Patches of blue sky are starting to show through the grey Pacific sky. They rain has stopped, and the morning fog, still snagged on high seaside bluffs and conifers, is starting to lift. It’s going to be a beautiful day.
At the moment, I am noticing none of this. I am in a 5.3m-long sea kayak, riding on top of a 1m wave, cruising in to the beach. My left arm is thrown out to my side, my elbow crooked into the air; I’m bracing on the wave, leaning into the water, actually using the resistance from the water to push down with the paddle, basic Newtonian physics, equal and opposite reactions coming together to keep the boat upright.
I’ve gotten it right – finally. Oh, I’d gotten it a couple of times before, but none had lasted as long as this. I’m surfing in towards the beach on the crest of the wave.
Mind you, we aren’t supposed to be surfing. We’re actually supposed to be paddling in to the beach between the swells. The idea is that when landing a fully-loaded kayak, it sits too low in the water to handle easily. But this is the second day of the surf, the last day of the class, and we’re all pretty fatigued. Stupid mistakes have become the order of the day: elbows too high, elbows too low, overbalancing, overcorrecting. They extend to our person, our equipment: forgetting to fasten the spray skirts that keep the cockpit from flooding, forgetting to fasten the throat or sleeve closures of our paddling jackets. You’d think what with being drenched through to our skins, with a wetsuit keeping us warm, that a small, slow trickle of seawater would go unnoticed.
You would be wrong. It’s another distraction, a tiny river of cold following gravity, moving our already strained focii further and further afield.
We’re at the end of our collective rope, and the instructors recognize this. Their final words, after describing for us their intended activity, are “…or you could just surf.”
Ergo, I just surf.
I’ve been too timid in my approach to the waves. I’ve got paddling out through the surf down cold: hunch forward, presenting as small a target as possible, paddle held parallel to the boat. The wave breaks over you, around you, and you’re through, ready to head into the next breaker. If you sit upright, the wave smacks you full in the chest or face. If you keep your paddle extended to the sides, the wave might spin you around. Even if it doesn’t spin you around, it’s more work to fight against the force of the wave than it is to slice through. The waves push back on anything that offers them a surface, and I’ve gotten really good at not offering them that opportunity. It’s the part when you wheel about to let the wave bring you in that is giving me trouble.
You see, often times you can figure out the rythym of a beach: one big wave, two small, pause, one big wave, two small, pause. Our beach isn’t that easy. There’s a pattern there, but I can’t wrap my brain around it. As a result, I’m hesitating, waiting for openings that aren’t really there, misjudging the surf and being rolled over and over like the log that, in effect, we are. You’re supposed to turn parallel to the beach, parallel to the surf, and use bracing techniques to allow the wave itself to point your bow in towards the sand. The momentum of the wave pushes you in to the beach, objects in motion staying in motion.
But I’m prone to hesitating, overthinking. I played log many a time the first day in the surf, misjudging when to brace, when to lean into the wave (into the wave, when your every instinct tells you that this is a Very Bad Idea), when to turn parallel to the waves.
Human driftwood, that’s me. And I’ve got it down.
But not today, on the second day of surf. I’ve gotten it right a couple of times, and this is one of those times. I’m riding the friggin’ wave, having a Zen-like appreciation of the moment. The boat, my arms, the paddle, the water – all are connected perfectly. I’m easing in to the beach, coasting, angling myself…
And this is when a second wave, travelling right on the heels of the first, catches the stern of my boat and pushes it upward. My bow points downward, and I swivel to brace against the companion wave, but to no avail. I have been acted upon by an outside force. My body is no longer in motion; rather, I have been swung around sideways, parallel to the beach, at the mercy of this second wave.
And I play log again.
When the kayak gets rolled by the surf, after a certain point you can’t fight it. Fighting it will only result in physical injury – and at this point in the week, I’ve had my pride injured often enough that another flip into the surf won’t make a difference. I’ve also realized that I am extremely unlikely to get hurt when this happens. The boat rolls like driftwood, and my torso plays the part of a branch.
I spin under, into the froth of the surf. There is a brief moment of realization that my legs are taking a little longer than previously to come clear of the cockpit. Nothing dangerous, nothing frightening… Again, this has happened enough at this point that this is no longer a new sensation. It hasn’t become a pleasant experience, but it is by now something more or less familiar, expected. I go with the flow in the most literal sense of the term. The boat is still rotating like a log, and I’m rotating as well, following in its orbit. My new trajectory spins me downward, and out of the cockpit of the boat, still spinning.
My forehead strikes the sandy bottom squarely, a dull smack barely heard in the crash of the surf.
We’re wearing helmets (‘Because rocks hurt.’), so the worst that happens is that my chimes get rung and I inhale a little seawater in that first moment of shock. My face is rubbed into the sand, my glasses are shoved up my nose.
I think it’s probably about time to quit.
I pull myself to my knees and reposition my glasses, coughing out seawater. My paddle is floating nearby and I grab it as I stand in the swirling foam and sand, seaweed clinging to my hand, my head. My boat is dutilfully doing its best impersonation of driftwood, turned turtle and heading for the shore.
I follow it, grabbing it by the stern, guiding it as it grounds itself. I lift the stern, emptying the cockpit of water, and flip the boat upright. The skies are clearing, and the sunlight feels good as I catch my breath. I look out at the bay: about half of my classmates have already called it quits; the remainder are still out in the surf. I watch them, their varying degrees of success, the waves pounding around them, under them, over them.
There’s still time before lunch. I pull my boat back out into the shallow water and head out for one more run, trusting that this time, the last time, everything will fall into place, and I can describe a perfect Newtonian arc, laws of motion colliding and collaborating with waveforms.
And I paddle out into the waves.