Rowdy Mermaid Surf Chronicles 2: You Don’t See It, You Understand It
March 22, 2018. In my last dream of the morning, I see a text message from my surf coach Christian that says, “We’re going to a new spot today.”
An hour later at 7am, he calls me and says verbatim, “We’re going to a new spot today.” By 11am at low tide, Dog Beach is a piddling beach break. So we cruise over to Cherry Hill. It’s raining, a few plump drops from incontinent clouds overhead, and as cold as San Diego tends to get, hovering in the low 60’s. Water temp down in the mid-50's.
Mindset almost doesn’t matter when you hit the waves.
If you’re feeling tired, you’re about to be instantly shocked awake by the cold Pacific, and pumping adrenaline as you push through the beach break. Whatever shit is bothering you: the bills, your relationship, the sick cat, your kid’s grades… is about to disappear in a wall of water.
The surf is pumping. Diminutive and lean at 5'7", perched on my 9'2" long board, I face it and feel as powerful as a lizard basking on a long leaf in a hurricane. It’s overhead, at least for me.
We stand at the top of the stairs, hoodies pulled up, surveying. Christian doesn’t need any warm up to his garrulous explanation of the conditions and the shape of the reef. We’re overlooking a glassy, clouded sea, white foam spread before us like an apron: the reef. It expands toward the sand, with a perfect little peak at the top about a hundred yards offshore. He points to the triangle shape, gesticulates enthusiastically toward the wide swath of blue, doesn’t mention the rain. The waves are good, and no one else is out. “We have it all to ourselves,” he says with a smile.
This ocean beauty. It infuses me with desire to immerse myself, like a mythical return to the womb, if intrinsically perilous.
There is no wind, but the cement is wet, and the droplets are consistent. I don’t feel cold. There’s something that clicks over in your mind when you decide to surf, standing in your living room in the pre-dawn light, that’s more powerful than allowing the weather to dictate your session. It shoves aside anything that would stop you- the cold, the rain aren’t a thought unless they’re making the waves into something unrideable. And that you can only see once you get out there. (Christian who is inherently generous, almost never cancels a lesson due to conditions, but occasionally, it happens, and we have to go in, disappointed.)
I tug on my new Ripcurl 4:3 suit, the one with the front zip Christian ordered for me when I wore out my back zip O’Neill. (Shout out to O’Neill for repairing that suit with fabulous new arms and sending it back to me, free of charge.) It’s orca black, which feels sleek and proper for the sea, and on a day like this day when I’m determined to attract any stray warm ray of sun, also like a good call. I’d ripped a hole in the shoulder of my last suit out there on a big day, big for me, with the outside barreling over my head as I was hunting for the inside chest high waves that roll through. I took my old wetsuit into Hansen’s Surf Shop to send back for repairs, head held high because I’d been surfing for a year and a half at that point, and my O’Neill suit was threadbare. This felt like a major accomplishment to me that I could not have imagined when I began, so frightened of the sea.
I stretch my back on the beach, forward fold, hands interlaced behind me. Tight hamstrings, waking up. Pop. Pop. Christian carries his long board sans leash, and I strap mine on tight.
My toes curl into the cold sand. I’m ready.
I no longer brace when I take to the sea. I slide the board in front of me, and lunge into position on the deck. We watch for the lull and focus on punching through the whitewater of the shore break as quickly as possible before the next set rolls through.
And sometimes you still get caught in it. One wave that I should have turtled, grabs my board and pulls me back over the falls even though I’d dug my hands in as deep as they could go, gritted my teeth and growled, there was no power inside me to prevent it. My board and I plunge down, into the swirling chaos. I rise to breathe, arms overhead to protect my face from the board’s fin. Now my hair is wet, and my humility is properly baptized for the day. I climb back on.
Christian laughs at me. This is his world, and I’m still learning from his eyes how to see.
Once we get out, and sit up, he explains the peaks rolling toward us, waves like pyramids, their white knuckles dragging past us over the reef. You can go right or left. We’re alone on the outside.
I stare at the oncoming set, waves over my head, moving mountains of solid green water, well past my comfort zone. But out there on the reef, the wide wave base makes them soft and easy to drop into, and right away, the first wave I caught carried me like the arms of a mother toward the soft sand, cradled in a pocket of ease.
My heart pounds. I can feel it inside my ribs, like a caged bird fluttering. I make the wave.
Riding proves to be the nectar that day. It’s battling the beach break to get out that rattles me to the core. I’m confused. Where am I on the reef? Why did that wave coming straight at us just disappear? Waves do that?
“What you think is happening may not be what’s happening.” Christian talks with his hands, and hates (and I mean HATES) to be interrupted until he’s completed his entire point.
Sometimes I need to raise my hand when I have a question. He explains how the waves form and re-form, and change every second. I listen intently, not entirely sure I’m getting it all.
What you think is happening may not be what’s happening...
I fuck up the re-entry on my next wave. I land in the middle of the beach break, knocked off my board, and have no idea where I am on the reef. More waves are careening toward me. I can’t figure out whether I should be on or off my board... Go in? Paddle out? Shit. Shit! I look inland and see our marker: the sea wall, and think maybe I should make my way south and paddle back out.
I can’t hear Christian, but he’s definitely yelling at me.
I battle waves all the way back out, and come up gasping on the outside, my arms burning. My ribs ache. Christian has seen my inelegant thought process unfold, and he’s rolling his eyes, ready to let me have it with the continued description of the shape of the reef and how I’d totally messed up by riding my wave in on the north side, paddling through the beach break to the south side to paddle out, when I could have slipped up the channel to the north that was right next to me. Or just walked up the beach.
“How do you see it? I can’t see it.” I say.
He smacks his palm at me with the back of his other hand. “You don’t see it, you understand it.”
You don’t see it, you understand it.
Giant walls of water raise their heads from the deep and angle toward us. He helps me position for the next left. I have no choice.
I drop in and my feet fly to the deck beneath me. This move called the “pop up” has taken over a year to feel natural, my upper body strength and weight ratio balanced just so that it happens effortlessly, dropping in. My board is forgiving, and large enough that control is easy to regain if I miss my footing. This wave shoots me through the pocket with exhilarating speed, and then closes out quickly and grabs me, pulls me under, and drags me along with it before I can surface.
Drags… and drags… and drags me along the bottom.
I fight. Terror to breathe rising inside me.
Memories of past ocean trauma. What am I DOING HERE?
Panic sets in. I finally surface, and gasp.
“Oh yeah, these waves drag you, “Christian says. “Only for like 4 seconds, though. It just feels like longer when you’re down there.”
Relax, let go into it, I tell myself. Knowing I will surface, my arm across my head, ready to breathe. But it does frighten me. My nerves are unsteady, which makes seeing what’s happening around me almost impossible.
I feel lost.
I’m usually one of the only women out on the break. Month after month will go by until a bright sunny day and I see the sweet Asian girl who takes her Labrador dog surfing with her. Sometimes there’s a stand up paddler, who has been out on the waves as long as I’ve been alive, who arrives, like Kuan Yin floating over the waves, smiling at everyone. (If I feel brave enough to surf Cardiff Reef, I almost always see women better than me out there, dropping in at the power source.)
The rain dimples the sea, and I lift my feet up, because they’ve started to feel like concrete blocks attached to my ankles, and they’re warmer in the air, even still. The sea gets much colder this time of year. On days like these it’s hard to feel my board, and I fall just from the numb placement of my pop up.
I surf in. I paddle out. This time with a little more ease at the right angle between the sets.
A pod of Pacific bottlenose dolphins surface in front of us to breathe, little babies in their mothers’ flipper pockets. I feel a warm smile rise to my lips, certain their arrival is a blessing.
We work the lefts and Christian rides in after me, making sure I’m okay. This experience is why I train with him, because even when I’m past my comfort zone, terrified, he won’t let anything happen to me. He is the ultimate father of safety.
In that way, he’s the exact opposite of my own father, who taught me how to ride a bike. Out in the sun, on the concrete sidewalk of our neighborhood, he pushed me, let go, and I rode, wobbled and skidded out into a shrubbery, dragging my knees and elbows along the sprinkler heads and the corners of the asphalt driveway. My father yelled at me to get up.
Covered in blood, and more terrified of failing him than getting more hurt than I already was, I swallowed my tears and learned to ride a bicycle that afternoon. He felt accomplished, and turned his back. I got into a hot bath and cried, 7years old, my knees stinging, my mother dripping water on them and singing sweetly to comfort me.
We didn’t wear helmets back then. Or kneepads. Blood was intrinsic to childhood. The Los Angeles of my childhood was unbearable heat, smog, concrete and blood. My father’s red face, boiled beet rage, was inherent to learning anything he might teach me. There would come a day he wanted to teach me how to hit a softball, and had me pitch him the ball. He swung, and clocked the ball straight into my teeth. Blood dripping from my lips as I fell to the ground. My front tooth still bears the crack. He yelled at me for that incident, too. For being in the way of the ball.
What is safety?
Christian is younger than me. I don’t tell him he’s like the father I never had, the one that actually cares about my safety. Toward the end of our session, he shifts gears, and starts praising me. “You’re doing great.”
I grip the cold wax on the deck of my surfboard, and laugh.
“Why are you laughing?” he asks, confused. I can’t explain. I’m laughing because he always yells at me before he praises me. And I’m laughing because I feel glee that I’ve earned his praise. And I’m laughing because his curmudgeonly criticism of my earlier attempts is eventually always replaced by the pleasure a teacher feels at seeing his student excel.
And I earned that. From a rather grumpy Buddha, but still.
I rise. I walk on water.
The wave lifts me, throttles me forward. I crouch, and gain speed. The wall of green grey water thundering beside me.
Ecstasy and fear compete inside me, and I reach back and drag my fingers in the cold water, feeling the surface of the wave the way you caress the skin of your lover’s stomach. It is erotic. Anyone who surfs will tell you so.
At the end of the wave, I feel myself relax, tuck my back foot in, and lean back, longboard style. I blow a lot of waves, but once in a while, the elegance of the lean overtakes my body, and it’s a completely spiritual ecstasy, a oneness with the wave and the beauty and the moment that is part of the Unspeakable World that is surfing, lovemaking, storytelling.
You lose yourself in the moment. Our only word for it is Oneness.
“You should feel proud of yourself,” Christian tells me at the end of the lesson, after I ride my last wave straight up onto the sand and jump off, running alongside the board.
I fall on the beach to my knees. The exhilaration is gone, suddenly replaced by the shock of being alive.
“Thank you, Jesus!” I shout.
For a pagan, this is a hilarious moment. I laugh at my own proclamation. Apparently, when I survive the surf, Jesus is my guy. After all, he did walk on water… Maybe this is his realm I’ve entered, finding my way on my knees across the blue glass to some unseen revelation.
Christian grabs the next wave behind mine, digging in his left rail to the sleek face, hands lifted overhead until he pins the back of the board down and spins hard into a cutback that carries him swiftly right, cross-walking toward the nose as the wave sputters to a stop at the sand. Like a pro.
I get as much pleasure from watching him ride as from riding. Instant awe. My mirror neurons firing away. I think it’s why surfers love to watch other surfers. We remember those feelings, and can taste a dissolved measure of them in our blood when we see someone else performing a move our bodies know intimately, in the places in us where words cannot reach.
But sometimes it’s envy. Surfers who long to be better. I don’t feel that way, because I never imagined I would get as good as I am now. Everything else is just extra. I feel like I’m a member of a club I always wanted to join that will finally have me. I don’t need more than that.
A few weeks later, a 16 year old boy will throw me a shaka after a sweet left that carries me into the river mouth, almost to the bridge. He howls at me, and his energy throttles my happiness. I’m whatever version of a female Peter Pan there is. I secretly aspire to be the cool mom. The one whose kid won’t be embarrassed when she drops him at school. This boy stokes my ego for a minute, and I feel a sense of triumph and belonging that completely eluded me through high school.
To be honest, it heals me.
There are clichés about how surfing is a spiritual way of life. How it’s basically a Taoist experience of the world. The flow, the energy, the clarity.
My friend Terry Nails, who once held the world’s record for downhill skateboarding, talks about the years of the “soul surfers” in the 60s and 70s when guys in Venice Beach didn’t own shoes and lived their lives according to the swells. In Hawaii, stealing pineapples to eat because the surf was too good, and a trip to the store would take too long.
As a woman, I feel my place is here, too. I feel I belong.
When you experience the flow on a wave, you know in your bones a sense of belonging to that wave, to that moment, that’s totally transcendent. It’s not something you can grasp at the office, when your boss calls you in to a meeting, or when you have 50 emails that need a response. It’s the opposite of that alienation. All I can say is:
Put on some music, and remember, you’re part of the story of the world.
For us landlocked apes, The Calling lives out on the edges of our lives, calling us from the deep unknown, unknowable. It whispers your name. It humbles and exalts you at the same time.
The sea is calling…
Let it define you to yourself. And redefine you. I can promise you always emerge as someone different than the person who went in.
~ Kaia Alexander
P.S. This entry is from the archives of my surf journals that I will continue to post on this blog until I’m caught up to the here and now…
The Rowdy Mermaid Surf Chronicles is proudly brought to you by Rowdy Mermaid Kombucha.