“Excuse me?”

My father approached him, and I stood behind him bashfully. He had never seen a surfer until he came to the States and was fascinated by them, and the speed with which they moved across the waves. “How does the wetsuit work?” he asked.

The surfer, who was perhaps in his early 20s, grinned and told us that it wasn’t a dry suit, as people tended to think but that it actually filled up with water. He told us that it was cold at first, but slowly warmed up. I remember his face, and the way he smiled the entire time he was talking, as if there was nothing in the world he would rather do than talk about wet suits. I wanted very badly to touch the strange material and imagined that it would feel something like a dolphin’s skin. “You get ice cream headaches,” he said. My father and I both thought this was the most amazing thing in the world, and all three of us laughed.

In that moment, the world changed for me. It would be years before I started surfing, and even more before I first put on a wet suit, but talking to that surfer will forever remain my “Friar Serra” moment. Here was a young man who, by doing nothing more than pulling on a rubber suit, was able to go to a place and do something almost unbelievable. Not only was he surviving in this harsh, frigid sea, he was enjoying himself.

Some years later I was walking up a beach in Scotland wearing a 5 mil, booties, mittens, and a hood. The waves had been terrible and there were intermittent rain squals. Despite the rain there were some people around, because if the Scots waited for good weather to go the beach, they would never go. A man approached me with two children in tow. They all stared at me for a second, not quite sure what to say. Then the man cleared his throat, and asked how it was that I didn’t freeze to death in the North Sea. I smiled and explained to him the magic of the wetsuit, as it had been explained to me, all those years ago. Then I let him and his children touch the neoprene on my arm. The young ones laughed like it was the most amazing thing they had ever seen and even their father chuckled a little. “Would you look at that!” he kept saying to himself.

I’ve since had this conversation numerous times, in numerous places and it always feels bitter-sweet to see the look in other people’s faces when they discover something that is both very simple, yet somehow extraordinary. It reminds me of being young and scared, but also full of excitement. It reminds me that life slips away like the tide, and that, as much as I enjoy surfing, it will never be as sweet and miraculous as it was when I was a little boy walking across a wintry beach with my father, wondering about the mysteries of the world.

This piece was first published in 3sesenta.

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  • walrus

    Over my years of surfing, I have often been asked questions like this. I came to see my answers as a form of missionary work to the unknowing and landlocked. Living at the jersey shore, our best surf is spring , winter and fall resulting in lots of wetsuit time, also, folks come come to the shore to visit from all over the country with lots of questions. It’s actually kind of fun to explain what that ole man and those kids are doing in the ocean and how they handle the chilly water………

  • Anonymous

    I live and surf in a big city with cold water and a beach that remains underutilized by 90% of the city’s residents. Many people are often shocked to learn that I surf, don’t seem to know where the beach even is, and most assume that I brave the cold, cold ocean in trunks. Aaaaaamazing.  

  • Anonymous

    I live and surf in a big city with cold water and a beach that remains underutilized by 90% of the city’s residents. Many people are often shocked to learn that I surf, don’t seem to know where the beach even is, and most assume that I brave the cold, cold ocean in trunks. Aaaaaamazing.  

  • Anonymous

    I live and surf in a big city with cold water and a beach that remains underutilized by 90% of the city’s residents. Many people are often shocked to learn that I surf, don’t seem to know where the beach even is, and most assume that I brave the cold, cold ocean in trunks. Aaaaaamazing.