Here’s how it works.
There’s a shrieking nor’west gale, the sort that has Wellington clinging to its hillsides. It is sunny, but the sky’s muffled by salt haze. I get a glimpse of the ocean as I turn down the road to the beach at Titahi Bay – a torn, grey-green sea, tatters of foam and crests of waves stretched out to Mana Island.
I park in the bottom carpark, in the shelter of a low bank. It’s Friday, I’m recovering from a relapse and only working part time – this is my day off for the week. In the back I have a bigger than usual surfboard, to forgive the slowness that comes with arthritic limbs. I’m the only person there.
The day before we’d had our work Christmas do. The job had been a godsend, arriving when I needed it, coinciding with treatment and better mobility. Less pain and a new routine. The NGO was like a family too, friendly and happy for all its idiosyncrasies. Which made what happened at the Christmas party even worse. One of the guys, who everyone, including me, liked a lot, ended up shouting abuse at one of the women staff of the party venue. There’s more to the story: his explosion of anger, the words he used, the proximity to violence, the unfairness of his past and how it might forgive him, but that’s not my tale.
I’d spent the morning trying not to think about it. Trying. The words he used; the way he flipped; so near to violence; would he lose his job? Amongst all the things that go wrong on our planet it was nothing, of course. But it was sad enough, and close enough, for me to be chewing it over, again and again.
I get out of the car, holding the door against the wind, walk to a perch where I can watch the sea, and look out to the south end of the bay. There at the base of low cliffs, a point of slippery, angled rocks juts out. I try to watch, but it’s too windy: in between the salt spray and sand I can’t stare long enough to gauge the quality of the waves. I trudge back to the car, open the door, holding it with one hand, and fish out some cheap, scratched service station sunglasses with the other.
You know enough about surfing to know how it works. Toned young men in board shorts, yoga-enabled women. Gold beaches with warm water. Perfect waves, healthy bodies, ability, youth, mates. The appeal is obvious. That’s how it works.
The sunglasses did the trick, they stopped the sand and spray, and I could watch the sea.
Titahi Bay wants for a lot: most of the time the northern end of the South Island deprives it of groundswells, the cornerstone of good surf. (These are swells from far away storms, groomed by travel, which arrive ready to be perfect – think surf from distant cyclones on the East Coast of Australia, or swells from the Southern Indian Ocean in Bali). Then there are the sand shoals off Mana Island that further sap the waves of their strength. Then there are Wellington’s endless nor’westerlies, which are onshore. And yet, Titahi Bay has its tricks. Somehow bathymetry and the bay’s bend tidy up the storm surf that bashes Wellington’s west coast and make it manageable. And, just a little, the wind rides up over the hills, meaning that out in the line-up it’s a bit less windy than anywhere else. Then there’s that rocky point at the bay’s southern end.
Hunched against the wind, I watch a stormy wave stand up on it, lurching, breaking over a shallow ledge, peeling, slowing for a moment, and then unfolding quickly along an underwater finger of rock. I imagine the feel of riding it, the lines to take, the race to the shallows…
I run back to the car, contort myself into my wetsuit and wetsuit boots. I pull on a wetsuit hood. I stretch. I jog down to the water’s edge, past dilapidated boatsheds, my board kicking under my arm in the wind.
In the water I’m alone: no one in the surf, no one else even checking the surf. The sea’s turbulent and my eyes are stinging, but I’ve been surfing the rock point half my life, so I know where to wait, lined up with a gully in the hill and a pyramid shaped rock. A big set comes, signalled by blown foam on the outside sandbanks. The waves start to crumble out there, then back off in the deeper water just out from the point. I paddle over the first wave, and spin in front of the second. It’s big, perhaps twice my height. I’m close to the rocks, above the underwater ledge, the right place to catch it. I paddle, just one or two strokes, enough to have me moving forward as the wave pulls me to its crest. As the ledge trips it, the wave changes in a moment from a mound of swell to a vertical drop off. I get to my feet with the sea falling under me. I’m mid-air. I land, the edge of my board’s rail getting purchase. I’m hit by breaking water, but I’m there, tilting, angling, turning, using momentum, and the water’s curve to drive myself out onto the wall. I change my line, trimming over the slower part of the wave, adjusting again, then I fly along the last section, racing as it crashes across the shallow inside reef. Drop, turn, speed, turn, flight. As the wave reaches deeper water off the point I angle over the back. I’m not Kelly Slater. I did nothing spectacular. The wave was tricky rather than perfect. The water is so murky I can’t see my hands as I paddle. The salt spray is nearly blinding. But: drop, turn, speed, turn, flight! I paddle back out as fast as I can, singing happily.
Two hours later the sun is lower, the green-grey has hints of yellow and orange. I’m worn out. Wave after wave, on my own. Back in the carpark I have an after-exercise glow, and a calm—from the storm, from finding the right line, ride after ride. And from making the waves, from the rock ledge to the inside shallows. I’m not thinking about other things.
Warm water, perfect swells, flawless reefs, I’ve surfed all that. It’s great, easier to enjoy, but the essential ingredients were there at Titahi Bay that afternoon. That’s how it works.