“And we went on living it, like a wave, that doesn’t know
it is at every moment different water.”
—Alan Williamson, from “A Childhood Around 1950”
In 1967 I almost drowned when I wandered from a sandbar and dropped into a deep cleft. That particular summer on the Jersey Shore, my older sisters had taken to riding what seemed to be kind, propellant waves with the rafts our mother had rented near the boardwalk, the industrial canvas sort you couldn’t buy in a store. I wasn’t a confident swimmer yet, so my mother wouldn’t even let me near one, which made no sense; the rafts were oversized life preservers, after all. Instead, I’d pace sole-deep, consigned to chasing the almond-sized mole crabs before they burrowed back into the loose, aqueous sand, occasionally gazing out to catch one of my sisters bouncing, skimming toward me with the rictus of astonished play carved into her face. Her white knuckles gripped the raft’s yellow rubberized prow while a wreath of foam exploded around her shoulders. I knew she wasn’t taunting me, performing for my landlocked benefit; she was in another world. It was a more complicated world than I imagined, however. My comfort in the ocean these days is amnesiac and took some practice.
I was six-and-a-half, on our family’s annual pilgrimage from Bergen County to visit my grandmother’s place in Seaside Heights, a white clapboard two-family beach shack she had owned since the 1940s, the above-ground portion of which had been surrendered to renters for the season. We bunked with her in the cramped basement apartment, sprawled on couches or doubled up in the big, musty bed that filled the entire guest room, emerging each morning to the sidewalk as if from a bunker into the salty August daylight on our way to the beach. Day after day, we’d say goodbye to her, and I used to wonder why she never accompanied us, how one could live so close to the ocean and want absolutely nothing do with it. Her interest was focused on administering the terrestrial concerns of the parking lot she owned next door. A car would pull off Franklin Avenue onto her patch of beige gravel, and she’d be on it like a moray eel shooting after a hapless shrimp, her apron bulging, swinging with quarters and rubber-banded cylinders of dollar bills.
We were lucky to get her distracted blessing before beginning our trek up the sidewalk, a tangle of rattling beach chairs and towels around our necks, cooler suspended between us like a wounded comrade. As we ploughed through the smells of creosote, tar, and sausages and peppers, the morning sun revved its punctual rejuvenation of bungled frozen custards, taffy, and pizza slices painted on concrete, aching to be washed away by a downpour. But, ascending the boardwalk ramp, I felt my nose dilate with the subtle fizz of recently broken surf. It cut through the sweet, rancid carnival fog, charged the wires of my imagination, quickened my pace, but also sent a throb of alarm through my groin, that same ghost-organ which might quiver to life if you were gazing down from the flimsy scaffolding of an abandoned fire tower or lighthouse railing. Or, in this case, when you’re hovering in that pocket of liminal disorientation where Seaside Heights’ predictable kaleidoscopic decadence butts against the majestic but alarming natural power of a swell that has arrived mysteriously overnight.
Bruce Brown’s The Endless Summer, touted to be civilization’s first mainstream surf documentary, had finally landed at the Shore in 1967, a year after its release. My sisters took me to see it, and I was apprehended by that film’s riptide like millions of other people. While recounting our favorite images at Maruca’s Pizza afterward, I settled on what I realize now must have been the Waimea sequence: clips of the film’s biggest waves, with Greg Noll and others rocketing down their jacking faces, their pile-driving wipeouts. That same night, the adrenal residue of the movie fueled my stroll along “the boards” with my family, where I spied the fluorescent black-light version of the movie poster in one of the stalls and began hoarding my allotted pinball money for the rest of the summer. That casual silhouette with the white-cuffed board shorts was me, the head upon which that surfboard was balanced an adult projection of my own. I had never been within arm’s reach of a surfboard, and yet I could feel the bulk of balsa or fiberglassed foam pressing on my scalp, the heat of that enormous, almost nuclear sun on my neck.
“Seaside” had its surf culture before that movie, however. I’d watched the local practitioners bobbing in the lineup off of Casino Pier as if they were not human but a pod of rare, migrating mammals. My sisters told me stories about surfers grabbing the dorsal fins of dolphins and being towed to sea. Once, flying a kite with my father on a stormy day, I’d watched two surfers paddle out and disappear into a hundred yards of froth, then weave back miraculously beneath the pier, whose pilings were slicing the slate-colored swells like a barnacled mandolin. This danger was almost as swashbuckling as my mother’s stories of German U-boats out there twenty-five years earlier, how they exploited the gaudy lights to silhouette freighters and torpedo them. Eventually, the length of the boardwalk was shrouded with precautionary blackout curtains behind which she and my grandmother worked the wheels of chance, calling numbers, doling out cigarettes to winners, sweeping nickels from the painted counter.
The morning after seeing the movie, I was still riding the goofy voice-over of The Endless Summer, which now resonated through my very real proximity to surf, conveying me down the ramp past the booth where our mother paid and our hands were stamped with waterproof fluorescent ink. Descending to the sand itself, I must have decided that this would be the day of communion. I made for the water before we had even popped the umbrella, skimming under my mother’s radar while she was working suntan lotion into my blonde middle sister’s permanently scorched shoulders. My dad wasn’t with us this time; his vacation rarely meshed with our trips to The Shore. A coincidence or a protest, the unnaturalness of the place that far beyond his aesthetic tolerance? I suspect the latter.
Venturing out to the sandbar was like moonwalking, striding and letting the buoyancy suspend me in a protracted antigravity leap, keeping my chin above the water, springing each time my toes met the sand. I loved the feeling of walking out to sea where it should have been getting deeper, only to arrive at the thigh-deep sanctuary. It felt illicit. There were plenty of people around, but I had not considered that most of them were at least twice my height and were, perhaps, swimming. Strutting around on my new stage, I braced myself as the leftovers of bigger sets of waves rolled through, briefly buoyant in the swirling whitewater. One of these waves must have carried me, because when it passed and I expected to be set down again, bottom never came. I sank, immediately chugging what seemed like a pint as my feet searched for purchase on an invisible staircase; a few yards in any direction probably would have delivered me to another merciful platform. I remember bobbing once to take a sputtering breath, my face a floating, contorted mask. It was like emerging from those disappointing dreams of flying; in your sleep one prong of consciousness is still engaged, needling your dream-belief that flapping will keep you aloft, until you wake and understand that the element through which your limbs are pumping is, of course, not capable of doing what you thought.
I went down again and took in more water, contemplating the bright sun through its effervescence. And then, suddenly, I was locked in two copper-red arms, staring up into the pissed-off face of a lifeguard. “OK. OK. You’re all right. I’ve got you,” he murmured, standing chest-deep, slinging me onto his hip and lugging me to shore as I spat and belched, squirming like a greased monkey. I hadn’t even heard the high-pitched staccato of his whistle, the warning signal that someone was in distress. It was a scene I had heard and watched transpire dozens of times as lifeguards leapt from their chairs and sprinted into the breakers collared with the tethers of rescue buoys, porpoising out to some poor idiot. I worshipped them, a sucker for the brand of heroism that radiated from their ranks, whether in teams pulling the oars of a surf dory out and over the crests, or solitary, high in their white perches, blond crew cuts shrouded in their red-hooded sweatshirts, identity no more than a nose glazed with zinc oxide, the glint of sun off of aviator glasses. They were soldiers, lifers, not high school kids who’d taken summer jobs.
I still marvel at the quickness of his having spotted me among so many, dropping from his post and getting to me before I disappeared. To say there were a thousand people would not have been an exaggeration. He could have been looking the other way for a second, simply rubbing an eye that was stinging with Coppertone or checking out some bikinied coed. But something illuminated me in his peripheral vision, and he had flown to scoop me up before my mother realized what was going on. When he returned me to her, she hadn’t even known I was the one at the heart of the commotion. He was not kind to her. It was my own fault, yet I let him go up one side of her and down the other, standing there dripping in his official white trunks and red, numbered tank top, barking a critique of her parenting skills as she shrank before him, glancing down at me, beginning to grasp the situation.
I’ve been teaching high school for thirty years now, at a boarding school in New Hampshire for about twenty of them. It’s a sweet deal if you can survive the ten years of mandatory dormitory duty, living among forty-eight adolescent boys in a perpetual state of wondering what nascent tragedy or potential lawsuit is brewing on your watch. It was a lot of fun, a few blissful years sailing by on banter, manageable whiffs of dope smoke in the corridor, curable homesickness, tame roommate disputes, easily stifled whining. But in the first third of one particular year, I decided unequivocally that the time to pull the chute had arrived. We had taken the entire dorm on its annual trip south to the beach in Massachusetts for a “bonding” day, and one of the students was swept out to sea.
My family had moved from New Jersey to Massachusetts in 1967, and sailing a small boat with my father had acquainted me intimately with the estuaries and coves around Cape Ann and the North Shore. The mythic power of that tidal current rifling Plum Island Sound was the first thing I had described to the boys as I stood at the front of the bus, imploring them to stay in sight if they were going to dip so much as a toe, then finishing with the perennial mandate to pick up their trash. It was an achingly beautiful late September morning,
a weekday, and with the combination of summer’s having ended and the workweek having reabsorbed its toilers, we had the place to ourselves.
The boys had dispersed into pods of activity: a brutal, misnamed version of touch football, awkward commerce between respectable and severely challenged Frisbee-tossers, the solemn circle of overachievers blowing sand out of their calculators, and the predictable neck-deep burials. No one was interested in swimming. The faculty relaxed; a couple of them embarked on a walk. I chatted with the Dean of Students, who had volunteered to come along with us on the excursion. Who wouldn’t trade a school day for a morning at the end of a protected coastal National Wildlife Refuge? The south end of Plum Island is one of the rare protected barrier beaches north of Cape Cod, a long strand that hadn’t been devastated by development in the middle of the last century like the beleaguered coasts of New Hampshire and southern Maine. We were all the way out, past the last parking lot where the spit reverts to the State. A few disheveled surf casters flanked us, preparing to pack it in, installed before sunrise, their lanterns doused.
Barely thirty minutes had passed before one of my colleagues came motoring back towards us, his legs grinding the sand as he sprinted around the point’s obstacle course of rocks. Panting, almost in tears, he explained that one of the boys was now thrashing in the standing waves of the current. “Where?” we asked, concerned but still cool, thinking we’d had them all in our sight. “How far from shore?” Armored and numbed by dorm experience against knee-jerk alarm, we let it sink in.
“He is gone. He is out there,” came the gasping reply. Doubled over, my colleague explained that another teacher was still around the point trying to raise the Ipswich police on his phone. The Dean and I looked at each other and began running toward the carpet of glitter the sun was laying across the channel. The absence of any boats, which had been an element of serenity, now transformed the panorama to a wasteland. When I rounded the point and faced south, the glare grew even more intense. I could barely focus on the water. “Where is he?” shouted the Dean. “Can you see him?”
Cupping my hand over my brow allowed me to make out the tiny dot of a head over two hundred yards out. It was as insignificant as trash, a detached mooring buoy or a bucket blown from a dock, flotsam disappearing behind swells and reappearing, conveyed east as if on a haywire factory belt. There would be no whistles, no trained paramilitary professional to the rescue, just a few teachers, paralyzed, pacing frantically. No one was going in that water. No one was going to let anyone else go in. One of us made a tepid gesture of wading out, but the others shouted him back.
The head went under, popped up, the arms making an almost sleepy effort to swim as the temperature of the water began its cruel drain. Sometimes, because of the glare, we’d lose him completely for a few excruciating seconds, and my heart would accelerate with disbelief that it was over, that it had happened at all, the consequences descending like a curtain of galvanized chains. While the teacher who had remained at the scene continued shouting into his phone, two people we had previously not seen arrived: a fisherman, who had taken it all in from the point, and a sunbather, who had heard the shouting from where he was tucked back in the dunes, out of the wind. Both had placed calls to the Coast Guard up in Newburyport and to the Essex police. The little head, however, was already another hundred yards away.
From that distance the mouth of the Ipswich River is camouflaged, the jetty at the end of Steep Hill Beach the only indicator of a breach, and on its north side the cottage-peppered headland of Little Neck. That’s where I spotted the orange rescue boat emerging tantalizingly slowly from a fold in the marsh. No mistake. We pointed at it, shouted, waved, but even if they could have seen us, they would have written us off as a bunch of dancing maniacs. Then the tame wake burst into a rooster tail and the boat was on a wire for the drowning kid.
When they brought him to us, he was wrapped in a gray blanket, shivering, incongruous among the Harbor Patrol team in their orange survival suits. The boat idled across the current into the beach where I stood thigh-deep, arms crossed. It was a fluke that they were out there to begin with, the only reason being a training run, breaking-in the Town of Ipswich’s new toy. When they got the call, they happened to be just inside the estuary, putting the engine through its paces, so unfamiliar with its operation that, as they approached the shallows, I had to grab the gunwale to show them the hydraulic lift switch on the throttle, instruction that distracted me briefly from wanting to reach up, grab the boy by his hypothermic throat, rip him from the deck and pummel him senseless. This child who had been seconds away from drowning, whom the water had taken like a train.
In a photo from 1979, in Cayucos, on the Central Coast of California, the dry hills fold into themselves behind my sister and me as we pose in front of an oleander’s constellations. We are in wetsuits, holding a pair of her boyfriend Matt’s surfboards: Gerry Lopez Lightning Bolt “guns”—one white, the other purple. Designed for experienced surfers and bigger waves, they are arguably among the least appropriate boards for novices.
Evie had been teaching elementary school out there for about five years, and I’d flown from Massachusetts to visit her for the summer after my freshman year in college, my first time back in California since the early 1960s. I had been born in Los Angeles after my parents relocated there in the mid-1950s from Long Island. They returned East when I was a toddler. Only in recent decades, after my rededication to surfing (thanks to my son’s persistent nagging) have I wondered what trajectory my life would have taken if my family had stayed put in the San Fernando Valley and its quick drive over the mountains, through Topanga Canyon, to the Pacific. As it was, the return to my first coast to visit my sister was not so much a homecoming as another condition for the ongoing cycle of initiation.
Throughout the 1970s, any velocity-curious kid in the country had his own private, vicarious Southern California experience through the medium of Skateboarder Magazine. But I had also subscribed to Surfer magazine, not because I actually surfed, but because I wanted to. Against all rational wariness from nearly succumbing to the ocean in New Jersey when I was six, I was still fixated on the idea of riding waves. I had rolled my way back to it through skateboarding, when the urethane wheel, in all its glowing, amber beauty, began to appear on the shelves of bike stores on the North Shore of Massachusetts. This is when the allure of California had begun to tug at my aesthetic sense and imagination even more powerfully; before adolescence I’d denied my origins in the West, because they were framed by such a narrow window in my family’s migrations. But now I was getting close to the age at which I could actually go there on my own if I wanted to.
Skateboarding came at a time when I was almost burnt out on hockey, which I had been playing year-round since the age of nine. Team sports and coaches had worn some of my gang down, eventually, as politics intensified and the stakes rose with our ages. Some of us just wanted something different after being ground through the mill of town and high school football/soccer/hockey/baseball leagues for ten years, and pond hockey was more fun than the organized version. My friends and I turned to things like Frisbee. We snorkeled in the murky local lakes, terrorizing frogs, pickerel, and sunfish with hardware-store spears. We golfed illegally on our swampy, mosquito-infested public courses. But skateboarding, especially, began to quench the need for action—and danger, perhaps—that hockey had satisfied throughout my childhood. My parents, however—like the seniors at my high school—thought skateboarding was childish, considering the cumulative money and time they had invested in hockey, driving me to rinks all over Essex and Middlesex counties, and into the heart of Boston on subzero weekend mornings.
My new sport conjured the reputation of an outsider, a persona to which I was not entirely opposed at age sixteen. Afternoons and weekends, my friends and I cruised our four-town radius looking for places to skate, like thieves casing prospective bank targets or convenience stores. There was the slick asphalt of new developments such as Pye Brook Lane in Boxford, alongside and beneath which we had fished for trout each spring. There was the tiered, steep labyrinth of the Ipswich General Cemetery, which we, in our gothic athleticism, called “Death Row.” But these sites always led to confrontations with grounds-keepers, police, mourners, or mothers—not unlike our own—who were simply trying to get to the grocery store without crushing beneath their station wagon tires the limbs and skulls of any number of skateboarding teenagers trussed and armored in knee and elbow pads, work gloves, and hockey or motor-cycle helmets.
The culture of skateboarding, or even a subtle whiff of its outlaw promise, had come to me from the place where I was born, and yet I don’t remember being bitter about the life that could have been. Even as I pored over the photos of headbanded, horizontal blonde hipsters smacking the tiled lips of drained swimming pools in my magazines, I never cursed my parents for leaving California. If there had been yearning, I tamed it. I had been deprived of coming of age in the epicenter of that revolution, but I was happy where I was in New England, and part of that was because we seemed to be doing something no one else was.
My friends and I drove to Boston one day after we’d heard that an indoor skatepark (the city’s first) called Zero Gravity had opened on Lansdowne Street. It was the beginning of the end, the day when my love affair with skateboarding began to fizzle for two reasons: you had to pay, and you had to do it indoors in a competitive pit with judgmental strangers. For us, it was not supposed to be about community. Most surfers are on the hunt for empty lineups, and most fly-fishers flee from having to share, elbow-to-elbow, a gravel bar or stream bank. In this new, complicated frontier, we were suddenly transported to a realm not unlike the teeming weekend ski slopes of New Hampshire, jostling in the lift lines with people who had better equipment, who reminded us that we were part of a mob, of something popular, normal. At the tops of the skatepark’s torturous wooden structures, we stood self-consciously in the queue as if on a gallows, outsiders in a new hierarchy of local kids who could rip like the dudes in Skateboarder, ruled the place, and seemed to have nothing but scorn for anyone they didn’t recognize. Clad in our improvised gear, we predated Ghostbusterimpersonators. The world whizzed around us like a National Geographic nature special, a storm of posturing, wheeled baboons scrapping for alpha dominance in a coliseum of curved plywood ramps. Our opponents seemed to ignore the artifice of that built environment, a maze that mimicked the contours of water. But it wasn’twater. Pulling up at a break where clean waves are firing inflicts an irrepressible excitement that freshly rolled pavement or elaborate skateparks could never match. I’ve come close to yanking the zipper (or arm) right off my wetsuit trying to gear up in frenzied anticipation.
A few years later, I brought my prized skateboard, a deep red Gordon and Smith Fibreflex, to college with me. I rode it to class a few times before relegating it to various apartment closets under the rubble of shoes. At my first teaching job, I filed it on my office bookshelf like a knickknack. It was stolen soon after that.
Throughout my adolescence, the memory of almost drowning did not loom as a prohibitive dream; rather, it became a foundational experience that fueled a desire to be more comfortable—and not stupid—in surf. Skateboarding, with its requisite road rash and sprained wrists, showed me a relatively safe and logical route back to the breakers. And when I began to spend summers with my father’s parents on the South Fork of Long Island, I was rebaptized by cultivating a love affair with bodysurfing at Flying Point Beach. I had learned not only to swim, but to be comfortable spending time beneath the surface, too, to roll with whatever the waves demanded if I couldn’t dodge them. I knew that sandbars were rugs waiting to be pulled out from under any wader. In a tight swarm, towel-capes flapping from our shoulders, swim fins and lunch bags lashed to bike racks, my new friends and I raced through the town of Water Mill, then along the potato fields, toward the dunes and the promise of waves peeling across the bars. When we were old enough to drive there, I got my first literal taste of surfing by floundering on a borrowed board. After a few hours in sand-pounding beach break, I walked away spitting the grit from my teeth, frustrated, disillusioned, my bruises and scrapes suspiciously similar to what the asphalt had dealt.
The day Matt had taken the preposterous photo of my sister and me in California, the three of us had climbed down a ladder from a restaurant on the embarcadero and paddled across the harbor at Morro Bay. Weaving between otters and the rank hulls of abalone boats at their moorings, we’d made our way out to the Strand and the jetty south of the imposing helmet of Morro Rock. This was to be the first time I’d tried to surf with anyone, a tutor who was an ally, a local resource, who yelled, “Paddle!” and “Pop UP, Raoul!,” in a West Coast drawl that made his new French nickname for me even cooler by butchering it. Real-time instruction focused on timing is what will nudge a beginner over the hump, but it was also Matt’s presence in the water that made me blot out the potential nightmare of those chest-high, sloppy summer waves shearing along the boulders, which seemed enormous now that I was among them.
Matt had arrived on the Central Coast having fled the vortex of drugs, general self-destruction, and overrun beaches South of L.A. where he’d grown up. When my sister met him, he’d been landscaping in and around Cayucos, just north of San Luis Obispo, while studying the nascent science of hydroponics at Cal Poly. Renting a house high above the town, he could wake up, grab the binoculars, and analyze the arriving swell all the way from Atascadero north to Estero Bay. In retrospect, I admire how casual he was in his responsibility for my sister and me out there, while he managed to catch a few waves himself. The new perspective of being at eye level—not on the beach—behind a good surfer as he drops and trims was transformative. Straddling my board, so engrossed in watching his light brown hair rise above the crest thirty yards down the line, or the burst of spray as he spun into a cutback, I was repeatedly flushed to shore by the bigger sets.
I scratched my way back outside, caught my breath and waited, having already botched my first dozen attempts. When the right train arrived, hitching a ride didn’t seem like a landmark event. I paddled, recognized from bodysurfing the moment when you can transfer the source of thrust to the wave itself, and stood up on the deck, balance and control a state to which my body adjusted before I had a chance to think. The residual gift of skateboarding. My sister, standing next to her board in the shallows, howled and pumped the air with her fist. She told me later that in my initial crouch, long arms dragging the surface, I reminded her of a gibbon. And this is the image I haven’t been able to shake on subsequent trips back West to surf with a nephew who was living in Santa Barbara and with friends at Hollister Ranch, east of Point Conception: an aging primate caught in some perverse, inverted evolutionary phase, gliding across the water’s surface instead of army-crawling from it to terra firma.
California hadn’t made me cocky, but it gave me permission, that following winter in 1980, to try my luck in Massachusetts at Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester, not far from where my parents had moved the year before. In my possession was a permanent loaner, a Natural Art shortboard one of my friends had picked up in Florida. He’d lost interest in it after a year, moved away, and never asked for it back.
I arrived at the desolate, snowbanked parking lot already wedged into the restrictive scuba-diving wetsuit I’d rented. This is what probably tipped off the two guys already out there that I was a “kook”—a clueless poser. I paddled out between the north end of the beach and a miniature East Coast version of Morro Rock called Salt Island, where the beefy, overhead, post-nor’easter swells were wrapping around the point. There were two surfers already in the lineup, hunched in collusion, the noses of their boards almost touching. Snow had begun to fall, drifting among us from the leaden sky like ash from a distant volcano. As I wobbled past them, trying to push a little farther outside the break to play it safe, they didn’t waste a second. “HEY!!” one shouted, without any intonation of snide humor. “If you get in trouble out here, we’re not saving you. You’re gonna fuckin’ drown.”
I forget what my response was, but I remember despising them for years, even as my surfing progressed in fits and starts until I decided to put it on hold. The “loaner” haunted me from various basements and garages, its presence in each crypt calling like a premature burial victim as my wife and I began the scramble through our young marriage from apartment to apartment. Selling it (was it even ours to sell?) is probably what preserved our relationship and allowed me to focus on family and career instead of becoming another surfing cliché: the domestic casualty. Everyone has to begin somewhere, but permission can be hard to come by, given the edgy tolerance of the aspiring by
the anointed as we bumble through our early stages. But now, when I see some twenty-first-century incarnation of my novice persona thrashing through my personal surfing space on a dangerous midwinter day, I look back on those two dudes in Gloucester with some affinity and respect. They hadn’t told me, “Get the fuck out of here. Go back to shore or we’ll drown you.” They simply evaluated my level of skill and told me they wouldn’t be responsible, wouldn’t be able to rescue me from myself.
Two years ago, when my twenty-three-year-old son phoned from Dakar to tell us he’d blown out his ACL for the third time, I wondered what sort of father I was, encouraging him to surf in Senegal while studying there. A few years before Africa, when he was eighteen, he had gone to Samoa—alone—having socked away two summers’ wages from landscaping and being a crew member on a lobster boat. He called us after surfing his first offshore reef. “It was huge,” he’d e-mailed. “Double overhead, steep, and fast. But Dad, I knew I could do it.” And then he went on to describe the drop, trimming along the concave wall, mesmerized by the jagged coral passing by through that warped blue storefront, its display of the ruined, wicked steeples that surfers call “the surgeon’s table.” Jake is famous for injuring himself, always finding a way to lacerate a finger, crush a hand, or dislocate a shoulder, not to mention the repeated assaults on his right knee. In his former coaches’ words: Spirit and ambition exceed skill.
I know I can do it…. This is how we persuade ourselves when confronting the ocean in its more complicated moods. The water either invites or repels, the latter being the easiest to recognize; but when you read its face and decide you’re going in, enraptured by what it looks like at that moment, it’s easy to forgo the contingencies. Whatever seduces you must piggyback a chemical more subtle and insidious than adrenaline, which gives you only a strength you never thought you had, not a trippy sort of confidence. I’m talking about something more hedonistic, deliberately selfish, the accompanying interior monologue something like: This is going to be fun: my wetsuit makes me float. My board floats, too, and is attached to my ankle by a leash. Therefore, I am safe. You tend to forget there might be someone at home waiting for you.
Thirteen years ago, twelve-year-old Jake synced my return to surfing with his own introduction to the sport when he badgered me into buying and “sharing” a board with him. I remember distinctly watching him trip on the leash as he wrestled the seven-foot board down the shore into the benign moil of Narragansett Town Beach in Rhode Island. And when he emerged half an hour after, I read in his brows and the shape of his mouth an ecstasy that was tinged with dismay. He had scared himself. Just what I’d hoped.
My children have an enduring obsession with Into the Wild. The parent in me likes to think that Jon Krakauer’s parable about Christopher McCandless’s dead-end example in the Alaskan wild tempers their indulgences with hesitation because of the tragic hero’s unmitigated recklessness. Whenever he is mentioned in our household, my wife’s reaction is swift and usually spliced to a hefty rope of expletives. My kids always take her on, their empathy rational because it acknowledges the darkness behind any romantic gauze around the book or Emile Hirsch’s character in the movie; they’re thinking abstractly, about independence and rebellion against societal expectations, saying no to the college/career conveyor belt. For them, it was less about adventure than about principles that never crossed my mind as I sat open-mouthed, aspirating The Endless Summer. I wanted in. And I suppose I always have, craving immersion or buoyancy whenever I gaze into or across a body of water, whereas my children’s intellectualization has, in the long run, been healthy. Even Jake, with all his physical mishaps, seems to have tempered his experiences or aspirations with wisdom and perspective that eluded his father. Surfing with him over the past decade has also forced me to mature in my own relationship with the waves, trapping me in the confusing dual role of parent/protector and partner-in-crime. When he takes off on a gorgeous wave and I lose sight of him, I am exhilarated and proud, but I am counting the seconds until I see him kick out safely and paddle back to me. When we watch slick, music-injected surf documentaries, I am becalmed when our sighs and groans are harmonized, as we react to images of monster waves we have no interest in riding.
But today’s surfing flicks are so extreme in their conditions they make Bruce Brown’s seem safe. That’s why I don’t get too worked up when a reprint of that movie poster appears affixed to my middle daughter’s closet door. One surfing memorabilia website has my original black-light version selling for $594. What did ever happen to that thing? Streaked with the triage of yellowing Scotch tape, its manically tacked corners looking as if they’d been blasted with buckshot, it probably just disintegrated.
This past summer, after surfing all morning, my son and I pulled into the local shop, because he needed a few things. I waited in the broiling car until he returned, a teetering stack of surf wax balanced in the crook of his elbow and a sheepish smirk on his face. He leaned conspiratorially into the driver’s-side window. “Better go in,” he said. “Robert August is in there.” I was fried, and my lats felt as if they’d been through a dirty boxing match. I just wanted to get home and take a shower, rehydrate. Then I contemplated the significance of this convergence, that I might actually get a glimpse of one of The Endless Summer’s stars, who was making an appearance at the surf shop because they sold his company’s longboards. “Come on, Dad. You have to,” Jake said, so I climbed out, assenting to a quick hit-and-run tourist gawk at a celebrity. But on my way in the door, Dave, the owner of the shop, who’d become a friend over the years, greeted me with a handshake and shepherded me directly to August, who was standing alone near a rack of bikinis, holding a license plate that said Ask Me About Free Naked Surf Lessons. Dave made the introductions, and as I shook the sixty-eight-year-old August’s tanned hand, we laughed about the plate and how it just might keep him from getting mobbed.
We had a brief conversation that now seems more like hallucination than memory or belief. So many things I could have asked him and didn’t, about the impetus for the purported “longboard renaissance,” or how much he surfed nowadays and where. He seemed healthy and normal, but had he paid a price for his lifestyle? And what good would it have done to perpetuate the clichéd ejaculation “I had the poster when I was a kid!,” which he must have tolerated in a million chats with folks from my generation? It was enough of an existential struggle to get my mind around his being three-dimensional, human, gray-haired with wire-rimmed glasses. So I stuttered my way through, drowning in the heat of self-consciousness before the substantiation of an image: that stylized black profile on my bedroom wall through which I felt I could have reached into another dimension forty-six years earlier.
Because I’ve received flak for disappearing at any hour of the day for a surf, I’ve taken to leaving notes to inform my eighteen-year-old where I’ll be putting in, signing them: James Franco. When I return—after dark sometimes—frozen, dripping, Eliza sighs nervously at my allusion to 127 Hours, Danny Boyle’s 2011 survival film about a rock-climber’s appalling blunder of not letting anyone know where he has gone. It’s a tentative laughter that ensues. Before he’d left the nest, my son/accomplice had been a dependable shock absorber for family admonishment. But now I had to take it on the chin, alone. At home and in the water. My wife loves to swim and dabbles in bodysurfing, but has no interest in standing up on a board. Both of my daughters had caught the bug and secured used boards of their own, but were also extremely conservative about getting them wet, breaking them out—cagily—when the conditions were small, sunny, absolutely safe. And when the rest of the family was either watching from the beach or in the lineup with them.
Even after Jake had called from Samoa, reassuring us that everything was fine, and that he wasn’t surfing alone, I didn’t sleep for months as he made his way to Fiji…New Zealand…and ultimately Australia. Where is the threshold to proficiency, the border of that realm where experience earns exemption from being overconfident, or inoculation from delusion? All I could do was train my telescope on the foggy DMZ between being a partner-in-crime and being a parent, dialing in on some conjured image of my son, exhilarated, vaulting out of a skiff with other surfers to push it scraping over a shallow reef, hoisting his brown shoulders back over the transom, forging on to deeper water where a pulse of formidable beauty is rearing up, taking shape.
His e-mails kept appearing, but I decided not to brag about one adventure I’d had without him. I did not offer the spirited narrative about how in early October I had ripped my meniscus in a particularly gorgeous, gigantic (for New Hampshire standards) swell. He was in surf paradise, and why would I bore him with pedestrian anecdotes? On that particular day, I’d stood tentatively on the granite blocks dumped below the concrete ramparts, waiting with board under my arm for a lull in a species of wave that usually sprawled across the double pages of my upscale “surf porn” magazine. It occurred to me that this was the best the North Atlantic could offer, comparatively, in the face of Jake’s depictions of the Pacific. Even more shocking than the quality of the surf was the absence of fellow suicides in the peak I had been scouting. Instead, they were clustered like a flotilla of anxious ducks about an eighth of a mile north. The storm was so far out to sea that the sun was blazing, the air warm, and the sets seemed more than a few minutes apart from each other. A single purple-faced surfer was making his exit, scrambling up the rocks, exhausted. As he mounted the stairs and passed me, he could only shake his head and spit out, “All yours. Had it to myself two hours.”
But it’s so much easier to fling yourself into the ocean when you know you’re going to meet up with someone on the other side of those sizeable waves. Especially if that person is your son. Before he left, we’d made it our business to go out in anything. Now, we’ve grown more selective, snobby, laughing at the memory of particularly insane forays into storm surf that offered nothing rideable—what patient and discerning practitioners call “victory at sea” conditions, and usually avoid. Throughout his high school and college years, Jake and I had fallen into a pattern of expeditions that depended on mutual support. We knew when to cheer the other into commitment, helped each other identify the waves to take but also when to shout, “No!! Let it go!,” over the roar of a closeout.
The guy who’d just come out was dumping a jug of freshwater over his head, the top half of his suit peeled down to his waist. He gave me a “What are you waiting for?” look, so I descended and began the lonely, dry-headed paddle out that delivered me over a hundred yards from the seawall.
Such leisurely passages are scarce in “decent” New Hampshire surf, a gift in the last gasp of summer—not to mention the potential reward of a long, clean ride. Even better: the water wasn’t thirty-eight degrees, when every wave you can’t beat is an ice pick to the forehead. This past March, hobbling back up to the car on frozen stumps after a particularly raw session, one of my friends confessed that he’d come close to vomiting when his hood slipped back during a nasty tumble. Indian-summer hurricane swell is different. A middle-aged person can almost sustain his relationship with the sport without the usual punishment of punching through oncoming waves, repeated duck-diving, turtle-rolling, or other evasive maneuvers, including the last-ditch board-fling to avoid being speared by it.
But just when wallowing in all that Indian Summer luxury (i.e., not being winded or frozen) almost made me forget why I was there, I’d see it coming, the distinct corrugation an eighth of a mile out. And once the set was upon me, I knew the swell was different, being catapulted from some distant and exotic kingdom in the same ocean.
It took a while, but when I’d finally roped one of these fast-moving behemoths by dropping into it a little later than usual, acceleration was a revelation. The feel of the board chattering down the wave-face, behaving more like a water ski, was almost disconcerting. And I’d never known my thighs to burn before, to be locked-on for such a duration to the task of muscling the board’s rail over into the pocket of energy that would keep me a step ahead of the avalanche. In that zone, when the wave seems on your team, pushing instead of hunting, your speed allows you to do more, to playinstead of focusing on staying alive. You spend some time leaning back, pelvis angled forward, savoring the elegant speed of the high line, or you head down to the trough in a crouch, then spring back to the lip. You drag your fingertips along the glossy wall as you might the door of newly waxed sports car. The memory of these—in my case,brief—transcendent episodes is what keeps me coming back. On that October day, however, being held down once the wave closed out taught me a new paradox. Pinned against the sand by that volume of boiling, angry water, you understand pretty quickly thatnot trying to swim is what will save you. You have to wait until it lets you go. When I surfaced, I understood that my leash had snapped, and watched my board sporadically rocketing like a hooked tarpon out of the barreling plain of foam before it sailed up into the rocks. I was so worried about how much I’d have to spend on ding repair that I didn’t acknowledge the stiffness in my fluid-filled knee until I climbed into bed that night. But my deepest regret after such sessions isn’t injury to board or body; rather, it’s that Jake has been absent from the equation, either to weigh in on my embarrassing decisions, hoot at my foibles, or see me at the apex of my limited game.
Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, and all its honky-tonk, isn’t suspended precariously over the Atlantic on a wooden platform, but is not unlike Seaside Heights, New Jersey. A good time to consider the boon and risk of what I do is after I’ve paddled back out alone on winter days—when it’s still huge and ugly, just before the ragged sets are aligned by offshore winds sweeping up in the wake of a nor’easter’s rampage off New England. Over a year and a half after Hurricane Sandy whacked the Jersey Shore, The New York Times and The New Yorker were still churning out articles along with aerial shots of the frayed and ravaged boardwalk at Seaside. People say we’re crazy, but the individual surfer adrift stands a better chance of surviving the North Atlantic’s tantrums than a suspended road of planks. The iconic image of the dislodged, half-submerged roller coaster at Casino Pier, though an affront to my childhood, is also a reminder of scale: the erasure and ephemerality of an anchored community and its cultural history compared to the absorption of one person and his flirtations with adaptability, timing and exploiting the physics of waves for his own pleasure. For me, it’s harder to stay out of the water and gaze from a dry jetty and deliberate about mortality. And that’s how you learn: by stepping off. Survival, however, does not provide you with a choice; you emerge absolutely content to watch it from a distance, or you resign yourself to the thrill of having a chance to drown over and over again. I sometimes wonder whether, as he matured, the student whom the Ipswich Harbor Patrol had rescued and delivered ever ventured back into what probably should have killed him. Once my son got a taste, I sensed there was probably nothing I could do to keep him from it, only pray that the more time he spent out there, his acute joy might be mitigated by what Stephen Dunn describes in “A Primer for Swimming at Black Point”:
Just think of your fear
as alertness, and be happy for it.
Without fear it’s often tempting
to believe the water cares
Sitting back on my board, I start imagining what everyone else near the coast of New Hampshire might be doing in their parallel universe: choosing a program on a treadmill, commuting, bagging the dog’s poop on the sidewalk, pounding nails around a new bay window, or deleting e-mail. I catch my breath and let the fire in my arms and shoulders subside, with nothing to face but the resolute mystery of the advancing swells, a thousand increments of smoke and violet in their turbid reflection of clearing skies, spattered and streaked with foam, growing. With the reversed wind ratcheting up and grooming it all, the texture begins to lose its spiked chop in favor of mossy velour. I know I’ll have to pivot the nose and engage at some point; the quick ride is why I fought my way to this place, after all, only to lie down again and stroke into the negotiations of exhilaration and dread. But the battle is over, temporarily. Because I’ve taken my beating on the inside, made it past the whitewater of the detonation district, I can pretend to relax as I wait for the right one, watching gulls wheel nervously at warp speed along the faces, how they eject in sudden jerks when the waves’ lips tremble with definition and the shadows of deepening troughs darken their wings.
Ralph Sneeden is a poet and essayist whose work has appeared most recently or is forthcoming in AGNI, Ecotone, The Southeast Review, Southwest Review, and The Surfer’s Journal. Postmodern Barcarole, the manuscript for his second book of poems, has been a finalist for the National Poetry Series, Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize, and May Swenson Poetry Award. He teaches at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.
Listen to Ralph Sneeden and Terese Svoboda discuss “Stepping Off” on our Contributors in Conversation podcast.