A Kayak Surfer’s Angst

This story featured in the 2012 June issue.

Photo: Rod McLean

By Sean Morley

I don’t need an alarm to wake before first light. I’ve checked my watch three times in the last hour. I slide out of bed and creep downstairs, avoiding the squeaky steps, dreading the normally wonderful, “Daddy, is it time to get up?”

Grabbing pre-positioned clothes and keys, I’m out the door—no breakfast, just a quick stop for gas station coffee. During the 10-minute drive down the freeway to the Golden Gate Bridge, I try to gauge the wind but it’s still too dark. As I cross the bridge, I spend more time looking at the ocean than the road. Bursts of white on the reefs that guard the entrance to the Gate indicate that the swell is out there. No, I worry whether it will be too big. I have never, ever been skunked at Ocean Beach by it being too small. The better it looks the faster I drive, and every red stoplight on Geary Boulevard is a personal affront.

As I approach the Cliff House, I see solid lines of swell and only a little wind disrupting their advance. Adrenaline surges in my arteries as I drop down the hill to Kelly’s Cove and get my first view of the beach. It’s big, but is it too big?

The sun has yet to rise. In the twilight the beach looks bleak and the surf menacing. I sit for a moment in the parking lot contemplating what I am about to do. I think back to the frustration I felt at being unable to surf all week, and that spurs me to open the door and get out of my warm cocoon. The roar of the surf is much louder than I’d expected and now I am scared. I pull my surf kayak out of its bag and look for a line out through the half-dozen or more lines of breaking waves. Identifying a rip I think I can use, I begin my changing routine, transforming myself from father of two into wave warrior, ready to do battle.

It’s compulsory to run down the beach to the water’s edge. By now my neurons are all firing, but I stretch anyway—as much to calm myself down as warm myself up. Judging the surge, I am in my boat, skirt on, afloat and paddling. Just bunny-hopping the first lines of soup and I’m ecstatic. It feels so good to be here, in my boat. And then I’m reminded why Ocean Beach can be such a brutal place to surf. The dumping 4-foot beach-break slams me over sideways, and I roll up spluttering obscenities. It takes me three attempts, but then I am through, sizing up the larger, cleaner outside break. A hundred yards, 50, I’m nearly there. Rising walls of gunmetal gray obscure the horizon. I start sprinting, wishing my paddle was just a little bit longer. I’m over the first, getting air off the back of the wave and landing on my rail to reduce the jarring impact. No time to celebrate; the next wave is feathering. I lunge at it, pushing my feet down, ducking my head and spearing the wave with my paddle. I punch through and surface, saltwater stinging my eyes as I try to focus on the next: the biggest wave. This one will break for sure. And it does. The lip drops like a guillotine and whitewater explodes upwards. I capsize, pulling my upturned bow downwards with my paddle. I feel the weight of water pushing me down. I try to stay calm, relax and let the boat surface. I shift my hands on the paddle to extend my reach and roll up, the aerated water barely giving me the support I need.

But I am upright. I glance westward and realize I am out the back. I’ve made it. I catch my breath and look around. The break is mine. The sun’s first rays turn gray to blue, white to gold. I think of my kids still warm in bed, and I smile.

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