It had been a long journey. I could feel the ache in my body from the long hours on the plane as I made my way from LAX back up the Pacific Coast Highway toward the familiar landscapes of home. I cast my eyes out upon the water. Slowly my mind drifted back to the distant shores of Ireland. For the briefest of moments, I could feel the touch of a summer squall, laden with the sand and scree of the rocky cliffs which sat along the shores of the Atlantic. I could still taste the salt of the sea which lingered heavily in the air of Bundoran, and I could still discern the sun as it dipped below the seascape and disappeared into the horizon. The California wind, heavy with the aroma of the local vineyards, whipped my hair around my face and neck as the PCH stretched, then weaved, in front of me. The last vestiges of the sun were slowly sinking into the darkening sky off the western coast. It was hard to believe that only a day had passed since I had watched this same sun drop below the shoreline half way across the globe. I had joined the surfers who had come from around the world to surf and to celebrate the life of my best friend. But it was even harder to believe that he had been gone just a year now. Lost in the surf at Mavericks just minutes from where I now made my way down the coastline. I had gotten to know some of the travelers while we surfed the cold, towering waves of Bundoran, but a few who made the trek to Ireland for the celebration were my friends, my coworkers, my fellow surfers. We had gathered from all over the world to revel in the beauty of the unfamiliar surf of an ancient Celtic coast. But now I was almost home, back to the comfort of the northern coast of California and warmth of my cottage by the sea.
I was twelve when my parents uprooted our family from Utah and settled us in a small bungalow along the ragged cliffs of Half Moon Bay. Although the transition was difficult, taking me from the only life, and friends, I had ever known and throwing me into a life unrecognized, I quickly became acclimated to the serenity and solitude of a life along the coast. I soon became an avid surfer. I grew up with the famed stories of the brave men who surfed, lived, and died in a legendary place called Mavericks. To us Mavericks was a place of surfing glory, of monster waves that made grown men quiver. It was a place of great power, magnificent, mind-blowing descents down walls of raging fury, a place of deadly reality. Years later, my parents long gone, I still lived in the same house in which I grew up. I had, after years of practice, of trials and tribulations, become one of the rare surfers who dared to challenge Mother Nature in her rawest of forms. The ocean had become my solace, my refugee, my purpose for living.
As the final shimmering rays of the day slipped beyond where the sky meets the earth, I turned my car down the short, narrow driveway. I pulled up to the back door and turned off my truck. I could hear Bongo heading across the yard, his joyous howling at my return, a welcome sound. I eased the car door open and stepped out to greet him. “Hi ole fella.” Bongo wagged his tail as he jumped and swirled about me ramming my legs in the process and almost taking me down to the ground. I laughed, hugged him, and gave him a pat on the back. He circled around me again, first left, then right alongside my tanned and barren legs. I picked up my head and saw my neighbor Jeff making his way towards me. “Hey Danny! I see you have returned safely. Good to see you my friend.”
“Hi Jeff. Good to see you too dude. I hope Bongo didn’t give you too much trouble while I was gone.”
“Oh no. He was fine.” Jeff said as he reached down and gave Bongo a pat.
“Cool, Cool. Thanks again for watching him.”
“No worries. I’ll see you in the next few days. Did you hear that Mavericks was going to be breaking this weekend?”
“Yeah I was checking that out. I’m going to catch up on some much needed sleep and head out in the morning.”
“Me too, so I should see you out there. But if not, be careful I heard it is going to be massive.”
“Will do.” I headed for the back door, let my happy friend in with me, and plopped down on the couch and instantaneously fell asleep.
I awoke to the stillness that only the early morning hours can provide. Still groggy from the long excursion, I grabbed my guitar and walked out onto the porch, out of the warmth of the small, well kept room and into the salt-laden air. The trees that towered over the house cast great shadows that seemed to permeate the yard and driveway. At this time of year there would normally be a million and one constellations flashing in and out, shining and twinkling in the distant universe, but the moonshine was so bright out on the water that I could barley see any stars at all. I sat down upon the step and strummed a simple chord on my guitar. I sang a soft and tender song to myself and to the approaching dawn, a song about the beauty of the earth and the vast cosmos beyond.
I had been alone most of my life. My parents had died way too young. My mentor and my best friend succumbed to the depths of the sea. It was a learned behavior I had found; being alone without being lonely. These became intrinsic words of comfort that echoed softly in my mind. And so solitude, surfing, music, and saving lives had become my reality. My survival. It had not always been this way. I was not always the loner that I had now become. I did not dislike people in general, but had grown more distant as the only people that truly knew and loved me had left this earth behind. I was never the gregarious one, the life of the party, but I had the ability to make friends easily and was, until recently, a creature of a society. When I was young I often wondered what the deeper purpose of my life might be. I could easily remember the day I decide to become a lifeguard, the grueling training that ensued and the gut wrenching moments waiting to see if I had passed my trials. Those times were etched deeply into my mind. I remember how the sun felt upon my skin, and how the waves sounded as they crashed along the shoreline my first day on the job. For years now I had taken care of the people of Half Moon Bay as they frolicked in the ocean; parents with their floppy hats and big wicker bags, filled with sunscreen and potato chips; children with bright yellow bathing suits and blue plastic dolphins wrapped around their tiny waists, wannabe surfers who came to enjoy the smaller surf that Half-moon Bay had to offer. I could not begin to tell you how many lives I had saved, but I could easily tell you how many I had not. Collateral damage I suppose. Part of the job, but every life lost took something precious away from me, and my soul, but every life saved gave it back: the ying and yang, the good the bad, the ups and downs, the lyrics of songs and lines of tales. This was my survival.
I left solace of the porch and the chilly breeze of winter, I went into the bathroom and stared at my face in the mirror. I inspected it carefully. It was not the typical face that most people associated with surfers and lifeguards. I did not have the long, stringy blonde hair or the sea green eyes. I did not not carry inside of me that natural territorial-ism that some Californians had. I rubbed my hand across my face. My black hair was in need of a cut; falling darkly across my worn and weathered face. My somber and tembrous eyes, which to others always seemed to hold something ambiguous, did I had to admit, often hide my true nature. I stretched and looked around the tiny bathroom. The past faded away, and the present came into focus. I needed to get a move on. With the north wind picking up the swell, it would be an awesome day out in the water. I left the confines of the bathroom, walked through the kitchen and grabbed an apple from the nearly empty refrigerator. I made my way through the garage, snatched up my surfboard, loaded up Bongo in the truck, and headed for Pillar Point.
Maverick’s. Just the name itself was steeped in mythology. Although Mavericks was home to me and the other locals, it was world renowned for big wave surfing. Those brave enough to risk the undertow and the enormous waves were rewarded with a feeling and a rush like few on this earth have ever been able to experience. That feeling, that rush, was a thing of imperial beauty. I pulled along the ocean, got out of my truck and stood in astonishment. I watched the waves crest, and then fall; crashing like thunder back into the sea. Holy shit. These were waves not to be taken lightly. Even from the top of the cliffs the swells eclipsed the horizon beyond. The waves seemed as if they were spawned. They appeared out of the mist like sweet fury in the shape of Neptune, God of the sea. I squeezed into my wet suit and grabbed my board from the back of the truck. I gave it a good coating of wax, gave Bongo the command to stay, and climbed carefully down the escarpment. Even with the thick, black wet suit clinging to my sinewy body, the chilled water took my breath away. The liquid, thick with salt, instantly stuck to my face. I could taste the sweetness of the water as I pulled it past my lips, into my mouth, and spit it out again. I never felt more alive than when I was in the water. To me, it was what survival was all about. It is what made life worth living, the sea and the solitude.
The paddle out was grueling to say the least. I slid across the surface of the water encountering Jeff along the way. “What’s up man?” I had to yell over the sound of the waves that were crashing just north of us.
“Not much Danny but these beasts…too much for me today. I damn near got crushed twice already.” He grinned that crazy grin that only surfers get when they know full well that they survived another bout with the ocean. I nodded.
“I’ll see you back on the Point in a bit.” Jeff gave me the thumbs up and headed towards the security of the shoreline. Now surfing Mavericks is an enormous undertaking. I had to be in constant motion. By keeping the jutting rocks of Pillar Point to my left and the tall, statuesque conservatory to my right, I could gain access to that optimum point which presented me the best chance at catching a wave that would give me the rush of a lifetime, over and over again. There was no riding lefts. Those that had tried had not fared well and carried the scars and broken bones to prove it. And God forbid you get caught inside. I looked back towards the shore. I could barely distinguish Bongo hanging out on the tailgate of my truck. I cast one last glance in his direction and turned and paddled out into the lineup.
There were only a few surfers out as the conditions were, as Jeff had said, massive. Most of the surfers in the water I knew well. I nodded to them and made my way to the outer break. Paddling constantly to navigate the brutal undertow, I fought to stay in place and waited for the next set. In just moments the surface of the water became obscured as the waves appeared out of the distance. The ponderous walls of water marched across the ocean towards me. I caught my heart in my throat, shoved the fear back down into my belly, decided to catch the first wall of water that approached, and began to paddle. I stroked and pulled the water with all of my strength. My years of training instantly kicked in, and second nature prevailed. The twenty-five foot comber caught me up like a gigantic, icy hand. It thrust me forward with its unharnessed force and I took off. I lifted my chest from my board and felt the natural pull of gravity as it drove my surfboard away from me. I got my legs up under me and, with the roar of the white water close on my heels, I began to sail down the face of the colossal wave. My plunge down the sheer face was spectacular. My board felt like charged lightning beneath me. I could feel the wave pulling me back into its embrace. I instinctively knew that I was being sucked into the depths of the curl and let go of all restraint. The barrel of the wave overtook me and I stood tall inside the mighty sea. I reached my hand out to feel the cool, raging water. I felt the rush of the tunnel that formed over my head as the salt and the spray of the water fell into my face and eyes like a heavy, God-sent mist. I could easily distinguish the feeling of triumph that soared inside my body. I pushed forward and emerged from the depths of the swell and out into the daylight. Victory...was fleeting. As I exited the tunnel, I was taken by surprise by another surfer trying to make it to the outside. I immediately dug my back heel down hard and tried to avoid the impact, missed the terrified rookie by mere inches, and was crushed by the wave that had, just moments before, been my friend, my lover, my triumph.
The wave caught me and closed out on top off me. It had, without warning and without hesitation, become my affliction. I was cast off my board and driven full force towards the bottom of the seabed. 'God I don’t want to die this way.' The force of the wave drove me deeper and deeper into the tumultuous chasm below. I was tossed and turned and rolled until I had no idea which way was even up. I could feel my breath leaving me, and wondered where my body would eventually wash up. Death at the hands of the sea was no longer just a concept, but a reality. I felt my leg being pulled and followed the tug towards my board, and what I hoped would be the surface of the water. Just as I thought I could not hold my breath a second longer, I saw daylight. I swam using what strength I had remaining to pop up like a buoy. I broke the surface of the water and felt the fresh air on my face, but before I could barely get a breath, a second wave bore down on me. There was nothing I could do. The towering wave of white water hit me full force and drove me once again towards the floor of the ocean and what I instinctively felt would be my finally resting place.
'God I don’t want to die this way.' The wave slammed me back into the underwater basin and I careened out of control. My body was pitched, washed, and tumbled like so many socks in a dryer. My breath was whisked away from me as I went head over heels, my black hair entangled in my face and neck and tears. As my body hurtled end over end, my mind was filled with distant memories: with shapes and people, of faces, of flavors and colors and ultimately of the withdrawal and the transformation I had undergone in my life, of my inability to thrive after losing not only my parents, but my best friend. Had I wasted so much of my time mourning that just surviving from sun up to sundown was enough? I launched myself in the direction of the surface. Was mere survival at this point, enough to satisfy? I had little energy left. I was completely and utterly spent. I reached the plane of the water. Flailing, I drew one one quick, incomplete breath and then blanched as I was struck immediately upon reaching the surface and driven down a third time. A three-wave hold down. That was it, I thought. No one, including my friend Mark, had ever survived a three-wave hold down. And there it was staring me full on in the face. My perception of my friend and my inability to save him that day. All those years of training and I could not even save my best friend. I tumble down into blackness. He had lost his life to this place and I was helpless to save him. I spent hours that day in the water trying to find him. Jeff had finally pulled me exhausted from the water. Weeping the tears of a man who had watched as his friend became a fallen soldier, I continued to scan and search the shoreline until, just before we lost the daylight, Bongo and I found Mark's lifeless core lying along the rocks. His broken and mangled body lost, and then found, among the seaweed and debris. All my training had gone for naught. I was as helpless then as I was now.
Maybe I was meant to die this way. Maybe I was meant to be lost at sea forever. In the final moments my breath became scarce, my body gave way to exhaustion, but my mind, my mind bore the brunt of an epiphany, a moment of clarity. No. I was not meant to die at the hands of that which I loved so much. The sea was not meant to be insolent. Parlous perhaps, but not insolent. It was not meant to be my bane. And although the water had taken those that I loved it was not meant to take me. I was determined to survive the depths of the water and from this day forward live the life that waited for me at the surface. Enough. I spoke candidly to myself. No more. The decision had been made. I forced myself to slow the panic in my head. It was imperative that I controlled my body's motions, control the panic that was running rampant in every ounce of my being. I allowed my years of underwater training to materialize, saving my remaining energy for a final chance at living. I could taste the surface. I could feel life beckoning to me. So I swam like I had never swum before. I prayed that I was fighting my way in the direction of the sun, blue sky, and the cool, fresh air of the California coast. My leg was still connected to my board. I could feel it. Again I went towards the pull, drifted and flailed, and crashed and fought my way towards the world above. My breath was gone. On the edge of my vision I could see a vanishing glow, and then my mind, body, and soul faded into the gray.
Land. Hard ground. My face was touching the hard, sandy earth. I felt strong hands as they dragged my body up out of the surf; out of the wild and unforgiving sea. I could hear the shouts and sirens, the calming words of a familiar voice, and the smell of Bongo’s breath on my face. Once again my neighbor, a friend I had always taken for granted, had pulled me from the subliminal grasp of the sea. This time there would be no tears of agony. There would be no forgotten cries that echoed out across the vast and desolate water. I rolled onto my back and opened my eyes to see Jeff grinning at me with that crazy grin I had seen so often on his face. I knew full well that mere survival was no longer going to be enough to satisfy, and I smiled back at him.