chucks and bends in the same seductive way.
Perhaps it’s more about compulsion than pleasure, but some part of you knows that you have to paddle out.
There’s a guilt that comes with leaving waves un-ridden, and besides, you want to be reminded of what it’s like to be out there alone – to confront whatever psychological hurdles your mind throws up.
You think about glancing at the app – that one marked by the distinctive fin, a kind of warped video game that tells you what predatory things are swimming around out there for real. But you decide against it; chide yourself for downloading the dam thing in the first place.
Before you know it, you’re reaching for the wetsuit in the back of the car, it’s rank smelling and still soaked from the last session. As you huck it past your knees you look down and make a formal apology to your balls, before getting the worst of it over with.
Down on the shore you leash up alongside a giant, puffer fish that’s been washed up in the storm. Bloated, spiny and grotesque it’s not exactly a good omen, but before you can think for too long about being out there solo, you charge into the brine and begin a slow, steady stroke towards that peak you spied from the car.
The current sucks out fast, like an invisible force dragging you towards an unknown destiny. The wind-whipped water slaps at your face and beneath the ruffled surface it’s now a dull, shade of green. You dare not look down and before long you have reached the peak, or at least what looks like the spot where the waves should be breaking.
The initial stillness is the hardest thing to deal with, just sitting on your board without the distraction of paddling. Looking around you endeavor to convince yourself that even in such a mood the ocean offers a raw beauty, a kind of wondrous melancholy that you can wrap yourself in.
You come close to replacing the suppressed unease with a genuine sense of zen, but the meditation is soon interrupted by a wave that rears and jacks, demanding your attention like a screaming child. Instinct takes over and you swing.
Seconds later you’re falling out of the lip, gripping at the wax with clawed toes; grateful to be sucked right into the moment where there’s no space for thoughts beyond making the drop.
Reaching the bottom with stance in tact, there is barely time to savour the sense of relief before you are laying it on rail and aiming the board back at that hard place from which you have just come.
The first turn is the hardest. The body is still somewhere hunched over the wheel, looking through the windscreen; not yet ready to be commanded through such a violent range of motion, but you will it through the movement and make it out the other side at maximum speed.
The wave hits the bowl section and the limbs have finally caught up to the mind. Despite the onshore gusts, the rip has sucked the face clean, allowing you to zig-zag freely and feel the rail bite just right. Down the line you watch the lip begin to spill and wind up for the final turn. As fiberglass and foam connect it’s like a world of anxieties and doubts dissolve in the hissing shorey.
By the time you come up and automatically turn to paddle back out, the endorphins are going off like pop-corn.The focus narrows. No longer any distractions. Just you, the next paddle stroke, the focus on a well-timed duckdive and beyond that – the next wave. A zone that feels just as safe as your car did a few minutes ago, but exhilarating at the same time.
Out in the lineup, you look back to shore and can’t help but feel a measure of pride. Like you’ve tasted a glory no one else has on this morning, gone one up on the world because you found a little pocket of joy where others weren’t game to look.
Then you see him, drifting out fast through the rip, not bothering to paddle, aware he’ll be hauling hard the other way soon. It’s that guy whose face you’ve known for years but never really spoken to. No visible means of making a living. Heard rumours he just sold pot to get by. None of that really seems to matter right now though.
Despite relishing a few waves on your own, it feels way better to have someone else out there. You paddle over to talk up how fun it is. Just the two of you in on this little secret. Before long you’re trading waves and breaking down the nuances of every ride. And so it goes for the next hour.
Until you ride a good one all the way through and know instinctively it’s your last; leaving him to decide if he's happy to be out there, all alone.