I remember my first real wipe out. I’d not long mastered the vertical and was eager to start crossing the face of a wave on my newly purchase nine footer. I’d worked my way through the wash and was sitting proud – albeit a little unsteadily – at the end of the line-up, on a not-so-spectacular day.
I spotted my wave, took a few practice strokes to move into its path then gunned it. The monster (all two foot of it) rose beneath me and I suddenly knew, really knew, why surfing had such a hold on people. I pressed down, popped up, wobbled, grabbed the inside rail for balance, rose a little then suddenly everything went silent. The wave had unexpectedly peaked (an almighty four-foot face from nowhere) and I was in its jaws. I knew what was going to happen but was powerless to prepare. I tried to suck in a lungful of air but only managed a shallow, salty gasp before the water crashed down on top of me. Now I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the North East waters around Scarborough, but they could never be described as clear. Even on a good day the best you might award them is ‘silty’, but this was an early autumn swell and there was as much chance of light penetrating those waters as I had of penetrating…(insert your own inappropriate ending here). I was lost in the blackness. There was no up, no down, just a mass of muffled roars and the cold. My instincts told me to swim but the wave had disorientated me. I knew I would float eventually, I knew up would find me, but somehow the cold darkness had got in through my wetsuit and all I could feel, all I could understand was the inevitability of a forever of blackness. I’ve been scared of wipe-outs ever since, but that’s recently changed.
I’m quite prone to bouts of depression. I have a bi-polar personality with an unhealthy slice of narcissism to boot and this means I regularly spend time struggling with, what Winston Churchill called his ‘black dog’. I have tried medication – my doctor and I have done the whole journey from tricyclic antidepressents to serotonin- norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors and, for the most part, they’ve worked. However, I’m not the greatest fan of using chemicals to solve my problems – having quit drinking a couple of years ago it would seem impolite to trust one drug but not the other. I attend regular therapy with a lovely woman who never seems to mind me repeating myself, I go to the gym, eat well, try to get plenty of sleep and surround myself with positive, well-balanced people. Even so, when the inevitable trough appears, there’s little I can do about it. It is like being held down, in the cold, dark of the North Sea, with barely enough air and no sense of up or down.
Over the past couple of months I’ve been struggling down there, surrounded by the blackness, losing hope of floating back to the surface, getting colder and colder. So pervasive has it been, that the very idea of going out on a board has seemed an impossibility. I’ve not logged on to Magicseaweed in more than a month. My wetsuit couldn’t be drier and my car is beginning to smell less like a rubber fetishist’s party bathroom and more like… a car. I had lost all sense of perspective. Then I got a call.
Swell was up and rising, lines were coming in clean and the tide was set to turn in the middle of the day. In short, it wouldn’t get better, not for ages. Ordinarily my wife is a reluctant surf widow, but this time she was excited. No sooner had I told her about the session than she was replanning her day around it. The car became available, my suit, gloves and boots were found and packed – she even helped me strap Big Steve onto the roof before handing me some change for parking and waving me off. I was pulling into the Cayton car park before I realised what was happening.
There were a few regulars in attendance, another dozen already in the water. I met up with my friend and went to check out the lines: smooth, well spaced and growing. We picked our spot, braved the biting wind and got ready. Sealed in our slug suits, we skidded and slipped down to the beach, waded in at Point and were soon paddling towards the rip which would send us out to the line-up. My arms complained, my lungs burned and my genitals retreated into the comparable comfort of my stomach.
Wave followed wave followed wave. I bobbed up and down, letting myself harmonise with the gentle rhythm. My friend caught one, then another and another. Finally he paddled back to where I was floating. “Your wave,” he said. I saw the hillock of water approaching and paddled into the line of fire. I could feel the wash sucking up beneath me. I dug in, acting on muscle memory and instinct more than conscious design, and found the take off. I pressed down, popped up and, unsteady as ever, grabbed the rail for balance. The face rose up behind me: a grey wall of unrelenting, unrepentant power. It peaked, it toppled, it collapsed. The board was suddenly gone from beneath my feet. The world was silent and cold and black. There was a rush of noise as I felt myself being sucked into the vortex and dumped into the breaking wave. Down was up, up was down and everything was cold and dark and empty. I had not a breath in me but I didn’t struggle, I didn’t panic, I relaxed, let the water bounce me round like a lost shoe until I came to rest beyond the impact zone. I stayed down longer than I needed to. Either the lack of oxygen or the combined forces of adrenalin and 60mg of Citalopram made me calm. The world slowed down to a manageable pace and all I had to do was wait.
I surfaced near Bunkers – a few hundred yards north from where I’d started. I gulped in air, pulled on my leash to retrieve my board and climbed on. My face was tight: something was pulling on it, stretching it into an unusual formation of muscle and mouth and teeth. I hadn’t smiled like that in six weeks. It felt good. It felt amazing.
It’s been a week since that wipe out. I’ve not been in again – heavy seas and cross winds have made the bays too dangerous for me – but I can still feel that smile on my face. It has warmed me when the drugs lose their potency. It has cheered me when my therapist hits upon a particularly fragile psychological seam. It has spurred me on to run harder, lift heavier and sleep deeper. In short it has made it possible for me to start resurfacing. And that’s what I am thankful for: the lessons each and every slam and wipe-out teach us. You can’t avoid the trough, there’s nothing you can do to avoid the sudden peak or more sudden collapse of a wave, there are no guarantees, no promises and no rewards but if you don’t fight, don’t struggle, don’t stress about whether you’re swimming in the right direction, you’ll eventually pop up and see the light.