More life lessons (and possibly death ones too) from surfing

surfpanic-1When I’m in more depressed states, I often feel that things would be easier if I were dead. I haven’t really thought about killing myself for many years, but the idea of escape sounds comforting from time to time. However, while surfing during my break last month, I actually came much closer to dying than normal, and I had a very different reaction.

The ocean can kill. I’m always well aware of that, and never take the waves or water for granted. Up here in Northern California, several abalone divers were killed earlier this month due to rough and changing conditions. I tend to stay out of the water when the waves look too big, but on this last trip I got caught by surprise. I was down in Southern California for spring break and went down to the beach on my first full day there. I haven’t been surfing much at home because of weather and water conditions(Oh San Francisco! You fickle surf temptress) and our hectic schedule, so I’m also not in the greatest shape either. I went to a section of Newport Beach with various rock jetties, since the waves tend to be bigger than at the pier which is where you normally find the longboarders, and I don’t have a longboard down south to use.

I paddled out without any issues, but then kind of drifted around for the next hour without any success. I found that either the waves were closing out, or that someone else was closer to the peak and would get the wave. I had started at one end of the beach and eventually found myself on the other end, with a jetty in front of me and to my left if I faced towards the shore. Suddenly a set of what seemed like HUGE waves started coming in. I was sitting in too close to shore for these waves, so I was not able to paddle out past impact zone. The first wave tore the board out of my hands as I tried to dive under it, and for good measure it pushed me around underwater for a bit. At this point I wasn’t too worried. However, the waves kept coming. I would come up, get some air and then try to dive for the bottom to get out of the roiling water, but the waves must have been breaking hard because it didn’t seem to help, and I kept getting pushed and turned around underwater. This was scary, but I had experienced something similar in San Francisco, so I knew I could wait it out since the set wouldn’t last forever. What really scared me was that the Jetty was getting uncomfortably closer with each wave.

As the last wave approached I mentally readied myself to be bashed against the rocks and tried to roll up into a ball with my head protected. I took a big breath and the wave hit. I was pushed fast and hard underwater and I kept expecting the impact. It never came. By some stroke of fortune I had been pushed across the front of the jetty and ended up on the other side, so it was on my right when I surfaced. My surfboard had come along as well. The water was much calmer when I came up and I was able to swim in to shore. I was extremely tired and winded so I sat on the beach for about 10 minutes recovering, then walked back to the car and went home. I told the story to everyone at the house, but despite everything, it really didn’t impact me in the way I would have imagined. The next day I went to the pier to surf the smaller waves.

I was telling this story to my coach and she asked me to think about what I did that allowed me to not drown in that situation. My first answer was “luck”. All bets were off if I had hit the jetty at full speed. But I was urged to look a bit deeper. It’s always hard for me to say positive things about myself, but I can say the one thing I did correctly was the first piece of advice imparted by the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and I did not panic. The second piece of advice imparted by that book is to know where your towel is and have it with you, so I guess I somewhat followed that bit as well. If I had panicked I would have used up my energy and probably not have been able to hold my breath underwater. I feel like I should come up with more things, but that is really the key, to not panic. I was scared and uncomfortable, but I was still able to plan my moves. Everything I’ve been taught during SCUBA diving and everything I’ve read about surfing stresses the importance of not panicking. Even Jaimal Yogis, in Saltwater Buddha(which I’ve written about before), recounts a similar experience while surfing at Rockaway beach in NY(but he got trapped under the rocks of the jetty). It was keeping calm that let him find a way back up to the surface. If you can’t think clearly, you can’t function well, and bad things tend to happen.

It’s an important lesson, which I’m trying to figure out how to apply in the rest of my life. I’m just coming out of a persistent low-ish level depression. During this time, so many interactions with my children and with my wife, as well as thoughts about how little movement I’ve made on my career issues have triggered waves of despair or overwhelm to crash over me. That’s when the thoughts of how things would be so much better if I were dead start. I need to work on ways of not panicking so much when these emotional waves come up. Despite the thoughts, I really don’t want to die yet. I think there are too many good waves left in life for that, maybe it’s just a matter of going one beach over, or waiting for the next day.