Courage

3/27/20 Friday

This is not me, but I have surfed at this exact spot on a similar day, when the waves were just as raw, just as big. This wave is solid 10 foot Hawaiian, which means 20′ crest to trough. It’s the type of wave that can ruin your day if you fall, can turn your limbs backwards at the joints, hold you under until your lungs burn, make your whole world go black, make you pee in your wetsuit. For me it’s a wave that made me realize I’m a big fat chicken, and that being brave has nothing to do with being a man.

after-the-rain.org / Big wave surfing
Local legend, Pete Devries

This spot is semi-secret and hard to get to. It can be good spring through fall, but winter summons ungodly energy from North Pacific storms and focuses it on the beautiful but remote and dangerous rocky coast of Washington state. For me it’s a 30 minute ferry ride, then three hours of driving on a two-lane road that is prone to washout from landslides. It rains a lot here. The unmarked trailhead starts at an Indian burial ground, then winds through a thick muddy evergreen forest half a mile down to the beach. You can see Canada from here, and sometimes eagles, otters, and whales. Every now and then I see another person. On this particular day, there was someone else already in the water, a girl called Massy. I had met her once before at the trailhead to another spot even more remote, that begins past where the paved road ends, past where the gravel road ends, at the town garbage dump. Here you’re just as likely to see a bear as you are a person, and one day I met her as she was packing her board away into a beat up Subaru, with a Massachusets license plate. She not only knew how to surf, but knew how to get here, knew how to surf here.

She was a solitary human in a big ocean, in big conditions. I paddled out, which was no easy feat, and nodded a silent hello to her as I passed. She seemed too far inside, destined to get cleaned up on the next big set. On a long period swell the sets are bigger, more powerful, but longer apart. It can be a challenge to figure out where to sit and wait, and strong currents make it hard to hold a position. I was sure she was doomed. At some point the horizon went black, and I started paddling out even farther. Climbing over the first wave, then the second, I saw the third, which was the last and biggest. It was a monster, I swung and paddled just to have a look. Twenty feet below me was Massy, paddling to actually catch the wave. I was in a better position so she checked me, and I motioned for her to go ahead and take it, not out of being generous, but because I was too scared. At that moment I realized I would never be cut out to be a big wave surfer, which to me now is laughable but at that time was devastating. I had given years to finding and figuring out new spots, to taking risks and pushing my own limits. But now I knew just where that limit was.

I have found many more limits since then, and realize now that they are not to be feared or dreaded. These boundaries help me figure out my place in the world, to become more comfortable being me. I’m not as scared to push the envelope anymore, not because I’m courageous, but because I’m comfortable with my own limitations, comfortable not being perfect, comfortable being afraid.

I will always be afraid of something or another, like big waves, spiders, and dying after my child. But I won’t be afraid of taking chances, opening my heart to someone new, or living in fear of the corona virus, even if I am pretty much living indoors. Fear is a useful, practical response to danger, but it can feed on itself and become paralyzing. I try to remember to confront fear, to embrace it, to work rationally to overcome the real threat behind it. Without fear there is no courage.