Unpacked

Other people’s words about … surfing and the sea

Nearly all of what happens in the water is ineffable — language is no help. Wave judgment is fundamental, but how to unpack it? You’re sitting in a trough between waves, and you can’t see past the approaching swell, which will not become a wave you can catch. You start paddling upcoast and seaward. Why? If the moment was frozen, you could explain that, by your reckoning, there’s a fifty-fifty chance that the next wave will have a good takeoff spot about ten yards over and a little farther out from where you are now. This calculation is based on: your last two or three glimpses of the swells outside, each glimpse caught from the crest of a previous swell; the hundred-plus waves you have seen break in the past hour and a half; your cumulative experience of three or four hundred sessions at this spot, including fifteen or twenty days that were much like this one in terms of swell size, swell direction, wind speed, wind direction, tide, season, and sandbar configuration; the way the water seems to be moving across the bottom; the surface texture and the water colour; and, beneath these elements, innumerable subcortical perceptions too subtle and fleeting to express. The last factors are like the ones that the ancient Polynesian navigators relied upon when, on the open seas, they used to lower themselves into the water between the outriggers on their canoes and let their testicles tell them where in the great ocean they were.

Of course, the moment can’t be frozen.

From ‘Barbarian Days’
by William Finnegan

My partner is in his mid-fifties now, and, like William Finnegan, has been surfing since he was a teenager. Though he and I are both avid beach-lovers, I know that when he looks at the sea, he sees something different from what I see.

I (from my admittedly middle-class, Western, leisured perspective) look at the sea for beauty. I don’t understand the sea’s tides, its swells, its waves. I understand, simply, how the sea makes me feel.

It’s hard to express my feelings about the sea in actual words, though. They are, to use Finnegan’s words in a slightly different way, subtle, fleeting,subcortical, ineffable.

And … good.



Exquisite

Other people’s words about … surfing

[My wife Caroline] was reading on a hotel balcony directly above the break. The waves were head-high, barely clearing the rocks on the sets. After every ride, I would look up. Caroline’s nose would still be in her book. I would yell. She would wave. She saw none of my rides. When I finally came in and complained, she tried to explain, not for the first time, how exquisitely boring it was to watch surfing. The lulls between sets seemed to go on for hours. There had been, it was true, some fairly long lulls.

My complaints were trivial, actually, not deeply felt. Caroline indulged my surf fever, even its most juvenile moments, beyond anything I had a right to expect, and I consciously tried never to lose sight of that fact. As indifferent as she was to the ocean and all things surf, our life together was braided with waves. They were a backdrop, a gravitational force, and rarely far away.

From ‘Barbarian Days’
by William Finnegan

Like William Finnegan and his wife Caroline, my life with my partner (and my dog) is braided with waves. I was a suburban child: we had a swimming pool in our backyard, which we swam in on hot summer days after school. The beach was a half-hour car trip away, and my parents reserved it for winter time: long walks in the wind and drizzle, wrapped in coats and scarves and gloves.

After I left home, and after I came home from my years-long travels overseas, I lived in a series of share households by the beach. I met my partner in my late twenties, when he was in his mid-thirties. We began to fall for each other very soon after we met, and only a few weeks after he had come into my life, he took me on a trip to the coast down south. It was Christmas, and his parents needed help towing and setting up their caravan for their annual holiday in the caravan park at Port Elliott. Later, after the caravan was set up and his parents were settled, we slipped away to the beach for some time alone.

And so our life together by the beach began.

Because of my partner’s lifelong passion for surfing, our holidays and camping trips have always been ocean-based. We have spent time in Yorke Peninsula (and indeed, I took the photos in today’s post on our latest trip to Yorkes, in mid-November), Eyre Peninsula, Western Australia, and various spots in our own coastal area, Fleurieu Peninsula; and when we are on holiday, in between the time we spend together on the beach and in the caravan (or, in the early days, the tent), my partner slips off to surf.

As Finnegan so succinctly puts it, the waves are a backdrop, a gravitational force to our lives; they are rarely far away.

I smiled with rueful recognition when I read Finnegan’s description of his wife Caroline’s indifference to all things surf. Oh, yes. But I suspect that, despite everything, Caroline is also grateful for the things that life with a surfer has brought her. As for me, the lifestyle I now lead, living by the coast, camping on cliffs that overlook the sea, wandering lonely shores, is one I am intensely grateful for.

If I had my time all over again, I would choose this life, over and over again.

I would choose it, as I do now, with astonishment and joy.