I’m drawn to the ocean the way bugs are drawn to a light. The beach and ocean have such a powerful pull on me. I’m that kind of beach person who does one of three things at the beach – read, stare at the ocean or get in the water, preferably to body surf.
I have always had a deep respect for the ocean. While I am drawn to it and love to be in the water, I also find it a little scary. The fact that the ocean is full of creatures, some of which could bite, pinch, sting or even eat me, is always on my mind. I made the mistake of seeing “Jaws” the summer it came out while at the beach. Needless to say, I entered the ocean with a great deal more trepidation after that.
And while I have always loved playing in the surf, jumping waves, diving under them, or riding them in different ways, I am also a little scared of big surf. The power that breaking waves can have is tremendous. I recall many times when I’ve been out in the water and a set of large waves comes through. Too big to ride, and breaking too soon to jump, I would dive under one, only to come up just as another was approaching. I’d grab another quick breath and again dive under the big wave, only to face another. And another. Finally the set would pass and I could rest, out of breath and tired from the repeated diving and wave poundings as I was under water.
It often seemed that the biggest waves formed the furthest out, forcing you to dive under them. And sometimes you would have to try to run like hell – which in water usually up to your knees or waist isn’t very easy – to get to a place where you could launch yourself into the face of the wave before it crashed down. Because of this, I often have big wave dreams, where I’m at the beach in the ocean, and a giant tsunami of a wave suddenly is racing towards the shore. In the dream I am caught in no-mans-land, too far out to run back to shore and too far from the breaking wave to safely dive under. So far I always wake up just before the moment of truth.
I’ve never learned to surf on a surfboard. And while it may not be too late to think about learning, it’s doubtful that will happen. But I do love to body surf the waves. I have been going to the beach and playing in the water since I was very young. As I got old enough to consider playing in the bigger waves, I first started my wave-riding escapades on an inflatable canvas raft we had. We had just one, so we had to take turns, sharing between me, my younger brother and my cousin, who was almost the same age as me.
My cousin was like a second brother. We were pretty much inseparable growing up. Especially at the beach. We’d spend hours playing in the sand and ocean. And when we were not on the beach while vacationing at the shore, we would be riding our bikes, or on the rides at the various amusement parks or playing different miniature golf courses on the wonderful boardwalk in Ocean City, New Jersey. We went every summer of my childhood, staying with my grandparents in their beachfront house on the north end of Ocean City. My grandfather sold it just as I started high school, fearing that the town would be forever corrupted by the introduction of gambling to Atlantic City, just up the coast. (That didn’t happen.)
We were all deeply sad when he sold, perhaps none more than my cousin and me. We loved Ocean City. Over the years we would return for a week here or there, and eventually my cousin got a house just down the coast in Cape May. So we occasionally still were able to go to the beach together, to ride waves.
Back in those beach vacations of our youth, we graduated from riding waves on the raft to body surfing. This was before boogie boards became popular. So we would stand in the ocean right where the waves would start to break, waiting for the right wave. Sometimes they would break too far out, causing us to quickly dive under them. Other times we’d be a little far out and be unable to swim enough to catch up to it as it crested and broke – the optimal time to catch a wave. But we often caught it just right, and headed to the shore propelled by the wave.
We started with the arms-out-head-down method, which was safer in terms of protecting you head and neck in case you got driven into the sand by a wave. But it also left you blind, and therefore susceptible to plowing into another bather who was in you path. We both had our fair share of profusely apologizing after wiping out some small child who happened to be in our flight path. This led us to start to adopt the more daring head-up-arms-back style, which looked pretty cool, and allowed you to see any human obstacles in your way. However this style had the added danger of not protecting your head should you find yourself catching a wave in a manner that drove your face-first into the sandy bottom.
Either way, you always ran the risk of catching a wave too large or catching it wrong, sometimes resulting in epic tumbles, bouncing you along the bottom as you somersaulted and twisted around under the wave’s force. You learned to wear these wipeouts like a badge of honor, getting back up on your feet, pulling your swimsuit back up, and ejecting the sand and water from your mouth and nose.
This summer, amidst the disruption of the global pandemic, I was able to visit my cousin at his Cape May home. We haven’t seen each much lately, something I think we both have missed. So this visit was a good chance to catch up, and to once again catch some waves.
We hit the beach and immediately headed for the water. Normally the surf in July isn’t very big, but thanks to a passing tropical storm, the waves were much larger than usual. While I hadn’t been to the beach with my cousin for many years, it felt as if we were transported back to Ocean City in those summers of our youth, charging out into the water, first leaping the shore break, then diving under the larger waves further out.
We stayed in the water for a long time, jumping waves, diving under the larger ones, and riding those perfectly breaking waves. I still default to the head-out-arms back style, and was doing great until one particularly large wave that I probably should have passed up came bearing down on me. Feeling strong, I started swimming to get to that optimal spot where the wave takes over, you drop into it, and it propels you to the shore. As I was almost at that point, I suddenly realized this wasn’t going to go as I had hoped, and sure enough, I dropped hard as the wave drove my chin and mouth into the sandy bottom. Fortunately there was no damage, other than a snout full of ocean water (which later drained out as I was grilling fish for dinner.) For the rest of the waves that day, I opted for the safer (for me) arms-out-head-down style.
I also again experienced that partly exhilarating, partly scary feeling of a seemingly endless set of big waves, requiring me to keep diving under and just catching another breath before the next wave. I found myself not having the same boundless energy of my youth, and knew that I needed to leave the waves before I got myself in trouble. I always exit the surf with mixed feelings. I love being in the water and sometimes wish I could stay in forever. But it’s tiring and I know I need the rest.
I also wonder if this will be my last time to jump or ride waves, at least for a while. So leaving the ocean is even harder sometimes. I love the beach and surf. But I also realize that I have to leave them behind, for a variety of reasons, including my own self preservation. As fun as facing a set of big waves is, it can ultimately hurt me if I don’t leave the ocean – the place I love so dearly. Even it’s just to catch my breath.
And when I’m away from the beach and waves, I think about when I can go back again. Where I can again be exhilarated and scared, as I charge out towards that large and powerful breaking waves. And ride another one in to shore.