Here is my second reminiscence of great waves of 2017.
The September–October hurricanes were like a swell-generating assembly line moving right up the East coast of America. One even had the good graces to stall offshore of New England. So, waves.
These were earth-shaking waves. The kind that hit so hard you could actually feel them in your feet. Basically, not your typical New England slappy surface wind stuff – these were proper, stately, heavy, storm swells. At my favorite Gooseberry reefs you could see these breakers from 2 miles away in up-close clarity. In vivid cut against the horizon was the curl of the face, the white of the foam, the tumble of wave wreckage frothing the surface. A wave that looks big, that looks clear, and that is audible from 2 miles away is a beast indeed.
I boarded my boat, wrapped my hands around the oars and watched the shoreline recede. Sure, it’s a little bit like that feeling of looking over the cliff and wondering if you are going to jump. Rowing towards those waves.
After listening to the consistent boom over my shoulder get louder and louder as I approached, I finally reached the reefs. I was stunned by the size of the swells. They were big enough so that the whole length of my nearly 20-foot-long boat would fit, with room to spare, between a peak and a trough. Rowing between these waves was like threading a hallway with high ceilings-–just epic lengths of water rising on each side.
There was a narrow channel of rowable water between offshore reef breakers. I entered this slip of smoothness in a state of marvel. I was ecstatically nervous. Ok, take this slow. There was plenty of crushing force out here. Double overheads, with big fat bodies. Boat surfing these would be a heck of a feat. Getting back through them would take absolutely perfect timing. I stayed in my little safe zone, getting to know these waves. I watched them, diminishing awe and replacing it with a study of the personality of each wave pattern. Who are these waves, what are they like? Where are the lines that I can bring a boat through? What is the rhythm and soul of this primal power? Where will the waves allow me to go?
Then the world started to disappear. It was like “the Nothing” described by Michael Ende in “The Neverending Story,” where a creeping void of nothing started to erase the world of fantasy and dreams like a blanket of forgetfulness as humans lost their ability to imagine. Well, maybe not so heady, but it definitely had the effect of an encroaching dissolving of reality as a dead thick wall of fog absorbed all sight of the sea and sky. It rolled over me, and the sunny day and sparkling waves were gone into grey darkness. "Pea soup," as they say.
At that point, I could only see a foot or two beyond my bow, I was well offshore, and surrounded by invisible and highly threatening breakers. Seemed like a time to be in a better place.
I turned around and started to feel my way back. With no eyes, I felt a sweet stimulation of my other senses. I know the current here, I know the way it squeezes through the reefs. I could feel that current through my hull, using it as a guide, letting its boils and eddies give me a sense for where I was. Water moves and changes, but when you have rowed a stretch of water countless times, a familiar pattern emerges. Like the quirks of an eccentric old friend, they may weave and roll in spontaneous permutations, but there is an underlying sense of acquaintance. It’s a return to that old-fashioned animal ability to “know I am right here, because this is what here feels like.”
I could hear the breakers on each side of me. If my left ear or right got louder concussions, I’d steer a bit back the other way. Along with my communication with the current and long-felt water patterns, this auditory centering helped create a mental map of where I was, where the breakers were, and where I needed to steer.
Overall, it was intense, exhilarating, unnerving. I was feeling a rush of adrenaline and a sharpening edge of fear – not a panicky cloudiness, but a sword’s blade of clarity cutting away anything but an absorbed observation of what is happening, right-here, right-now. This was not a vague sense of “respect the ocean” but an immediate sense of “dude, this is edgy and freaky.” Blind running a thin line. I was, without doubt, thrilled. This was a washing away of mundane thought patterns as I crept away from a dangerous place and my soul laughed with the sheer power, nobility, and magnificence of it all.
I love this little pocket of world. This stretch of sea that I know so well that I can run it blind. This stretch of sea that I know so well yet which still gives me surprises, and new experiences every day.
I felt the change I was looking for. The current finished squeezing through the reefs and fanned out into a more open stretch of sea. It lost a lot of its momentum in doing so. Once I felt this release of the current’s grip, I knew it was time to make the next direction change. I was clear of the island’s southern tip. I needed to turn north immediately because ahead would be another line of breakers on a line of almost exposed rocks. I had a smooth slot to make this next run in. Still, no visibility.
Here, the swells had dropped down to almost nothing, a sign that I was getting into the shelter of unseen Gooseberry. Somewhere west of me would be another jumble of rocks extending jetty-like from shore. I listened for them – these rocks always have a distinct sizzling sound because the waves break before they get there, but the foam tends to rush in and around the rocks, causing that sizzle. I actually wanted to be as close to them as possible, because other obstructions lurked if I drifted too far east. So I continued north but crept west, until I heard that wave foam sizzle around the rocks. From there I steered my course to keep that sound close enough so that it was loud and distinct, but not so close that I would feel the bump and bustle of rock-strewn wave wash. Not long after that, I found a few more “markers” and knew it was time to make a big swing into the beach. I saw the shore only when I was just a few feet away from it. And I’m happy to say, I hit the beach just where I had intended!
I didn’t get a chance to ride those breakers. But this was definitely the wave experience of the year. Just to see them, to feel the undulating swells, to live so fully in the fog…this is the heart of coastal rowing!
I suppose I should add a disclaimer here…Do not try this at home!!!
(uhhmmm…because you can’t…it only happens out in the world on the sea…)