Today, as I ran down Beryl Street to catch my friend, I considered that it might be colder down at the water, and that I might have taken an extra four minutes to pull on my wet suit. Bryan probably wouldn’t have cared. Too late, though. Surf in trunks until the last possible day, I told myself, inventing what sounded like a plausible surfer dude credo on the fly.
Bryan had a wet suit on and laughed at me as we walked out in the 64-degree water. You could barely feel the sun for the wind blowing. “This might be my last day without a suit,” I told him. “No shit.”
Paddling out on this particular day was a slog, through fast, aggressive, inside-breaking waves and soupy white water. Conditions were bigger than I had surfed in a while, earning a “fair” rating on Surfline.com at around four or five feet high. By the time I made it outside I remembered that I haven’t been in shape for surfing in real waves since last October, when I lost my job.
I’ve been new at surfing for long enough to know that successes are fleeting, but even with humble expectations I was feeling a slump coming on. This was my second surf day in a month or so, and also my second day in row. The day before I didn’t catch a single wave. I had told myself I would stay out at least an hour, no matter what.
After about 30 minutes I was shivering in the wind, and still hadn’t caught a wave. Every time I tried to catch one I slid off the back. I wasn’t making it over the lip. This is pretty common for new surfers, because it’s difficult to find the proper trim on a board. One helpful website explains that it’s important to “adjust your fore-and-aft weight distribution at certain, critical moments,” such as the one right before you either eat shit into the bottom of the wave, or else watch it slide out from under you.
Another problem has to do with wave dynamics. Longboards, like the board I ride, excel for paddling over the top of small waves as they break, allowing the rider to drop in and take a line down the wave. This isn’t necessarily an easy task, and not without its perils, but it has the advantage of allowing the rider a gentle entry into the wave. As the surf gets bigger, or waves get steeper for any number of reasons, dropping in over the top gets harder to do. Shortboards have the advantage here, as they make it more realistic, if not easier, to catch a wave under the lip, as it sweeps up behind you. Failure means you dive bomb the water in front of you, somersaulting over your board, potentially getting whacked, and almost always taking a concussive blow to the ego.
Pearl diving, or pearling, as this is known, isn’t really a big deal in small waves, on a sandy beach with no rocks, except that you get washed inside, which means you have to swim back out. If you’re tired already, this turns into a downward spiral--you catch fewer waves and spend more time getting washed inside and having to swim back out. The net effect is that I was trying to creep up behind waves, when the better approach would have been a frontal assault.
Most maddening about this hopefully short-lived slump in my surfing career is that the same wave that I paddle furiously for and lose is the one that, invariably, a more proficient surfer ten feet away catches and makes look beautiful. The last few times out this phantom wave catcher has been a behemoth of a man in a swimming t-shirt riding a giant yellow board, a lithe, scantily clad understudy from The Blue Lagoon, and a 70 year-old lady in a surf hat. Every one of them caught waves with a single stroke, while I over- or under-committed, washed inside shivering, only to paddle out again in a compounding cycle of failure.
I was deciding that my hour was up right as Bryan told me he thought I might be hypothermic. “You’re mumbling gibberish,” he told me, after I tried to explain that I wished I had a shorter board, even though it would then be harder to blame my longboard for my poor surfing technique. “You think it’s been an hour?” I blubbered. “Definitely,” he said.
I tried for one more, paddling hard for a gentle, over-the-top entry on a head-high wave. I caught the rush as it started to pick me up, popped to my feet, and sank down again, watching it roll away toward shore, another perfect, missed opportunity in life. Jilted, I turned seaward for an instant and got slammed by the last wave’s big brother before calling it a day and riding in on whitewash.