Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Only A Surfer Knows the Feeling

Alone at my favorite mid-atlantic surf spot, 2003.   Photo by Rod
Dateline: 1998.  Transitioning from my dual outdoor bum/grad student life in Virginia Beach and Boone, NC to a full-time grown-up life in Baltimore, Maryland was difficult in so many ways.  One of those ways was totally predictable - the lack of local knowledge of outdoor recreation activities and "spots" near my new home.   I knew where nothing was, what the regulations might be, or where to get started.   I was really missing surfing, and the few outings I went on, went pretty poorly.  Before I knew it, it was 2001. Nobody I  knew in Baltimore hunted or fished or surfed or even rode a bike.  Depressing.

I needed somewhere quiet and lonely to go surf. To reconnect with the ocean and figure it all out again.  How to feel the swell under me.  How to trust that the wave you're on might act the same way the last wave did.....and you'll stay upright.  The saying goes, "Only a surfer knows the feeling."  I think there's some truth to that.

The night before the trip, I couldn't sleep.  Swell forecasts showed a sunrise around 545am, low tide around 550am, and a gradually rising swell.  I knew I needed to be back at my job site by 10am at the latest.  I hadn't had a good surf session in nearly THREE YEARS, despite finding myself at some of the USA's best known surf spots from Oregon to Cape Hatteras to Cape Cod.  I needed something to work. Delaware - inauspicious Delaware - was close to a job site.  Some data-searching told me that its most northern beach at Cape Henlopen might offer me the solitude I was seeking.  The place has a very black and white following - some folks think the wave is amazing and special.  Others think it is not at all worth the trouble.  I had no idea what to expect.
Same DE beach access road but at dusk, in June 2006

I was on the highway by 345am, and pulled into the state park in time for the 5:45 sunrise.  The last access gate was locked, so I had to huff it down the road another half mile.  When I came over the dune, it was already hot outside, flies biting....and no waves as far as the eye could see.  I couldn't believe it! It was happening again.  Something inside me said, "Oh well, you're here. May as well go for a paddle." 

After a leisurely summer paddle and - I swear to God - an actual nap on the beach, I decided to concede defeat.  Again.  Right as I did, I saw a small but nice wave smack off The Jetty and reeeeeeeeeeeeeel down the cove.  I paused, and waited for another......which took about 3 minutes.  It was still breaking when I started paddling out.  Not another human in sight. The tide was coming in and letting the waves come in too!

Same spot, Cape Henlopen, Spring 2002
There's always something creepy about sitting on a surfboard in moving water by yourself.  This was no exception.  The ratty old jetty (which has now been replaced) allowed water through it, which made for a constant swirling near the take-off point.  Very, very sharky. After a long wait, a nice small wave popped up and I caught it.  I did a quick turn, buried the nose, and wiped out. 

Remember that thing about the cedar stumps? Yeah, I didn't.  My palms and knees were slashed by the wood and by the millions of tiny mussels growing on the wood, as I tumbled around in the surf.  Stupid.
Low tide in Stumpville, Delaware, maybe 1999 or so.  Photo courtesy of

I was so juiced about the possibility of catching another wave like that one, that I didn't even pause to see how badly I was bleeding.  A few minutes later, my chance came, and I caught that wave too.  I rode the tiny swell for over 100 yards, which required all kinds of turns and footing adjustments. I was smart enough to dismount right onto my board instead of falling back into "Stump Ville." 

Steering wide of Stumpville, May 2002
 The morning continued just like that, played out over a few dozen more small but looooonnnnng waves, all to myself.  I got my flow back. A month later, I surfed with Rod, a Baltimorean - I found him on the internet.  He and I met up with some other Baltimore/Annapolis surfers in August, and again in November 2001, and by the next summer, 5 of us had formed the Annapolis Surf Club, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.

That short morning at Cape Henlopen carried me through another 4 years of surfing in all types of conditions.  It reinforced my willingness to pull through and accept the bad days, because mathematically, you're eventually due a good one.  

I've been thinking about this day a lot recently because I've really been feeling like I need one of these magical days.  You better believe that when I try to cash in my surf karma this summer, I'll be going back to this place, as I have so many times over the last 10 years. When I find that feeling again, I look forward to telling you about it.
Picture of me taking off on a small, super fast wave during an amazing day with old friends. Delaware, October 2003


Unknown said...

Good luck! Kawabunga Dude!!

Kirk Mantay said...

...just a matter of time! Patience has never been a virtue of mine, and as I grow older, I feel more inclined to indulge it anyway. Both at work and at home.

Sometimes you just gotta wait.

Anonymous said...

How are the waves there on a typical day? I've been on Indian River Inlet and its also a hit or miss. It kinda sucks!

Kirk Mantay said...

It's more fickle than IRI. And surprisingly, more crowded. It's a unique wave with a predictable takeoff zone...that's the attraction.

Far better and more consistent surf can be found to the south in Ocean City. You just have to surf in the mornings to avoid the blackball.

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