Great whites, 10 foot waves, and lightning…

So, in these past few days, the summer South swell that we had all been dreaming of and eagerly waiting for finally arrived last Wednesday.  Thanks to a massive storm in New Zealand, waves up to 10 feet pounded most of Southern California, prompting high surf advisories and even claiming the life of 1 Orange County surfer. It is always amazing for me to think how a storm half a world away can generate so much energy in our shores. You can check out more of the story here:

Add to that mix: the energy of fear, due to recent great white shark sightings along the San Diego county coastline. Apparently a great white was sighted along Mission Beach, prompting beach closures 1 mile each way where the dorsal fin was first spotted. But really, what good would this do? These animals can swim hundreds of miles at a stretch…by the time those folks implemented the beach closures, that shark was probably halfway up to Malibu. There was even a shark sighting and photo at my favorite surf spot (which I will not name, as my closest and dearest surf friends will kill me if I do). As you can imagine, sharks were the topic of discussion in the lineup as we (nervously?) sat in the water. There were a couple of times where we spotted dorsal fins breaking the surface of the water, just 100 yards from where we floated on our surfboards. “Did you see that?” said the guy sitting next to me. It turned out to be a pod of dolphins. I could just sense the visceral sigh of relief — in myself and around me from the other surfers! And also I must add that our fear of sharks had been fed even before the sightings with Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, which I think everyone in our community watched, perhaps with that rare mixture of morbid fascination. There’s nothing like the thought of a merciless and powerful predator who can lurch unexpectedly out of murky water and claim your life in seconds. However, as a marine biologist friend told me, we’ve been spending quality time with these predators already — perhaps more than we realize or would care to know.

I think that many of those who do not surf would ask, as my husband does, “Why go out? It’s huge with 8 foot close outs and there are sharks. Why are you even loading your boards in the car? Are you crazy? I’m worried enough when you go out on a small day!” I replied simply that I needed to get into the salt water. I don’t know why, but like yoga — I am inexorably pulled to it; in the case of surfing, I am pulled to the ocean and its waves. And ever since I caught my first wave, I knew that this was something I would do for the rest of my life. It was not just about catching a wave. Surfing involves loving the whole process of surfing; that even paddling out in 53-degree water with wind and rain is joyful because you love it so much, and you would rather be out in the salt water than be landlocked for one more day. A love of water is a necessary pre-requisite  for surfing if one wishes to master the sport, but if one truly loves the sport, becoming a master is not so important. All that matters is that you do, and that you find joy in it.

However, the element of fear does change my relationship to the ocean. I will readily admit that I’m not a fan of big waves. I’m more of a mellow wave person, 3-5 foot waves, ones that I can ride on both longboard and shortboard, and relax in the lineup while joking about with my friends. My maximum is 12 feet…meaning that I’ve yet to catch and ride a 12-foot wave, but I’ve managed to paddle out on a 12-foot day and only caught a handful of 5-6 foot scraps. So why do I paddle out when it’s big, when I can wait until it’s smaller? I suppose that I want to be free; I want to be able to paddle out when I want to get into the ocean and not be hindered by size. I do love the art of surfing, and I want to have the freedom and ability to catch and ride a bigger wave if I need to.

Then, as someone who loves and studies Jung, I am aware of the “numinous” in surfing…there is something beyond the wave. Many surfers describe a feeling of spirituality when they surf, and I often wonder if it also, in part, their own encounter with the numinous aspects of surfing. When you encounter the wave and ride it, whether it is big or small, you master also something  in yourself and something shifts internally. The numinous is what Jungians describe as something with a divine or spiritual quality, something which can be awesome and fearful and beautiful at the same time. Are not waves like that, especially those big ones? On a more prosaic level, surfing — like yoga — is like my prozac and xanax. These two wonderful passions give me joy and ground me. Then again, theories aside, the act of doing is just as satisfying. And maybe it could just simply be the release of all those endorphins. I always feel so much better after being out in the water, even if it has been chopped up, windy, and cold.

So, with all this being said, I was still pulled to paddle out in spite of great whites and big waves. I waited Thursday (9/1/11) out — supposedly the peak day for the swell and on the camera I saw sizable sets closing out at the Secret Spot, which is a point break and typically can hold large swells. After fighting with myself on whether I’d rather face a great white and huge waves or the possibility of landing on my head again by trying an unassisted drop back, I opted for yoga instead. However, I thought quite often of waves. It has been nearly a week and I needed to go into the water. On Friday the swell was beginning to fade slightly — perhaps 7-8 foot waves on the best sets, and more manageable 5-6 foot waves on the south peak of the Secret Spot. This was the day I chose to paddle out during the swell. Actually, the Secret Spot was really not so secret, as I sat in the lineup with perhaps 50+ of my mostly male cohorts, most of whom I’ve never seen before. There were only 2 or 3 hapless female surfers, myself one of them, sitting on my 5’6″ twinzer fish — my “big” wave board. The rest were mostly young groms, happily ripping up the large waves while I patiently waited for my mellow and rare 4 foot wave on the inside.

There was only one problem related to waiting for a smaller wave on the inside; you get pounded when those larger set waves power through. There was no channel between the outside and inside peaks today; the swell was too big and unforgiving. A sure sign of impending doom is when other surfers around you suddenly begin paddling hard to the outside. I look out and see a darkening wall of water. There is nothing scarier than scratching up the face of an 8-foot wave (maybe it was smaller, but I am small to begin with and somewhat of a chicken, so most anything seems pretty big to me)…and watching the top of the wave begin to froth white as it begins to break. I paddle furiously toward the shoulder, thinking that maybe I can make it through—and don’t. I get sucked up and go over the falls — ka-BLAM! And got pushed deep into the water. As I finally break through to the surface, I see dozens of other surfers grappling for their own boards, and espy the next incoming wave. I have enough time to take 2 deep breaths before the next set wave breaks on my head. I repeat this cycle for about 2 more times, before managing to paddle over the last 2 waves, panting like a dog amidst white foam. I caught only a handful of waves — but oh, they were so fun and worth it! Some corners connected through, and I was able to carve a couple of turns and kick out before the wave closed out…and there’s nothing like paddling for a wave, making the drop, carve a little cutback, and feel the pure energy of the wave in your body as you fly through the water…

So I caught the surfing bug again…the next three days, as the swell died down and the waves became more manageable, I chose surfing (though on one day I did shorter version of yoga practice, I try not go more than 2 days without yoga practice) and fell in love all over again with the ocean. Sometimes it is tough to decide what I want to do more — surfing, or yoga. They both pull me so much. Sometimes yoga feels more powerful, especially on those flat days when there is no surf. Yoga depends only on you and your motivation on it, but surfing depends on something beyond your control, which is to say, the conditions that generate the waves. But these past few days, the conditions were so good for the waves! And you know it was scary when even the men (of course, I will not say who) will admit that it was scary paddling out!!

This morning, I awoke to the rumbling of thunder and saw massive dark clouds in the sky. I almost did not go out…but, when I looked at the surf cam, I saw those clean lines of south swell still running through my favorite break, and the wind was calm. I had to go out, just one more time before the hectic work week begins tomorrow. I knew that I would be unsatisfied if I did not have my final date with the ocean. In the lineup, the waves were quite a bit smaller — maybe 5-foot on the best sets that came through every 20 minutes, and more crossed up from a growing northwest windswell. There was a sudden crack of thunder and a flash of lightning offshore, beyond the kelp beds perhaps 200 yards out. We all gazed worriedly at each other…yet none of us paddled back to shore. The waves were clean and fun, semi-glassy still in the calm morning light. I guess it is a mixture of denial, bravery, and a bit of die-hard craziness…maybe a bit of that same denial that allows us to drive on those freeways in a 2-ton piece of machinery that could spell our doom if we were not careful. I stayed the session through and caught a bunch of fun, clean waves…no more flashes of lightning, no dorsal fins, and no 10 foot sets punching through…just some fun waves that I shared with a lot of friends whom I see regularly in the water. So, after an eventful week of fear and adrenaline, I could say that I came home satisfied…having been touched with a bit of the numinous and survived, sore arms, and a wonderful tiredness in the body that will bode a good night’s sleep and dreams…