The birth of a new day.
That early hour between darkness and first light, where the moon is still hanging in the lower third of the sky, and the sun is a long way from intercepting the horizon. That’s the time when the waves call, whether it’s the crisp chill of early spring, the warm summer-heated water of September, or the near-freezing temperatures of the New Jersey winter. The hardest part is taking that first step of getting out of bed when the hour comes, especially on those cold mornings, but when the waves call – you go. A short drive on dark roads with little traffic, and I’m there, staring at the vast ocean. If it weren’t for a fisherman or two, casting their rods from the jetty, I’d be the only one there.
On a clear morning, there’s a faint splash of pink on the eastern horizon, just enough to see what’s coming. A light westerly wind is pushing against the swells, keeping them at bay, shaping them into waves. Clean waves. Just the sight of it pulls me in, like gravity. I strap the leash right above my left ankle, grab my board, run in… and splash - the intimidating shock of hitting the water, as if someone’s trying to tell me this is not my natural habitat. But once I start paddling, the body quickly adapts. I go past the break, position myself where I anticipate the next wave would peak, and wait for it. The light in the horizon slowly grows brighter. I can see now;
A flock of seagulls flies by, an osprey diving for a kill, the occasional pod of dolphins on the go, a playful-young seal pops up right by me, showing as much interest in me as I do in it. Once I was lucky enough to witness a humpback breach up close. I was sitting on my board in the Zen of the moment, trying to get in-tune with the ocean, and there it was…out of nowhere, the giant leaped out of the water and flipped on its back with a thunderous splash. So glorious, so majestic, like it was the greatest show on the planet and I had a front-row seat. With all that living intensity, there’s a feeling of comfort in the water, a feeling of belonging, even in the dead of winter, when the ocean temperature drops below 40 F. Of course, I have to have the proper wetsuit on and be fully covered. If it’s not my natural habitat, maybe it once was. Somewhere in the crashing waves, an ancient voice is calling me to come back home. And here I am, sitting on my board amidst the vastness, the forces of nature at play, and I’m a witness, a participant. I see a wave forming. It’s coming right at me. The thrill rises. I start paddling for it. I have to catch it right where it peaks. It’s all about timing - if I’m too early, the wave will blow past me, too late, and it will crash right on me, yank me into its midst, spin me over, and pull me down. Yikes. The bigger the wave, the higher the stakes. Sometimes you lose, and you have to be prepared to bear the consequences. Not this time, I hope. It’s just too good of a wave to miss or be tangled up in. The wind blowing from the land is pushing against the swell that’s moving towards it. The clashing opposite forces result in the motion of the break parallel to the shoreline, paving the surfer’s path. So I’m going for it, aligning myself with the anticipated peak and sprint-paddle for the break as the water rises behind me. It’s about to catch up. It’s so close, I feel the wave breathing on my neck, I feel the energy pulling me back. I give it one full stroke with my right arm, one with my left, another with my right, whatever it takes…until I feel the board locking with the forward motion of the wave. At that instant, I place the palms of my hands flat on the board and push myself up to a standing position, just in time for the drop. Yes, it’s gravity that gives it the final latch as I glide down, my board and I become one with the wave. I keep with it as far as it goes, clinging to the peak, the white foam of the break is behind me, and the smooth face of the forming wave ahead. If I’m able to keep up, it will take me all the way down, right before it breaks on the sand. Then I turn around, paddle back out, and repeat.
A good solid ride lasts between twenty and thirty seconds, but it feels like an eternity in bliss. When I ride the wave, I don’t think about how I got there or how long it’s going to last. It’s one of those rare moments in life where I’m genuinely caught in the moment, and nothing else matters. It’s a feeling like no other. Why? It’s hard to tell. Maybe because I’m a witness, a participant in the tail-end of a journey that began far away with cosmic rays traveling across the galaxy to stir turbulence in the earth’s atmosphere along with solar winds that warm up the hemisphere and create pressure systems. The forces of nature are at play with divine brilliance, magnificent life in its midst, and I’m a part of it. Is that a good enough reason to take that extra step in those cold early mornings and get out of bed? No doubt!