All my life, surfers had been coming to my beach—Lawrencetown Beach in Nova Scotia. There were tall surfers, short surfers, skinny surfers and fat surfers. Hairy surfers and shaved-head surfers. Smart surfers and stupid surfers. Surfers with great cars. Surfers who hitchhiked. Surfers who were friendly and surfers who were rude and nasty. There were even girl surfers who sometimes smiled at me.
Even though I lived by the ocean, I had never surfed. I was a lousy swimmer, and I knew the sea could be dangerous. There were rip currents near the headland that pulled swimmers so far out to sea that helicopters had to save them or pick up whatever was left. And sometimes there were huge killer waves.
It was a dangerous world out there once you left dry land. My grandfather—a great old guy—had been a fisherman.
“Ben,” my grandfather told me one day while we were watching some kids from the city surf overhead waves, “you don’t play around with the North Atlantic Ocean. I used to risk my life to go out there and catch a couple of darn fish so we didn’t starve. But you don’t just go out there in that friggin’ cold water for the fun of it.” He had died last spring, and I still missed him.
His words stuck with me. He was right. It could be dangerous. People had drowned at Lawrencetown, unaware of how treacherous it could be. And it was bloody cold, even in the summer. Surfers had to wear wet suits almost all the time. There were a few warm days when people came out from Halifax and swam in their bathing suits, but they were rare. Usually the water was so cold it was painful. Maybe I was smart to avoid the ocean.
But it was driving me crazy. Despite everything my grandfather said, despite every reason there was to avoid it, I wanted to surf so bad it was ripping a hole in my head. I had to at least try.
My parents were opposed to it.
“I’m sixteen,” I told them. “I can decide for myself.”
“You remember what your grandfather told you,” my father said. He had not become a fisherman like his father but worked at a place in Burnside that made cardboard boxes.
“You’re going to get hurt, I know it,” my mom said. “What if you drown?”
“I’m not going to drown. I’ll have a wet suit on. It will keep me afloat.”
“You’re going to put your body in one of those rubber things?” my dad asked. “I’d rather eat nails with ketchup.”
“I’m going surfing,” I said. And left, slamming the door.
It was a sunny Saturday in the middle of June. Goofy’s surf truck was parked by the rocks that acted as a seawall to keep the ocean from washing out the road. Goofy rented boards and wet suits to anyone silly enough to brave the early summer sea that was just a few degrees above zero. It didn’t look cold but it was.
I paid the money and went behind the rocks to put on the wet suit. It felt tight and weird.Goofy, smiling that idiotic smile that gave him his name, had also rented me a six-foot “fish”—a shortboard with a V in the tail and four short fins. It was the board I’d seen the hot surfers use to really rip.
I was gonna be like them—on my first day. If I could only stop my heart from racing so fast and my knees from shaking.
I watched a few experienced surfers paddle out. The waves were shoulder high, not small, but not too big. I wrapped the strap of the leash around my ankle, took a deep breath and waded into the ocean. I had on boots, but without gloves the cold water knifed into my hands. I tried to lie on the board and paddle like I’d seen the others do. In no time I slipped off and went right under. Talk about a wakeup call. A voice screamed inside my head. I surfaced and gasped for air. I knew it was going to be cold, but not that cold.
I was still in the shallows, ready to quit and run home to momma. I faced the shore. Then I heard someone behind me let out a loud whoop. I turned to watch Gorbie Kessler riding a beautiful blue wall of water. He kicked his board high up into the wave, made a radical turn and fell off face-first into the water. When he came up he was laughing.
I pointed my board away from the beach. I lay on it. I wobbled. I paddled. A wave came at me and I paddled into it, tucked my head down and then I was over it. I kept paddling straight out to sea. I didn’t even look up until I was near where the other surfers were sitting close to the takeoff zone. I was breathing hard. Man, was I out of shape.
“Yo, Ben.” It was Weed. You can guess why he was named that. “Thought you didn’t surf.”
Still gasping for breath and trying to sit up on my board, I said, “Times change.” Or not.
“Just go for it,” he said, laughing. Nothing bothered Weed. He probably didn’t even feel the cold. I watched as he paddled and caught a nice little waist-high wave. It looked like there was nothing to it.
I missed the first seven waves. I flailed and thrashed my arms. I dug deep and paddled. But I couldn’t get it. I’d been in the water about forty-five minutes when I heard someone yell, “Outside!” I’d been around enough to know that this meant there was a wave coming that was bigger than the rest. I turned. Yeah, it looked like a killer to me. I didn’t know what to do, but the lunatic who resides in the back of my brain repeated what Weed had said. Just go for it.
So I went for it.
And got eaten for lunch.
It went like this. I paddled toward shore with all my strength. I felt the wave catch up to me and begin to lift me into the sky. I was holding onto the rails of my board for dear life. I was moving faster than I could imagine. But it all happened so quickly. I was dropping down the face of a steep wall of ocean.
My mouth was open. I know that because when I did the face-plant into the bottom of the wave, I was gargling salt water, thinking that maybe I was about to die. The wave drove me deep into the water. I flapped my arms around, thinking that going back up to the surface was a good idea.
I surfaced just in time to open my eyes and see my airborne surfboard eclipsing the morning sun. And aimed straight for my head. Wham.
The next thing I knew I had this awful pain from where the board had slammed onto the bridge of my nose. The fin had connected just below my eye. And there was blood.
Blood and pain and floundering around in cold water with another wave about to break on you. This is not a great combination.
Weed saw what happened. “Man, you got nailed. Better get to shore.”
I didn’t know which way shore was.
“That way, Ben. You okay?”
Okay was not the word I would use. But I was alive. I nodded and tasted blood. At least I hadn’t been blinded. I dog-paddled to shore, my board in tow.
I swore I would never, ever, do that again.