I arrive late in the evening, bleary-eyed from 2,000 kilometers of driving, a family funeral and too little sleep. As the roads turn into streets and the houses huddle in familiar clusters, I take a left cliffside, park hurriedly and run to the parapet: it is still there as I left it three months ago, more unruly perhaps, with irregular lines peaking and troughing to shore, waves rolling their hellos under the roaring wind. “Hello! Hello Ocean, how have you been? You look frazzled! Or am I projecting? I gotta unpack, see you tomorrow, board and all!”. It is cold, damp, dark and windy. “Perfect!” I say out loud as I slam the car door. I am grinning.
The following morning, the sun peeks out, the wind turns and the ocean is doing its best Pacific-blue impersonation. I yank my board bag from the front seat, pull my t-shirt over my head, hug my wetsuit, enjoying that giddy rush from the familiar smell of neoprene, toss my flip-flops in the car, tuck my key in and grab my board, running unevenly as my bare feet get used to the ground again. And then I stop.
First it’s almost imperceptible, a hint of hesitation that somehow takes on the voice of reason: “stop, did you do your surf check properly? What about that channel? Where are the rocks again? Maybe it’s better on the left. No, the right. OK, the left”. Then procrastination joins in: “Hehe, why rush! You’ve been driving for days, what’s another ten minutes! Enjoy the view! Maybe let’s get back to the car and rewax the board. I think the wind is turning. Yep, no doubt this afternoon will work way better”. And then it becomes clear: fear itself, unequivocal, all-knowing, devious, demeaning, absolute. “Look at the waves, it’s maaaaaaassive! You are totally out of shape. It’s ridiculous, remember that time your leash got caught in the reef and you were held under? How long do you think you could last today? Too late to go to the gym now! Should have slept more. Who goes surfing on their own? There are too many people out there, it’s dangerous!”
The fact that an argument and its refutation are uttered in a single breath is beyond the point. The onslaught tactics works best: it leaves no place for logic. “But…” I feebly say as I start getting too hot in that wetsuit, I really just wanted to get wet, have a paddl…”
-“A what?? A paddle? You are kidding me? You are driving 2,000km to have a paddle? Now that was worth it, wasn’t it? A paddle! If you wanna paddle, should’ve gone to the Hackney reservoir in London!”
At that point one of two things can happen: either the “Fuck it!” light bulb goes off and short-circuits all the ridiculousness. The voice of bullshit disappears as quickly as it came, legs start moving and the body takes over. As soon as the cold water hits my face, there’s a blitz second of reckoning “WTF was all that about?”, soon washed off by the next wave, the next turn and the next pure moment of stoke that will be retold many times over in endless hyperbolic recollections that thrill surfers and bring them together, and bore everyone else.
That, or the blackout continues. The path to the switch slowly unfurls and winds ever further. The body hunches. Gaze lowers, breath is barely there. I start, I turn. I stop moving. Maybe if I try hard enough, I could just disappear. I slowly pull my key back out.
I have no idea why I go surfing.
Why I sometimes feel there is no pursuit worthier than organising a surf trip. Why my heart skips a beat when I catch a glimpse of a white line on the ocean; why I take everything with such equanimity after I have been for a surf, whatever my performance, whatever the conditions. I keep meeting people who act and feel the same way: we just nod knowingly at each other, brush off people who don’t understand, forgive everything that happened on land and none of what happened in the water. It guides my choices, takes me further away and closer in too. A wandering introspection, a flowing meditation. At times it feels like a discipline. Getting up at dawn, regardless of how many hours of sleep I’ve had, or going to bed early just because “it’s on” tomorrow . Being mindful of my exercise or lack of when I have been out of the water for too long. Getting butt naked in freezing cold winds. On public car parks. Or skipping lunch because the tide doesn’t wait.
So why am I now teetering on a tightrope of indecision, torn between land and ocean? How could I not rush to what I love? Was the experience too idealised through thousands of classic shots from Waikiki to Bells Beach, glamourous sepia surfer girls in homemade bikinis now replaced by flowy blondes in Clarendon IG filter hues, paddling effortlessly, just about dipping their fingertips in a wonderful aquatic bokeh? Of course I can’t compete. But isn’t the ocean my lover too? I can rush into his arms, he will make my hair come undone, my makeup will run and I will smile for miles. Four quick steps forward, 1, 2, 3, 4….
Am I undeserving? Is this the right spot for me? Stare down at the car park. She is not from here. Yes, alright, I am not a local, don’t make it any harder than it already is. I bring peace and aloha and respect. Shall I stand taller, stick my chest out, wear my worldly waves like a badge of honour and guest-pass into the lineup? Three steps forward, 1, 2, 3. How could I not rush to what I love?
Surfing is highly codified.
On the one hand, there’s a great culture of universal acceptance, three generations deep running to the shorebreak, old men cruising on logs, ‘groms’ flipping and jumping at every opportunity, ‘wahine’ gracefully cross-stepping and waving, warriors taking no prisoners with their eyes on the line, suddenly breaking into encouraging woop-woops! as you pop up on your first wave. But surf culture can get stale too, as diversity gets brushed aside as slightly uncool at best, manhandled away from the beach at worst, grown-up men with pre-teen politics and the blind fury of wild boars attacking everything in their path, twisting, bending and hammering the word ‘aloha!’ until it’s blunt enough to raise as a threat, leaving humility, patience and kindness floating behind like discarded plastic wrappers in the sea foam. Peak etiquette and local respect, which were passed down generations as a great safety mechanism that regulated the line-up are hijacked to become a tool for self-entitlement and exclusion.
At the bottom of the food chain, ‘kooks’ pile up in the shore break and happily throw boards and fins in each other’s faces, until natural selection spews a chosen one out back into the lineup, where long hours of sitting on the wave’s shoulder await. What side of the surf culture they’ll experience at that point is entirely contingent. If ‘culture’ gives way to nature for even just one wave, they’ll be forever hooked.
Not sure how it happened.
I am paddling. My back is stiff, my arms floppy and my board carries me over the chop and swell far slower than I would like. The strain and discomfort dispel the remaining mists of anxiety, connecting my body to the world around it. There is no more planning, gauging or assessing, the destination is here and now. Welcome! says the first duck dive. Welcome! say the second and the third, holding me longer than feels quite necessary, not letting go of me like an over-enthusiastic grand-aunt overcome I’ve finally visited. I gasp and giggle, try to arch and paddle forth. As I finally reach the lineup, I sit up and briefly contemplate a parallel universe where I’d have the fitness to paddle straight back round into a wave. I snap back to reality and start projecting a few meters ahead towards the peak, keeping an eye on the oncoming swell, watching other surfers circle like sharks in a tank while I get ready for my own kill. Grey lines on the horizon slowly stack up, there is palpable energy bubbling around me, as if the human effervescence was directly absorbing the displaced atoms from the approaching ground swells, and then it comes: the series, heralded by the first black wave suddenly towering over me.
Another time, another place.
The sheer force of the water moving, rolling, swelling and exploding around me was deafening. I was breathing short getting ready for annihilation, tensed up and frantically checking around me for any signs of ambush, sand bars and tide shifting to trap me. “Ain’t that beautiful?” he rhetorically asked splashing around, salty water pearling down his long beard and dreadlocks. “Can you feel it, that power? It’s yours!” and his laugh suddenly filled the air and made my ears pop to the breezy Capetonian afternoon that it was, rain fading into the horizon. A tremendous joy started filling me, “Yes, yes!” I replied as my board and I were going up and down to the rhythm of the swell and I was becoming one with the surrounding energy. “Now remember! Don’t just get carried by that wave, you must harness that power, make your line! This one is yours, it has your name written all over it!” and carried by his wisdom and what could only be the Force itself rising from the deepest darkest underwater caves, I suddenly felt water rush under my feet and the growing green water mountain turned into a friendly giant to play rough and tumble with, except this time, he’d lift me up and let me win.
Here now. There is water all around me.
My eyes, ears and nose are filled with saltwater, bubbles fizz and pop everywhere but I know I will soon emerge. I let go, try and relax my arms, legs, back, neck, body floating in-between states. Since I have made peace with the fact the same force carries me forward and makes me go under, I almost enjoy wipeouts. I save my energy for the fast paddle out of the impact zone, or the next wall of white water, or both. There is a strange satisfaction in surrendering, a welcome break from relentless perseverance. Experiencing non-action to become a wei wu wei ninja to make my rasta master proud, “action without action”, the true essence of surfing as I learnt in South Africa. And while I am thousands of kilometers away now, wiping out condenses all other wipeout experiences, collapses them into one, a black hole under the sea where I am all I ever was, everyone I’ve ever met, all I’ve ever learnt, tumbling away.
And then I will emerge, I will paddle back out, and do it all over again.
What makes us surfers relish the endless and futile pursuit of transience, when Gods handed Sisyphus that same fate as a punishment? For every wave surfed, thousands will go unsurfed, “you should have been here yesterday!” the surfers’ FoMO echoed by every look over the shoulder at the end of every surf session. And the following day or month or the next trip or continent, the surf check ritual will unfold again, the hopes and regrets crystallise as decisions are made, to go, not to go. Successful sessions will always end up with more time paddling than standing and yet all surfers will tell you there is no greater pursuit. Is it just the hedonism of those handful of seconds? Or is there also pleasure and beauty in perseverance itself? Does perseverance help us reach self-esteem as Mustapha Fahmi suggests?
When Albert Camus concluded his essay on the Absurd, he described Sisyphus at the end of a day having pushed his boulder up the mountain only to see it roll back down again: “each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” I know Sisyphus is happy. Sisyphus is a surfer.
First published on Let’s Explore Magazine: Issue 02 - Perseverance