It was mid-morning on a weekday when I pulled up at a local cove. A crisp westerly gave a velvety texture to the well-defined, three-foot, southerly lines that folded beneath blue skies. It was a time-slot that might typically have delivered a lower head-count, but in a COVID world there were at least fifteen out, a mixture of Sco Mo surf team members and work-from-home surf hounds. They jostled over a shapely left peak that apexed around 70 yards offshore and ran to the beach. I tossed myself into the mix, hoping to get one or two before paddling north to a more discreet bank that promised to turn-on with less tide.  

Out in the water I nodded to a few familiar faces before hunting a sweet spot in the shifty lineup. Too deep, too wide, too late – finally one jacked just right and I steamed in, but just as I climbed to my feet a lump of high tide backwash warbled up the face and sent me tumbling like a horn-tossed rodeo clown. It was not my finest moment. I’d called a guy off who was on a yellow mid-length; although I’d also felt like he’d seen I was clearly in the slot and I shouldn’t have needed to let him know I was coming – his presence pushed me a shade deeper and was an added distraction, but ultimately it was the backwash and poor timing that brought me undone.

Shamed by the dismount I let a few waves slide. I definitely didn’t dash straight back to the inside and make a claim for priority. Waves broke, time-elapsed, I did my penance.

When I found myself in position again I looked over to see the same guy on the yellow mid-length scrambling out towards the shoulder. I have nothing against mid-lengths – I ride one when the waves feel right. However, on this day the waves were steep enough to make a take-off from the peak tricky on longer, flatter equipment. I figured that’s why yellow-board was drifting a little wider, looking for an easier entry. 

Yellow board had obviously decided that my blown take-off still carried negative currency in the lineup. In short, he was of the opinion that I owed him this one. I guess I saw things differently and felt the slate had been cleared.

As I stroked into the peak I called him off twice, then after I’d risen to my feet and set a rail, I bellowed again – a little louder and more assertively this time. The signal was ignored as he trimmed through the wave’s optimal line. My passage to the clean blue wall beyond was completely blocked and the wave was totally butchered. This was no accidental drop-in, it was every bit a blatant burning.

Forced to straighten out, I was furious. Perhaps I could have waited for an opportune moment to return the favour – serve up an icy cold dish of drop-in as revenge. However, I'd been having a bad day till I paddled out and couldn’t let go of the indiscretion. Instead, I promptly confronted the interloper, hoping for an apology. “What are you doing?” I asked several times, loud enough for the lineup to feel like they were the audience in a live drama. After more shouting, no explanation was offered by my new nemesis. Instead he sneered and said, “Where are you from?” Now, while I’ve never been one to cry ‘local’ too loudly, I was well aware that I’d lived in the area for my whole life – and this guy was a Johnny-Come-Lately by comparison.

I should have let it go there but the absence of a simple apology and the inference that I was a blow-in needled me. I caught another wave and then confronted him again; called him a cheeky C#$*t! amongst other things before we moved closer, drawn by a magnetic force of mutual rage.

Soon we were rail-to-rail; glowering, posturing and sizing one another up. I insisted that an apology would have been sufficient, just a nod to the fact that he’d been in the wrong. By this stage it was apparent that the other surfers in the line-up were beginning to feel uncomfortable, their pleasant, off-shore groomed morning had been spoilt by the menace, which resonated between two chest-bumping, angry men.    

“I tried to say sorry, and you blew up,” he protested. I corrected him by pointing out he had shown no such contrition but had in fact tried to imply I was some kind of blow-in.

Things escalated quickly. Using his bigger board for leverage, he uttered those fabled words, “You wanna have a go do ya?” Then he did it, flicked out an open hand and slapped me clean on the face. I felt my own propensity for violence rumbling inside but used every ounce of restraint to keep my hands fixed firmly on the rails. Some other instinct overrode the desire to retaliate, perhaps it was the part of me that wanted to ride a few more waves on a good day and knew that this could ruin all that. Maybe I felt like I’d already won because he’d lost his cool even more than me.

After the slap we separated. Both of us a little frightened by what we were perhaps capable of. Someone suggested he should go in and that the slap was a stride too far. I looked around. There was no lust for violence in the faces around me, just a forlorn notion that we had killed the vibe of a good session. In the end we both skulked away. He stayed out and I paddled to the other bank I’d hoped to surf with the outgoing tide; I wanted distance from the ugly scene I’d help create.          

As it transpired the other bank turned on. Initially, an old friend was the only other surfer onto it and we shared one of those sessions at home you treasure for a lifetime. As the tide drained out it got better and better with every set. The hardest part was suppressing the over-excitement so that you could concentrate on the steep drops. Between waves each ride was recapped with gleaming eyes that told much of the story; a few words helping to crystallize the special memory.

The fortuitous twist of fate made me feel as if I had woken from a nightmare and landed in another dream, this new one an idyllic surfing fantasy, set in my backyard.    

Thank god I never threw a punch. Had I not dismissed the violent impulse, a nasty scene would likely have become uglier. I could have wound up in the hospital or the cop shop, or tangled in a web of legal bureaucracy. Instead, I rode a few good waves with a friend and was left with a memory to savour rather than scar.