To be honest, I don’t recall consciously trying to become a better surfer than my brother Derrick. I don’t recall the first time I stood up on my board. Nor do I recall much of anything from my first summer in the water. It was over 30 years ago.
What I do remember is the instant that redirected the course of my life.
I was bobbing around at First Street, the primary spot in town thanks to its proximity to a rock jetty that juts a couple hundred feet into the sea. The name is a misnomer; there’s no such thing as First Street. The “first street” as you head northward from Rudee Inlet is 2nd Street. I don’t know if the city planners screwed the pooch on this one or what. Regardless, sand builds up alongside the jetty, and as a result the waves there typically break better than anywhere else in the state.
Many people avoid First Street at all costs, citing an overzealous crowd packed into a small lineup. The guys who stayed away liked to call themselves “soul surfers” as if to say their reasons for riding waves were purer than ours. Apparently, they’d managed to find God not only in the anemic Virginia Beach surf. To me the shapelier waves at First Street were worth the fight, and the proximity to skilled surfers gave me plenty to strive for.
The crowd on this day was different. Rather than being aligned in an elbow-to-elbow, Rockettes-style chorus line extending the length of the surfing area, everyone was spread out. Small waves popped up throughout the lineup. They’d peak and crumble way out near the tip of the jetty, then fizzle and form again halfway to shore. This reform was about to deliver my sunburnt little body to a place of ecstasy.
In my month or so of surfing I’d stood up on dozens of waves, if you could call them that. Everything to that point consisted of wading into waist-deep water, eyeing an approaching line of whitewater, laying atop The Yellow Sub and throwing a few furious strokes before impact, then gripping the rails to keep from getting bucked off, followed by a tenuous leap to my feet and a few yards of squatting through some minor turbulence before either running aground or tipping over. My surfing was hardly the “Winged Mercury” stuff of Jack London’s 1907 depiction from Waikiki. I looked more like an epileptic monkey.
The Wave That Changed Everything likely raised not a single eyebrow other than my own. What occurred was nothing discernibly noteworthy. Paddling as fast as my spindly arms could move, I benefitted from a dying surge of whitewater from the outer bar and managed to roll into an actual unbroken wave. The thing was no higher than a cat sitting on its haunches, but my first real wave nonetheless. The final remnants of whitewater dissipated as I jumped to my feet, leaving me gliding, make that flying, across a smooth, greenish-brown mound of liquid energy.
If that last bit of wordiness disgusted you, you’re not alone. I threw up a little bit as I wrote it. I wish there was a better way to describe “the feeling” without sounding like a fruitcake, but I’m afraid there’s not. Writers far better than I have tried, and failed. I was never one for heavy drugs, but perhaps the sensation of shooting up is comparable to what I was feeling. I don’t know. Either way, I promise not to get so sappy again.
The next few seconds were unlike any I’d experienced, and the hook was set. Nothing else mattered except replicating that experience. Then again, I’m probably remembering it all wrong. More than likely, the sentiment was actually, “Take that, Derrick!”