Modern society doesn’t lock a kid into a cage with a predatory animal on their 14th birthday to see who will prevail. Not that I lament that fact, but with no official rites of passage in our society, adolescents often wonder if they have what it takes to graduate from childhood into adulthood.
Surfing, in a way, is no different. There are no diplomas for kids moving past the dribblers of summer into the outside lineup on a raging northwest swell like the one that slammed our coast last Friday.
While I don’t know any of them, I am certain many young surfers had trouble sleeping Thursday night on the eve of the first major swell of the season. They awoke early Friday, hoping that their 7’6” semi-gun would get them down the face of a 12-foot wave.
Some made excuses as to why they weren’t paddling out. Others sought out easy waves that broke close to shore. A few put their heads down and paddled toward uncertainty.
With water temperatures in the low 60s and facing some of the highest tides of the year, Friday morning’s shore break proved extra challenging. As the inside waves broke, cobblestones collided with human flesh. A misstep on a slippery rock, mistiming your launch into the water, anything could land you back on the beach.
Once beyond the shore break, the real battle began. Staying in the channel does not always guarantee you’ll make it beyond that approaching mountain of whitewater. Sensing that the crowd is moving out, you realize a set is coming. How big? you wonder.
Paddling over the first wave, you’re certain there’s a bigger one behind it — perhaps one of those triple overhead set waves will land directly on you, snap your leash, maybe your board. Maybe you. The first lines of whitewater push you deeper than you’ve ever been.
Struggling to push off the ocean floor, you wonder, “Is it coming up?” The kelp rises, and a wave breaks 50 feet beyond everyone. This is going to hurt. You ditch your board in the soup and are down for a long time. Coming up, you gasp for a breath and see surfers like ducklings, retrieving their boards and paddling toward the peak. Another wave hits. Then another.
A lull gives you a pass into the outside peak. With waiting comes the time to think. Then you see it, roaring in from the north. A wave at Moonlight breaks in a place further from shore than you have ever seen. Paddle hard and push through. You are safely in the lineup when the first wave of the set lifts you.
You think to paddle further out, but something inside insists you go. This one’s yours. As if to get a second opinion, someone calls “go,” followed by your first name. Now, you have to go.
Two, three, four strokes and you’re in, falling like you might from a 20-story building. Once at the bottom, you lean into a turn as the whitewater explodes behind you. Somebody hoots, but you barely notice.
Can I beat the section? Yeah. Barely! Then the racecourse, where you’re moving fast before being cut down as half the Pacific exacts its revenge on you for challenging it. It wins. It always wins.
Or, maybe it’s a draw as you enter the first day of your adult life. A new world opens up, revealing a shining path all the way to the horizon. All the way to infinity.