It’s just over 50 degrees outside with a light offshore breeze. The surf report claims that the waves will be 3-5 feet for most of the afternoon along the South Shore of Boston. I have done some recon at a different break in Scituate and decided to push northwards to Nantasket. Nantasket is a beach located in northern Hull- a small town located on a peninsula on the southern part of Boston Harbor. As I drive through the town I can tell that the town depends entirely on the summer to survive. In October, it is a ghost town. The main beach looks sloppy and unworthy of suiting up and paddling out. I spot some locals walking with boards in hand and request some guidance. “We are going home for a board swap. It’s pretty choppy out there,”
My heart sank at the news. “But, if you head up the road past the yacht clubs, you’ll come up to a big sea wall. You can jump down from the wall and paddle out, and it should be decent there. Definitely worth checking out.” I give quick thanks and take off down the road, hopeful that the conditions will improve so drastically in such a short drive.
I pull up to the sea wall- it towers over the small sedans parked in the gravel parking lot. I throw the truck in park, toss on my hoodie on and investigate. I clamber up and glance out at the waves. The wind has picked up and is cutting right through my sweatshirt. It’s cold out and I can only imagine diving into the water. Another surfer has donned his wetsuit and joins me on the wall. No words are said- we both just stare out at the water examining the waves. A brave body boarder is the only one in the water thus far. Several cars pull up and the drivers join us on the wall. Again, no one speaks. Ten to fifteen minutes go by before the first surfer takes to the water. A teenager lowers himself down from the sea wall onto boulders that lay between the water and us. His friend lowers his board to him and he takes off into the water. I stay and observe him for a few more minutes. Nice long right hand rides. I’ve made up my mind and it is time to get wet.
As I begin to suit up and wax my board two locals show up. They’re both in high spirits about the surf and are ecstatic to see each other. “Florida huh? What brings you out here?” one of the locals asks after glancing at my license plate. “Moved up here for a job. Nothing too crazy,” I respond. “Ha! Not too cold for ya up here?” “Nope. I’m originally from New Hampshire. Then Hawaii. Then Colorado.” I respond. “Ya don’t say,” he laughs.
I suit up and follow the local up the street to a beach access spot- he clearly knows where he is going and until that point I thought I would have to jump off a wall. Along the way we exchange formalities. His name is Matt and he has lived in the area a while. He has a laid back demeanor and an openness about him I admire. I explain what brought me back to New England after traveling around the country. I tell him about my summer in Florida, where my surfing expectations were quite high. I tell him about the four-hour drive, each way, from Fort Myers to Cocoa Beach, all for a handful of hours of surfing. A total of eight hours or so on the road in hopes of four to five hours of surfing in less than amazing conditions. “Wow. That’s dedication.”
We start walking along the shifty boulders that line the shore. The tide is on its way out, leaving the rocks wet and slippery, just asking for a misplaced foot to ruin the afternoon with a trip to the hospital. I begin to wade into the water and I realize that my 3mm wetsuit probably won’t cut it today. The previous weekend I was surfing without 5mm neoprene boots- after two hours I went directly to the surf shop to buy a pair. At this moment I cannot imagine walking among the rocks barefoot - not to mention in these temperatures. Later on I would find out that I managed to put them on wrong, allowing water to seep in. I simply assumed that it was to be expected. To be fair I hadn’t had to worry about a wet suit for the last two years and I have never worn the boots. Regardless, this mistake would not go without consequence.
I continue to make my way out into the surf, but the water is far-more shallow than I had expected. White water rolls in all around me as the waves break ahead of me. I shuffle through the water while looking for sure footing. I am constantly worried about my left ankle, having broken it in sniper school in the summer of 2009. The doctors diagnosed it as a sprain and didn’t know it was broken until Christmas 2010 as I was preparing to go on a third deployment. They never would have known if a curious doctor hadn’t inquired about it during my final physical (mandatory physical to exit the military). He found it odd that x-rays were never taken and sent me to radiology. Two weeks later, while on leave, the doctor called to explain that it was in fact broken and surgery was recommended.
The water level rises and falls as I attempt to use my surfboard for balance, doing my best not to damage it against the rocks. “This is so fucking stupid,” I mumble to myself. “It’s not supposed to be this hard to get into the water.” I begin to get frustrated. As I continue to gracefully tip toe through the water a set rolls through and knocks me straight onto my ass. I do my best to hold my board up as I go down and water rushes over me. I stand up, infuriated. Cold, tired, banged up, and pissed off, all before I even get the opportunity to catch a wave. Relaxation at its finest. I finally make it past the rocks and into deeper waters. I calm down. I slowly lean back and roll off the back of my board and the water swallows me. The water, as cold as it is, feels amazing.
Surfing is one of few activities that I enjoy that offers me a bit of an escape. In the US I only have a few friends that surf, and well, they are scattered all over the country. So, I go by myself. Surfing, as I have come to find out over the years, is an antisocial activity. There are social aspects of surfing, but it is not like other sports. Sure there are line-ups, pecking orders, and sometimes there is even friendly banter amongst strangers. But, for the most part, nobody is out there to make friends. If a group of two or three guys paddle out together they will probably talk amongst each other, but most surfers I have seen simply sit in silence. In the past I have surfed, read between sets and then surfed again, encompassing maybe ten hours, in silence. The entire day can go by without uttering a word.
I sit in the line up, if I can even call it that, considering there are only four people including myself, waiting for the sets to roll through. After a few minutes a small set rolls through and I miss an easy ride on a knee-high wave. I paddle back into position and wait. Nothing comes for a painstaking 30 minutes. With all this free time, and little-to-no conversations taking place among the few of us out here, I begin to think. Not just about my present situation that I find myself in, but past and future decisions as well.
I moved, or arguably fled, from Colorado to have my license fully reinstated in Florida following a DUI that I got in April 2015. I chose to forfeit my license for a year instead of having a Breathalyzer installed so I could obtain a non-restricted license (any job that requires the operation of a company vehicle demands a non-restricted license). I cannot drive in Colorado until June 20, 2018. I moved to Florida, where my parents currently reside, in hopes of moving up from the waitlist for grad school in New York City. No luck. After the denial letter came in I applied for a certain high-risk job in hopes of making some quick money. The job pays absurdly well and one month of this work would fix every single one of my problems, whereas one year of work would catapult me into a position of affluence I had never experienced before. I was offered a position, contingent on several factors, and I thought I was in the clear. I spent 18 days tearing up Europe in the latter half of august and racked up an impressive, but not so admirable, tab along my way. The night I got home to the states I found out that my being on probation would prevent me from taking this job, and that the judge had turned down my request for early termination of probation. My primary plan had failed, I resorted to my secondary and that fell through. Did I have a tertiary plan? Was there a back up for my back up? I was, for lack of a better term, fucked.
“I think they’re building,” Matt says. I smile and nod at him in concurrence. Several sets have begun to roll through every ten minutes or so and were clearly growing taller. Our excitement is on the rise as the waves begin to climb. I catch a decent little wave and peel off to the right. My hands have been tucked under my armpits, a feeble attempt to keep them warm, as I wait for the surf to come. The icy water has been pouring into my booties every time I dive under a wave or kick my feet. The water stays trapped, robbing my feet of warmth necessary to function, until I dive again and colder water takes its place. My extremities are slow to react to my commands, making my take off sluggish. It also doesn’t help that I have a torn ligament in my right shoulder- I do my best to surround it with muscle by surfing, but being out of shape like I am it just hurts to paddle. The water becomes calm again and there’s another break between sets.
After my probation request was shot down I moved back to New England. I studied journalism in school and before I decided to move back I applied to over a dozen reporting jobs across the country. Only two responded, claiming that the positions had been filled, and no response at all from the other ten. O for 12 has never done much to boost one’s confidence. My older brother helped me land a job with one of his friends in construction, but after a brief two weeks I can tell this will be a temporary position for me. I love New England, but I cannot help but see my move back as a retreat. Returning, defeated, with my tail between my legs. It doesn’t help that I do nothing at work- I sit around and do very little other than occupy space. The job was handed to me as a favor from my brother’s friend, who is too busy to train me properly. I’m paid well, which is integral and leaves little room for complaining, but I cannot help but feel unproductive, unwanted, and unnecessary. The biggest benefit this job provides is the strict Monday through Friday scheduling. Having my weekends off, allowing me to flee as fast as traffic allows, northbound to the beaches, in hopes that I can find something worth paddling out for, is what I capitalize on. The job pays well, which is allowing me to pay off, quicker than expected, the tab I racked up from my DUI followed by my trip to Europe. I’m not sure if my trip was wise, in hindsight, but it was certainly worth working off at a later date. To be fair I thought I was coming home to a job that was going to pay me stupid money. Clearly as of now that is not the case and my current job pays good money for a stupid job, which may also fall into the win category.
A massive set begins to roll through and the waves come in groups of three, each wave bigger than its predecessor. By now my hands are all but numb and my feet are starting to ache from the cold. I watch Matt take off on a wave and ride it at least 250 yards in. Easily the best wave of the day, and from where I sat, maybe one of the bet waves he would ever catch. We didn’t see him for half an hour as he paddled back out to the line up. I struggle to catch a wave shortly after. I am cold, tired, and out of surf shape. Over the summer I had only made it out to surf a handful of times, five times in five months, and my arms are exhausted from paddling in my wetsuit. I go to take off on a wave a second too late, stand up, and topple right over. I tumble as the wave drives me into the shallows and again I’m worried about breaking my board. As I paddle back out I decide that taking a quick five to let my strength to return to me would be wise.
It’s Halloween weekend and my plan is to head to New Hampshire to see a friend later in the evening. Things seemed off when we spoke earlier this morning and now I find myself questioning whether driving an additional two hours north is in my best interests. I have a friend who lives in downtown Boston and she has extended an invitation to tear up the town with her and her friends. Maybe this is a better option? I reflect on how I have more friends back in Florida than I do in the Northeast. Before that, in Colorado, I was privileged enough to have a hard time figuring out who I would hang out with on the weekends. I think about my friends from the bar I worked at in Boulder and how much fun Halloween weekend would be back there. I have reached out to several friends from high school with little success. Most of them are married and have careers that occupy most of their free time. It’s not malicious by any means. I am just in a different place in life than most of them- behind the ball.
“Aren’t you cold man?” one of the other surfers asks me. “Hanging in there, but yea, could be warmer,” I respond. “Man, I’m chilly in my 5 mil suit, can’t imagine wearing a 3 mil right now.” I try and flex my toes and my fingers- they’re painful to move. I contemplate, for a heartbeat, calling it a day. But, I refused to paddle to shore- interpreted by all as an act of cowardice. I have to catch a wave. Paddling in is shameful and is acceptable under very few circumstances. To paddle back in would diminish morale and in turn probably ruin my weekend.
As I sit in the line up I see something pop up 50 yards away. I am unsure what I am looking at, but it has a big tan looking head. Almost looks like a big dog’s head. “Weird,” I utter to myself. It disappears as soon as I glance over at him.
My mind turns to Swayze, my five-year-old Sheppard/Collie mix, and my reluctant decision to leave her behind. The biggest regret I have at the moment is leaving her behind. She tolerated my absence while I was living in Australia for five months and she easily made it through my 18-day trip across Europe. But this is different. This is the first time that I have had to leave her even though it was entirely feasible to bring her along. I’m living with my brother and his wife while I find a place to rent, but finding a place has been troublesome. Rent here is more expensive than Boulder, a high-end college town, for a one-bedroom apartment. It will cost approximately $4,000.00 dollars to move in to one of the places I have come across. Meanwhile, my brother has a dog that doesn’t get along well with other dogs, and it was heavily suggested by my parents that I leave Swayze in Florida until I get myself situated. They had offered to drive the dog halfway up the coast in mid November, which later would prove unsuccessful. A month or two isn’t exactly a long period of time, but you cannot explain to the dog that you will be back shortly- that this is in her best interest and that you aren’t abandoning her. As I sit I think about how my temper has been getting worse, even with friends and family. I am becoming a nasty person, and what’s worse, is I don’t care. I feel that this is directly connected to my dog’s absence. For a non-pet owner I really have no real way of explaining this. The closest I can compare it to may be the feeling of failing as a parent, abandoning you kids before they are old enough to talk. I am not a parent, and I am aware that there is a massive difference between a dog and your own flesh and blood. I shouldn’t have to explain this to people- they are the weird one without a dog.
The sun is beginning to set. I look inland towards Boston. I never would have thought there was decent surf this close to the city, and the skyline seems so close from the line up. “Pretty cool isn’t it?” another surfer asks. “Never thought today would be this great,” I tell him. “When this place is great, it’s great. It’s only this good maybe three days out of the year,” he explains. “Guess I’m just lucky,” I joke. “Yup, guess so!” As the sun continues to fall I am determined to catch the first thing that will carry me to shore. My core is freezing and my extremities are borderline useless. It’s time to go in.
As I wait impatiently I try and take my mind off of the cold. “What am I doing out here?” I ask myself. “Better yet, what the hell am I doing UP here?” I have been unsuccessful at tracking down a place and I loathe going to work. Since I cannot find a place, my dog, whom I left in Florida, is emotionally distraught and thinks I have abandoned her. All of these factors compound on each other, turning me into a prick, and I then take it out on my undeserving, but ever-supportive, family. As I concede to these thoughts I begin to believe that perhaps moving back to New England was a major mistake. “Should I retreat, AGAIN, to Florida? Is that even possible at this point?” I roll the idea around in my head. I look back out to sea as a set begins to roll in. Another dog headed sea creature pops up in the water, stares at me for a moment, and then disappears again.
As the set rolls through I decide to go for the second wave, in hopes that if I manage to fuck this up, like everything else lately, the third wave can ideally act like a back up plan, which have also failed me as of late, and carry me to shore. If that doesn’t work, I’ll have to paddle in, like a chump. I take a quick second to swing my arms around across my chest, violently, trying to get the blood flowing. My feet feel like hockey pucks and wiggling my toes is painfully difficult. I get a small head start on the impending wave. I dip my hands into the water, it’ frigid. I start to paddle as the first wave comes and goes. I look over my shoulder and see the second wave coming in hot. I dig deep, pulling hard, trying to get up to speed. I feel the wave behind me as it starts to pick me up. I lean forward, pop to my feet, and break hard right. My feet are unfaithful and I begin to wobble. My board slips out from under me and I go in the drink. Freezing cold water rushes into my wetsuit and my testicles decide to decide to join my Adam’s apple in my throat. I tumble in the wash as the final wave comes in and pushes me into the shallows.
“FUCK THIS, I’M DONE!” I growl through my teeth. I trudge through the water, furious with myself. I spend the next ten minutes carefully choosing my foot placement as I trudge through the shallows to the boulder-laden beach. Seaweed, white water, and the diminishing light make it hard to see what route is best to take. I eventually make it to shore, board in one hand and carefully placing the other on the rocks as I make my way to the sea wall. “Genius.” I mumble. One of the surfers had used a ladder to get down from the sea wall and has left it in place for others to use. I carefully make my way up the ladder and carefully place my board on the wall. Pulling myself up to my chest is troublesome and the thought of struggling so hard for such a simple task is embarrassing. I plop down from the sea wall towards the truck and short-lurching steps carry me to my truck. I can barely grasp my keys to unlock the cab and starting the vehicle proved equally challenging. I put a floor mat on the ground, grab my slippers, and begin the near-impossible task of stripping myself of my wetsuit. The process takes several minutes, wrestling with my suit to get one arm out and eventually the other. The air, compared to the water, is warm and welcoming. I finally shed my suit, don my clothes and sit in the truck with the heat blasting, attempting to regain sensation in my hands and feet. I sit in the parking lot for 20 minutes before my extremities come back to me and I exit the vehicle to put my board in the truck bed.
I decide to jump back up on the sea wall and see what the waves are doing. I watch the three remaining surfers as the surf waves begin to diminish. I see another one of the “creatures” that I was unable to identify from the water. “Seals.” I conclude. “Cool.” The booming seal population is allegedly what has attracted so many sharks over the last handful of summers along the Cape. I try not to think about that. I hop in the truck and begin to head home, the Boston skyline with the setting sun in the rear view mirror. “Not a bad day,” I remind myself. I look down at my wrist as I grip the steering wheel- the names of my friends from the Marine Corps engraved on my memorial bracelet looking back at me.
I remind myself of what I have- a job to bitch about, my general health, a family to be short with, and a day off to complain about the surf. I like to think that I appreciate what I have, but like everyone else, sometimes I forget how good I have it. A good friend of mine, an officer in the British Army, told me years ago, “Worse things have happened to better people.” I do my best to remind myself of this fact. Things may not be necessarily going my way at the moment, but I certainly could be doing worse. The names that I carry with me on my wrist help keep me humble.
I think it is important to mention that I am by no means a good surfer. I can stand up, ride semi-decent, and, so far, I have avoided drowning. Surfing obviously has its physical benefits, but that is not what draws me. They say only 10% or so of surfing is actually riding waves, and the rest of the time is spent waiting and paddling. Surely there has to be something more to surfing if you are going to paddle out in the fall and winter months in New England. It is time I use for contemplation. From the moment I leave the house until I return I am decompressing; stripping myself of the stress and negativity that builds up over days, weeks, months, and so on. In the military we would decompress after a deployment by going home on leave and reducing our workload. Most people, I think, forget this important practice, which in turn leads to unhealthy and unhappy lives.
As I drive home I think about my job and realize I have to suffer in silence. I think about my dog and conclude that she will be okay- my parents love her and are taking care of her. My family, who I am harsh with more often than not, deserves more patience on my behalf. My predicament isn’t the most fortuitous, but like my friend had told me, “worse things have happened to better people.” I feel rejuvenated and levelheaded. Ready for the weekend and another shit week of work- Boston traffic and a screaming boss. I’m prepared to practice patience with family and friends, not jumping down their throat every time we have a disagreement. I am calm, cool, and collect. I just have to make it until next weekend, waves permitting of course.