The Cruel Sea flashed into my head, dredged-up from some long unreferenced memory cells. I felt betrayed, as though I'd just found out a lover wanted to kill me. My sea was heartless, uncaring; I was near drowning, and it didn't care. I finally reached the surface, and it pulled me back down before I could get a breath. I was starting to realize the sea is an inanimate object…it's not my friend or my enemy. I was a lover of the sea, but it couldn't love me back. It's just water.
I popped up, along with a million bursting bubbles, and took a quick breath in case I sank again. It was time to stop "thinking thoughts", a method I used to keep track of time and prevent the panic feeling of drowning while my fate was out of my control. Time to get back on my surfboard and get out of Dodge post-haste, before the next wave came and made life even worse, but I had to wait until the tension on the stretching leash fixed to my ankle relaxed and I could pull the board to me. The board, one I had made myself, came loose and rocketed backward at me across the surface, the pointed tail narrowly missing my face. Not good. I quickly got on it and started stroking hard for the safety beyond the "impact zone".
My board slapped down as I barely made it over the lip of the next breaking wave, and I could see in the distance a darkening horizon as several increasingly large waves marched, unstoppable as freight trains, in my direction. Perhaps I could get over them before they broke, perhaps not…I had no choice but to try with everything I had.
Although I was in water, I could feel my palms sweat as the fearsome beasts approached. I stroked up the face of the first one accompanied by a light spray being created by wind the wave made as it displaced the air being pushed up and over itself. I made it over the top in a noisy hail of huge raindrops tossed up by tons of exploding water behind me. The next house-high wave had already broken, and I prepared myself for the roaring wall of white water that was about to thrash me.
Abandoning my board to its fate, I swam down as far as I could before I felt the leash trying to pull my leg off as the turbulence rolled by overhead. I came up, managed a breath, and dove again as the next noisy monster, only a few feet away, was about to repeat the scene. I didn't get deep enough this time and was picked up and utterly worked-over in what felt like the world's biggest washing machine. I ran a series of words through my mind, this time slowly, one at a time, "thinking thoughts": I…know…this…is…going…to…end…sometime…today…
After a while I found which way was up and got to the surface once again; the next swells were smaller, and it became obvious I was going to make it, death averted once more.
On the distant beach of soft North Shore sand, kids played, "surf widows" sunned, and a small Circle Island tour bus waited for its Japanese photo club to re-embark. They were all blissfully ignorant of the life-and-death aspect of the drama being played out just a couple hundred yards away. I could relax with them now and enjoy the blue skies, scenic Hawaiian coastline, and adventure that the ocean provided…yeah…my friend the sea. My sometimes violent friend.
Sitting on the half-sunken surfboard, lightly bobbing around, watching for the next set of waves while my heartbeat returned to a normal cadence, I reflected on what a lucky guy I was. I'd been skiing in New England just two days prior, fully covered up against the chill of Vermont's beautiful winter scenery, and here I was now, 48 hours and half a world later, wet and hardly clothed, enjoying 74 degree water with warm Trade Winds. I'd ridden mountains of water the past few days, some frozen, some not. I felt grateful; grateful for jet planes; grateful for America; grateful for my home; grateful for my job; grateful to be sitting there feeling grateful. Certainly a poor kid from the Catskill Mountains of New York was unlikely to wind up here, these years later, sitting pensively in the balmy breeze on a surfboard he made himself, at the best surf spot in the world. Then again, I was a lucky guy to have been raised in the Catskills.