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The Physical Power of the Ocean

The Physical Power Of The Ocean

Many people would think that exposing yourself to the largest and most powerful force of nature is insane, to say the least. There are many aspects of the ocean that can lead to instant death and severe bodily harm. We are humans and that means we are physically vulnerable to many concrete elements that a body of energetic water sets forth. This is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact it can be translated into a very positive outlook, forcing us to exercise good judgment and a keen sense of danger.

Surfers are just a different from each other as our fingerprints suggest. Many surfers, like me, obtain a certain adrenaline rush out of being tossed into an onshore double overhead session, where the waves are merely just a drop and then a violent wipeout. There is nowhere to take the wave, so you just enjoy the steep drop and the forceful upheaval that greets you shortly after you return to sea level. It is a constant and exhaustive fight to stay afloat in the washing machine conditions, with currents and winds treating you as if your body is merely floating driftwood. It is a great feeling, opening many opportunities to really fight for your life and oxygen. Oftentimes regret crosses the mind when it seems as though the sand will never be reached again.

Then there are surfers that enjoy watching the stormy days from a warm, dry spot on the beach or from the safety of their vehicles. My father is a prime example of this type of surfer. He appreciates the violent nature of the ocean but refuses to submerge himself in the experience and leave his fate up to Poseidon. But if it’s chest-high and glassy conditions, he will be the first one in and the last one out.

There is nothing wrong with either breed of surfer, and more often than not the majority of surfers lie somewhere in between: enjoying the beautiful days, but are also willing to paddle out when that low-pressure system goes a little further offshore and the wave interval inherits a longer gap. The waves are large and powerful, but there is somewhere to take them and it isn’t a constant fight for survival.

No matter what type of surfer you are as far as thrill seeking is concerned, or how adept you are as a waterman/woman, there is always the fine line between life and death. The frightening part is actually seeing that line and fighting to paddle away from it.

A number of years ago when I was younger, braver, and had a lot fewer responsibilities in life I would be suiting up when word of a big storm was onshore. More times than not this was in the winter, and a northeast cold winter already poses that initial struggle. The elements added to the experience, and it was complete survival from the first stroke into the ocean until the feeling of sand underneath my exhausted feet. I was very much into the rush I got from the heavy drops and the violent wipeouts. The Ocean was unleashing all of Her wrath that She wanted to, and I was taking it all on the head…and loving it. Broken boards and stomach-dropping scares weren’t enough to keep me away. It was a time in life where the reality of never stepping back onto dry land wasn’t a thought in my head.

Then one day that all changed, and I can remember it like it was yesterday. The swell was big, and the wind was fast, onshore, and constant. I had paddled out after battling the short interval of the wind swell. It was a perpetual task to attempt to stay in the same spot where it was half experience and half guessing on where to position myself. About 40 yards south of me was a groin of large rocks that formed one side of an inlet. The rocks were the sizes of small cars. They stretched out to sea for about 250 yards. A few waves and steep drops later, I found myself caught in a swift current taking me south…towards the large and unforgiving rocks. I put my chest to the fiberglass and started paddling north, away from the rocks. Every twenty seconds or so I would look behind me, where the hope of making way was crushed by the closing distance to the rocks. After a few minutes of this struggle against a force that was rapidly overcoming my strength and ability, I came to the realization that I was not going to out paddle the strong current.

I turned my board south, towards the rocks, and formulated a quick plan in my head that my best bet was to attempt to time the crashing waves on the rocks. If I could put myself next to the rocks in between the breaking waves then I would scurry on the rocks and get myself out of this situation unscathed. Well…that was the plan. As I got closer to the rocks with both the Ocean’s power and my own hesitant and weak strokes, the size of the masses seemed to grow with each second; the crash of the waves on the boulders started to make a deafening thunder that resonated deep in my heart and my dropping stomach. I was just a few yards away and I found an aquatic valley and dug my palms deep in the icy water. It was enough to get me face-to-surface with the rocks, but not enough time to throw my board out from under me and attempt to get on them gently. Then out of nowhere a large wave lifted me up like a natural rocket and tossed me and my board on the mountains. If only that was the end of the punishment.

It was a few rocks’ climb to the top and out of the scope of the waves, and the wet surfaces and equally drenched wetsuit was not giving me the desired friction to get a grip to climb. The next wave slammed me against the rocks yet again and my thoughts adjusted from concern of my board, to desire to save my body. Then the third wave was tall enough to lift me up and again pound me on the upper most rock, but not on top. I gripped the rock with my whole body, as if I was holding onto a window sill on the top story of a skyscraper where sure death was below me. I then lunged myself to the horizontal plateau of the rocks away from the reach of the daunting waves. I yanked my board to safe land by the leash, and just lay on the rocks for what seemed like an hour: Catching my breadth and revising the meaning of life and the ocean.

The reason I tell that story is because that is the defining day in my life where I had a little more appreciation for breathing and waking up the next morning. The power of the ocean put everything in perspective; I’m not that tough, my body is relatively nothing in this massive source of energy, and it’s the “calmer” days that I enjoy for the right reasons. I do not regret one single paddle out, though. Putting myself in these situations, though seemingly foolhardy, gave me a very distinct and visible line for my comfort level. The ocean is omnipotent, and even on a knee-high day She can take life. When it happens, it happens: but I am not going to speed up that process anymore. So go out there when it’s a little rough… Take a few heavy waves on the head… Get tossed around. It will be valuable in the long run, but don’t take it to the extreme unless you are completely aware of the consequences. We think of the ocean on the sunny day with light offshore winds and nice peeling waves, but there is a whole other side…it’s the power of the ocean.

Tommy DePalma

Tommy DePalma is a lifetime surfer, spending most of his time on the North Carolina coast. He enjoys traveling up and down the East Coast in search of great waves and empty breaks.

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Duke Murphy
Duke Murphy
12 years ago

Nice Story! I have oft avoided the line, because my life has given me an appreciation of it prior to surfing. But I now adays get closer to the line, surfing at 49 then I ever did at 25….but as you say, I understand the consequences….again, great story.

13 years ago

great story. So true. I surf 6 to 8 foot waves, but only when it is clean and glassy. Not risking my life just to prove something

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