This Side Up

Surfing beyond fear


Dawn patrol.

The words conjured images of troops in camouflage skulking through the brush, ready to detect an intruder. But these troops are in bathing suits, wet suits and water shoes and they are stalking waves.

Ted loves dawn patrols because it’s the time of day the beaches are free of all but the diehard surfers and SUPers – that’s standup paddle boarders. It’s also a beautiful time of day with the sky brightening and the water, like a waking animal, breathing rhythmically.

“So do you want to do a dawn patrol?”

I knew Ted would have trouble resisting my suggestion, although he had already done his quota of SUPing for the weekend.

“Water’s pretty flat, but local lore has it there are rollers after a thunderstorm,” he responded.

No question we were in for a storm Saturday night. Radar showed red, orange and yellow blobs headed our way, like an attack of giant amebas. There were flash flood warnings and forecasts of two to three inches of rain by morning.

“Got to go early, can you be here by 6?” Ted asked.

I was all of a minute late when I pulled into his driveway. He had the trailer hitched to his car, with the boards strapped on top. He must have done it the night before, in all that rain, because the garage door was closed and not a single light shone from the house.

Could he still be asleep?

I got out and looked around. Then I spotted Ted motioning from behind the wheel of his car.

He lowered the window and in a whisper said, “I don’t want to wake the girls.”

We were on our way to Matunuck, and not just any place in Matunuck but for “the hole.”

When Ted took me SUPing for the first time in February, he brought me there. I thought he was crazy. Apart from being February, the beach at the hole is made up of rocks. These are not pebbles, either. At that time the tide was out, exposing larger rocks offshore. It looked like a sure way to be turned into hamburger. Ted took me to East Matunuck to introduce me to the sport, where at least, if you got rolled to shore, you would end up on the sand. I managed to stand that time, albeit only briefly, and we paddled around in docile rollers.

Now we were back at the hole. There were two cars in the lot; its potholes filled with water from the night’s deluge. Offshore, a couple of surfers paddled in gentle waves hoping for bigger sets.

Dave, a member of the dawn patrol, pulled into the lot. Then came Fred, who is a windsurfer and has just taken up SUPing. He didn’t have a board, but was going to check out the action.

Ted went into high gear, offloading the boards and setting up. He was in the water in a matter of minutes, standing on his board and paddling out to the breakers. Fred gave me a hand and soon I was feeling my way across the rocky bottom until I reached the depth where I could kneel on the board and paddle. Rocks were everywhere. The water was warm and clear. Under the foam of spent waves was a mosaic of browns, yellows, greens, oranges and blacks. Most of the shapes were rounded chunks of granite and quartz. Seaweed clung to some of the rocks, swaying in the rush and retreat of the water. I was captivated. Rather than the threatening environment I had imagined, this was intriguing, although hardly restful; rocks do not forgive.

I had a few shaky moments standing and paddling, but the mere sight of an incoming wave put me on edge and, even before the swell reached me, I had fallen off.

Meanwhile, Ted and Dave and a couple of surfers were looking for bigger waves. I resorted to kneeling and joined them. On Ted’s instruction, I paddled like crazy and caught my first ride of the day. The board surged, accelerating ahead of the crest and flying into the foam. When I realized I was in barely a foot of water, I paddled furiously back out before hitting any rocks.

“That-a-way,” Ted shouted encouragement. “Stand when you get the next one.”

Stand? I thought he’s got to be crazy.

On the third ride of the morning, I could hear Ted shouting, “Stand, stand.”

I eased from my crouch, putting weight on my right foot. The board felt amazingly firm. I stood. I was speeding. I was free, the white water boiling below me, and those rocks, ever so clear.

It was an instant, maybe four seconds, and then the world was upside down. The board shot ahead and I was somersaulting. I found my footing. I had come through without a scratch, without a bruise. Water rolled down my face. I was smiling.

I had reached where I had dared not go. The dawn really did bring a new day.


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