My last surf trip is one I won’t soon forget. My wife, two teenage sons, and I had been at the coast for three days. The surf had been small and ill-formed, in the parlance of surfers, “choofy wind chop”. The forecast, however, predicated a sizeable ground swell to arrive the following day.
I told the boys that they might actually get a taste of some decent surf in the morning. They had already been on many surf trips, but when you live three hours from the coast and can only make it to the beach a handful of times in a given year, the probability of catching quality surf is relatively low.
Needless to say, they had learned the basics on mediocre waves. But I thought that this time they just might catch it good. All the right elements seemed to be converging: light wind, clear skies, and a strong ground swell from the south.
I woke up shortly after dawn, grabbed a cup of coffee, and walked out onto the balcony of our hotel. Out to sea, large green swell lines were marching in unison towards the beach. I grinned and nodded. That elusive “good day” of surfing had finally been nabbed.
Feeling the surf-stoke of a sixteen year old again, I power- walked into the boys’ bedroom and shook them awake. When they begrudgingly lifted their sleepy lids, I didn't have to say a word; my face said it all. Their morning lethargy quickly dissipated. Their countenances brightened and glowed as if it were Christmas morning. Apparently, we had been good boys, for the gifts were large, well-shaped, and many. When I finally did speak, I said only seven words: “Grab your gear and wax your boards!” They did, and within the hour we were on the beach, mesmerized by emerald rollers.
The waves looked much bigger on the beach than they did from the hotel balcony. Very clean, but perhaps too sizeable for my boys to make it out. We decided to get wet by paddling out to the inside beach break where the surf was much smaller. We played around for a while, and it was fun, and I would have been content with staying and surfing on the inside on any other day, but not this one. I looked at my fourteen year old and told him I was going to check out the outside break. I dug in and paddled towards the third sand bar.
The swell intervals were spaced far enough apart that the paddle out was relatively easy. When I reached the lineup, I glided into a pack of about ten local surfers. I sat up on my board, gave them the obligatory surfer nod of respect, and waited for my first wave.
I didn’t have to wait long. Lumps appeared out the back. A large set closed in on my position. I selected the third wave, spun around, stroked four or five times, and slid down the face of a green beauty.
It was well overhead, peeling flawlessly to the right. I flew down the wave, pumping and carving from the third sand bar to the second and then finally the first. When I finally kicked out, the water was only knee deep.
It had been years since I had ridden a wave that good. The size, the shape, the exhilaration of the drop and ride, it’s an experience that only a surfer understands. Words fall woefully short of even beginning to convey it. It was an experience I wanted to share with my boys.
I looked out to the pack of surfers bobbing like tiny corks on the far side of the third sandbar and wondered, wondered if my oldest son could make it out. I jogged down the beach and then paddled out to where my boys were still surfing.
“Aidan,” I said, “the paddle isn’t that bad. The sets are pretty far apart. I think you can make it out. You want to give it a try?” I didn’t have to ask twice. I had just thrown down a testosterone challenge to a fourteen-year-old strapping male. There was no question in his mind about trying to make it out.
Within seconds, we were both digging in and heading out to sea. I paddled again into the pack of local surfers. This time I felt like a cowboy trotting into a new frontier town with his trusty sidekick. We both pulled our boards to a halt and sat back in our saddles. And as before, I gave the perfunctory surfer nod. Aidan did likewise. Older, local surfers can’t abide disrespect from outsiders, especially if they’re young “grommets”.
I wanted Aidan to get a feel for the lineup, and the best way for him to do this was for us to sit and observe. A number of sets rolled by. We watched surfer after surfer drop into wave after wave amidst the hoots and hollers of their buddies.
Finally, I looked over at Aidan and nodded. “The next set,” I said. “Just wait until I tell you to paddle. And once you commit, don’t back out.”
Outside and to our right, the tops of a large set feathered in the light offshore breeze. I let the first three waves pass to save him from getting pounded by the other waves if he wiped out on his takeoff.
“Go on this one,” I shouted, “it’s a nice right.” He turned around and paddled hard. The wave picked him up and he was gone. Seconds later, I saw his board buoyantly bounce upwards and his legs stick out of the top of the breaking foam ball. It looked like he had dived into a giant head of cauliflower. Obviously, he hadn’t made the drop. It was his first wipeout on a big day.
My heart dropped and my breath went shallow. I scanned the impact zone and spotted him. He was okay and back on his board, paddling back out to the lineup with a chiseled determination etched on his face. He glided up next to me and said, “I didn’t make the drop.”
“Yeah,” I said with a chuckle, “I saw your legs upside down. Ready to try again?”
He nodded, but I could see a few tiny fissures of fear cracking through his chiseled determination. I knew he had to “get back in the saddle” right away. The longer he waited, the wider the fissures would grow. He picked another large right-hander from the next set.
Paddled, caught, dropped, and disappeared. “Come on, make the drop,” I said to myself. Ten seconds went by and I hadn’t seen or heard anything. No legs in the cauliflower this time and no drenched teenager in the impact zone. “He must’ve made it,” I said with a grin. My grin grew into a full half circle when I heard a distant whoop and saw the very top of a familiar head peeking over the back of the peeling wave. He was cruising down the wave, now in its second reform on the first sand bar. He kicked out when the ride was over only feet from dry beach.
It took him awhile to make it back out. When he finally did, the stoke radiating from his body was palpable.
“That was awesome. I want another one,” was all he said.
“Yeah,” I thought to myself, “only a surfer knows the feeling.”
Even though I didn’t ride that wave, I think it now ranks as my favorite. I was able to share such an amazing experience with my son, and that’s really what it’s all about. Life, I mean. Relationships. As enjoyable as surfing is – just like any other sport or hobby - it’s really about the people you share it with. The closer the relationship, the better the experience. A when the waves are really good, like they were on that day, well, it really doesn’t get much sweeter.