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Catching waves: Reflections of a middle-aged body boarder

This past week I spent some time with my married children at the beach where we played in the surf. Doing so brought to mind an article I published in Out and About magazine way back in June 2004. I may be more “old” now than “middle-aged,” but not much has changed, so I posted it intact, not even changing the “numbers.” That means I’ve been riding on waves for nearly a half-century, even though the article indicates it’s only forty.  

For nearly four decades, I have been riding on waves. As a boy, I used canvas air mattresses that rubbed my chest raw and made the salt water sting, but I would stay in the ocean for hours, getting knocked around by the waves and washing up on the beach like driftwood.

Later, when I was a gangling longhaired teenager in cutoff jeans, I left the rafts behind and took up body surfing. There was something free and just a little crazy about releasing myself to the waves with nothing but my own sack of bones and skin to carry me through the churning water.

My friends, my brother, and even an occasional girlfriend would join me in the madness of swimming into a rising wave, mounting its crest, and putting our arms out like Superman while the water foamed and broke, driving us up on the sand that unmercifully scraped and bruised our bodies.

That was more than a quarter century ago, and since then I have mellowed considerably. I’ve taken up body boarding, but I’d still rather be in the water than just about anywhere else; however, the reasons why I now ride the surf are not the same ones that got me started. It is a lot like a good marriage: the way that we fall in love is not the way we remain in love.

When I was younger, the attraction of the breakers was nothing more than the quest for a thrill. Indeed, riding an ideal wave is truly exhilarating. To paddle into that perfect spot where there is nothing but rushing water and pure adrenaline, to ride on the edge of both terror and childlike glee, that is just about as good as it gets. But in reality, such completely transcendent rides are rare.

I live on the East Coast where the waves are usually small and tame. Consequently, I rarely see surfers at the beach, and the ones I have watched seem to wait forever for a wave, then paddle frantically and finally stand up on their boards just as the whole thing fizzles out. The entire process looks like a lot of effort for nothing, so I have never felt a need to attempt “real” surfing.

On the other hand, even a day with small waves has its pleasures for the body boarder. Simply bobbing up and down on the swells with nothing better to do than waiting for a decent wave is relaxing, even if it isn’t exciting.

Better yet, being in the ocean with friends or family creates a certain kind of communion. We share the same watery element, locked into the same ebb and flow of the surf.

When a wave with potential comes, we call to one another, scramble into our positions, and ride in together. Sometimes we make a competition of it and see who can ride the farthest up on the sand, or we playfully pull each other off our boards, but it is always a friendly contest, for no one who rides a wave can ever really lose.

Of course, there is a measure of danger in what we do. I’ve seen my share of wicked waves that flip boarders end over end and make them eat sand. Still, real injuries are rare among the people I board with because we observe two important rules. First of all, most people break or sprain their necks because they try to keep their heads above water, so if you ever get upended, duck your head and let the wave take you. Secondly, as soon as you are able, look back out to sea so that another wave doesn’t get the drop on you.

While we have been in the ocean together, I’ve taught my children these lessons and perhaps others that have nothing to do with the surf. There is much time to talk and to listen as we rest upon our boards and wait for a ride-worthy wave. Now that I’m older, I can truly appreciate the way that being in the ocean “gives” me time in a way few other activities can.

For the vast majority of my life, I am driven by schedules, deadlines, and all-consuming busyness. I find myself wondering where days, months, and seasons have gone, but when I’m in the ocean, there are no seconds, minutes, and hours. There is just the timeless rhythm of the waves.

Sometimes I am surprised when I come out of the water and discover it is not as late as I think. One hour often seems like several, and an afternoon stretches out before me like an entire day, but I’m never bored. It’s more like I’m actually immersed in time, much like I am in the ocean itself, rather than skimming the surface of a day like a rock tossed across the water.

I suppose that if I could find a way to shake off my responsibilities and spend more time at the beach, I might live to be a hundred. Better yet, I would not find myself wondering where all my time had gone. I would have lived each moment as it came, deliberately riding the waves instead of being caught up in a mad race that too often substitutes for real life.

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