A Side Note About Surfing

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The view from Monkey House

(Written April 12, 2015)

Yesterday, Shane and I went out into the surf at Playa Amarilla, one beach north of Playa Gigante, where we’d settled after leaving San Juan del Sur – the base camp for Nicaragua’s southern Pacific Coast – for the last time. Our hostel, Monkey House, clung to the edge of a high, exposed headland between Playas Gigante and Amarilla, and lying in a hammock under the tile roof over the patio, you could see down to both beaches as well as to the wild surf breaking in huge sprays of white over the exposed rocks. “A few weeks ago there was a big swell,” one of the other surfers told me as we sat watching the waves roll in and crash on the rocks below Monkey House. “The waves were breaking way out there –” he gestured out, maybe seventy meters from the rocks, much further than even the big set waves were breaking that day “– and we just looked at it and thought, fuck, you could surf that! So we paddled out and were just riding them all the way in to the shore. Fucking amazing.”

I looked out where he had pointed and saw the big swells travelling implacably in towards shore, pelicans swooping low over the face of the waves, and tried to imagine them cresting and breaking into ivory foam so far from shore. Already the surfers on Playa Amarilla seemed shockingly far out, the perspective so different from when you are in the water yourself – foreshortened, the distance from where you sit with your surfboard back into the sandy shore seems like nothing at all. From above, it is quite evidently a long-ass way, and the whole enterprise of sitting on a tiny foam contraption the size of an ironing board, waiting for bigger and yet bigger waves, seems a little bit absurd. Then you see a surfer paddle madly into one of those waves, vault to their feet and slice down the face, gathering the potential energy of the wave under their feet and shooting along the shoulder as it peels down the shore. Beautiful.

I grew up on the water, albeit the relatively protected waters of the Salish Sea off of Vancouver Island, and I have always loved swimming in the ocean. I find it to be a type of essential activity for ye olde homo sapiens, because it is a sure path to appreciating the bone-crushing and merciless power of Mother Nature – nothing to be done in the face of the ocean, its relentless waves and tricky currents, its fogs and winds, the bone-chilling endless cold expanse of it. Any activity where you throw your fragile human body at a natural force and have it indifferently pummeled into submission is, in my opinion, an extremely healthy reminder of our place in the world. And then you have surfing – in which the surfer is pummeled, yes, but occasionally surpasses the pummeling to achieve a transcendent harmony with the energy of the wave, moving like a suddenly sentient element of the sea that slips the two-dimensional line of the wave’s path towards the shore and swoops into the third dimension, cutting across line after line, cascading along parallel to the shore in a maverick communion with nature’s power.

That, then, is the thing I am trying to learn to do. Surfing. It is very difficult and the learning is slow, but I have a good teacher and yesterday at lunchtime we climbed down the cliff in the heat to Playa Amarilla. We surveyed the wave situation and then strode into the water, dipping our boards into the small waves to wash the sand off, and watching the incoming surf until it was time to jump onto the boards and paddle, Shane duck-diving and I turtle-rolling the incoming waves as we made our way out to the back. I had paddled into a few waves, more successful than I had been the previous days, when we spied a mountain of water rising in the distance. The swell had been building for the past few days and occasional sets of enormous waves had been rolling into shore, crashing so loudly on the rocks below Monkey House that the sound of it worked its way into my dreams: a phone conversation with my parents, in which I had to inform them that I was high-tailing it for Europe and would have no cell-phone reception for the next several years, but couldn’t get my point across because of the noise of crashing surf and the water showering down all around me – this, despite standing on a neatly landscaped university campus far, far from the sea. At any rate, the swell brought in a stack of enormous waves, giants that had me paddling far out, even beyond the headland of Monkey House, to escape the impact zone.

Once safely far out into the sea, I pointed my board towards the horizon and sat up on the board, rising many feet into the air with each swell – my view of the ocean momentarily cut off as a mountain of water rose in front of me, then the whole lineup of incoming waves made visible as the crest moved through me. Behind me and to my left, the jagged headland was absorbing enormous white-spraying impacts that scattered handfuls of foam across the oily post-wave surface of the water, some of it scudding all the way over to me and blowing up against my thighs. In front of me, a half-dozen pelicans glided along a rising wave, banking their wings parallel with the face of it and surfing the wind. To my right, the curving bay enclosing the surf breaks Colorado and Panga Drops: the whitewater and black bobbing shapes of surfers visible even at this great distance, and the swell marching in everywhere, promising a great ride or a spectacular wipeout, depending on your skill level. I waited, legs dangling in the warm water brought in with the swell. Watching the pelicans, and the rippling silver eruption of sardines along the water’s surface as they fled a predator – probably the red snapper that the fishermen had been pulling in all week. Anxiously waiting for the big waves to pass, yes, but also infinitely content to simply be there, poised in reverence to the power of the waves smashing rock into sand right next to me, letting those watery shoulders gently lift me up and down.

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