The more experienced surfers ride short, fiberglass boards. When paddling out beyond the break, they dive under incoming waves like cormorants, avoiding all that painful white water.
I ride a beginner’s board. Nine and a half feet of lacquered foam. With most other forms of entertainment shuttered during the lockdown, there was a run on surfboards. The only one I managed to get my hands on was bright yellow. Laying on top of that big buoyant banana, I’m no cormorant. My only option is to go over the waves.
When trying to catch a wave, I’ve been told, the perfect spot is right where it is breaking. You want to position yourself so you are on the crest, just ahead of where the curling water is turning white. That’s when it’s at its most powerful. I’ve not yet managed to position myself there, at least not when trying to catch a wave. But, when paddling out, I have a knack for finding that not-so-sweet spot.
No matter how hard I paddle, I’ll hit the wave, face first, at the exact moment it breaks. Imagine you’ve put all your energy into making it over a wave and, now, you are laying in front of a speeding truck, puckering up for a kiss. Although it’s no kiss. It’s a silverback gorilla sinking his fist into your face.
The one time I tried to shotgun a beer, it came shooting out my nose. “You have to open your throat,” my friends told me, as they downed entire cans in a flash. I did not think I had the ability to open my throat like that. Imagine my surprise when I swallowed a quart of ocean water in a single gulp.
There are 10 million viruses in a teaspoon of seawater. Most are unable to infect humans. But, still, 10 million in a single teaspoon. And, to think, the only reason I’m out on the ocean is because a virus has switched off the rest of the world.
My only recourse, when confronting the full power of a wave with my face, is to wrap my arms around my board and hold on. Like a rodeo clown with a head injury clinging to an angry bull, the odds of staying on top are not in my favor.
Picture a washing machine large enough to fit an adult male with a 9.5-foot surfboard leashed to his ankle. I lose sense of which way is up and which is down. I curl into a ball and shield my head from what once was my board but now is a torpedo.
I’m only under for seconds but it feels much longer, allowing time for reflection. While I’m choking on saltwater and praying to God I don’t get knocked unconscious, I think: I wonder if my nose is broken? It certainly feels like it. I sure hope I’m not bleeding.
A white shark can sniff out a drop of blood from miles away. While there are no white sharks at Cocoa Beach, there are plenty of bull sharks, due to a nearby estuary. A male bull shark has higher levels of testosterone than any other animal on the planet, making them the most aggressive species of shark.
When confronted by a shark, you want to show strength. Or so say the experts. The last thing you want to do, if a shark circles your board, is lay on top and cower. You should get off your board and be vertical in the water. Most underwater creatures are built horizontality. The up and down anatomy of a human will confuse the shark.
Once in the water, experts recommend you maintain eye contact with the animal. If it gets too close, give him or her a sucker punch to the nose.
There is no way in hell I am getting into the water and engaging a shark in fisticuffs, no matter what the experts say. Even if my passivity – or cowardice – results in bodily harm, I am at peace with my decision.
Because of the pandemic, when I bought my board, surf schools were closed. Leaving me no choice but to, literally, jump into the deep end on my own. My second time out, during a particularly brutal wipeout, I hit the ocean floor, toes first. My foot folded in half, like a card table, until my big toe touched the bottom of my heel, stretching and tearing all those precious ligaments. Also, on that same day, I cracked a rib. The next morning, the idea of getting out of bed and walking to the bathroom was so painful I waited for my wife to leave the room, then pissed into the water bottle I keep on my nightstand.
While recovering from my injuries, I had a routine checkup with my doctor. Although, these days, nothing is routine. My appointment was conducted over the phone, as the doctor’s office was reserved for patients with serious ailments. When I told him about my injuries, he said,
“Wait a minute. Back up. Did you say you were surfing?”
I take medication for anxiety. Every few months, before renewing my prescription, my doctor checks up on my mental and physical well-being. When he found out I was surfing, rather than urging me to reconsider my new hobby, which, judging by my injuries, was not safe, he said, “If you ever decide you want to try getting off your meds, you let me know. Surfing? That’s just great. Where have you been going?”
“Cocoa Beach. It’s been two weeks and the swelling in my foot…”
“There are some great waves out at Cocoa,” he interrupted me. “I mean, if it’s good enough for Kelly Slater…”
“Do you surf, doctor?” I don’t know why I bothered asking when the answer was so obvious.
“Every weekend and sometimes after work, depending on the swell. Listen, I won’t keep you any longer. If you’re out on the waves, I know you’re doing just fine.” He hung up on me.
Later, when I called the pharmacy to see if they had my prescription ready, I was told my doctor hadn’t phoned it in. I wasn’t sure if he forgot or if, despite my cracked rib and sprained foot, he believed surfing to be a cure-all.
Waves come in sets of three. When wiping out, it’s important to make it to the surface for air before the second, then third wave hits. If I’m lucky, there will be enough space between sets for me to get beyond the break. But, most likely, I will be knocked around by more sets before making it out. It’s a 100 steps forward 99 steps back journey.
I just hope, by the time I get out there, I have it in me to catch one big enough to take me back to shore.
This post is republished on Medium.