When the Ocean Decides to Show You Who’s Boss


Photo by Aaron Chang

Saturday morning — I automatically wake up at four am, bright-eyed and bushy tailed and ready to start the day. My son had a track meet later this morning, so that meant that I had to be back at the house by nine o’clock.

This meant no time to go to Tim Miller’s shala to practice as their Mysore class opens at 6:45. I wanted to get in both yoga and surf time in this morning…so this meant a home practice by 4:30 when the coffee kicked in. I figured that since the waves will be a bit bigger today (maybe shoulder high at best), I will just do Intermediate Series today instead of Sunday, which is the traditional day for Intermediate practice. I focused on lightness and ease rather than really going deeper into the postures, to reserve some energy for surfing.

By 6 am I was finished, kissed my husband good-bye; my two kids were still sleeping. Got to Secret Spot by 6:15am just as the sky was beginning to lighten with the approach of the sun. The usual tribe of our regular dawn patrol crew (Dana, Jack, Glen, Tom, Dan, and Ron among others) was there, putting on their wetsuits and waxing their boards in the pre-dawn darkness.

Dawn Patrol

The pre-dawn light

I paddled out into the waves, and was greeted by a shifty wind swell mix that already had some texture from a light south wind. However, the outside peak revealed some solid shoulder high sets that had some good potential for a fun ride, and most folks were sitting there. The sun still hadn’t come out yet and it wasn’t double over-head, so only a few faces greeted me at the outside peak.

That first hour or so was super fun! I caught a few set waves which carried me nearly all the way to the lifeguard stand. Today I had my Kevin Connelly 8’8″ pintail longboard with me, as it has been smaller these last few days. The KC handles itself well in 2ft or overhead surf, and plus I rarely wear a leash when long-boarding because it gets in the way when I am walking across the board. I have been surfing/swimming in the ocean for close to 20 years, so I thought nothing of it.KC board

More folks paddle out as the morning progresses, and finally some female faces appear the in the lineup; I see my friend Chris and graceful goofy-foot Marly on the inside. I got lucky and caught some more set waves from the outside…some of them felt fairly sizable, but I was unfazed. Imagine the thrill of casually dropping into a gleaming face of a shoulder high wave, cranking that bottom turn as other surfers look on! Three really good waves went to other folks — I dropped in and had to kick out. Of course the guys were usually charitable but I was determined to catch the biggest wave to myself, if I could!! (Thanks to my Type-A, fiery pitta dosha).

There was a lull, and we bob outside, waiting for the next flurry of waves. I chat here and there with Jerry, Jack…Dan, but my eyes constantly scan the horizon. Finally something starts to brew from the outer waters; when the horizon line of water/sky shifts and darkens, that is usually a good indicator that a set wave is coming your way. I began to paddle out and others do so too. The wave was at least head-high with perfect form. Tom was on my left (Tom C. is one of those regular older surfers who can catch any wave on short or long board and make it look effortless). I hesitated as I felt that I was too far, too deep inside the face of the wave. I wanted to go, but comforted myself with the thought that Tom may have enjoyed that wave. As I predicted correctly, the wave broke way over and would have sectioned in front of me, leaving me in a pretty bad place in the impact zone. But Tom didn’t catch it either! We looked at each other and at the same time groaned, “Argh!”

Tom said, “Shoot, I was dawdling too much then.”

“Yeah,” I said, “well, I was too deep inside.” We laughed, and waited for the next wave. The next waves went to other folks; I was too far outside to catch those that broke more to the inside pit, and this only added to my fiery determination to catch the next set wave.

Finally the horizon begins to shift and darken again. An outside wave rears up — I spin my board around and take off before anyone else could do anything (or so I hoped). But something about this wave felt different. As it pitched and walled up faster than what I had expected, it also felt really big (maybe it wasn’t but for me it did). I made the drop amidst a bunch of what seemed like surprised male faces, mouths open. No time to make the bottom turn. (I should have taken off sideways, or turned right from the start, another mistake!). By the time I thought of the bottom turn, the face of that wave closed out with a BOOM! I had nowhere to go but like the kook that I am, just collapse onto the board and hang on for dear life.

I could have hung on. Only that the force of the breaking wave knocked my head against my board, then sent it hurtling towards shore.

As I popped to the surface, I felt dazed. Other surfers were paddling furiously around me, other waves were breaking, folks were surfing around me. I watched in dismay as the next round of whitewash carried my board towards shore…

So I began swimming. And swimming. And…swimming. I’ve lost my board before in similar conditions and survived, but this time I felt unusually tired. Maybe it was the cold water…maybe it is my age (as I inch ever closer towards 50)…and certainly hitting my head hard on the board didn’t help. Two head injuries in 2-3 weeks, how lucky can I get???

Don’t panic, I begin telling myself, but I feel the hot pit of panic already beginning. Just pace yourself, even backstroke if you have to! The currents were pretty strong and it took great effort to even swim anywhere near my board…which, by the way, I could not see because I was too far out and it was probably too close to the beach. The cold water seeped into my bones. I tried to slow my breath…and chastized myself. Guess I shouldn’t have done that yoga before surfing!! Who would have thought?! It wasn’t double over-head but here I am, floundering!

I saw Dan paddling on the inside. I must have had some frightened look on my face because he paddled near me. “Are you okay?” he said. I grabbed onto Dan’s board. “I just need to rest a bit,” I said, between short breaths.

“I can paddle with you to the beach,” Dan offered…and at the point Marly showed up on her green longboard. She asked the same thing, Are you okay? I tell Dan that I’m fine, maybe I’ll just rest with Marly for a bit, she had a bigger board. Meanwhile, white water crashed all around us — it wasn’t a good place to sit around twiddling your thumbs.

I float with Marly for a bit, feeling thankful for her kind, mellow presence. “I saw you on that wave,” she said, while I caught my breath. “I was like, Oh no! That was a really heavy wave.”

I caught sight of my board, which floated near the edge of the inside curve of the point, and thankfully, it did not seem that far. As I felt my strength return, I thanked and told Marly that I could swim to shore. She seemed worried at first; she still hung by when I started stroking towards shore, but as I gained speed and gave her a thumb’s up, she finally paddled back out towards the lineup.

Later on, when I paddled back out (like the determined fiery fool that I am), Marly told me how she lost her board and had no one to help her. “I was traumatized from that. I wear a leash now, because of that. Always.”

Later my friend Chris told me, “If you are over forty, and it’s shifty and big like this, you need to wear a leash.”

I suppose they are right. But I couldn’t see how shifty the waves were when I paddled out, because it was too dark. They probably would have said, “Don’t paddle out when it’s dark! Duh!” And I do wear a leash — but with a shortboard…I just thought it would  be smaller, and took out my longboard instead. And unless I’m dealing with 6 foot walled up waves at a club contest in Oceanside, with the time pressure of only 15 minutes to catch the best 6 waves in my heat, I just don’t like wearing a leash when riding a longboard. Most times, I have estimated correctly and been okay. Or I have lost my board but didn’t have to swim all the way from the outside peak to shore. It also helps when you don’t hit your head. Maybe I just got a little too confident. And so this time, the ocean showed me who was the boss.

One good thing that happens when you surf a spot regularly is that you make friends, and especially today, I was so grateful that a couple of kind folks offered their help. I probably could have made it to shore on my own, but their presence certainly made a big difference in the level of my anxiety.

Thankfully, the ocean gods were kind again and gave me a nice mellow wave (waist high or so, from the inside peak) to ride to shore.

I made it back home to see my family (I wanted to kiss the grass growing on our front lawn), and in time to bring Dylan to his track meet. Wore a beanie to hide the bump on my forehead.

The rest of the day went well, and Dylan got a PR of 5:15 in the mile. Being able to support, cheer, and witness my son doing his best felt better than any set wave.


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