Friday, 10 February 2012

Surf and chillblains

I have never had chillblains before. I generally have very good circulation and my northern-European physiology copes admirably with the cold, what with its inefficient mitochondria and robust size to conserve heat. I have chillblains today. And they are a reminder of a marvellous day.

As I have mentioned before, I have a penchant for the possibly insane passtime of kayaking in the sea when the waves look like they might be fun. I look at a forecast on a website called which shows me with a star rating from one to five, how good the surf is likely to be, along with wind direction, strength, swell and air temperature. It is not terribly accurate but gives some idea of whether it is worth the two-hour drive to North Devon to get in the sea.Well, on Sunday, I looked at magicseaweed and saw it promised five stars and six-foot waves for Wednesday. This is too good to be missed! I had to go! Life has only so many days in it and a lot of those have no waves in them. Carpe diem, I thought!

So, i contacted a friend of mine and after briefly discussing that the water was 8C and the air temperature merely zero with a windchill of -2 to -4, we decided the potential discomfort from the cold was easily worth it for the thrill of six foot clean waves.
So, in my van we went, loaded up with surfboards, kayaks and wetsuits. Off down the M5 to Devon. My companion is a learned chap with much experience of interesting things, like his first job in movie special effects and the science and practical application of modern materials. Conversation was brisk and the traffic light for the whole journey.

But crikey it was cold!
Upon arriving at Saunton, we struggled into our wetsuits and gloves and wetshoes. Every piece of skin, apart from our faces, was covered with a 4 or 5mm layer of neoprene to keep out the cold. This is one technology which never fails to impress me. To be immersed in the sea, at 8C for two and a half hours and not really get cold, is utterly amazing. Without a wetsuit like this, you would be dead from hypothermia in minutes. And yet a suit of synthetic rubber and it is only your tolerance for numb extremities and the limit of your metabolic fuel that limits your immersion time. Imagine being up to your neck in icy water and not really feeling anything but a coolness around you. Thank science for neoprene!

Well, it was not entirely as magiseaweed predicted. It wasn't "clean" for a start. The waves were breaking upon us in walls of merciless white water, hitting us like giant cricket bats of aquatic force.
My shoulders burned with the exertion of paddling out through them, being knocked back twenty feet with each one and making up the distance with strenuous strokes of my paddle.
And yet, even this onslaught of freezing force, driving ice-cold water into my face and down my neck was not really daunting. A resolve to get "out back" past the white, broken waves to the big green clean ones kept me driving forward.
And my reward: Sitting with my back to the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean and looking over my shoulder, I saw a strip of water change colour as its angle reflected the sky differently to the rest of the water. Instinctively, I knew this was going to be a big one. The strip of sea rose into a long parallel ridge moving towards me and shaping itself into a wave and I paddled to where I knew I would need to be to catch it in order for its force to propel me along its top and down its face.

I paddled furiously to match the speed of the approaching wave and felt the back of the kayak begin to rise. I was moving forward but it seemed to be getting away from me! It was too fast! But oh! It was the perfect shape and I was reluctant to let it pass. With a hurculean effort I dug the paddle in and forced myself over its crest and success: Now I was on the front of it, traveling along it, downwards and to the right.

Suddenly, the Universe aligned into a Moment of Perfection: Riding fast, diagonally along and down a perfect half-sinusoid, the wave was breaking behind me, nipping at the back end of the boat and driving me along. To my right, I had the perfect wave, clean, six feet high and with the most beautiful smooth form of moving water. Suddenly, all I could hear was the sound of the boat across the water, like the noise a spoon makes when scooping out sorbet.

In that moment of perfection, I needed to do nothing to control my trajectory. In the tranquility of that instant, I had the freedom to look around me, first at the unbroken wave to my right, and then to the wild white spray on my left. The bright sunshine shone through it and created a breathtaking series of rainbows. This was a peak of existence and to me, nothing on Earth can surpass such perfection.

Before the break reached the whole length of the wave, I decided it was time to get off. I dipped in the paddle and, turning right, hopped over the back of the wave ready to paddle out to the next one.
And thus went the afternoon: Cold, glorious and exhilarating.

After what felt like just under an hour, my hands rebelled and would no longer control the paddle. Given that I was now merely a passive passenger on any wave that chanced to catch me, I decided it was time to go in. I could no longer feel my hands, though my feet seemed still to be my own.
I scooted in on a baby wave and lay spent on the sand and soon, my friend had also had enough.
We walked back to the van with our various toys for a cup of tea and a bowl of chilli. We had been out two and half hours, which had passed like mere minutes. The sea does that to you. In the constant momentary thoughts of "Is this the one? Where should Ibe to catch it?" and "Am I going to stay on here or be tossed about like a ragdoll?", all other thoughts recede. Only the immediate is possible and all else must be pushed out of mind. This is, I believe, why it is so good for you: Thoughts of work and financial woes have no space and must be left at the shore for that period of time. You have a small holiday from worry because every moment, every bit of mental resource is occupied in the task in hand.

It may seem insane when it is so cold to voluntarily immerse oneself in cold water, and perhaps it is a bit eccentric. But it is every bit worth it to experience the highs that nature can provide just by the interaction of fluid mechanics, tide and wind.
And strangely, the cold is part of it. The flooding of the briny water over your face is like a kind of baptism, washing away all the cares of the world which accumilate in one's everyday existence. When you come out of the sea, the hills are pin-sharp, the grass and sky vibrant in colour and gorse bushes on the headland so yellow you can almost taste them.

And so catharsis is attained. Until the serenity is filled with the usual static of modern living. And then, i shall go back and do it all again.


Jenny Woolf said...

Oh, this is a very nice piece of writing. I was right there with you, and for the first time could see why someone would want to do this. I have an annoying but apparently incurable phobia about getting my head underwater, (I think it's a result of nearly drowning at age 4) any form of sea sport is alarming to me. But I could tell why you liked it.

Who took the photos?

PerlNumquist said...

Thank you Jenny. The photos were a mixed bag from many trips. The best ones were taken by the wife of one of my regular surf buddies. She has a really good telephoto lens.
You know, the first time I got talked into doing something like this, I was determined i wouldn't for similar reasons to those that trouble you. My friends were persuasive and for that I will be eternally grateful. But the first wave I caught smashed my fears and they never came back. Now, a faceful of freezing water is not even registered. In fact, perversely, I rather like it.

Librarian said...

What I find really hard to believe (no matter how many times people tell me it is not how I think) is that you do not feel the freezing cold when you wear one of those suits. I simply can't imagine NOT freezing when I see pictures of so much cold water!
Plus I wonder what people wearing specs do.

PerlNumquist said...

Wellll.. in truth, you do feel a bit cold. But when you are paddling or otherwise working yur muscles, the heat generated keeps the layer of water inside your suit warm. When you stop moving, you do get cold. And walking up the beach was bloody freezing. Also when you start out, it can be a bit chilly,
As for glasses, i think you just have to do the best you can. Contact lenses would wash out i think.

Librarian said...

There is water IN the suit??? Sounds rather unpleasant... And as for the glasses: well, once the first few splashes of water have hit them (and provided they are still firmly on one's nose and not been swept away by a wave), they are as good as useless. Have you ever tried to see anything through glasses that even had just a few raindrops on them?
No, as appealing as your account makes it sound, I don't think surfing will ever become my sport :-)