Nothing compares to riding a wave. One of the greatest joys in my life has been surfing. It’s the most difficult and rewarding thing I ever learned to do.
I learned to surf late in life at the age of 25. Because I was living in San Francisco, I taught myself to surf in the 57-degree water of Northern California. I started like many others, with a soft-top board and a rented wet suit in the whitewash at Terra Linda beach, just a few miles north of the famous big wave break Mavericks. Instantly, I felt I had returned home being out on the water.
Soon after, I bought a longboard, a wet suit, and booties of my own. It was an obsession, a passion, a love affair, and nearly everything I thought about when I wasn’t working. The smell of the wax on the board, pulling on my wet suit, and the feel of the cold Pacific hitting my face when I paddled out. It wasn’t long before I had a second board, a second wetsuit, and all the gear necessary to strap my boards on the roof of my Volvo and get to the beach three and four times a week.
Within a year, inspired by reading Daniel Duane’s surf memoir Caught Inside, I was surfing bigger waves at Ocean Beach and paddling out at Salmon Creek. I was an intermediate surfer, but I challenged myself, catching waves between the professionals at Fort Cronkhite and dropping on sizable left breaks at Rockaway. Always watching, gaining knowledge, and training my body and mind.
I checked the surf reports and began to gain an understanding of tides and weather. There is a lot to learn to be a surfer and much of it is out of the water as much as in. After two years, I felt good enough to travel, and I celebrated my 27th birthday surfing the warm water of Punta Conejo in Baja, Mexico. Then, I got the opportunity to travel to Hawaii.
I flew to the city of Kona on the Big Island, where my friend, Burke, was managing an apartment complex. He had set it up so I would have my own apartment. When I got there, he immediately took me to some of the local surf spots. I took to surfing long lefts at Pine Tree. I surfed every day, sometimes twice, doing three-hour sessions.
When you paddle out, the landlocked world seems different. Everything people do on the hard soil seems less important. Once you’re wet, the sea cleanses and rinses off your stresses. Cares dissipate. Sitting on your board, waiting in the line-up with the other surfers for a wave, the land just ebbs in the distance. You live in the here and now on the ocean.
Living in the now and being mindful is an important surfer’s trait. It keeps you safe. Other surfers are one of the most dangerous parts of surfing. Being aware of them and yourself is how you keep people from getting hurt. And when a bigger set rolls through, you need to be aware so that you can either paddle to drop in on the wave, get out of the way for another surfer dropping in, or paddle hard to get over the wave before it breaks on you. You don’t want to get “caught inside”.
Being decisive and focused is also very important. When you decide to paddle for a wave, you go. Hesitation can hurt you. On very big waves, it can kill you. Waves move fast and can get really steep, so focusing on every moment is necessary. But also letting go and being calm. There is a generous amount of Zen in surfing, and there is always more to learn.
I knew all this before Burke and I got to our destination in Hawaii at sunset in an old truck with my surfboard, a cooler full of beer, and some tacos. We made a fire and proceeded to drink most of the beer. Burke was from Staten Island, a giant, sandy-blond clown I loved dearly. All six-foot-three of him and his East Coast frat boy ways.
“Hey!” Burke said after his fifth beer, “You like the apartment?”
“Yeah, man. I love it. Couldn’t ask for more, my friend,” I replied.
“You gonna move to Hawaii?”
“I’d love to, but I’ve got work in SF, shows to play, and songs to write. You gonna learn to surf?”
“I will when you stop acting like Bodhi,” Burke sneered with affection, referring to Patrick Swayze’s character in Point Break. We both laughed hearty, young laughs into the night.
As the last rays of sunset had become blackness and the stars began to percolate, we went to sleep.
When the sun cracked the morning, I woke up in my sleeping bag lying beside the still-smoldering ashes of our campfire. Burke was still completely out. I had a slight beer headache but I knew the best way to get rid of it was to get wet.
We had camped only six feet from the ocean on a piece of slightly soft ground among the crags of volcanic rock around us. The waves lapped gently against the rocks. I looked out at the ocean and there was already one guy out. Surfers like to be the first to get out and catch the first waves. Many surfers will make sure you knew “you missed it, dude” if you get there later than them.
I had slept in my board shorts, so I put on a rash guard, picked up my board, waxed it, then waded across the rocks to where I could get in the water. I found a deep spot and started to paddle out.
It was so calm. Pristine. Not a wave in sight. I wondered if it would be too flat that morning and I wouldn’t be able to catch anything, but the beauty of flat water is that it’s very easy to paddle out to the break. I hadn’t surfed this spot before so it was good that another surfer was out already. He was my marker and where the break probably was.
I dug deep, cupping my hands and taking long strokes through the water. Gliding on the tranquil sea. When I got about twenty feet from the other surfer, he nodded a silent greeting. We said nothing. Surfers don’t talk much on the water.
I looked out at the sun rising and lighting up the tropical landscape. All that could be heard were the gentle waves hitting the coastline 200 yards away and the sound of birds’ morning calls. My bare feet dangled in the water, keeping my balance on the board, but also keeping me company as I watched my feet dance under the surface.
As I looked at down my feet, I saw a shape come very near. It was a sea turtle, and it came close, looked up at me, slowly turned, and swam back into the deep. I was so content and still. The turtle could have nudged my feet and I wouldn’t have moved.
Just as I saw the turtle disappear in the depths, 15 feet away, just ahead of the other surfer and me, a small dolphin leaped out of the water, rising up in the air and then back into the gentle Pacific. It was so small, I thought it had to be young. Seconds later, we saw a bulge on the horizon.
My silent surf partner said his first words, “Here one comes.”
“Yup,” I said.
“You want it?”
“It’s all yours. I’ll get the next one.”
With that, the set rolled in. I courteously allowed him to paddle into it and then calmly paddled over the top of the wave breaking as I slid down the other side.
Many sets come in threes, so I didn’t need much patience for my own wave. It was right behind his. A beautiful, glassy right, about head-high, and I turned around to begin my paddle. Slowly building my speed at an angle diagonal to the shore and the wave.
I felt the wave pick me up and the surface of the ocean in front of me descended as I ascended. I pushed up, arching my back, then threw my legs forward, my left foot in front of my right, and I rode down the face.
It was a long, sloping right. Not too fast and steep but not too fat and slow either. This was no “mushburger”, this was a perfect, smooth Hawaiian wave, and I swung down the face, then back up to the lip, cutting and maneuvering until I knew it was time to kick out. I pulled out and then watched the wave collide with the rocky shoreline. The ride had been maybe fifteen seconds long. A pretty good wave.
I climbed up on my board and looked out. My gentleman surf partner was already out and another set was building. I started my paddle toward him, aiming a bit to the left so I was outside the breaker. I got outside, waited for the next set, and paddled into another gorgeous, glassy right.
This one was a foot bigger. I dropped on it, rode down deep, then cut back up. As I did, I trailed my right index finger through the face of the wave, using it to find my place and my legs to steer along the wall.
I kicked out, got on my board, and paddled back out.
After a few sets, waiting in the lull between sets sitting quietly, I heard the question, “Good swell today, huh?”
I responded, “Yeah. Definitely. Nice and glassy, too.”
Those were the few words we spoke and we surfed like this for two hours. When the later morning winds came up, I caught a wave in, and met up with Burke.
He was standing on the rocks with everything packed and looking excited. He burst out, “Man! Gentry, man! There was a tsunami warning last night!”
“We slept through it. We’re lucky a tsunami didn’t hit. We could’ve been swept out in the ocean!”
As I wrapped my leash around the board and climbed out of the water, I thought about what he said, but I was too calm. It didn’t make an impact.
I thought about the turtle and the dolphin and my silent surf friend. I thought about my session, remembering each wave. Each ride was a mandala. Every time I was in the wave, I was in the moment. Every time I kicked out I left no trace that I had ever been there. The water had no memory, at least, not one that could be seen.
As we climbed into the truck to head back to Kona, I was serene. I was glad that we hadn’t been carried away by a tsunami. Yet somehow, I felt, that would be ok. Returning to my oceanic mandala would make sense. But disappearing in the Pacific would need to wait. I still had many waves to ride and leave no trace of myself on the sea.