Thursday, July 07, 2005


Last Saturday, I left The City for the coast, planning to take advantage of a heavy swell which I had been watching over the internet as it moved in from the south west. My plan was to meet with a couple of colleagues and get my board wet again. Arriving at The Beach (the closest break to The City), I wasn’t thrilled to see that the swell had arrived with its generator – winds of force 6 to 7, blowing on-shore, and making a right old mess of the swell – a nasty chop, with hints of cross-sea in places.

Perhaps non-surfing readers would like a more detailed explanation? Surfers, contrary to what many non-surfers believe, don’t like strong winds – and particularly not strong on shore winds (those that blow from the sea towards the beach). Why not? Because the ideal surfing wave has a low frequency (the distance between successive peaks) and a high amplitude (is tall). A wave with these properties has plenty of power, which surfers can use to get their rise. In between waves, the water should ideally be calm and flat – ideal for paddling out to catch those waves, and easy to balance on, once up and riding. These properties correspond to the classic ocean swell – large, smooth waves generated over long distances in the open ocean by strong winds blowing continuously for days. Once formed, these waves can travel huge distances before dissipating – fulfilling the surfer’s dream of a beach with no wind but a steady sequence of huge waves breaking on the shore. Of course, storms also produce small choppy waves – but these don’t travel so far. However, if the storm is blowing at the beach, then the chop will not dissipate before it reaches the surfers, and, although far smaller than the “swell”, it causes great problems. As these waves come upon the beach in large numbers, a paddling surfer has very little time between waves to make progress to seaward, and will tend to lose ground with every succeeding wave. Moreover, while the ocean swell can have breaks, periods of sudden and temporary calm, locally-generated waves tend to be continuous.

This Saturday, conditions were really very poor – almost continuous lines of white water sweeping in. Not a very surfer-friendly environment! Just past the lineup, I could see that some people had come prepared – a man whom I later heard is the 3rd ranking windsurfing in the country was flying back and forth on a windsurfing rig – tiny board carving through whip-snap jibes, and reaching amazing speeds on a beam reach. It was really quite a remarkable performance – using the waves as ramps, I saw him jump a good five or six feet clear of the water, landing very cleanly. Like the pin-ball wizard, he never falls.

Sorely tempted to ditch my surfing plans and hire some form of sailing craft instead – a good strong south-westerly being my favorite sailing weather – I opted for solidarity, suited up and joined my fellow cubicle-escapees. As anticipated, conditions were not easy – even the shore-break was very vigorous. In fact, just reaching the shore-break required careful board-handling, the wind being strong enough to hold the board to my side unaided. Once in the water, my attempts to paddle out to the lineup met with predictable results – 10 meters progress being undone by a single wave, to be repeated with salt-stung eyes ad nauseum. Mr P, an expert surfer with a tiny board, was the first out – duck-diving his way through a succession of combers which, true to their name, swept the rest of us straight back in, leaving nothing behind them but clean white foam – and Mr. P. Mr. S (who was, I believe, experiencing our ocean for the first time) and myself were not so skilful – and, to be fair, our boards were far larger. Repeated attempts eventually led to a breakthrough, but only after the hardest and most sustained paddling of my surfing career - the experience was more like long-distance running than surfing, forcing fatigued muscles through the pain barrier, the mind trying to force exhausted limbs to sprint speed, desperately trying to pass the next wave before its crest should reach breaking point. The more slightly built Mr. S - despite heroic efforts and previous experience in such exotic locations as Mexico and Australia - did not once get out past the shore break. He didn’t miss much, though - the ride I got for my efforts was far from satisfying. I didn’t fall, but somehow the wave gradually subsided and slipped from under me. Subsequent efforts, including an encounter with a rip, were similarly disappointing. Altogether, an exhausting session, with very few rides, and those short. Best to think of it as two hours of conditioning exercises for the triceps. The only real upside is that I had no collisions on this occasion, with the exception of one bruising encounter with my own board’s fin after a wipe-out.

Lessons learnt? That sufficiently determined paddling can get results, even in very difficult conditions. That Mr. S needs a warmer wetsuit – adding injury to insult, he caught a cold after the chilling he got in our “summer” sea. Also, that a smaller board can have its uses, and that some days are just better used for body-boarding – or windsurfing. Having recently returned to a certain cove near The City, scene of previous sailing adventures, I found that my windsurfing skills, such as they are, have survived a long “dry” period almost intact. I can’t wait to try them out again in “proper” weather – learning to wave-ride is a long-held dream of mine. The autumn will bring more and more days like Saturday - time, perhaps, to get my own gear at last. All reasonably-priced second-hand rigs considered…

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