A letter to … the ocean, from a lifelong surfer

After more than 40 years riding waves, a man writes to his temple – the vast, insurmountable depths of the sea.

A drawing of a man beside the ocean
[Zoe Osborne/Al Jazeera]

To the ocean,

I started surfing you when I was 15.

There’s so much about you that I’m drawn to: the big waves, and the power of the surf; the water, the salt of the sea, and all the creatures and animals.

When I first picked up a surfboard, I had just come over from New Zealand to Australia. We arrived in Manly, Sydney and lived there for the next 10 years.

At first, we didn’t know anybody so my brothers and I got an old secondhand surfboard and learned to surf.

We taught ourselves, which was disastrous.

We’d bump into each other, and there were so many fights where we’d knock holes in one another’s boards.

I wasn’t a very good surfer at that stage and I had a terrible board. Back then, surfboards were very expensive. If you had a good board, you would never sell, so the only ones we could find second hand were terrible.

I surfed until I was about 19. Then I got involved in a carpentry apprenticeship and attending night school, so I just stopped.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I missed you.

‘I was hooked’

When I was about 37, my son’s friend’s father said I should come back down to the beach. As soon as I jumped on the board and stood up again I thought, oh my goodness, this is so good, I have missed this.

From then on, I was hooked.

It’s like being a five-year-old on the night before your birthday; you can hardly get to sleep because of the anticipation of how fantastic the next day is going to be.

Even if I paddle out there in a really negative frame of mind – even if I might have had a bad couple of days – when I get out there, when I jump on a wave and ride the wave, by the time I get to the end of it, I’ve just got the biggest smile on my face. Everything else vanishes in an instant.

It’s like a roller-coaster ride, where I get to choose where the tracks are. I can see the basic outline of the tracks, but if I want to turn and go right up the top of the wave, or if I want to just go straight along the wave, whatever I decide, I can.

Very few things do that for you, the older you get.

There is also the community aspect of it. If I’m out and I see somebody with a surfboard on their car’s roof rack, I’ll go over and chat to them; it’s like you’re part of a club. “Hey, do you know the area?” we’ll say, “Which direction have you come from?”, “What are the waves like up that way?” And, of course, “If you go that way, you’ve got to surf this, you’ve got to surf that.”

The best thing is when I get to go on a surf trip. I get so excited, I’ll stop drinking beer and start exercising – putting the effort into getting myself really fit. Once I get there, into those beautiful waves, it’s all worth it.

I remember surfing in the Mentawais in Indonesia. The water is clear and clean. I would dive beneath the waves, open my eyes and the energy would be so strong that I could feel it pulling the skin on my body.

Often, I’d lose the booties I was wearing, or my bathing suit would get pulled up or down, because of the force and strength of those big waves.

But I would come out on the other side just laughing. It’s such an exhilarating feeling.

‘You stick in my memory’

I’ve often thought about the way you work, ocean.

Down here in Australia, we get our best waves when they come up from a big storm that’s a long way away. The size and intensity of that storm and the direction of the wind – that produces a lot of energy shooting out in one direction.

You might get swells of waves arriving, that last for four or five days, and that’s because that storm has stayed still and the wind has been blowing in a certain direction.

In the Mentawais and in Hawaii, those waves come such a long way and there’s so much energy that comes along with them.

I’d be sitting on my board over on the reef – often next to an island, looking at the beautiful scenery, the palm trees and coconut palms – waiting for the waves while chatting with my friends and looking down into the water and seeing the fish or the coral reef.

Then, I’d look out to sea and suddenly, like a mini tsunami, the horizon would start to lift. It’s because there’s all this energy coming in, hitting the floor and pushing the water up.

Often I’ve drifted in, a bit close to the shore. So I hop onto my board and start sort of trying to get myself into the right position.

As the wave gets closer, it starts to rise further and further up. All of a sudden everyone realises, oh my goodness, this is an extra big one coming and we’re too close to the beach. So there’s this mad frantic paddle, where people are just trying to get away from the reef as quickly as possible.

You stick in my memory, ocean.

Like a tsunami

I will never forget this one time, over in Indonesia, on the last day of a surf trip I was on with a close friend, Chris – he’s a crazy dude, and would tackle waves even I wouldn’t.

That morning the swell started to jack up; we had a great session and some phenomenal waves, before packing up our boards and going around the island to a world-famous spot.

We got there and there were probably 10 boats waiting, watching this wave as it got bigger and bigger. I looked at it and went “wow, that’s a phenomenal wave”, but decided not to go out because I had to work the next day.

Then Chris came to me and said, “Glenn, come on, go out there with me will you? I’m just gonna sit in the lineup, not surf.” I thought, alright, I could do that. So in I jumped.

Thirty seconds later, Chris started paddling up the lineup into the danger zone. “I’m not following him,” I thought to myself, “I’m just going to sit here and watch.”

Just then the wave broke, and started running in a right-hand direction. Towards the end of the wave was a coral reef exposed out of the water; they call it the surgeon’s table – for good reason. People get cut up on it, it’s broken lots of surfboards, and caused many injuries.

As we sat there waiting, we heard a commotion coming from the boats. We looked around trying to work out what it was. The boats were about two to three storeys high; they could see the horizon – they could see what we couldn’t.

Suddenly we realised, there’s a swell coming.

We started paddling a bit further out to make sure it was safe, which is when we noticed these waves were enormous. Instead of just three, there were seven huge waves coming in.

I paddled at an angle to take me out into the deep water of the channel and away from the waves as quickly as possible, I didn’t want to be anywhere near them. I had spent all morning paddling, so I was worn out. But the adrenaline was strong, pumping through my body and my only thought was, I just want to live, I want to get through this.

As the first wave came, I did a duck dive; every time you duck dive a wave, what you’re doing is pushing your surfboard under the water and straightening up your arms, your legs and trying to jam your surfboard as deep as possible into the water as the wave goes past. That way, you try to get underneath the energy and out the back door.

But every time you do that, that wave pulls you back in towards the shore. So all that paddling that you had been doing to get there, you’ve just lost because you’ve gone into that wave and it’s pulled you back.

So I looked around when we’d done the first duck dive, and a couple of guys had not made it – the wave had caught them.

I saw the next wave. I started paddling madly for it; I got underneath it, and the same thing happened – being drawn back. I looked behind me, a few more guys were gone. As things proceeded, it was only myself and one other fellow left for the last wave.

The wave went past, and we thought, “oh, thank goodness we made it”. We looked to the beach and there were all the surfers who had been washed across the reef and onto the shore.

The energy of the waves had filled up the bay. Even for the resort that was there, the waves had sort of a tsunami effect. They had actually washed over the top of the beach and into the grass.

That is something I’ll never forget until my dying days. I just came out laughing, relieved.

‘I thank you’

When you’ve gone through something like that, you’re so alive.

That’s the addiction, I think.

When I visit you, ocean, and go into the surf, and I catch a couple of waves, all that anxiety, it sort of just melts away and I come out with such a serene, peaceful feeling. That’s what keeps me going.

You are always changing – it’s very rare that the water is dead flat, so when that happens it’s a unique occasion. And then when it’s really rough and there are big waves or a huge cyclonic storm, it’s at the other extreme. I love both just as much.

People ask me why I’m still surfing. I’m nearly 59 – it takes a lot of effort to keep myself fit. But the excitement I get when I go out surfing in good waves – only another surfer can know what that’s like.

To the waves and their energy, I thank you.

From a lifelong surfer

As told to Zoe Osborne

Source: Al Jazeera