Or the reality of life as a piss poor paddler…
You know what its like: riding the perfect tube; the crystal waters scooping up to your trailing hand; the roar of a ton of water crashing behind you, spitting you out, through the foam to ride clean, arms aloft, embracing the sunshine as it embraces you. You know what that feels like, that elation, that sense of oneness? No? Me neither. Never. Not once. Not even close. The truth is, such a sublime experience is not granted to the many, it is the preserve of the few. Such an inspirational moment gathers its potency from its rarity. Which is all well and good but that’s no comfort to your average stick jockey, up to his ears in silty grey sludge as he fights his way through porridge-like swell having wiped out, yet again, after a twenty second scramble to stay upright. It’s no comfort to my North Sea addled heart to know that somewhere, out in the azure wilds of the Indian Ocean a select bunch of dudes and dudettes are living the dream, scoring tube after glorious tube in seas as warm as my bath water. No comfort at all. But before this descends into a bitter diatribe, let us consider what Taj Burrows and the rest of the ASP circus are missing out on. And they are missing out.
It’s a wet Thursday in the middle of November. I’m sitting in my car staring out at a great grey slab of sea slowly turning beige in the bleak sunless dawn. The windscreen wipers are squeaking as they wash away the driving rain. I’m still dressed, the wetsuit limp and lifeless in the boot, and outside, my friend Ben is unlashing the boards from the roof – his penance for snapping the fin on my favourite board. It’s too early, too grey and I’m bloody freezing.
I’ve watched three other regulars pull up, poke their heads out and pull off again without a second thought. I watched one local go in – a leathery faced whale of a man with a board the size of a bus – and ten minutes later come back with half his bus under his arm, the other half blowing like a kite, tugging at the leash still attached to his ankle. The omens do not bode well. Even Ben looks dubious, his normally bright expression almost blown away by the harsh easterly. He bangs on the window and shouts, “Come on then!” I take a deep breath, turn off the ignition and, as the heater slowly whines to a halt, yank open the door to make a start of it.
We are near naked faster than a pair of Chippendales working double time at a female prison. We work together. We zip each other up, sealing ourselves in the 6.4 neoprene. While Ben gloves up I lock the car and stuff the keys in the exhaust pipe. Ben passes me my board and we stare at each other, wordless, our mouths hidden beneath our hoods, blowing hot air into the rubber to help delay the inevitable ear ache. A nod and we’re off.
The wind blind-sides us as we emerge from the protection of the sea wall. We run to the water, dismissing the boiling mess of peaks and foam ahead. We know this break. We know where we’re going. We know how hard this is going to be. It’s not until we’re waist deep and our feet are being tugged away with the returning tide that we slip onto our boards and begin the paddle. Each pull hurts. Ducking the waves freezes our faces. Emerging into the offshore gale adds insult to injury. Still we paddle, trying to ignore the slow progress, waiting for the rip to catch us, pull us out beyond the impact zone. Just one more duck, I say to myself, one more dive, one more pull, one more slap in the face. My hands are numb, my lungs are burning and when we finally struggle over the last peak, sit up and face the shore, the enormity of this little swim overwhelms us. We slump over to catch our breath. The swell is poor, no more than junky waves which close out early or fair to rise. There’s a cross wind whipping against the prevailing gale, knocking the waves as they build. The sets are difficult to judge, there’s no clean line to follow but this might be the only swell I’ll catch all week so it has to be enough.
I take a couple of warm up waves, ducking off before the drop, getting a feel for them. Ben tries one, gets mashed up on a late drop. I sit on the line-up until he makes his way back. His eyes say it all. We sit in silence. Craning our necks to see wave after crappy wave dissolve into greasy foam. It feels like hours, like days. Then, just as we’re on the verge of giving up, I look at the horizon and see what might, just might, be a set rolling in; a brace of clean lines in the middle of all the confusion. I point them out to Ben. They’re nothing, waist high at best, the sort of wave the circus boys wouldn’t get out of bed for but the best we can expect, possibly the best we’ll get all week. Beggars can’t be choosers. Ben’s still suffering from his wipe out so I get ready for the first of the waves.
They sweep in quicker than I anticipate, catching me almost off guard, I panic. I can’t waste what might be the only real wave of the session. Arms dead with the cold, I paddle like my life depends upon it. It might as well be Jaws rising up behind me, not some squalid little ripple off the east coast of Yorkshire. My heart is pounding. I feel the lift and dig deep, paddle with a vigour which betrays my desperation. Too desperate? Too needy? I haven’t time to worry, I’ve one chance. Three final pulls and it’s up. The wave’s peaking, threatening to close out. I cut back quickly, try to capitalise on the dying energy, terrified that there’s nothing left, that I’ll float right over into the chop and waste my chance. But suddenly the face rises, a new sand bar has pulled it up and I turn off the lip to see the water grow until it’s at my shoulder as I slice along its length. I forget the ache in my arm, I forget the rain, I forget the wind, I forget the freezing cold and for ten beautiful seconds I’m in my own world.
Ben catches his but it closes out before the bar. He rides the white water back to shore and I follow. It’s getting late. We trudge back to the car, lash the boards to the roof and set off home, still in our suits. We might be mad but we’re not idiots. Back home the house is waking. My wife comes down to find Ben and I sitting in silence, drinking coffee, wetsuits in the sink, our clothes crumpled and sticky over our reddening skin. “Was it good?” she asks.
And this is what they’re missing, Taj and his fellow pros, this purity, this simplicity. The feeling of having made something of nothing, finding perfection in the worst of situations. They miss out on the elation of finding one wave worth riding because for them there will always be another wave on its way, another perfect tube, another massive break whereas for us this might be it. This might be the best of the season and it’s still worth it. Worth the pain, worth the struggle, worth every dawn patrol disappointment because, right at this moment, I’m king of the world. “Yeah,” I tell my wife, “It was the best.”