“How vain and foolish for timid untraveled man to try to comprehend…..the profound unbounded sea”……. Ishmael
Winter’s over, and its passing heralds the warmer water and fleetingly tepid sunshine of Spring. Long and fearsome, a succession of huge storms battered the south western coast – dredging sand, hurling rocks and debris, destroying homes and livelihoods and uncovering the bodies of ships long dead.
Dangerous and unpredictable, the sea was an interesting place to be – especially with a broken fibula. Stubborn at the best of times, I kept going in throughout my convalescence. Unable to stand only paddle, I negotiated my bloody-minded way through unruly, achingly cold and spiteful tidal surges. I love the wildness and the solitude, the spray on my face, rain and hail, the weak yet piercing rays of the low northern sun in my near sighted eyes – It’s my one sure thing and it’s been mine since I was an eleven year old boy.
I go down to the “sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat – bobbing sea” for renewal – washing away what has been a particularly testing year. I momentarily mislay the risk of starting a new business and the nerve jangling effect on my family’s security. I forget, for a short while, my eldest son’s illness, my wife’s worries, my ageing parent’s mortality and my own recently revealed hereditary osteoporosis. On the biggest days I go without the kids (I would worry too much and they would worry too little) I am not fearless, but it’s something I am compelled to do. There is no way of not going in, waves aren’t just measured in size but by the willingness of other surfers.
There’s a nervousness to the car park, minimal chat and brittle laughter punctuate the frostily crisp morning air. From the bluff it looks big but from the sand bigger still – you brace yourself for something most folk would perceive as lunacy. Entry into the water causes a sharp intake of breath and you collect your thoughts for the long windchilling paddle. Snaking and duckdiving you navigate the rips and impact zones. Doubts kick in, progress is slow, punctuated by ice cream headaches as your hood periodically fills and drains. Larger, less uniform, rogue sets appear and the topography becomes confusing with no one out back to line up with. You go deep down, trusting your leash as it stretches to breaking point pulling it back hand over hand like an extra in the opening scene of Les Miserables. Clearing your head in a momentary lull you wonder if you are making headway against the restless and relentless sea.
Mid to low, the tide is moving out fast. The rips are strong east to west, shore to sea, forcing you toward the rocks with startling swiftness. Big, grumbling, ocean swells roll past breaking with a sound reminiscent of a giant rolling boulders across a dancefloor. You must think quickly, clearly, decisively – this is where experience comes in and slows things down. Climbing the rocks is out of the question, the swells too big and I only have one good leg – foolish boy! Following the rip out to sea is the only option going with it until it dissipates. A few miles out I relax, regain my composure and consider the landscape. There is less activity farther along the coast and I paddle quietly through the softly undulating unbroken swell until I am able to prone in a few miles to the east. I limp leisurely along the beach, a chastened, certainly colder but slightly self-satisfied man. Dressing silently, I nod and smile sagely at kindred spirits not now-a-bed and holding their manhoods cheaply.
Driving homeward through the bare country lanes, my body regaining feeling with the heaters assistance, the phone signal kicks in. “Get bread and eggs” says the VOR. I laugh to myself as I turn the car towards the village shop.