Deep in the Wave A Surfing Guide to the Soul
By Bear Woznick
Center Street Copyright © 2012 Bear Woznick
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780892968299
My oldest of three sons was on the phone. His excitement flooded me like a big wave. “Yeah, Jeremiah?”
“The surf’s up! It’s big! The biggest surf I have ever seen! Too big to paddle into. Crazy Todd is taking me out so he can tow me in with his Jet Ski.”
“You’re ready for it. Where are you?”
“This is what you were made for, son. Go for it.”
“Aloha, Dad. I love you.”
“I love you, Jeremiah. Aloha.”
I knew Jeremiah was in God’s hands. I kept my responses to him brief for a reason. If we talked longer, he would sense my tension. At times like this, not saying anything is the best way to stay in a place of faith and grace. My son didn’t need to know how nervous I was before he challenged waves of this magnitude.
One of my favorite lines from my favorite film Big Wednesday is, “The truth is that in big surf you are always alone. You cannot rely on anyone but yourself.” I have experienced this stark truth many times. The waves and currents can separate you from everyone and everything. It’s a solitary time when you can rely only on your physical, mental, and emotional strength—and your faith in God.
The last word we said to each other was aloha. To Hawaiians, that word is full of meaning. Ha means “breath,” and aloha literally means “to give breath.” In big surf, breath can become a precious commodity. Some big wave surfers even carry ten-minute oxygen tanks in case of a long hold-down underwater. Though Jeremiah would desperately need a tank this day, he did not have one.
Aloha also means “love,” “hello,” and “good-bye.” I swallowed hard, as I thought about this, hoping this was not the last time I’d hear my son say, “Aloha, Dad. I love you.” I wanted to tell him to be careful, but I bit my tongue, knowing that he didn’t need to deal with my being overly concerned for his safety.
Todd Robertson, one of my best friends and one of the best watermen I have ever known, would be towing Jeremiah in. Several years ago, Todd and I decided to be each other’s heroes. It’s just so much more convenient that way. We bow to each other on the beach saying, “I am not worthy,” and run to carry the other’s surfboard up from the sand in true acts of hero worship. For good reason, I gave him his nickname “Crazy Todd.” Still, I knew Jeremiah was in good hands. In the presence of waves that might on this day exceed seventy feet, I prayed that God’s hands would be there too.
Jeremiah was about to experience the awesome power of God in a way very few ever have. When conditions are like this, you can see liquid mountains moving toward shore from miles away. The Hawaiians call these hehe nalu, or “mountain waves.” These would dwarf the size of the waves in the recent tsunami that hit Japan. Fewer people have surfed waves this size than have climbed Mount Everest. If “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10 NIV), then this would be Jeremiah’s beginning.
Sometimes, five to ten minutes pass from the time you first see waves this size rising out in the sea until they finally roll in. The waves sweep in from storms more than a thousand miles away. They travel over open ocean and then suddenly hit the shallow coral reefs of Hawaii where there is no continental shelf to slow them down or dissipate their energy. They come out of water more than two miles deep. As they get close to shore, they begin to feel the shallow reef, and they rise up higher and higher until they blot out the sun and throw their shadow over you.
The swell may roll in a set of twenty or more waves. These waves are like the baddest biker gang in town. They just come in, take over, and do whatever they want. About once a year here, a naive visitor to our islands will be standing with his back to the sea while someone else is taking his picture. Then the wave comes and just steals the unsuspecting person away. The very first lesson my dad taught me about respecting the surf was, “Never turn your back on the ocean, son.”
I pondered big waves I had ridden as I drove up to the north shore to witness what my son was about to attempt. I basted in my own adrenaline for the forty-five-minute drive, at last turning into Haleiwa Harbor to wait for his return. As I looked out onto the ocean, my heart sank. I had never seen waves this huge. I drove to the end of the harbor, where my youngest son, Joshua, was looking out to the ominous sea.
These waves rolled in at a speed of thirty-five miles an hour—the same speed that a tsunami slows down to when it hits a coastline. That is much too fast to catch lying on a big surfboard and paddling hard. Only the most powerful Jet Skis have the speed to pull surfers into these waves.
The challenge with Jet Skis is that they sometimes get you into the kind of trouble that only Jet Skis can get you out of. If the Ski malfunctions or wipes out and is lost in a big wave, things can get serious very quickly.
“Where is he?” I said when I came up to Joshua.
“I don’t know, dude—I mean, Dad.” He pointed out to sea. “They are way out there somewhere. I hope they’re okay. I lost sight of them right away.”
The surf was holding the harbor indicator buoy underwater for more than a minute at a time. Indicator buoys are never supposed to submerge. Joshua and I stood vigil as the sun set, and I thought of stories of surfers who had to swim through the night against mighty currents hoping to stay close enough to shore to find a way in with the sunrise. Some were never found.
An eternity went by and now the sun had just set. Finally, I saw a lone Jet Ski with a lone rider way out past the harbor buoy, which was itself at least a half mile away. The Ski cruised back and forth, waiting for a lull in the breaking waves to make a run to the harbor. If that lull didn’t come, the Ski would have to go at least thirty miles to the other side of the island to get in. I hoped this wasn’t Crazy Todd, because I could not see my son.
Finally, an opportunity came and the Jet Ski sped into the harbor. My heart sank. It was Todd. Then suddenly, to my great surprise and relief, I saw him. Jeremiah rose from behind Crazy Todd, looking more alive than I had ever seen him. He radiated the clean look of someone who had just gone skydiving or to confession.
Crazy Todd pulled his Ski up to the dock as it sputtered and died. He’d run out of fuel. That was cutting it close.
“How was it?” I said when we approached Jeremiah.
His voice seemed to come from another world. All he said was, “It was big, Dad. It was big.”
He didn’t seem capable of saying much more at that point, so I didn’t press further. Three months later, Jeremiah was finally able to tell me the entire story of the day, the swell, and the waves that made him part of the “big wave tribe.”
The first wave that rolled through was around thirty feet. Most surfers have never seen a wave half this size, and far fewer have ever tried to surf one. Todd pulled Jeremiah on the tow-in surfboard, and they made a run along the back of the wave just scoping things out without Jeremiah dropping in. Then Todd towed Jeremiah back out, and Jeremiah let himself sink into the water and relax, breathing deep to saturate his body with oxygen.
Jeremiah had years of experience in all kinds of surf. He had been surfing for as long as he could walk, and he surfed nearly every day. He was in his late twenties and in his prime, as conditioned and prepared as he could be. If anyone was going to handle what he was attempting, it would have to be someone as conditioned on and under the water as he was. We had spent quite of bit of time together in the months leading up to this, building our lung capacity by diving twenty feet down under the ocean, grabbing a big rock, and picking it up and running while holding our breath.
A monster set came out of the northwest. Crazy Todd signaled Jeremiah, and Jeremiah felt the tug of the towrope. His back foot was securely strapped into the tow-in surfboard, but as he whipped into the wave, he could not get his other foot into the front strap. He was essentially surfing with one foot.
When you tow into a wave, the Jet Ski whips you into the wave so that you gain maximum velocity. Then you cut a horizontal path along the wave face. If you go straight down on a monster wave like this, your bottom turn will be too late and the peak of the wave will fall on you, giving you a good minute or two of misery. The wave will crush you and hold you under for the next two or three waves, shaking you like a rag doll in a dog’s jaws as sixty feet of water rolls over you. Think about how heavy a bucket of water is, and then think of how it would feel to have fifty Olympic-size pools dumped on you. The only thing you can do in this situation is to try to get into a fetal position so your limbs don’t get ripped from your body. Then you hold your breath, try to relax to conserve precious oxygen, and wait for the wave to release you. You are being tossed around so much that you have no sense of up and down. When the wave finally lets you go, you swim away from the dark toward the light. When you surface, you hope you get to gulp in a quick breath before the next wave pounces on you and drills you forty feet deep again.
Jeremiah felt the wave lifting him higher and higher. He looked to the bottom of the wave and calculated that he was six stories high. Finally Todd’s Jet Ski pulled him over the lip and whip-turned him. Jeremiah released the towrope and made the drop.
He was immediately in trouble. He was still unable to get his front foot in the strap, and he was dropping straight down into the pit. This was the exact opposite of what he wanted to do. He intended to go down the line horizontally along the wave face toward the safety of the channel over a mile away, but it was too late. He was locked in to this monster wave, surfing with only his back foot secured in the foothold. Luckily, the wave shouldered for a few moments. After he dropped down this sixty-foot face, he was able to bottom turn and shoot back up.
“God must have been smiling on me, because I kicked out the back of it,” he told me, grinning a smile back at God as he spoke.
Crazy Todd was smart enough to put Jeremiah on the last wave of the set so another wave wouldn’t pummel him. Todd swooped by Jeremiah on the Jet Ski and my son grabbed the towrope and Todd pulled him back out to the safety of deeper water.
As it turned out, though, that was “just the lemon next to the pie.” Laughing, Crazy Todd said to my son in Hawaiian pidgin, “You like go deep?” Jeremiah took a long minute to consider this, and finally the yes in him overpowered the fear.
With a look of determination, he quoted one of his surf heroes, Gerry Lopez: “It feels like a good day to die.” When a surfer tow-in surfs, he assumes he is going to die but believes in his partner and that he will resuscitate him. If you can’t accept that assumption, you should not go.
With that agreement, Todd towed Jeremiah deep into the jaws of nine of the biggest waves ever surfed.
“I felt completely capable and in charge of that moment, yet not in charge at all,” Jeremiah recounted. “You know, Dad, whenever I am on the top of a big wave and about to drop in, I always thank God for me making that wave. I thank Him because I feel like I have already ridden it and I know I will make it. God imparted His manna to me through that wave. I remember feeling I could do anything after that.”
After the tenth wave, Todd rocketed in on his Jet Ski, but he could not get to Jeremiah in time. He could not risk losing the Ski, which would have put both of them in trouble, so he boogied back out to safety. Wave after wave thundered down on top of Jeremiah. Each time, my son went under for half a minute.
Todd made a run for Jeremiah nine times; nine times he was forced back by heavy water. Nine times Jeremiah took a huge wave on the head. Nine times he barely caught a breath before he was held under long enough to feel his capillaries tingle due to oxygen starvation. Finally, mercifully, the surge of the waves pushed my son a half mile closer to shore, and Todd was able to get him. Their only escape, though, was to go right back out through the incoming surf to deeper water.
They could not delay to gather their strength or their thoughts. Todd had to throttle full power over wave after twenty-foot wave faces to get through the exploding white water that could cause air to flow into the Jet Ski and cause it to cavitate and lose power. They flew on. They would land hard, clear their heads, and look out on another wave, each time getting increasingly exhausted. On about the twentieth wave, they landed so hard that Jeremiah flew forward. Without thinking about it, he grabbed for Todd and they both went off the front of the Jet Ski.
The Ski was rigged with a kill switch tied with a lanyard to Todd’s wrist, so when Todd flew off, the engine stopped. Todd swam over as quickly as he could and jumped on the Ski with Jeremiah close behind. Finally, they turned toward home and made the run to the harbor.
Jeremiah told me, “I could see the sun backlighting and piercing a luminous green glow through the face of these death-bomb waves—maybe twenty of them in a row—marching in. The line of waves extended miles out to sea like an advancing army. They were dark. They were every shade of blue and yellow. They were ugly. They were beautiful. I had the thought that maybe in some small way I had experienced the manna of the ancient Hawaiians who knew the power of these big waves and that maybe somehow I had entered that manna and it had entered me.”
Jeremiah went big and he went deep that day, and he found a level of soul satisfaction he didn’t know existed before. It transformed him forever.
I have been surfing my whole life. It is a source of power for me. For me, not surfing would be like not breathing. I have understood at many levels that there is a connection between the majesty of surfing and the unparalleled majesty of the Almighty, the Big Kahuna. When I watched my son emerge from the water after his experience of going deep, I realized that it was time for me to share the lessons I have learned in the surf, both about surfing and about my spirit. Jeremiah dropping in on those big waves that day inspired me to paddle in and write this book.
A young man once told me, “I am just not a very spiritual person.” I responded, “Being spiritual is not an optional extra. You don’t have a choice. You are living in a spiritual world. The greatest quest a man can undertake is the challenging journey toward intimacy with God.” The message of this book is that it is essential that you accept the challenge and go deep in the wave with God. Just as my son took the biggest challenge of his life to surf monolithic waves, if your life is to have true meaning and fulfillment you need to take the challenge of surfing the deepest swells of the Spirit, for nothing else will satisfy your soul.
Just as a surfer literally abandons himself to a big wave, so we need to learn to go deep and abandon ourselves to the wave of our Creator. When you look out to sea, you can view the beauty and the power of the wave, but you are removed from it. When you paddle into a wave, the experience becomes immediate, personal, and intimate. This book invites you to paddle out and seek that immediacy and intimacy with your Creator.
To go deep means to die to self and live for God. Jeremiah had to contemplate whether this was “a good day to die.”
To go deep means total commitment. There is no such thing as partial commitment when you are paddling down the face of a big wave. The surfer must totally want that wave and be completely committed to it. This is even truer if we want to open our hearts to know God’s heart and to touch His face as a surfer caresses the face of a breaking wave.
To go deep means to champion a cause greater than you can accomplish without God’s help. If the deepest part of you yearns for a challenge that requires you to grow in virtue, there can be no greater challenge than the pursuit of God’s will. Yes, there is fear in that, but only in fear can we plumb our depths to discover courageous faith. There is no room for cowards in big surf. To go deep means to leave behind timidity and to take up boldness and faith with the full knowledge that putting yourself in the wildness of God’s hands is putting yourself in harm’s way. You will be tested with great wipeouts, long hold-downs, and, perhaps worst of all, long seasons where there is just no surf to be found.
To go deep means to experience a depth of communion with God that causes you to detach from earthly pursuits and paddle out. To go deep means to fall deeply into the wave of God’s unfathomable, primordial love. Look into the deepest black hole in the universe, and God is there. Look at the brightest of galaxies, and He is there. Look to the ends of the universe and beyond, and you will find Him there. Look beyond time and space and He is there.
His waves await you, but they only come so close. God will draw you, but He will stop at the shoreline, inviting you to detach from the comfort of shore and step off to paddle out to Him in a fearful yet trusting spirit of adventure.
You like go deep?
It was the time of the spring swell, and the almost man in me sensed an awakening in my soul. It was the season when sets of waves no longer angled in from the north but rolled in directly out of the setting sun and straight on shore. The Alaskan ocean current flowed like a river of cold water from the Aleutian Islands down along the coast through the purple-blue kelp beds a mile off the shores of Monterey Bay in Northern California. That day I could sense a change, for there was a slight warming in the sea and in the air, and, as it turns out, within my spirit.
Screeching seagulls circled as the pelicans made their passes along the wave face, sometimes rising up and dive-bombing into the sea for their delicacies. The gulls cheered them on in the hopes they would have leftovers that night. Three pelicans flew in perfect formation and they seemed to surf the rhythm of the rise and fall of the sea with their feathers just an inch from the wave face. Who could create so beautiful an expression of grace? On land, the pelican was just plain ugly. Yet on the sea, it was beautiful. Perhaps, I thought, just like me. On the land, I felt awkward and out of sync with my peers and with life. It all seemed so out of balance until I could run to the embrace of the ocean and bodysurf her waves. It was only in the ocean that I felt free, that I felt at ease. It was only in the power of the sea that I felt I had meaning, that I had significance. Perhaps I was chosen last by the older boys to play schoolyard games, but here, the sea unabashedly said, “I choose you. Come and play.”
There was never a time that I arrived at the sea and just stopped at the water’s edge. That would have been impossible. I could not contain my excitement. The closer I got, the more thrilled I became, and I always ran to her and threw myself into the waiting arms of the ocean. Sometimes the sea was gloomy and moody, sometimes she was nearly still, sometimes she raged, but always, she was there for me. I learned at this young age that I could bring to her my joy or my sadness and that she would accept me. The ocean was my very own come-as-you-are party. She unconditionally accepted me and whatever I brought to her.
It was the age of Moondoggie and Annette Funicello and beach party movies. The Gidget film and TV show propelled thousands of new surfers to flock to the beach and flop on their surfboards like so many floundering fish. These wannabes soon learned just how hard it was to surf. After experiencing their first wipeout, many of them just ended up posing on the sand next to their boards, never venturing to paddle out again. I remember seeing one car where the poser obviously did not surf because he had bolted his surfboard permanently to the rooftop. I was younger, so I was among the last of those who rode the carefree waves of the Gidget era.
The sea grasped my attention and held my heart, as if in suspended animation. Even now my surfboard is like a time machine carrying me back to those days, transforming me into a young surf “grommet,” alive and at play.
As a child, before I learned to surf, I would run along the shoreline and play with the waves. I would stand squared to the shore break in a fighter’s stance, punching the waves as they broke upon me. I would fight not to yield until one of the waves would finally pick me up like a linebacker and slam me to the sand. I would hold my breath and keep fighting with this imagined adversary as it pummeled me and held me down.
Then once, as the wave picked me up and tumbled me, I just relaxed and let it carry me. I found a certain comfort and then a very real sense of freedom in abandoning myself to the wave. I had no brothers to roughhouse with, so it was the surf that toughened me up. It was the surf that became my father, brother, uncle, and mentor, and in this way the ocean began to impart its manna (“power”) and manao (“wisdom”) to me.
It was the time of heavy, single-finned longboards, though I rarely had access to one. Like other boys my age who watched westerns and wanted a horse, I watched surfers and wanted a board. I satisfied my surf cravings by bodysurfing, and I surfed the waves for hours on end. I learned to swim as hard as I could to match the wave’s speed in just the right place to find the open face, and bodysurf down the line. To me, bodysurfing was the most intimate I could ever hope to be with creation. Even then, I sensed that being one with the wave was in some way being one with my Creator.
I began to build a knowledge of waves, tides, and currents, and the effects that different ocean bottoms and land structures had on waves. Once I rode my first wave, I looked at all waves differently. I imagined myself surfing every wave I saw, and analyzed each for its fun-in-the-sun potential. I learned that there was a rhythm to the ocean and that waves came in sets. Sometimes, there were three waves to a set; sometimes more than ten. The bigger the surf, the more waves in a set and the longer the time interval between wave peaks. I learned to sense when a swell was building or when it was fading and what direction it was coming from. I learned to discern multiple swells from different distant storms running through the lineup at different angles, sizes, and speeds. I learned how different wind directions could ruin and crumble the waves or sculpt them to perfection.
I thought of myself as invincible, and the surf held no fear for me. I learned that the undertow all moms warned about was essentially a myth, but that strong ocean currents and riptides could sweep me out to sea or down the coast in just a matter of minutes, and I learned how to swim at a right angle to them to escape their grasp. I understood that new moons and full moons affected the tides dramatically, and I learned low tide usually meant longer rides and that it was at low tide the clam diggers arrived with their strange pitchforks and dug for pismo clams. I learned that the power of the wave subsided a bit as the tide went from high to low, and strengthened a bit as it went from low to high, so that the best time to surf longer, more powerful waves was just as the tide started going from low to high.
I learned that some beaches seemed to have perfect surfable waves while others did not, and I wondered why. I would beg my parents to go to the beach, and once they finally agreed, I would begin pleading with them to go to certain beaches where the waves broke best.
The first generation of blown-foam fiberglass surfboards had replaced the hollow wooden surfboards of the previous generation, which in turn had replaced the hundred-plus-pound solid wood boards of an earlier generation of surfers that dated back fifteen hundred years in Hawaii. These were the days before we leashed our boards to our ankles, so wipeouts could result in spectacular sights of surfboards rocketing high in the air, spinning in the breeze, and then coming down like a missile on top of the surfer’s head. I witnessed surfers hanging on for dear life to their leashless boards not wanting to lose them. I would see them being sucked up and over the falls, desperately clinging to their boards.
The primary rule of surfing now is that the surfer closest to the peak owns the wave. In the mid-sixties, though, the tribal elders had not yet adopted that concept. So we shared waves, and in so doing shared even more spectacular wipeouts. More than once I saw two surfers clinging to their crisscrossed boards getting jacked up and tossed together over the lip of a cascading wave. On big days, surfers spent as much time swimming to retrieve their boards as they did paddling them back out. Woe to the unsuspecting citizens playing near shore as heavy boards would explode toward them sideways in the shore break. Continues...
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