5 a.m. The wind and rain from the night before had died. Low tide would hit in an hour and a half, the same amount of time it would take to drive to Higgins Beach.
“The waves look better tomorrow,” Nick told me as we pulled off our wetsuits. “Want to come back?”
I did. We’d spent an hour in the Maine water, riding small waves and slicing across foam. It was the kind of day that leaves you smiling after weeks away, but also the kind that leaves you wanting more.
But the ocean heard our call: the remains of Tropical Storm Bonnie, the second named storm of the season, were still churning the North Atlantic, throwing waves due to hit Northern New England the next day.
So this morning, at 5 a.m., I woke up. I rolled out of bed, pulled clothes on (no need to shower when the first appoint of the day is an ocean), grabbed a biscuit and orange juice carton and started driving.
“Morning,” Nick said, still in need of coffee. “I looked at the webcam. It’s a bit mushy.”
“The tide just switched,” I said. “Maybe it’ll be fine.”
We shoved boards and wetsuits into his SUV and drove the last leg to Higgins. It was still early. A grey light hung over the ocean, clouds unwilling to abandon the morning turned the water dark. Waves barreled toward shore in haphazard fashion, smashing and grinding into each other.
“Oh, this should be fun,” I said. Nick sipped a coffee from Higgins Beach Market .
We parked, suited up and headed for the water. There were a dozen surfers in already. I strapped on my leash and headed in. Nick did the same.
When the first wave hit, a wall of foam and white, it pushed me off my board, spun me and slammed me down. Then another. And another. My board, too big to push under the surface, became a launchpad with each blow. I gasped for breath, regrouped and paddled as best I could, but there was always another wave, and then another.
I watched Nick flip and go under. A wave slammed his overturned board. He popped back up, paddling hard, water churning around him. He got slammed again, but he kept pushing. He was making it out. I was not. Another wave-wall came, pushing me back further. The next one flipped me. I groped for my board, gasping for breath. Then another came. Then another. My arms were left slapping at the water. I was barely moving. They kept coming in fast and from every direction, spilling into each other. I wasn’t making it, the wall had me. So I turned.
It’s a strange thing, giving up. It makes sense sometimes, like when your breath is slowly running dry, but it doesn’t feel good. And if you don’t keep diving into unknown challenges it’s easy to forget what it’s like. In rock climb I don’t often back off a route without at least an honest try. But surfing isn’t rock climbing, and “honest try” means different things in different places. The ocean is something I know far less about. This wasn’t the mountains, wasn’t the dance of movement over stone. So I turned around.
I caught the whitewater of the next wave and rode it in. I was on the beach in seconds, still panting and heaving from the effort. I turned around and watched the surfers in the distance rising and falling, rising and falling. Nick was among them.
Sometimes the waves are just too big. But there is something wonderful in stepping up to the plate at a new challenge, something special in trying while not knowing. When the dance is not endlessly rehearsed there are bound to be failures. I sat on the shore watching the churn.
Then, as I looked out, a pattern emerged. The waves to the right were breaking in chaos, but to the left there was less white, less overlap, not a gap but more quiet. It wouldn’t be enough for an unobstructed paddle, but it offered one with fewer hammer strokes. I kept watching to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. No, it was there. I could get out that way. Or I could at least try.
I waded in up to my waist, still fighting whitewater, popping above it when I could, but watching as I went. I worked my way slowly, waiting for the moment the sea would open for me, the pause that would allow me passage.
Then it came: I saw a gap, pulled my board underneath me and paddled hard. The waves rose but not as high, crested but didn’t break. My arms held, tired but able to pull through the lull. They carried me far enough; I glided past the kill-zone and into the calm. Nick was there, his wetsuit hood pulled around his neck. He waved, then turned back to the ocean. I did the same.
There is something wonderful in movement unrehearsed, in a dance of not knowing. Maybe it makes you give up. Maybe it drowns you. But sometimes it lets you through. Those time are special.