Both Sides of the Gun

Posted: April 11, 2010 in Sessions
Tags: , , ,

The ocean has always been a humbling place for me.  As a child I was afraid of it, and only after years of swimming about did I overcome most of that fear. Now, the ocean is mainly a place of solace for me.  It is a place to get away from the rest of the world. When surfing or swimming or walking along the shore I am able to reconnect with something greater than myself in profound and often humorous ways.  The experience is never the same twice.  However, there is one unpredictable constant that arises from time to time, and that is lessons on humility.

We recently experienced a run of fun waist to chest high surf along the Jersey shore.  The stars had aligned.  Spring is springing, the air was crisp and clear and the lines were long and clean.  Yesterday there was an added bonus, the opportunity to get in the water with a good friend Daniel.  We were both able to leave our lives behind, and romp around for an unexpected late afternoon session.  I had a day where I surfed well, I felt comfortable, I worked on a turn that I have been trying to level out and had some laughs all of the while.  It was amazing.  afterward we demolished a Jersey pizza pie, a “freshy” as we like to call it, and my friend Daniel and I chatted about all things life.

I awoke super stoked the next morning, and to my surprise the conditions had improved.  The swell had not only maintained, but increased.  The wind was offshore and the conditions were peak.  I prepared for an early paddle.  I was in the water by 7:30 a.m. without another soul around.  I was at one of my favorite breaks for a south-facing swell, a massive drain pipe that causes the waves to refracture before running into a nice glassy bowl.  I caught one warm up wave and dashed back out feeling relaxed and confident.  As I bobbed about watching the sun rise higher into the sky I thought about the different vibe I get when surfing alone compared to sharing the lineup with a friend (more on that another time). 

As I sat in this meditative stillness, a set doubling the size of the others streaked toward me, and I was caught inside. Here is where the unexpected dose of humility settled in once again.  I began to scratch for the horizon, but I knew I was getting blasted no matter what.  I looked to my right and realized that I was way to close to the pipe and panic settled in.  My nerves fired as I ditched my board and dove deep. obliterated for sure, I came up to see the pipe less than 10 meters to my right and a second wave of the set jacking up.  I contemplated grabbing my board and turning for shore, holding on like a raft in white water, but with the pipe so near and nobody else around I feared that a collision with this unflinching chunk of metal might do me in. 

My decision to hold ground was good.  I swam deep and surfaced sucking wind moments later 5 yards from the tip of the pipe in a swirl of foam and spray and just like that my session was over.  I tucked my tail, flapped my arms and flopped exhausted on the shore line.  As I sat there collecting myself, watching the Atlantic serve up another set of empty chest high peelers, all I could was laugh.  In my experience the ocean does not care what order you place when dining in its infinite restaurant. When it is the mood to serve a slice of humble pie there is only one thing to do: eat it and like it.  That is exactly what I did.

  1. jerseyfresh says:

    Thanks for the shout out, Howell.

    The storm drain pipes along the Jersey Shore are a mixed blessing. Although they are smaller than the jetties they are near, they produce similar conditions in the water. They act as a point break for the incoming swells, a predictable place to sit and pick off waves.

    Depending on the currents beyond the end of the pipe, though, the pipe has a way of pulling the surfer or swimmer toward its gaping mouth. When a big set comes in, it’s not the sand bar, or the next few mammoths on the horizon, it’s the pipe that, all of a sudden, that becomes the issue. Not just a nuisance: more like a case of Humpty-Dumpty about to crack.

    I’ve been there too. On a bigger day in the Spring of 2004 at a break in Spring Lake, NJ, I almost met a cruel end. I can’t remember the swell direction, but I remember that there was a whipping North to South sideshore current. Facing north was the mouth to a storm pipe four feet in diameter. It was on the paddle out, having taken a set of waves on the head…..I thought i had paddled out further than I thought. But no. I had barely made it out twenty feet, and, caught in the longshore current, I was about to be sucked into the mouth. I tumbled, fumbled, and panicked, as onlookers watched from a gazebo atop a dune that is often the stage for wedding pictures. Of my fifteen minutes of fame, about three were used up. I was in the limelight, starting to see stars of panic that appear and fade. I was spared. I took a seat on the beach, humbled, like Howell.

    At the end of the day, though, you have to have a good head on your shoulders, and a sense about the conditions. Tides, water depth, currents, rips, weather, wind, and general level of confidence. Climbers do this: they look a a cliff, see a line, picture what gear they are going to place and where, and then where each hand and foot is going to go. Only then do they go for it. Surfers need to do this too. To catch the perfect wave. And to exit the water board in hand and not on a stretcher.

    To more freshies and empty lineups……

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