I’m not freaking out. I don’t have a blood pressure gauge, but my breathing appears mostly normal. Every five minutes or so, my chest tightens ever during inhalation. I have to consciously help the air in, then out. I believe it is my body sensing another overhead set pouring across the nearby cobblestone points.
I’m back in Rhode Island. It’s the middle of the day and I’m sitting on the deck of a rented cottage overlooking a score of tiny sailboats moored in Quonochontaug Pond. A more peaceful setting I cannot fathom. Beyond this visage of harmony lies the Atlantic, where thankfully obscured from my view, the fruits of Hurricane Bertha beckon. All things considered, it’s the biggest test of my year thus far.
This morning at camp I told myself, Maybe this torture has gone on long enough. Maybe it’s time to put an end to my experiment. I’ve made it seven months; what can I gain from holding out?
I stuck to my guns, not because I thought of some grand reason to abstain but because there wasn’t a big set breaking at the moment camp ended. I turned around and didn’t look back. It’s okay, I tell myself now. It isn’t about me. If not, then who? The kids, think about the kids. This day will stick with them. A milestone.
There are the twins, Harry and George. Their sibling rivalry is 10 years old and just getting started. Harry paddles directly outside. The swell is peaking. He sits for 45 minutes and gets a bomb, well over his four-foot head. He rides straight in, but on the drop alone it’s the wave of his life by a mile. George sees it and must compete. He charges out and gets cleaned up by a monster set and washed to the shore. He’s rattled and stewing while Harry beams.
Emily, who two days ago could not stand up on her board, stricken with a teenage growth spurt that has left her as gangly as a newborn fawn, is now outdoing her sister Zoe. She eventually tires of endless whitewater straights and asks to go “kinda outside” to get an unbroken wave. I pull Emily through a procession of waves, spin her around and shove her into a stomach high reform. A nosedive looks imminent, but she finds her feet and ekes out of certain annhilation. Wave of her life. She wants more.
Jackson, every wave he paddles for, his mouth is wide open. When I say wide open, I mean he could fit his fist in it, no problem. Shit, maybe both fists. Let’s just say he makes the dude in Munch’s scream painting look more tight-lipped than a guard at Buckingham Palace.
I yell, “Close your mouth,” as Jackson whizzes by, but his friend assures me, “He does that in every sport.” Maybe so, but in tennis or golf he’s only gonna get a mouthful of air or the odd mosquito, not a gallon of seawater.
Last twenty minutes of camp, after whitewaters all morning, Jackson says, “I wanna go out there.” I love to see this progression, and I point to an instructor to escort him through the shorebreak. Moments later, mouth agape, he’s flying down the face of a head-high plunger. Wave of his life.
Then there’s Xander. Eleven, been coming to camp for three years. Goofyfoot, only goes left. He’s been falling off a lot this week on knee-high closeouts. Not enough time for him to set his stance or set an edge before the wave flop onto the sandbar. First thing this morning, he’s out the back with the thirty other surfers who have descended on Fenway for this “wave event.” An instructor is with him, just to provide a small push and make sure he stays out of everyone’s way. I look up from nearshore whitewater duty, and Xander is tearing down the line on an overhead peeler, going left towards the jetty of course, looking solid and unfazed like a miniature Occy. A dozen more times he’ll repeat this scene. It’s just four-foot Rhode Island, but it may as well be Pipeline.
To the other campers, the other surfers, the instructors, and the parents on the beach, Xander is a legend. He could never surf another day in his life, but the accomplishment of being eleven years old and taming moving mountains will serve him well. Fifty years down the road, his grandkids playing in the shorebreak, he’ll remember this day.
As for me, Bertha won’t be the end of my struggle. The tropics are heating up, and others temptresses will come in her wake. Camp is winding down for the year, but this thing is far from over. Doubts are multiplying, and vicarious enjoyment through my students will not be an option. What then?