Wednesday, July 10, 2013

'Almost' - article in latest 'White Horses' magazine

The waves are like pit bulls – not particularly big but meaty and bristling, fracturing noisily under a listless, sepia-toned sky. Despite it being summer, there's a bite to the air. The surf isn't perfect, certainly not for here, but it's still good enough for my mate Paul and I to head out.
This place used to really crank when I last lived in Dunedin. The sand would accumulate just so, creating waves in the cove the measure of anything I've caught in the islands. Admittedly, the water here is at least 10 degrees colder – having a rubber fetish helps. And then there are the visits from inquisitive sea lions, hungry leopard seals and various big fish with pointy teeth. 'Crowded' has a different meaning in the cold waters of Otago's remote and fractured coastline.
But while I was living up country, the sand started to build up at my favourite southern break, until eventually the river mouth became blocked off. A local with a big digger cleared a new channel. It clogged up again. According to my friends who were still trying to surf the cove, its sculptured bank disappeared within the space of a few weeks. The beach is still okay, but I haven't surfed here much since moving back south – I guess mainly for nostalgic memories of the good old days.
But today the wind direction and swell size means there aren't many other options. Paul and I suit up at a muddy car park near the top of a hill, a kilometre from the break. A brisk southerly rustles the sabre-shaped leaves of cabbage trees around us. Unshorn sheep bleat from the paddock across the road, sheltering in the lee of a large flax. A camper van slowly draws past, tourists negotiating the long, winding gravel road while trying to find and photograph another 'must-see' local attraction; no doubt puzzled by the sight of two half naked men wrestling into rubber suits on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. Paul and I follow the fence line down a steep slope through the bush, catching glimpses of the beach below. I love this part – the feeling of remoteness, the anticipation of what's ahead. Some guys take the lazy option, parking at the other end of the beach and walking back along the sand, but I wouldn't trade this approach. Plus, slogging back up the hill afterwards helps to warm numbed extremities. There's nothing worse than having to drive home in your wetsuit because your hands are too cold to grab anything.
We pause at the top of a sand dune. 'Doesn't look too bad,' Paul says. A decent south swell bends back on itself around the headland, turning into the wind that has chased it up the coast. Wads of water contort over shallow sand bars, thickset A-frames moulded by the offshore. 'A bit chunky,' I reply, 'but we're here now'.
My first wave is what I've come for, not quite double overhead but hollow and well-formed. A half-stall sets me up for surfing's spiraling world – Stephen King would call it his Dark Tower, his nexus. Tube riding allows such a mindlessness of flow.... Time does what it does. I re-emerge, cruise over the crest of the dying swell, flop onto my board with that intense feeling of wellness that all of us know – and wear the next set on the head.
Whoever suggested to age gracefully had no idea what they were on about. Of course when you're young, you try not to think about getting old. Then it starts to tease you, a back twinge here, dodgy knee there. The unrelenting sagging begins. But then there are the between the eyes king hits, the sudden realisation that shit you're not 18 anymore sunshine. You've got less fitness, less resilience, less time. An expanding waistline, grey hairs and a penchant for morning lie ins with coffee and a good book aren't worth a damn at the sharp end of a watery shellacking.
My board gets torn from my grasp as I try to duck dive the first wave. I fumble around down there waiting for the surge to pass. Back to the surface for a breath and then down again – everyone knows the routine. Ping my leg rope breaks. I swim back up past the bubbles, breathe, note the next wave is somewhat bigger, and dive back to the dark. Time does what it does. The turbulence doesn't seem to lessen. Running out of air, I get desperate, start swimming and smack into the bottom – at least I know which way is up now. But by the time I reach the surface, another wave is unloading. My gasp for breath is filled with the salty burn of seawater in my lungs. The next attempt to dive is half-arsed. Near panic sets in. Fighting back to the frothy surface, at least I get air this time. But I don't have energy to get under another wall of whitewater. It tumbles me over in speed contortions. Three middle-aged waves without a leg rope and I'm wondering if this is it. My wife will be pissed. I can see her face: 'You've been surfing how long? I thought you would have it sorted by now!'
I seem to keep fighting just enough, and eventually the waves let me go. It's the end of the set. Floundering, I look around for Paul but he's out there somewhere, hidden between the swells, unaware that I've just avoided drowning. Pathetically, I half-swim half-float towards shore, like someone who hasn't spent the last 35 years of their life learning the water arts. By the time my feet hit the shallows I'm puking salt water. My surfboard is lolling around in a hole, but I don't give a shit. It can make it's own way in. More water purges from my lungs. I start to wonder about secondary drowning. My windpipe feels like I've poured a bottle of chili sauce down it. I'm relieved and angry. Christ it's not even big out there!
My board rides a small wave into knee-deep water and I shuffle gingerly down to retrieve it. Sitting near the high tide mark and pushing fingers into the sand, I think about what if. Paul has drifted down the beach and doesn't appear to be getting many.
Another surfer comes walking along the beach, a young guy looking fit and keen. 'Pretty heavy out there by the looks,' he says.
I shrug my shoulders.
'You get a few, mate?
Holding up what remains of my leg rope, I see his eyes widen a little.
'Bugger! Bit of a struggle getting in I bet.'
'Yeah... a bit.'
He looks out to sea, watching another solid set unload, and then back at me. 'Hope it wasn't before you hooked into any of those.'
'Managed to get one,' I reply.
'Worth it?'
I smile thinly and nod my head, not sure what I'm agreeing with.
'Guess that'll have to do then,' he says before wading off into the shallows.

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