Monday, February 13, 2012

Dangerous swells - feel the fear and do it anyway?

When you say “I’m a surfer” or “I surf”, people immediately conjure up all the sensationally dangerous imagery that goes along with the sport...”Aren’t you afraid of the sharks?”, “I heard about this guy who got attacked...”, “Have you ever broken your board?”...etc...

I can’t imagine a sport that is more contact, and in which you are so at the mercy of Mother Nature than surfing. There is skating, but that’s you pushing yourself on a board. There is skiing or snowboarding, but it really is you who exerts the force, takes the first step to go down the mountain. You choose the slope, you choose the danger.

And yes, surfing is like that also. You can choose to surf the 1ft waves in Waikiki on a mild day and be 90% sure that nothing ‘dangerous’ will happen to you. You might also lie on your board doing nothing for a long time. But I’m talking about going out there when the current is well, forceful, when it has the power to really teach you something. And that is where I consider the danger of surfing to be – in the current.

People never think about the current. People see waves in terms of height and direction, not really understanding that it is what is happening under the water that matters. I went in the water over the weekend, only to practically fight to stay upright in knee deep water while I was holding my board by my side. The current was that strong. Not to mention dumpy and well painful if you got pounded. Hadn’t even surfed yet, and already I had 4 chances of putting a serious ding in my board.
It is currents like this, at which you throw yourself, that get you into trouble. The facade of small waves and OK surf, can immediately be put out of your mind when you are stuck in a rip you don’t want to be. I can imagine coming face to face with a shark is a horrendous experience, but on a more likely level, getting caught in rips is more deadly. There is nothing scarier than being in a whirlpool of a current, getting hit by waves from every angle, and not even having the opportunity to stay on your board to paddle in the right direction. Even more so, the silence of no waves at all to launch you back to shore safety, only a strong current holding you right where you are, despite furious paddling. Yes, being stuck at sea is no fun.

Surfing can mess you up in a psychological way. When you get into big waves and crazy currents, the only thing you want to do is establish control over board and swell, but the only option you have is to relinquish it. Sometimes you have to give up and go along with the swell, wherever it takes you. Sometimes you have to sit and wait for a wave, even though you’re all paddled out and want to touch sand.

I had the unfortunate encounters of being stuck in two helpless rips last month. I paddled and paddled and couldn’t get anywhere. And there was no one to help me either. When you do get out, the realisation of what has happened doesn’t hit you. No, it’s not until you go into the surf the next time that you become paralysed. Paralysed with flashbacks and fear, unable to go out to where you can’t feel the bottom. Surfing becomes impossible; without you on your board.

This weekend was the hardest for me. Just developing that trust that the swell will most times take me where I need to go, while knowing it can leave me stuck and helpless. As much as you train, pick the right boards, go out into the right conditions, you are always at the mercy of one of the greatest natural forces. But you have to feel the fear and do it anyway. The possibility of danger cannot eclipse the possibility of catching an amazing wave. Of going in an amazing barrel. Of feeling on top of the world. We gamble our lives every day with a force that cannot be tamed. We exploit it to our advantage. Because at the end of the day, it’s not sharks or other people’s boards that can kill us, it’s the same force that is benevolent to us on a really good ride.

If anything, we can only learn. The best surfer can get into a lot of trouble. But despite all the possible pitfalls, we live between fun and danger for the promise of the next Big Wave.

We feel the fear and do it anyway.

Content Copyright © SoulSurfer 13th February 2012 at 3.40pm


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