I’m eating at a place called “The Surf Lodge.” When I think about Peniche, I think of good local seafood, cod and sardines, the persistent scent of sugar cane burning in the fields, a local liquor with a too sweet cherry base, local female surfers without the pretty of the French Basque locals but more of the friendly. I don’t think of eating at a place called “The Surf Lodge.” But I’ve been told the food is good and I’m too hungry to go exploring on dirt roads in the hump season. Now the slow-cooked duck salad is cooking slow enough to type this post. Now I hear Dutch and German and a family here from the Ukraine. But no one is speaking Portuguese. That’s bullshit. There’s a nasally American couple behind me and a table of 10 more nasally Aussies near the door, but forget them—I want to lose myself here.
But I can’t. The ankle with no cartilage left between bones blew up on the plane ride down from Bordeaux, and its thump thump has synched to the German electronica. In Los Angeles, I would watch the Web broadcasts of the contest and mind-surf the waves. I would see myself pulling into some of the barrels the pros do, learning to lay my arm into the pocket of a translucent wave and ride out clean. Most of my 40-year-old and 50-year-old friends mind-surf this way when they’re supposed to be working on the computer, the WSL playing on another screen. We get excited to surf, but go to our local beaches and the waves are small and unrideable, or rideable and crowded. The thought is always that “if you could only get the waves the pros do, you could learn some of the same turns, or, at the very least, get better.” But it’s not true. You may get better, once you get comfortable. But right now, I’m just getting beat downs.
A local surf instructor sent me the coordinates to a surf spot at the bottom of a dead-end road. He said it should be good there. That some pros were there, and photographers. It was drizzling. I had just chickened out of paddling out at another break after driving alone through woods and shuttered resorts to a desolate beach. I’d looked at the fishermen in front of the river mouth and told myself they were fishing for shark—for large great whites coming to feed at the mouth of the river where the wave was breaking. I’d arrived late last night and didn’t have a clue where I was. I had no idea that Portugal is not sharky.
Anna was checking the surf, too. Anna is from Ukraine and visits here three or four times a year. I talked Anna into suiting up with me. It’s amazing to me that I don’t see other men paddle out alone at these spots, but I see women do it all the time. On the beach, the surf was twice the size that it had looked from the cliff. The offshore wind filled the cavities of my ears and the shore pound looked head high and menacing. An old writing professor once instructed our class not to anthropomorphize, but if I were a wave born thousands of miles away by an unnamed storm and my life were coming to a high-tide end on dry sand, I’d be menacing too. We waited 10 minutes. No, we hesitated for 10 minutes, for a lull, and then sprinted through the inside. The waves were what we call teepees, peaks that rise out of deep water ominously in a triangle, heave towards shore, and then collapse onto themselves. The takeoff on them is steep and difficult, but they fizzle out quickly.
I’m always intimidated at a new break, at least until I know the wave’s strength, whether I will get drilled to the seafloor, and what flora and fauna are on that seafloor. We paddled from side to side for 45 minutes before she paddled in without getting a wave. I’d only dropped into one. My advice to her was not to drop in until she got comfortable. Half an hour later, after duck diving a few sets, I paddled into my second wave. I went straight—the drop was steep, the wave a couple of feet overhead. I bottomed, turned up the face, and started to head down the line, setting myself up for my next turn, when the wave’s lip pitched. A more experienced tube rider—someone comfortable with the lineup—would have kept going down the line, let the lip pitch over them, gotten barreled, and come out. I chickened out. I straightened out towards shore and tried to escape the heaving lip, tried to get around the lip and back onto the wave’s face. I couldn’t. In that heartbeat of a ride, I was almost back on shore—30 yards in a second. I’m not used to that kind of power. I didn’t paddle back out.
While changing on the cliff, a guy started chatting with me. I didn’t recognize him. When I asked him if he was on the tour, he said, “Yes, I wouldn’t be here otherwise.” It was Stu Kennedy, a folk hero favorite who just qualified for the tour for the first time this year, at 27. He said he surfed the contest site this morning and the wave size almost doubled while he was out. He said, in that friendly Aussie twang, “I had a couple of four footers.” I told him not to bullshit me. Surfers, especially pros, minimize the size of waves the way fisherman maximize the size of fish. He said, “I reckon I had a few solid 10-footers. I almost drowned out there.” I watched him paddle out just south of where I was. The surf in the last half hour had dropped by a third. “Stewy” took off on a wave, raced down the line, launched into an air reverse, and stuck it.
Last week, in France, during the first full day of competition, I’d thought the waves were getting smaller, and that it was manageable enough for me to surf. When I got suited up and was stretching on the shore, a guy dropped into a set. It was several feet overhead. I’ve surfed bigger, so whatevers. But it took me 30 minutes to paddle out. On my first wave, I caught the rail of my board on a ripple running up the face, did a free fall, and face planted at the bottom of the wave. When I came up, six bigger waves, one after the other, broke on my head. I let the leash pull my ankle as I kept diving to the bottom. When the set passed, I paddled for 45 minutes, trying to get back to where I had been. But the current was stronger then my jet-lagged arms. I went in, happy to be in the water in France. Happy to have paddled out, to have “given it a go.” But humbled.
When I got back to the VIP tent, John John Florence’s heat was in the water. He pulled into a barrel and got shot out the doggy door, that little tunnel of light a surfer can exit on a less-than-perfect wave. He stood straight up, flipped that blond lion’s mane out of his eyes, and then paddled straight out to where he’d taken off. Caught another wave, went for an air. I once saw a video of him practicing his duck dive, submerging his board with his arms and one foot like any experienced surfer can do. But he was in a swimming pool, forcing his board to the bottom of the pool and then dolphin kicking with the buoyant board the length of the pool. For him, this was child’s play. For me, this was child’s play, too—when I was watching from home. But here, it feels like I’m risking my life.