People who don’t surf think surfing is scary, but true terror is an emotion I haven’t often experienced. Riding waves, once you’ve done it for a while, and unless you’re chasing monster swells around the world, just isn’t that crazy. In Virginia Beach, it can be utterly boring. Imagine my surprise when I went for a swim on a flat day recently and was overcome with real, life-or-death, shit-in-your-pants dread.
I’ve been scared a fistful of times when I was in surf that was out of my league. Once I established my personal limits, I stayed in my end of the pool. I only recall one instance of extreme fear, and it had nothing to do with waves. Consider the following set of circumstances and tell me you wouldn’t be cringing:
1) I was surfing in South Africa, land of the Great Whites.
2) The spot I was surfing is called Seal Point, which is where I’d go for meals if I were a “man in the gray suit.”
3) A boogieboarder had been chomped less than a month earlier just a few clicks down the beach.
4) The sun was setting. In other words, feeding time.
5) After missing a set wave, I found myself alone in the lineup.
I sat there, atop a meager couple inches of foam and fiberglass, and began to hear the theme from Jaws in my head. As you might guess, I felt anything but alone. I was sure that a couple thousand pounds of muscle and teeth were making a beeline for me at that instant.
I lay flat on my board and lifted my hands and feet skyward. I’d seen Shark Week, so I knew that whitey’s got airborne as regularly as a teenaged surfer from the Rio favelas. Still, I figured playing hard to get couldn’t hurt.
Thankfully, a wave arrived before megaladon did, and I lived to wash to brown stain from my wetsuit. Which brings me to the other day.
The ocean had finally thawed after a brutal winter, and I’d gone for a swim before dark. The beach and surf were empty. I pulled my goggles over my eyes, stroked maybe a hundred yards offshore and hung a left turn. From there, I swam maybe a block to the north.
It’s weird how not being able to see underwater is scarier than having great visibility. In the murky water, even with goggles I couldn’t see past my fingertips. Suddenly, my imagination got the better of me. That, or my spidey sense kicked into overdrive. Either way, I was certain that a shark was bearing down on me, its jaws opening wide in anticipation of gnoshing on my exposed rack of meaty ribs.
I froze. It was infinitely more terrifying than my evening at Seal Point. On a surfboard, being above water provides a sense of security, however false, as only our feet or hands are in the water. While swimming, our entire bodies are within the sights of a hungry predator. In that moment, I understood what it feels like to be a bucket of chum. I understood the 19th Century notion of sea monsters. I turned toward the shore and got the hell out of there.
After years of scoffing at people who were afraid to surf for this very reason, admitting to this fear is embarrassing. More and more I feel myself turning into one of them. Another week of great waves, perhaps the best all year, went off without me. I’m getting so used to seeing images of Hatteras perfection that it almost doesn’t faze me.
The biggest critic of my self-imposed dry time, my 16-year-old son, said to me last night, “It’s too late now. You’ve gone too far to stop.” He’s right. I think I’m in this for the long haul. Talk about scary.