I stand and I watch and I look.
The sky is blue. The sky is grey.
There are clouds, there are no clouds.
There is wind. There is always Father Wind, always Mother Ocean.
Wind blows onshore, a santoku knife chops up the water surface, spray and solid lumps of water scatter.
Wind blows offshore raking the swell to combed combers.
Days wash into each other, waves wash into me, I wash into the ocean.
How high are the waves? What direction is the true wind? Is there swell or chop or have the two conjoined to birth a new water child?
Can I get in? Of course.
Can I get out? That’s why I watch.
Walking down a beach, calf-deep water, then the shock of water around my chest, as a wave has tripped and fallen on me to take away my decision. I am pushed back, I surge forward.
I stand on steps, above the water, step down to ankle deep, launch forward in a shallow dive into the wave wrapping 200 degrees around the platform into the steps. I bounce inelegant.
Whipped water and foam, green and white and tan mixing up shades of khaki, wheat and almond. A solution of ocean, sand in suspension, muddy without mud, unclear and opaque, light backscattered off motes.
I stay low, under the waves. Crocodile eyes. Small waves are big waves. Big waves are huge waves. Huge waves are the Sun, small waves are hell.
I stop and watch the back of the wave that has passed, that view of wave that the landlubbers never see, because it is neither photogenic nor obvious. The breaking front is hidden, moving away from me, and who photographs the back of a model’s head? The back of the wave is the truth of the wave. It has not the makeup of a peeling front, no props of a push-up beach or reef to fool you about what it really is. No-one knows waves who does not know the back of waves. From behind the wave is revealed, to those who know to look and judge. I know to look.
Small waves jostle each other and me. They slap me in the face. Winds, waves, and me playing Three Stooges slapstick with me as the slapee. They punch me in the chest as I force my way through. I fight them, they fight back, even when I am moving, they are winning. They are always winning. I am Jack the Giant Killer, fooling the waves and the ocean, not actually fighting the giant, but sneaking around, running across the kitchen floor as the giant suddenly sees me and I aim for a mouse-hole hoping to get out of reach before the giant can turn on me.
I pass a crab. Here in burly ten metre deep jade water, a half-palm sized crab passes under me, on a diagonal pelagic mission. A swimming mission. I stop above it to look, and below me it turns back. Claws extended, it faces its Galactus and charges. But I am not its god. I am filled with ineffable joy at the encounter and swim away.
Five metres away a seal, hound of the ocean, comes up to share the playground and we look at each other and I see nothing in those black eyes and I am not delusional or ignorant enough of the sea enough to claim kinship or any understanding.
Grey on grey and white, a ring-billed gull drops down to verify me. I move so slowly but it stays with me, riding the interface above the chop, catching micro squalls, riding currents that rise off the swells, mere metres above my head, floating there, blessing me and then banks away, and I am forgotten.
The big waves are indifferent, impersonal. I swim uphill on the face of groundswell, before I crest the rollercoaster, more aptly named than any human construction for entertainment, and I plunge into the trough. At the offshore peak I amplify the ocean with and into my arms, scream my freedom. I fall forever into the trough and hit the bottom like a high diver who hasn’t lined up for a correct ten point entry. It’s not a sine wave, it’s a charging cycle; long slow uphill charge, quick plunging discharge.
Kelp grabs, dead women’s hair and dead men’s boot laces wrap around my neck and arms. They slide off and wrap around me in an embrace. Fragments of wrack look like they have been spat out by Leviathan.
Debris, flotsam, jetsam, the spilled coffee mess of decayed organic matter mixed with foam, cappuccino of the sea.
White feathers in the sea beneath me, brighter and whiter and floating there like gravity does not exist, like they have come from the wings of water angels, for from where else could they have come? A pantheon of the deep, never seen, never spoken of, Oceanics instead of Celestials, Reefs instead of Thrones. Benthic elohim, Lords of the Deep. I know they are there, and I reach out and a whisper of translucency glides over my hands, not actually touching, laminar flow gliding the feather around my hand.
I entertain the sea. Getting high for a view, lifted and spun by the Atlantic, we briefly collaborate in a dance of eccentric orbits, interfering and assisting. The galactic mass of the ocean is indifferent to my tiny asteroid. No meteor me, the ocean occasionally presents a cosmic ray of waves for collusion in a momentary flare of comet-like trajectory, as I wave-surf, the white horse this time bucking to be broken, and I slip onto Enbarr of the Flowing Mane, steed of a god and we are man and mount, Manannán mac Lir. I am the Son of the Sea. I am Ahab and Ishmail and I am the White Whale and the White Rider and Jaws and Jonah.
And then I am bucked off, my pelagic steed roars away, another tramples my head and I am ridden over by a stampede and I swim after them, swim into them, swim with them. No reins, no saddles on any of us.
Water is sculpted into an assault weapon. I am the target. We weave around each other. It gets a grip, throws me to the mat, I twist and wriggle free, half-thrown, spitting water. We circle and eye each other, but I blink first.
I always blink first.
The littoral is warfare, the front line of battle, and I wish to cross no-man’s land – to defect. I watch and count, as close to the interface as possible, which only I can master, then swift Tarzan strokes, I reach out and grab the railing, my timing immaculate, that touch of the ocean Celestial’s blessing that is my gift, I use the momentum and abandon my post.
The beach is there, the water scoops me up and instead of smashing me down into the sand I rise in elegance and I am gently placed on my feet and I walk easily and smoothly out of the breaker like an avatar of the ocean, and I am reborn to the land, and lose all my grace and certainty.
I probably stub my toe on a stone shortly thereafter.
Thanks to Suzie Dods (SF Dolphin Club) for input and swim friendship.
Third part of an occasional series, about what it means to be a real ocean swimmer.
12 thoughts on “The Ecstasy of Rough Water”
i am with you LS somewhere else. Beautiful words.
Please don’t stop.
Wave shadows thank you Donal
A few word substitutions and would be like an encounter with the best of lovers…
Evocative as usual
“…I am reborn to the land, and lose all my grace and certainty.”
there is so much truth here–both for swimmers and life students.
This is wonderful, powerful, beautiful and makes me yearn for the ocean. I get fearful in the sea though, these days, so I envy your abilities!
On reading this post, ave come to realize that happiness only surrounds you from your own making.
Wonderful descriptive writing . I love swimming in waves
Wow, beautifully written.