I chewed it over so many times as my arms dug deep through the water that the word lost all meaning, suddenly reduced to empty hollow letters tripping off my lips, just a noise I was making to drown out the sound of my blood pounding. Which was telling me everything was not. Fine.
It had all started so well. A quiet afternoon, a big winter swell, light offshores. Those are the best days, the unexpected days, the ‘am I really going to be this lucky,’ days where you’re stood surveying a near empty lineup at 2.30pm on a work day with the sun shafting through the February murk, head high faces flying off the river mouth.
And I felt lucky out back too. For a while. A few sets in and I had had my pick of fast punchy rights, garnering nods of encouragement from the handful in the water, a confidence boost for someone like me; no longer a novice but far from accomplished. Then the chop started. I didn’t notice it at first, too busy looking along the beach to the left hand peak banking up and rolling in. Someone took off; tucked in tight as spray flew back, dancing forward heel over toe, with arms up high and smile stretched wide. I smiled too, closed my eyes for a second to feel the warm sunshine and breathed deep. This is why I live here, I thought, this is what it’s about.
That’s when it happened, or I should say, when I realised it was happening. I looked around; I was at least 30 metres further out than everyone else and moving fast. Out to sea. I started to paddle left, scooping full, rounded strokes to draw myself out of the current. No luck. I tried paddling in. Fifty strokes, one hundred strokes. I had to stop to breathe. I wasn’t moving anywhere. Now I was worried. I was tired. And cold. And no-one was with me. The other surfers were wide of the river mouth, contentedly waiting for the next set to roll in, their eyes fixed on the advancing swell ahead of them, not looking in my direction at all. Every time I lifted my head to check they seemed further away; the boarded up lifeguard hut perched on the cliff top impossibly small. I tried to calm myself; perhaps all it would take was a few big strokes before I was free and laughing and back in the game – but the more I paddled the more I realised that there was no more game, or that this was the game now, paddling hard, then harder, to avert disaster.
Overhead I could hear the dull thud of a Sea King on manoeuvres and I found myself wondering what I would need to do to catch its attention. If I stopped to wave I would lose all the ground I had made up and anyway that would be like giving in, like admitting I shouldn’t have come out in the first place, like saying yes, I’ve taken on too much here, I can’t cope. Although as the relentless paddling sapped my strength and the cold wash of reality flooded my wetsuit I knew that that was the truth; I couldn’t cope, I wasn’t moving – I was losing the battle and losing energy. Fast.
It started to hurt. I felt cheated; betrayed by my favourite break which I had surfed for years and which just shouldn’t be treating me like this. I’d have expected it of Brazil, where I learnt the powerful channel at Saquarema should be handled with care, or in Lanzarote where I was warned to stay vigilant of Playa de Famara’s rip which had dragged more than a few surfers out to sea. But here, where I was at home, where I grew up riding whitewater on my bellyboard, where my Gran fished from the rocks in the 1930s; this place was part of the family and family shouldn’t treat you so bad.
Which is when I worked it out. It’s teaching me a lesson, I thought as I stopped for a moment desperate to catch my breath before dropping my jaw to my board, digging deep and ploughing on. I’d got complacent, got cocky, forgot to stay aware; too wrapped up in feeling smug to pay attention, to pay my dues. I found myself apologising, as the last gasps of energy drained through my limbs, promising not to do it again, not to forget who was the boss out here.
It felt like forever before I could make out the concerned features of one of the other surfers; offering a tentative thumbs up as my spent arms slapped the water to draw me the final few feet forward. I nodded back, too tired to speak, silently catching whitewater into the shallows.
Sand has never felt so good.
Lying on the shore, lungs stinging, I could still hear the helicopter circling, slicing through my dazed relief, a reminder of what could have been – me wrapped up in a tinfoil sheet, fished out of the sea all blue lips and shivering. Or worse.
Lesson learnt. I’ll never take the sea for granted again, no matter where I am.
Oh and I’ll never close my eyes in smugness on a surfboard. It’s an accident waiting to happen.