Jesus Was A Surfer: A Plan B Essay
In the Plan B essay series, writers discuss their contingency plans, extraliterary passions, and the roads not traveled.
I’m what surfers call a goofy foot. I surf with my left foot back. The etymology of goofy foot is disputed, but consensus points toward the cartoon character Goofy, who surfed with his right foot forward in the Disney short Hawaiian Holiday.
Most surfers teach themselves the cardio art of paddling after waves and, eventually, catching them. Surf camps are for tourists and hobbyists, not surfers, and surf instructors are like sex-ed teachers. They can tell you what goes where, offer pointers on safety, show you some exhilarating video, but it’s all abstraction until you’re nearly naked and in over your head. Then, once you’ve done it, you’ll fantasize about it for the rest of your life, and every surfer, in the end, must ultimately figure out how to live without surfing, unless he dies doing it.
My friends and I learned to surf the hard way—by waterlogged trial and error—in Satellite Beach on the East Coast. You figure things out on your own, or you give up.
Try this. On your stomach, balance on your belly atop a coffee table. Pretend you’re swimming, arms scooping water, legs scissoring. You want to remain horizontal, traveling bottom-to-top along a cresting C. Arch your back so your chest and ribs are off your tabletop board, and the trick is to paddle and kick as hard as you can the whole time. When you feel the telltale change of motion, backward draw become push forward, set your hands on your board and push off and up, popping into a stable crouch, knees bent, feet at least shoulder-length apart with one foot naturally tending toward the back. Get down the face of that wave and ride out of that C before it closes into an O.
If it does, you’re in trouble. It’s hard to make way in the foam and wash of broken waves. Whitewater is aerated. It’s literally turbulence, a bubbly, unstable current. You’re more buoyant in the froth but you can’t dig in. Like swimming in the head of a beer. When you’re in that whitewater, on the wrong side of that mysterious, always-moving cubic acre where waves break in peaks offshore, surfers say you’re caught inside. Outside, among the lineup of surfers, you’re in the picture window of opportunity a surfer is ever after, a window he throws himself through like a self-defenestrating madman.
Inside, you’re where waves come to die, some having traveled thousands of miles. One of the great surfing books, a cult classic by Daniel Duane, Caught Inside, takes its name from this notion. The commotion of that roiling wash is how you drown, and every surfer worth a wave intimately knows the feeling. If you haven’t come close to drowning, you haven’t surfed.
Inside, you’re overwhelmed by wave after never-ending wave, until you’ve got nothing left. No strength, no air, no will. It’s inside that’s excruciating, inside where a surfer feels the fear. Eventually, you give up. You don’t throw in the towel, you take it up, if you’re lucky. If you’re not, you take that one watery breath and you’re done. Fluid fills the lungs. There’s the sear of saltwater in the sinuses, the burning cilia of the windpipe, the aching alveoli in the lungs. But there’s bound to be nostalgia too—there must be something womblike about drowning at sea. Dust to dust is for nomads, not surfers. Brine to brine is more like it. We are, while alive, mostly made of saltwater.
Inside, ashore, is also where every surfer ultimately ends up. The day comes when each break of a wave sounds like a long, drawn-out Enough. If you need a second opinion, visit folk musician Dan Reeder’s doctor, or listen to his song: “You’ll Never Surf Again.”
My closest call came in Jacó, Costa Rica, when a monster Pacific roller scooped me up and pushed me under, holding me there. Growing up surfing hurricanes and the choppy Atlantic, I never got a good sense of what a set of waves was until I surfed the Pacific, where the regular rhythms of those waves, and the thousand-mile momentum behind them, lends them a predictable rhythm and great strength even when they’re wee.
The wave that nearly did me in wasn’t wee. I picked out a ridge on the Pacific horizon that seemed to be rolling in higher than the other ridges, and paddled toward a spot I figured it might break. When it did, I felt that rush: the slow-then-sudden suck backward followed by the quick pitch forward—the fluid dynamics of catching a wave.
I got to my feet and zipped down the wave curling left, the crest crumbling behind me, my own private avalanche. I cut back up the wave, and the serif of its story-high C caught me before I could get out of the way. The wave drove me ten feet down through the air to its breaking surface and then another ten feet underwater, where I cartwheeled across the sandy seafloor.
I’d made the mistake of chasing the first big wave in a set, which meant there were four or so more clobbering waves to come. The force of being pile-driven feet-first by the wave yanked my threadbare rash guard, a long-sleeve spandex shirt worn to reduce the rub on your ribs and nipples, over my head but not off.
I was caught inside, pinned underwater, my arms bound up and immobilized near my ears. My surfboard, cuffed to my ankle by a rubber leash, dragged me along the bottom like an anchor come unmoored.
The pressure of that depth, in that commotion, constantly shifted, and my ears crackle-popped. I tried not to struggle. I held my breath till my chest felt crushed, aiming my face toward what I thought was the gauzy light filtering through the surface of the water and my elastic straitjacket.
That’s when the gasp urge kicks in, a couple minutes before the lungs are drained of all oxygen. If you panic in that moment, if you go with your gut and inhale underwater, you drown. If you resist instinct, and the contractions of the diaphragm, you’ve earned yourself a couple extra minutes before you black out, a sensation that many professional free divers say can be pleasant.
After a minute or more of tumbling under the Pacific, the set passed, and my feet found the sand of the seafloor. I pushed up, followed my leash to the surface, breathed and escaped, Houdini-like, from my rash guard. I flung it off and let it wash away. I yanked on the leash strapped to my ankle, my surfboard a flotation device.
I got my breath with no time to rest. You decide to paddle back outside or you ride the whitewater in. I’ve found that in these situations, it’s best to head away from shore. When you fall off and get pummeled, if you’re not broken and bleeding, if your body hasn’t become a slack sack of chum, you aim your arrow at the horizon and hunt after another wave.
In December of 2011, my wife, Thisbe, and I packed our eighteen-month-old boy, Sonne, and our mothers, Myra and Sharon, into our rented 4x4 and drove the rough roads of Costa Rica. We were vacationing together for our annual Granniefest. The new grandmothers got ten days with their new grandson, and Thisbe and I could thaw out 2,240 miles south of the Michigan winter.
For the trip, I rented a six-foot-eight-inch single-fin, slow to turn but stable. I hadn’t surfed in earnest since my last trip to Costa Rica. It took some getting used to, but after the first day, it felt like old times. The body’s recall for balance is long-term; learning that balance is what’s hard-fought. My muscles and joints may complain in ways they didn’t used to, but my balance largely remains.
This time, I mostly surfed family-friendly beaches, like Playa Ventanas (Windows Beach), where the waves were tamped down by offshore rock outcroppings. Two north-end caves extended from the beach and tunneled out through 150 feet of black basalt, a pair of windows on the Pacific. At high tide, cave mouths spewed like percussive blowholes.
We spent the day at Manuel Antonio National Park. Hiked up a two-mile trail, Sonne on my shoulders, riding me like an aging beast of burden, straining my back and legs. A blue morpho butterfly splashed in the sunshine, big as two open hands, before flitting through the flora and vanishing, a radium phantom. Its azure opalescence remained in our minds, part revelation, part obsession: there is nothing bluer in the known world, and all we wanted was to see it again.
We stopped in Dominical, a surfers’ beach, the red sun a couple inches off the Pacific. I promised to be back before the sun went down, and I paddled out to spend an hour fighting a strong northward current, failing to catch a wave, where the big ones in a set were easily overhead. The sun sat misshapen on the horizon, looking like Jupiter’s stormy Great Red Spot. I worked my way closer to shore, where the waves pitched up steeply, and got in front of a peak—right place, right time. I popped to my feet and felt my calf seize in a cramp. I stayed upright for seconds, then fell inside. Paddling with one hand, massaging my leg with the other, I struggled to duck-dive under the great walls of whitewater washing over me.
Here I was, yet again, snagged inside, trying to get back outside to safety, still looking for one more wave. The rush is addictive. It’s adrenal and messianic. Leonard Cohen got it wrong. Jesus wasn’t a sailor when he walked upon the water. Jesus was a surfer.
I fought off the breakers and my cramp, aimed out to sea, swallowing a quart of saltwater. Through bleary eyes, I saw the sun halved by the horizon. My family waited on the beach—my mom, my mother-in-law, my wife, and our young son, already a world traveler, scrappy, spirited, and smart. He’d taken a sudden liking to the surfboard, wanted constantly to stand on it, and I wanted to be around in a few years to suggest where he might set his feet, offer pointers on safety. I wanted simply to be in the water with him, surfing easy longboards in Florida, a herd of manatee beneath us munching sea grass, barnacles on their backs, coming up for a suck of air, out there beyond the break, where a wave wasn’t an end but a means.
I turned my board around and rode in on my belly, came ashore and limped the half-mile up the beach, where my family waited. It was an anxious walk past one bloodshot surfer dude after another, real surfers, men and women who’d logged ten thousand hours in the water, red-eyed from either the brine or the marijuana or both. My experience hadn’t been near-death but, having survived, I was rattled—there’d never, in my life, been more at stake—my calf cramping every time I put weight on it, my chest tight, my head awash with dread.
We have a photo of me flushed in the Dominical dusk, dripping wet, Sonne in one arm, my rented surfboard under the other, and I’ve got that made-it-out-alive glow, though it could just be the flash. When I found my family, I didn’t confess to my close call in the water. I stood for a picture.
As I drove us home to our rental, we settled on the locale for the next Granniefest: Barbados. Within days of returning stateside, we found a place away from the calm Caribbean and the tourists. The house, near Bathsheba on the Atlantic—the rocky, rougher coast—is a short wave ride from Soup Bowl, a break thought to be one of the best, most reliable in the world.
Jay Baron Nicorvo’s poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and criticism have appeared in The Literary Review, Guernica, The Iowa Review, and The Believer. Four Way Books published his debut poetry collection, Deadbeat, in 2012. He teaches at Western Michigan University, where he’s faculty advisor to Third Coast, and he lives on an old farm outside Battle Creek with his wife, Thisbe Nissen, their son, Sonne, and a dozen vulnerable chickens.