The First Wave is Never Forgotten

I’m waiting out the front of the school gates with my backpack; whistling nervously with a guilty conscience playing on my mind. The day was to begin with my English class with Mrs Watson but I knew the night before I wasn’t going to be sitting at that wooden desk reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I remember finding one of those old “school excursion” forms.   There was a part where Mum or Dad had to sign, giving their consent for a day trip organised by school. I had torn the panel off and glued it creatively next to some article about an art class day trip to excuse me from school that day. Mum was too worn out and busy cooking the evening meal for us three kids to really take notice of what she was signing.

The surf bug had bitten me and there was no turning back. Here I was standing barefoot in my school uniform on a cold, rocky shore gazing at these perfect waves. Behind me the old rusted Commodore I had stepped into at the school gates, boards stacked on the roof, its occupants some much older guys I had recently met. One was laying on his back on the bonnet in his scraggly torn jeans, shirt off, smoking and playing air guitar to the tunes coming out of the rattly car speakers.  The others whipping each other’s backsides with towels before running off into the tussock giggling like little kids.

I had only just learnt to stand up on a surfboard a few weeks before, but my inflated teenage ego and the fact I had a huge crush on one of the guys, saw me paddling out behind him and his friends below the cliffs, not really comprehending the power behind these waves. I knew it was big but for some reason without really knowing them I trusted they would look after me. There were some strange looks from the rest of the surfers out there.  I don’t think I could paddle very well and I was very shaky when I tried to sit up straddling my board to rest. I had made it out the back of the line-up and sat quietly as I witnessed one of the guys take off on a monster wave, bigger than I had seen before. Fear was now well and truly battling with my ego. I was frozen on my board.

One of the guys, Hamish, who was sitting closest to me, had seen something on the horizon. “Shan this one’s yours go, go, paddle, paddle, dig deep!!”  Now it was a mix of overwhelming fear and adrenalin as I thought ‘Here’s my chance’. I paddled fast towards the shore briefly glancing back at this mountain like mound of water coming towards me.  The lip started to feather and I was in the right spot for take-off.  Grabbing the rails I swung my feet up from under me and stood up.  I had done it! I was up!  But I quickly realised things were about to go very wrong for me.

I had become caught up in the lip of the breaking wave and violently pitched forward until gravity took over.  I was falling down from the sky with my limbs helplessly scratching at the crisp morning air. It seemed to all happen in slow motion; the surreal separation of body from mind, the feeling of having no control over what was happening. The image will stay with me forever. Looking over my shoulder mid-air, I could see that deep dark cavern of the wave’s trough so far below me, the very spot I would be unwillingly forced into. I crashed and was sucked up into the face of the wave like being in Mother Nature’s vacuum cleaner. Once I’m taken up and around the curve of the wave I am then forcefully thrown underwater and my body taken up and around the wave for a second time. I hit the rocky bottom and struggle to hold my breath as my arms and legs are tugged in each direction with the swirling waters. It seems like a lifetime that I am held under but I finally surface and desperately gulp in the oxygen.  My vision is hazy, I’m seeing stars and for a moment I don’t know who I am. The stinging pain begins to set in from the cuts on my legs and ribs from hitting the reef. I turn to see my board washing up on the rocks. I make my way in limping up the rocks with my tail between my legs as blood begins to seep from my wounds.

Hamish caught up with me, apologising for pushing me into a wave far beyond my capabilities. He hadn’t quite comprehended the size of the wave he had told me to go, he says. I was lucky to come out alive. How silly and insignificant I felt in that moment. I never skipped school again but I knew this was a much more important life lesson than what I would have been taught in English class. The ocean was now my teacher.

Today, twelve years on I am absolutely engulfed in surfing and love challenging myself in bigger conditions. Currently living in Byron Bay I have recently returned to this very break in NZ.  Hamish, still my close friend, walking beside me with his hands interlaced behind his head, watching the waves roll in.  Laughing as we reminisce this day; my first real surf experience.

New Zealand surfing

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