Wavescheck: The art of deciding when to surf

Wavescheck is the process of observing the current surf conditions. For some, it comes with deliberation, wondering whether conditions will get better or get worse. We often decide to check another surf break, which could result in a long drive that brings you right back to where you started. Sometimes you watch the ocean with hope, willing the lines of swell to come. Other times you wish it would become calm, allowing surfing to take place at all.

On one particular day I was confronted by a surf check dilemma. To go, or not to go.

A surf check experience

The sunshine seeps through my skin, warming up my winter bones. The sky is deep blue, except towards the horizon where it grows lighter. Clouds are smudged to the east, warning of storms to come. The dark islands sit timeless on the horizon, reminders that this land was created by volcanoes.

I sit upon the dunes, amongst the flowers and the wind. A gentle onshore breeze makes the grass sway. The flowers hold their faces up towards the sun. The ferns stand erect like swords, ready for action. But there is no action needed from them, except to grow upwards and seize the sunlight. Tiny dune birds are not visible except in the periphery of vision, where they flitter like dark butterflies this way and that. A bee settles upon a yellow flower close to my feet. It appears to be dusting its face with pollen, the flower’s sweet gift.

I look out to the breaking waves

The ocean is the color of washing water, and the waves are breaking in plumes of white smoke. There is no order to the ocean today, just lines of churning white. Yet on the shoulder of each of these walls runs an unbroken section before it breaks. It is in this transient shoulder that I see potential.

A seagull banks and glides across the canvas. The plants shiver and hold their gaze towards the sun. The bees hover, selecting this plant or that, based on merits we do not understand.

I see a lone surfer paddling out. He has been paddling for a long time. There is no defined channel, nowhere that offers an easy paddle out to the waves breaking out the back. Sunlight cascades down upon the ocean’s surface, burning it to bright white. It’s 11:00 am, one hour to the midday sun, with its scathing glare. The ocean settles for a while, looking deceptively easy to paddle into.

I contemplate running home

Squeezing into my wet wetsuit, waxing my board, and dashing back. But I know I will be pounded. I can see the fatigue in the paddling surfer’s slow arm movements. He is getting dragged north. He has no chance of returning to the takeoff zone where he was before. The current is running swiftly from south towards the mountain at the north end of our beach. There were five or six people surfing earlier but now, there’s only one.

A wave begins to peak and its face is covered in a web of veins left by the wave that preceded it. The tide is drawing out and in a few hours will be dead low. That will make no difference to the conditions today, for the swell is so solid, it will break regardless of the tide.

A light aircraft banks up above, humming as the pilot takes in the view. I imagine the pilot glancing down, seeing the flower-covered dunes, just patches of green above a blue-gray ocean. The surf forecast says the wind will drop as the day progresses, but it said that the other day and it was wrong. Never forego an opportunity to surf based on the recommendation of a forecast. If the waves are good, go now. You can always go again later if it improves, and you have the time.

Maybe I’m getting old

For in my youth, I would be out there already, not sitting amongst the flowers. But little injuries turn into deep-set pains. The other day in the shore break, a fin caught me in the lower back. I allowed myself to be washed in to shore and trudged back up the sand, disappointed in the session. The conditions that day were similar to today, but smaller. Now, four days later, my back aches in the place where the fin caught me. Little injuries seem more significant than they used to.

Another surfer has drifted before me from somewhere south of where I live. He’s too far in and is about to be caught inside by a looming dark shadow. He’ll be cursing himself, but it’s not his fault. This was a rogue wave, the second to last of a set. I see him being tumbled towards shore. When he he emerges he attempts one last paddle out. But he doesn’t make it. He catches a foamy. He lies on his stomach and bounces all the way in.

That’s the worst way to end a session

Giving up, catching white water back to sand because you know you can’t paddle back out. Yet, from my perspective up on the dunes, if he had persevered a few moments longer, he would’ve had an easy passage back, for now the ocean has become calm, smoother even than before. This surfer now struggles with the shorebreak backwash. He’s given up. He’s had enough. He’s already been swept too far from wherever he entered the water.

The waves continued to roll, but smaller now. The ocean’s surface looks more like a mirror, like the kind of surface you expect to find early in the morning. How swiftly the conditions change if you take time to sit and observe them. The classic two-minute surf check reveals little of the ocean’s mood. And I’m convinced that if we took time to watch the ocean, instead of giving up or moving on, we would find ourselves more in tune with her moods, more able to find the quick passage out. To identify the shortcuts; to know how best to flow with her.

A yellow flower beside me radiates quiet exuberance. Inside, she holds a cluster of yellow and orange stamens. Her leaves are paper-thin and yellow, threaded with the tiniest of veins. If the petals are attractive to us, it is easy to see why they’re attractive to bees. Inside of the flower is pure thoughtless life. The season is right. The warmth, the water and the wind intermingle, and the plant experiences the innate urge to let go, to bloom, to flourish and hold itself up towards the sun in an act of faith and love and survival.

The bee hovers close and settles

Hanging on, dangling, and weighing the flower down. It samples all of the flowers from this one particular plant before moving on. And that’s life. The bees and the flowers are one organism. Just as if some greater intelligence came to earth and observed us, it would not see individual organisms, little humans running around. It would view one living, breathing entity, like the fungus on a piece of bread. And that would be us, all of the animals in the planet, coexisting, mushrooming, expanding, contracting, dying, living, waiting, watching. A right hander peels off directly in front of where I sit.

The sun is hot now, hotter than it should be in the middle of winter. But I won’t complain, because the water is cold. Most of the surfers were wearing hoods, gloves and boots today.

Out the back I see splashing, yet there is no surfer there. It’s just wildlife of some sort, catching fish or being caught. Or am I searching for reasons not to paddle out, my subconscious giving me fuel. Yet the ocean appears cleaner now. It’s settling down. Perhaps the forecast was right. Perhaps it will be worth it. It looks too good to ignore. It’s what I wished for on all those days and weeks, when the ocean was still. It’s time to go. It’s time.

A butterfly swoops down and settles upon the pathway leading to the sand. They say butterflies guide you in the direction you need to go.