Catching Waves, and Being Caught

I am a middle-aged mom and a surfer. In November 1995, for the first time, I tried cold-weather surfing. We were at Falcon Cove on Oregon's north coast. I had lost enough weight so my new wet suit didn't make me look like a baby pilot whale.

A three-day gale and a 9.1 tide made the surf abnormally high. Gray sky and sea seemed one. Waves exploded. Driftwood logs jumped in the air. Incoming waves hit rips going out, causing huge fans of water and spray. It seemed wise to wait for the tide to turn.

An hour later, when the logs and debris were on dry sand, we pushed out into the surf, and struggled to get to deeper water. Even with the receding tide, the ocean was still spectacular. Waves came sideways. Double and triple waves overtook one another, propelling us like watery toboggans hooked to a freight train.

That morning, we had a wide choice of waves. I lay flat on my short board, bodysurfing style. I pushed hard to start each surcharged ride to the beach, and leaned right or left to steer and accelerate. Several waves peaked and prolonged before cascading.

I caught one of these curls and slipped along the wave's face. When it crashed, the power sent me airborne, a brief flight free of earth and ocean.

At noon a fog formed, causing an eerie loss of visibility. The waves still rolled in long combers toward shore. We floated and waited for rideable swells. A strange quiet encapsulated us. Something was wrong. I looked for any abnormal disturbance in the smooth, rolling water outside the break.

Winter surfing requires a certain mental edge. For winter is white-shark migration time. At Falcon Cove there have been no recorded shark attacks, just one at Cannon Beach to the north, and one at Short Sands to the south. Stitches closed the north wound. The south merely lost his board.

We continued drifting and waiting for the right wave. Nearby, a gray harbor seal popped up, as did my pulse rate. A school of candle fish appeared as something dark, just under the surface, undulated closer and closer. The bait fish sank from sight. Suddenly, the right wave was there. It loomed so high that it blocked out the horizon. I felt an unseen force take control and send me down a steep glacier of surface tension.

I lost peripheral vision in the silver oxygen and foam. My mind jettisoned all superfluous cargo. In front of this massive wall of water, I yelled all the way to the shallows. Terror and pleasure melded as if I were on a roller coaster; a long, bumpy ride almost to dry sand. I recovered, rose, and had turned to go back out when a sneaker wave hit me in ankle-deep water. My board flew skyward, and I went down without a sound.

MY companions, who had duck-dived under the enormous breaker, looked for me to surface from the turbulence. I never surfaced, having beached on dry sand like a porpoise with bad sonar. As the younger trade calls it, a "wipeout." I lay there. The warm comfort of my wet suit belied the 48-degree water temperature. The fog was thickening now, erasing the spruce and hemlock on Cape Falcon, and bringing along an excuse to quit for the day.

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