Riding Waves

I. The Approach

On a heavy day, with large and many waves,
it’s easy to waste all your strength
getting out to where they’re breaking.
Don’t make this mistake.
As you work your way out
through the maelstrom of the broken waves,
don’t let them strike you.
For they will drive you backward,
and when you reach the surf-line—
if you do— you’ll be exhausted,
unequal to the task awaiting you.
Instead, play porpoise. As the broken wave
approaches, dive in front of it, just deep
enough for your hands to reach the bottom.
Dig your fingers in the sand and hold
until the wave is past, then push up quickly,
lest another wave be bearing down.
In that event, and no time to dive,
take a quick breath and duck your head
completely down before the leading edge of foam.
You won’t lose more than two steps.

With the diving and the ducking it’s not hard
arriving unexhausted at the surf-line.
Then you pick your wave.

II. Picking the Wave

There are some waves you cannot ride.
If they are very big, and breaking very close
to shore, you cannot ride them.
What will happen, if you try,
is that the wave, having sucked outward
all the old water before it,
will slam you to the naked sand
in unpredictable position,
then land on you with all its force.
At the very least, you’ll have your wind knocked out.
In big surf, this is dangerous.
It happened to me once, at Nauset:
I thought my back was broken,
tried to crawl ashore.
My eyes cleared just in time to let me know
that I was crawling the wrong way,
just in time to curl up in a ball
to make it harder for the sea to break my bones,
before the next wave hit me.
Those waves, you do not try to ride.
They are serious waves. they are at war.

Let us get it clearly said right here:
there will be fear.
There will be instants when the body’s voice
cries, “This is a mistake!”
Sometimes the body is right.
listen to it, it knows its frailty.
It is not necessary, always,
to ride the biggest waves.

The waves you want are waves
that don’t break all at once,
begin their break well out,
then gather force, a landslide 0f the water.
The slowly swelling approaching thunder,
rather than the sudden nearby crash.
On a good day, the right wave is the wave
that’s going to break just after passing you.
If you stood your ground,
it would hit you with a slapping sound.
If foam is forming lazily at the crest,
you are too late, let this one go. It must
be taken in the instant prior to the foam.
The right wave is curved like a bow,
up and outward from you (you are its arrow).
Its face is smooth rather than rough, .
the little surface ripples all resolved.
If you could not see it you could feel it
by the accelerating outward rush
of suddenly shallow water about your legs.
If the wave has foam on its face
from a wave that broke before it,
further out, this is a good omen.
Perhaps the best of all is the wave
that is broader at its base than most,
that is in fact two waves,
for the second will ride piggy-back on the first,
absorb all its momentum,
then break itself with reckless speed and power—
this even though neither wave was by itself

III. Fooling the Wave

For the perfect ride, you have to fool the wave.
You may think this wave is made
of molecules that have known each other
all the way from Portugal,
not so.
In these last moments before hurling itself
against New England, it has picked up much
water that is strange to it.
Because of this, you can convince the wave
that you are part of it, that you are water.
(It may be that body weight-to-volume ratio
governs whether this is possible for you.
So that if you follow everything I tell you’
and still you do not find yourself
creasing the sea like a hell-bent dolphin.
hitting the shore like an express train,
why it may not be your fault.
it may simply be
that God did not make you to ride the waves.)
To fool the wave,
at the last second turn your back on it
and dive, a flat-out racing dive,
so that you skim the surface like a sea-bird.
Your feet must come all the way up.
The suction of the wave will lift you back
(it is often necessary to kick a little here:
you must decide by feel), maintain a position
with your feet just under the crest
of the now-breaking wave,
with your toes pointed backward.
Your feet are now in fact above your head,
your hands plane slightly upward.
You feel that you are moving downhill very fast,
and yet your hands stay mostly out of water.
How can this be? A mystery!

IV. Checking Your Lane

In the last instant that your head is out of water,
look shoreward, check your lane.
If the beach is crowded,
watch out you don’t hit someone,
you’ll be moving fast, and they can’t see you.
Once, again at Nauset,
as I was riding in one with the foam,
a man came running out, as some folks will,
to dive into the wave. Our heads met
with a crack. I got a cut above my eye.
Only after I’d acquired a bandage
from the life guard, and stuck it on,
did I note the other man,
still searching the water, saying, “There’s a rock here.
I know that there’s a rock here.”
So always, check your lane.

Or go when there are no crowds.
Early morning, or late afternoon:
early June, or in September when
a hurricane has passed us out to sea.
True, the air is colder then,
but not necessarily the water.
Bring a thermos of hot coffee, black and sweet,
a beach chair and a sweatshirt.
When you come out at last to drink some coffee,
you may shake a long time in the chair,
but you won’t care.

Others will think you strange,
the times you choose for going to the beach.
my daughter was challenged by a playmate.
accusing her it was too cold for swimming.
With all the haughtiness of burgeoning
true eccentricity, Megan, who is learning
on the city street that one must have an answer,
said, “In our family. it’s not the temperature
that matters, but the size of the waves.”
So let it be with you. The chosen people
do not proselytize. Nor are we touchy.

“Ah, but,” you will ask me,
“how do you know when the waves are big?”
All you have to do is get a job
in a skyscraper that overlooks the harbor.
Every afternoon throughout the summer,
(morning is no good; the sun must be behind you)
go up to thirty-three, look out the window.
Concentrate on the ends or the harbor islands,
that furthest hump that is the tip of Hull.
Do you see movement there?
A tiny whiteness stretching out,
then disappearing? Those are your waves.
Go back to your desk and tell the secretary,
“Oh by the way, I’m taking a vacation day
tomorrow.” Then cancel any meetings.
Tell them you have to be out of town.
It’s true.

V. Riding the Wave

You took a good deep breath before you dove.
because your head will not come up again
until you hit the beach—
raising it would upset the balance,-
alert the wave that there’s an interloper.
So having picked and checked and breathed.
say to yourself, “Downhill all the way!”
and ride the wave.

The ride is the easy part.
Stretch your body rigid as a surfboard,
slightly arched. If you must maneuver—
because sometimes a wave will batter you,
even try to flip you over—
then do it with your hips,
just make believe, again, that you’re a porpoise.

I used to like to keep my eyes open.
This has two advantages.
First, that you can see the power of the sea,
the chaos that it makes of sand and stones.
This is good it you like awe. The second is
that you can see your depth, and so avoid
ripping your chest on gravel when you hit.

The disadvantage is you get large quantities
of sand in your eyes. This can be
uncomfortable enough to make you miss
the next few waves (sometimes the turbulence
is such that this will happen even though
your eyes are closed). What I advise is this:
if you’ve never done it before,
by all means, keep them open:
once you’ve seen it a few times,
you get so you can feel the chaos
over the whole length of your body,
you no longer have to see it.
The pinpricks of the sand,
the taps of weightless stone,
there is your awe.
The same way with the bottom.

You feel it.coming up. Unlikely as it seems—
you started so far out, it took so long
to get there— you feel it coming up,
you hear the growing shallowness of the thunder,
there is a certain urgency to breathe.
Now you may break the smooth curve of your body,
lower one hand slightly deeper,
so it will be your first thing to touch bottom.
And when it does, push down quickly,
lift your tender, sunburned skin
clear of the cutting stones and scraping sand.
It’s not hard.

Up quickly then, before your eyes have cleared,
back out with big and lurching strides,
to ride another wave.

Your ride has been provided by
the gravity of the revolving moon,
rotation of the earth, and warmth of sun.
Your spirit has moved upon the water.
You have seen that it is good.