A Session to Die For

On the last day of our stay at Dreamsea I was invited to come along for a surf session with the instructors. There was a serious swell forecasted and a bunch of them were getting up early before work to go and catch some big waves at a Gerra, a distant beach which is ‘much more pumping!’ than Oyambre where we normally surf. I wonder if I am ready for this, but it is too good an offer to turn down.

Despite my good intentions, I ended up staying up late the night before. I can never turn down a pub quiz. I got a few hours of restless sleep but was already awake when my alarm went at 5:45am, visualising alternate scenarios where either I totally amazed everyone with epic surfing – of the kind that I had certainly not shown in any of the sessions so far – or where I drowned. I quietly eased out of the tent and dressed outside in the darkness, where I had a small pile of clothes waiting. “Don’t die” said Menna sleepily and rolled over.

There was mist below the pines and a morning chill. It was either that or I was shivering from nerves (how big exactly is ‘big swell’?). I was the first one at the rendezvous and struck a nonchalant pose by the gatepost: surfboard under my arm, wetsuit over one shoulder, wishing for insouciant cigarette to hang off my bottom lip. Gradually the others appeared in ones and twos and a minibus roared up to the gate. We loaded the surf boards onto the roof. We were six all together, I was the only camp guest and I felt a little like I’d gatecrashed a private party.
“You coming too?” I am asked, surprised, by Matteo from the kitchen. Even though the camp is very relaxed, there is the inevitable division between staff and guest, no matter how much ping pong you all play together. Is my presence restrictive? Are the team unable to relax properly and enjoy their session? Do they feel they need to look after me? I was offered a banana and ate it in silence.

We drove along the high coast road and already the waves looked big. We parked on the cliffs and the waves looked bigger. We climbed down to the beach and the waves look bigger still. Glacial green mountains rolling ponderously inwards then smashing down with percussive impact, throwing spray high into the air. The white water is foaming and heaving and sucking. The paddle out looks long and dangerous.

“My God! We gonna surf today!” Says Gigi, good-looking Italian receptionist.
“Those waves look like Bali when it gets big on the reef” says playboy Manu, camp owner.
“Hombre! Last session like this I broke my board” says Victor, our surf coach, though it is understood that he is not on duty now. I am on my own here.

They’re smiling and joking and doing complicated warm up routines. Getting pumped. No one notices that I’ve gone silent and am contemplating quietly hitching a ride back to camp.

But you can’t right? All the bravado; all of the tales of Costa Rica; kids looking up at me with little disappointed eyes, ‘But Daddy, you said you could surf anything…’ (‘That was a frickin joke Arthur! Go back to bed damnit!”). Some things are worse than death by drowning.

So of course I paddled in after them and it turned out just as you would imagine. I quickly lost the others; saw them find the outbound channels; make quick progress out in the gap between sets; paddle up and over those vertical rushing walls that would soon come crashing down on me. Then we were separated by angry mountains of salt water.

I spent a long time in the impact zone on that paddle out. I had some bitter moments of self realisation there. I made the line-up fifteen minutes later, tired and breathless, salt water in my belly, but that arrival felt like a triumph in itself. Friends! Safety! Of a sort. We were bobbing on our boards in a loosely strung-out line, pulled around by rips and currents, floating up over the rollers. I triangulated myself against various reference points on the faraway land. I mustn’t go too far out (too long to paddle in again) mustn’t go too far in (get caught by the big sets) mustn’t drift too far right (rocks). And eventually I found a kind of peace there, in the perfect antithesis of surfing, trying my hardest to go precisely nowhere on a board. Occasionally I would give a thumbs up or shout “nice wave” at one of the others, as they caught another epic ride. It felt good to be part of the pack.

“Go Weeliam, go! Go! Paddle now!” Victor shouted at me, totally breaking my zen. Startled, obedient, I turned and paddled. I was in just the right position and for a moment I felt the wave loom up behind me and saw the line I would take inscribed on it. I felt then that I might do something amazing on that wave. It was so big and steep though that I just screamed my way down the face for some eternal frozen moments, then totally failed to make the turn at the bottom, got caught up in the break and tumbled underneath for a long time. As I rolled in the darkness, twisted and massaged by mighty underwater forces, I reflected on just how amazingly that wave might have gone. And that was pretty much the highlight of the session. There was another time when I drifted out of position and got badly caught inside by a set of five big waves, but I don’t count that.

After the last hold-down I decided that I’d proved my mettle enough for one day and paddled alone back to shore. I had been out for less than an hour.

I sat cross legged on the beach and thought I might meditate for a while while the others finished, but I was far too adrenalised. Instead I watched the white walls and red tiles of far-off San Vicente light up in the morning sun and I congratulated myself on a heroic session.

Did I catch any good waves? No!
Did I have fun? Not really!
But did I survive? Yes!

So let’s take that as a win shall we? A war story: I was out there in the big Gerra swell of 2020. I couldn’t wait to tell the kids how big it was!

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