By Thorpe Moeckel
Catching small waves, like catching small trout or raising food on a small scale, involves a spectrum of intricacies. It’s true that you can’t beat the gut-wrenching pleasures of surfing larger, more powerful waves. But we know that. We know all about big, groundswell waves and the adrenaline surges they inspire. They announce themselves just fine. Look at any surf magazine. You catch the drift. You know the fear, risk, reward, how they plunger you through.
Editor's note: The lengthy flat spell we've been enduring here in Ventura makes today's post apropos. It's a long story, but an immensely pleasurable read due to the skill of the author. I hope you'll set aside some time to savor his words and slide into the small-wave state of mind. Photo: Bill Moeckel
With small surf, or windchop, you have to be accurate to the point of dainty. There’s no muscling your position. It is a matter of degree: inches and quarters instead of feet. You tend to focus on other aspects of the sport when you ride small waves. Maybe focus is not the word but wander. The mind wanders. There’s no danger that demands you stay constantly alert. You’re either alert or you’re not. You’re in the ocean so you’re attentive no doubt. And there are many variables outside of the waves, outside of riding them. Studying the color of water could occupy a person for many lifetimes, not to mention the sand, sky, birds, and all their juxtapositions; that one can ride such small waves at all, that there is power enough has a lot to do with that – the ocean’s multiplicity, allness.
We arrived at the Carolina coast yesterday evening. Friends are staying on our homestead, tending to things. After they walked through the morning and evening chores with us and got a handle on milking the goats, we left them our home and a list of things to do, people to call in case of problems, and so on. It is a long list, involving feed and water instructions for chickens, ducks, rabbits, pigs, sheep, dogs, cats (barn and house), and goats. The tasks, mostly, are simple. And if they are numerous, they are small.
Nathan and his wife and their kids will walk from place to place with old buckets and coffee cans full of water and feed, and they will return with the cans empty, maybe a couple of dozen eggs in the bucket where the water was. They will follow paths and go through gates, open and close the latches. They don’t have to fire up the old Farmall or even use any electricity, assuming they use the rain barrels for water and not the well with its electric pump. No, that is a lie; there’s electricity involved in washing the milking pail and icing down the milk and cleaning the gallon jars and washing your hands.
It is mid-August. My cousin Alex has work obligations and is absent for this year’s family beach gathering. I’d hoped to visit and surf with him, just as I’d hoped for a tropical storm to be kicking up some kind of swell, but when we arrived the wind was blowing hard onshore, from the east, and the waves were sloppy and small and beautiful. People played in them. Pelicans cruised like another horizon, hardly beating their wings, as if on patrol. It quiets me in a thrilling way to see pelicans. Their beaks alone conjure some Paleolithic instincts. I mean it feels strange to even be wearing a bathing suit. I like especially watching the big, hard-skulled birds sway and tilt as they coast along the coast, wings and bodies rolling with wind. Sometimes you sense that they’ve caught a jolt of breeze created by a wave breaking or the wind eddying in the wave’s trough.
Since I surf once or twice a year nowadays, I take what waves I can get. It is not so much about the waves anymore as the chase and the waiting. The last time I lived near the coast was in Maine. I had the luxury then to wait for a good swell to ride. Nowadays, it is hit or miss. Recently, at my oldest pal Harrison’s wedding in Savannah, I hit. The morning after the rehearsal dinner, I drove to Tybee Island, discovered a good swell, found a surf shop, and rented a board. An hour later I was riding away a long, strange night in waist to chest waves, mute with glee.
This morning I paddled out early. This was my morning chore: to feed from the ocean’s bounty, to take care of nobody but my own selfish desires. The sun was not yet high enough to force a squint. But that fat star was larger and more orange than it would appear all day. The water juiced it, pulp and all. The waves were tiny. I was logging, as they say, riding an old ‘60s era longboard that weighs forty pounds now with water damage and fiberglass repair. The tide was coming in all morning. The wind was slight, allowing the waves to approach and roll glassy and long. Their forms varied as the beach disappeared. For a while the waves closed out, rose and crested in one long curtain as opposed to peeling left and right. They began to peel again not long after this, when it seemed the tide had covered a sandbar.
As I did my thing out there, I thought of the trim I’d run on a kitchen remodel the prior week – one by two spruce to cover gaps where beadboard panels met, roofline to gable, in our old, far from square house. It had taken a half day to shift gears from the rougher work of furring pine log rafters with two by strips. Even rougher had been the tear out at the beginning. I removed one ceiling to find it had been floated down from an older one, above which were enough desiccated rats, mud dauber nests, insulation, and dust to fill five contractor grade trash bags. Running the trim involved sanding and then pre-drilling the small pieces so as not to split them. It was slow, delicate work, and I messed up many times, fewer once changing the music from Arcade Fire to early Dolly Parton and replacing the framing blade on the saw with a trim blade.
Small waves can’t eat you the way large waves can, but they are fussier. You have to want a small wave. You have to work to catch it and work to stay on it. One is always ready to bail in big surf, especially when the wave closes out. It is different with ankle-biter waves. You pump the board in order to stay on the wave. Sometimes you squat and paddle with your hands. Other times you walk toward the nose, moving weight forward to aid with momentum. I don’t only ride them for their resemblance to large waves and the memories and hopes that likeness conjures, no, I ride small waves because the process is squirrelly and I like to scramble.
The fog was thick our last morning at home. Everywhere – even the tomatoes – smelled and tasted like the river, the James, like its rocks and its mud and its fish and bugs and foam and tributaries. There were so many strands of moisture in beads on the spiderwebs it seemed strange that the silk didn’t fall apart or fray. The sunflowers, planted early and past their prime, no longer needed walkers – they were just falling over. The damp couldn’t stop beginning. The mind wandered. The bugs hardly flew, as if their wings were too heavy with moisture. Maybe the spiders waited for the sun to mop their walkways – it’s hard to say.
We were inside the fog, though later when we were feeding ourselves at the picnic table, we watched the fog disperse – was it mist then? – and rise over Purgatory Mountain and The Knob and Cove Mountain and Diamond Hill. Inside it now, we carried water and food to the various animals, the systems as entwined as our relations – a couple of cracked chicken eggs each for the dogs, some whey from goat cheese for the hogs, goat bedding for the garden beds, driveway weeds – plantain and dandelion – for the rabbits, canning scraps for the chickens and ducks. The morning was a watercolor, a duck dive, Eskimo roll. We all said thank you somehow. We waddled but it was as much a kind of swimming. The ducks seemed especially happy in the pond of that morning.
The bird and bug song seemed to come from the air itself, some tweeter in the density. Now Sophie emerged, drifting from the barn with milk pail heavy. Kirsten’s bedhead bobbed above the tickseed sunflowers and above the beans on their bamboo tripods – she was giving water to the pigs. I was dumping chicken hearts in the dog bowls. Every chore, every detail and pause between was a wave, and we, while wrinkles on its face, were waves, too – we built on the approaches. And at the fences and cages we broke, rolled. Back to the house or across the pasture, we rolled, fed as much as feeding.
Another benefit to riding small surf is there are no crowds. You don’t have to jockey for position or even think about there being another surfer on the wave. Of course the mind can get crowded. Especially when the wind blows onshore the scene reminds me of the mixed CDs my friends Peter Relic and Rob Hull make. Whether it is the sixth listen or the first, you’re going to hear something different each time, in the order of songs and the stories they tell through lyrics and melodies and how they segue, have quarrels, arguments, whispers, brawls.
There are times when a good wave approaches up or down the beach and I do not stroke to catch a piece of its shoulder but sit quietly on the board and watch it grow steeper. I anticipate the form of its breaking, whether hollow or mushy, peeling or window-shading all at once like the final curtain on some performance about moon and gravity and time and wind and depth. The imagination has room to roam then. It is as though the mind catches the wave, but more like the wave catches the mind and they join, roll towards land together. I watch the wave as if I was no larger than the pelicans or even the plover, and surf it as in a dream or in the muscle memory of having rode waves of similar character only six or seven times the size, perhaps in the north, in Maine, but not always there.
I love waking to a sore belly the morning after surfing for the first time that year. The flesh on the ribs chafed. How the ankles then, stiff, lend to my steps a wobble. It is as though rust has formed and yet the feeling is less of weakness than strength. Even the muscles of the face are fatigued from the squinting. Perhaps I hold mouth and jaw in tense positions when I ride a wave. Certainly when paddling for a wave I grimace; I must, such is my desire to ride it. I am a greedy surfer most days. Yet lazy too, greed being laziness on steroids. Position is the key to endurance. Good placement means less work, three or four strokes before standing instead of twenty. I like when it is clear from the take off which way I will ride the shoulder. I angle the board in that direction and avoid the trouble of a bottom turn. Small waves hardly require a bottom turn. The face is not large enough to merit a drop. You are at the bottom from the start, or close enough to the bottom.
Morning and evening chores and the tasks we do throughout the day deepen the pleasure and the nourishment of our meals. We walk a half a mile or more each morning on paths we know well, orbits of food, extensions of the kitchen. We veer, too, and wander. Even in sour moods, it is hard not to honor the origins of what you eat. Indeed, our days are a continuous food preparation. We don’t just go to the source for our food, or close to it, the true source being always hidden, we also have a hand in the clarity and the health of these sources. The buckets are a sensual kind of heavy, the fences a kind of weaving as well as safety. The way you slap a fifty pound sack of feed on your shoulder, the way it rests there, balances on its own even as you walk rough ground, can be a pretty wild message.
Of course we check in with the animals. We touch them and talk with them and watch them; there are always several entertainments at once anywhere you look. Most of the animals, of course, care more about the food than we care about them, and this is lovely for the ways we try and don’t try to feel otherwise and feel, always, more in tune to the mysteries of the world and our inconsequence.
One of the deepest pleasures of surfing is walking into the water with your surfboard. Call it the approach. It is not comparable to entering some great event, because surfing is private and inconsequential and better than great. Even though there are often no spectators, it always feels as if there were many. I am vain, so of course I believe all the beachgoers are watching me. They aren’t. And if they are, they’re likely saying, “Look at that fool with the antique board. There aren’t even any waves.”
Once I crossed the dunes at Scarborough Beach in Maine in November. Tika, our old malamute-long haired shepherd, was at my heels. There was a lovely swell. You could hear the waves peeling hollow and strong from the parking lot a half mile away. The wind was just right, offshore and not too cold. As we crossed the peak of the dunes, we saw not twenty feet away a snowy owl perched on a “No Lifeguard on Duty” sign. The owl ratcheted its downy, shocking face and put holes in my bones with eyes at once fierce and tender. Tika, rather ambivalent to feathered life, went sniffing along the plants at margin of beach and dune, laying his scent until it seemed his bladder couldn’t have held another drop. I hadn’t seen a snowy owl before that time. I haven’t seen one since, only that one almost every day.
Twice I’ve paddled into a break from a boat anchored just outside it. This is a thrilling entrance, as you have no visual of what the waves are doing. Paddling from beach to surf lets you study and learn the nature of a break, but from a boat you have only a sparse idea. You might see a slight turning, folding of the water’s horizon as the waves break. The first time I surfed off a boat was at Otter Cove in Acadia National Park. A lobsterman friend from Little Cranberry Island took us through seas running fifteen feet in a twenty foot lobster boat he built himself. It was September, the day fluffy and mild, bold counterpoint to the wild, raucous ocean. Waves churned at all the ledges and minor islands between Little Cranberry and Otter Cove. The hurricane, a big one stalled off Hatteras, sang its heavy rock and roll. Spray was everywhere. We’d learn later that evening of a tourist washed by a rogue swell from the rocks at Otter Cliffs. We were much luckier. We rode head-high wave after head-high wave, each one spilling into a channel for an easy paddle back out.
The daily chores keep us close to the seasons and the weather and the way weather and season manifest in the animals and their habitats. We watch the rain and lack of rain, and we see it in the color of the grass in the pasture and leaves on the trees and composition of the soil. We take note of the animals’ waste for signs of illness, parasites, worms. A hen’s comb tells you a lot about her health as well as the color of her egg’s yolk. You look in and at the eyes and around the eyes, especially with goats. Every day there are surprises and changes, not all of them welcome. One evening last summer, Kirsten counted our flock of meat birds out back the barn and found ten missing. We’d noticed foxes a few times at the far end of the big field. We moved Beau, the male Great Pyrenees we’d recently adopted, from guarding the sheep to guarding the birds in the yard. There were two weeks before they moved to the freezer. His and Stella’s puppies, now three months old and annoying as hell to old Tika, held their own with the sheep and the lambs. No more meat birds disappeared.
The other time I surfed from a boat was at Bomba’s off Tortola in the Virgin Islands. Kirsten and I were honeymooning at St. Johns. This was ten years ago. On a trip to town, we discovered a surf shop. The owner mentioned a good swell. With Kirsten’s blessing, I asked if I could join him, borrow a board. At four the next morning, he handed me an old seven foot single fin with no nose. The tip was broken, blunted, and he hadn’t even bothered to duct tape it. We zipped and bounced in a small Boston Whaler across the rough channel to Tortola in the dark. Dawn found us anchored offshore and rocking steady and hard. My host lit a spliff and offered me a toke as we paddled in to the break. No thanks, I said, sufficiently paranoid. The swells were running thick, large. He pointed to a colorful shack at the edge of the beach. It was small with the distance. He said they served magic mushroom omelets there. I nodded feelingly, too nervous about the waves and the borrowed board to know what was what.
Now it is dawn and there has been a thunderstorm overnight. I see lightning offshore. I see pulses of light as orange as they are red. There is the paler shine of a shrimp boat. The waves are still small. The moment I step from boardwalk to sand the rain drenches me. I hope all is well with Nathan and his family and the farm. Through the bottom of my feet it is raining on my head. A quiet kind of thunder and the patterns of its sound in the way the wind and the waves and rain have sculpted the sand.
There are plover. There are gulls and pelicans, sandpipers and osprey and egrets and terns and crows. I watch them feed, wild birds, their patterns of chase and scurry. Footprints and beakprints in sand. At a distance, silhouetted against the sun oranging the sky behind a line of storm clouds, there are more birds flying – who cares what their names are – buttoning up the sky or perhaps more accurately unbuttoning it, taking off its nightclothes. It seems they are waves too, breaking, reforming, gathering food – it seems they know all the moves.
Thorpe Moeckel has guided on rivers and trails throughout the Appalachians. He's surfed up and down the East Coast, in Brazil, Hawaii, the Caribbean, and Canada. In 1996, he worked a holiday season at the Patagonia Atlanta retail store. He now teaches English and Environmental Studies at Hollins University, and farms with his family near Buchanan, Virginia, a couple of miles from good whitewater and native brook trout streams, as well as stealth longboard sessions on the Blue Ridge Parkway. He is the author of three books – see www.thorpemoeckel.wordpress.com – and still wears (with pride, thrift, and some mending) the same Patagonia paddling jacket he bought when guiding on the Gauley River in 1991.