The sun rises over the back-line, black silhouettes against the shimmering horizon. Sometimes, only shoulders or a head show, the full upper body of the surfers adjacent to me temporarily hidden in the rise and fall of the swell.
But this morning, the sea is nearly perfectly flat. Trapezoids suspended in a web of reflections are bound by shifting edges. They break and rebuild, again and again, each a fragmented mirror for the sparse clouds overhead.
Some days the water is turquoise blue. Others, a dark, river bottom red which gives the false appearance of a far thicker substance. The spring tide brings high water followed by broken shells, sea life, and the occasional body of an adult seal or lost, barking pup.
My legs below the knee are wrapped beneath my surfboard while my upper body constantly adjusts to the undulating water, stomach muscles tensing and relaxing to counter the shifting centre of gravity. Even after months of surfing, I yet find it difficult to bring my arms across my chest or to my front when sitting on a shorter board. Instead, my arms are at my sides, touching the surface of the water to maintain balance, a fluid equilibrium.
I look around me am reminded how new I am to this sport. The more adept sit upon far smaller boards, sometimes lying back as though in a reclining chair. Relaxed, they seem far more at ease. I keep reminding myself how far I have come since mid December, from total frustration to riding every wave I catch.
A poster in the window of a local surf shop caught my attention. A determined man, tangled hair high above his head, turns one hundred eighty degrees far above the crest of a wave. As I walked past I noticed the caption, white on blue, “Only a surfer knows the feeling.”
If to be a surfer is to know the feeling, then I will claim, even with such limited experience on board at sea, to be a surfer. As my instructor and friend William has said more elegantly, it is not just riding the waves that makes surfing so compelling, but the time spent between the runs, sitting on the board at the backline, watching the sun rise or clouds roll in
Some days, hours after I have come in from the water, showered, and transitioned to the confines of brick, mortar, and office walls, my chair feels as though it is in motion, rising, falling, and rising again. Inside my body, I undulate with the same rhythm. I nearly grasp the edge of my desk before I am returned to the reality of the moment, and look out the window to determine if the waves provide the ideal medium for my return.
I am learning to read the water in a way that I have not since I kayaked in Glacier Bay, Alaska for ten days, or when I spent a summer running rivers in Utah and Colorado. There is a subtlety to the sea’s motion that tells you the direction of the wind, if the tide is rising or falling, and sometimes its temperature too.
On the water, body prone, head lifted to see just inches above the tip of the board, the smallest of eddies toss and turn the prone, paddling surfer. One meter, two meter, three meter swells remind you how small, how incredibly minimal the mass of your body is against the tireless force.
Looking to the South, toward the backline, surfers seek breaks in the wave, places to pass such that less energy and time are wasted to gain the ideal position. For every wave, full or broken, you must choose a course of action. Dive beneath by shifting your body to the front of the board; lift your chest high to force the water to channel between you and the board; or flip upside-down, the board remaining on the surface, you beneath, only to right yourself again on the other side.
Long board, mini-Malibu, or fish–you must find the best spot to launch your campaign. Depending upon your board, fitness, and experience, you catch what is right for you.
I find my way to the back line, sometime with ease and grace, sometimes with an exhausting, twenty minute struggle, … sometimes not at all no matter how hard I paddle.
Last week, just before 7 am, the water was incredibly smooth, the swells minimal. As I paddled out to where a dozen surfers had already arrived, I noted the fins and bodies of dolphins rising and falling all around the boards. Everyone was talking in hushed tones, pointing. For more than fifteen minutes these sleek creatures moved in and around our human figures. Two women were furthest out, having tried to catch-up with the dolphins given their relatively slow pace.
The dolphins did not seem to mind, for they circled one or twice and surfaced right along side, less than two meters from the women on their boards. One surfer slipped off his board and dove as far as his leash would allow to get an underwater view of the pod.
It was, as I have heard people report, an emotionally charged encounter. I don’t believe they are healing nor necessarily incredibly intelligent as we have heralded without evidence for so long, but there is something beautiful about sharing the water with another mammal. It just feels … familiar.
The wind picked up, driving the small swells into proper wave faces, cresting and breaking in a nearly straight line. Muizenberg is ideal for learning in many ways, for you can walk out and ride in on most days. The only frustration is that the waves do not maintain a proper, clean face for long. You must get on fast, choose your direction, and allow the wave to pass beneath you when it collapses to foam.
I face out, looking beyond the backline where I rest. The swells grow over the course of a half hour. They begin to break close to the beach, the cheers of surfers catching the first waves of the morning carry to us and onto shore. It’s motivating, to witness the success of your companions.
Finally, one I believe I can ride. Sitting on the back third of my board, I spin to face the shore again, lying down quickly. I tap my toes against the very tail of the board to confirm my position given what I judge to be the vertical angle of the on-coming wave, adjust for balance, and paddle.
The sea rises slightly and with it, I rise too. I look to my right and see two meters of water behind and above me. I paddle three, for times more and then as my board tilts forward, throw my arms over my head at the same time for a few power strokes. To my right another, more experienced surfer catches the wave and is carried away as though some mighty creature chose him to carry to shore.
I, however, did not time my approach and missed the opportunity. Frustrated, I am reminded how much I have to learn. Unlike climbing or running which seem to dictate a fairly similar body type for success, surfers come in all shapes and sizes. Guys with bellies bigger than a pregnant woman do flips and turns while a white haired, arched-backed man clearly in his seventies catches every wave he intends. He is a regular, one I watch intently each morning we share.
My third try I am on the cusp, my board balanced just over the edge of the face of the wave. I look down into a well two, maybe two and a half meters deep. I throw my arms over and over, kicking my legs in the air to break the inertia and finally, I drop down the face at a tremendous speed. Quickly, I find my hands on the edges of the board, prop my chest high, confirm I am not about to run over anyone, and then spring onto my feet.
Leaning back, I allow the wave to catch-up (for many times, I am not yet quick enough to catch the wave properly), and then adjust my hips and shoulders and stance to ride what remains until it crumbles to foam.
On a good day, with long runs, I enjoy the simple accelleration, fine tuning my ability to gage the direction of the break and to stay on the face. For others, I am up for only ten, maybe fifteen seconds. On those short runs, I work on quicker turns and walking to the front of the board as the waves presses down on the back end.
As the poster says, “Only a surfer knows the feeling.” Falling, falling, falling–as long as the wave is moving forward, you are granted a liquid, perpetual motion machine.
Time just sitting at the backline. The potential sighting of a seal, dolphin, or shark. The sweet taste of the sea. The smell of atomised salt water in the gusts of wind. Even the hard pounding one can take in the face of large waves is part of my life now. I find it difficult to imagine moving back to the desert or high mountains where the ocean has not provided this kind of engagement for tens of millions of years.
Until the next opportunity, my body longs for the motion of the waves.