I have a recurring nightmare that haunts me from time to time. To understand it, you first need to understand what it means to be a surfer from the Northeast of the United States. Like skiing, surfing is dependent on both weather and place. It requires not just a coastline, but a coastline that’s exposed to the open ocean. Of course this can’t just be any open ocean, but an open ocean capable of channeling the kind of wind or subterranean energy forces that generate breaking waves of significant size to be caught and ridden by humans on boards.
By these criteria, the Northeast US is a suboptimal surfing destination at best. For starters, the prevailing winds along the eastern seaboard blow away from the shoreline. Prime surf destinations – such as those on the US west coast – tend to have prevailing winds whose vectors slice perpendicular to the shore, guiding wave energy to release itself there. But when the wind on the East Coast does cooperate, other variables make its job more difficult than it otherwise might be. The continental shelf of the eastern seaboard runs for hundreds of miles at such a shallow angle that it absorbs and deadens deep ocean wave energy before it can reach the shore. California’s west coast, on the other hand, features a precipitous drop from shoreline into the deep, allowing powerful ocean waves to release themselves there. The Northern Atlantic Ocean is also relatively small as far as oceans go. As such it offers less space in which wave energy can build. Once again, the west coast proves to be the east’s antithesis, with the vast Pacific in which to incubate heavy wave energy for coastal dispensary.
Despite this unfavorable oceanography, hurricane season exists as the palliative for East Coast surfers. In the Northern Atlantic the window for tropical cyclone activity is open from June 1 to November 30, but from June up until late August that “window” could barely be considered ajar; summer is painfully flat. It’s in late August and September that the Northern Atlantic is most volatile, and surfers can generally look forward to one solid storm each year. When the tropical cyclone window closes, the area is eligible for Nor’easters, which, despite their homey name, are violent winter storms brewed by low-pressure systems that sweep north and can blanket the coastline with snowfall. The problem here should be obvious. Surfing in the winter is no joke and despite the remarkable wetsuit technology that makes it possible, hypothermia and vomit-inducing ice cream headaches are hidden in the fine print. Once the ice chunks have thawed by the end of April, flat season settles in again and the ocean turns into a sloth in hibernation. These are the trying times for a northeast surfer’s soul; this is when the mistress Surfing taunts, “Do you miss me? Do you really love me? Then prove it. Tell me you’ll wait for me.”
And such is the northeast surfing calendar: Hope in September, brutal cold in the heart of winter, and nary a whimper during the longest, warmest, most theoretically inviting days to be by the water. There’s a cruel irony to be found here: Surfing at once engenders a deep love of the seaside and a lustful resentment for it. Here, the old idiom “a day at the beach” becomes a mean paradox. For the northeast surfer, the beach ceases to be a space of catharsis and instead becomes one of nervous anticipation. Indeed, the butterflies that fill the gut of a surfer approaching the beach when waves have been forecasted are not unlike those of an ex-lover hoping to run into the one they still love on a chance stroll through their old neighborhood (not that the author has ever done anything like that). All of this is to say that surfing on the East Coast is a fool’s errand. It requires a ridiculous amount of effort and devotion for very little payoff, and that’s why it has largely remained a niche pursuit there — the domain of blue collar tradesmen and coming-of-age boys who dwell in the little seafaring towns that dot the coasts of New England, New Jersey, and New York. The northeast boys who inherit surfing are dealt at once a blessing and a curse, and must confront at an unusually young age the economics of happiness; there’s this thing that they love, but they can rarely have it where they’re from. In order to get it they’ll have to leave their home, only there’s a very short list of viable destinations left. When lakes become little more than water that can never have waves and bathtub ripples initiate daydreams, they know that they’ve been bitten and will have to live with the unscratchable itch for the rest of their lives.
At this point, you might be wondering why any sane person would pursue a surfing life in the northeast, but you already know the answer. Look no further than every ad campaign for every airline company, coastal locale or HDTV ever: The image of surfing has been codified in the pop culture imagination as perfect freedom. It may be a cliché, but like most clichés it’s rooted in a grain of truth. Surfing belongs to a class of disciplines that include the likes of Yoga, music and meditation. They each initiate within their practitioner the condition of momentariness — a present focus so pure that regret of the past and anxiety for the future dissolve. Surfing takes it a step further, because not only is the act itself momentary, but the medium in which it occurs is constantly changing. In the span of the crest and crash of a breaking wave, a surfer experiences a micro-life and micro-death and builds a more intimate relationship with the universe itself. Nature teaches her lessons to those who visit her. But you have to visit often to get your diploma; surfing has a nasty learning curve. Like all worthwhile pursuits, there’s nothing quick or easy or accessible about it. It takes years of trial by salt to achieve erudition at the craft, so that when you find yourself 500 meters out in the grey ice water on a 12-foot Nor’easter in the dead of winter, you’re not only unafraid, but uniquely alive. With this you turn the mayhem of the sea into a medium for dance.
All that is to say that surfing is hard but it’s worth it. And if you pursue it in the northeast you have a special understanding of its ecstatic rarity. The surfers of the northeast are lighthouse keepers of hope — watchmen of the coast in stoic wait for the water to awaken so that they might fling themselves into the rapture of the deep.
If I’ve done my job up to this point, you now have the proper background against which you might understand my recurring nightmares. In those dreams, there are perfect waves breaking at the magic hour — like the kind you see in surf magazines. They’re thundering and peeling from a headland into a gentle cove. Save for the ripple and crash of the waves, the water is like turquoise glass. There’s an easy channel that will sweep you right out into the lineup with dry hair. Here you can take your pick among the infinitude of flawless billows. There’s never a breaking wave at this spot. It defies physics, but you don’t question fate. There’s nobody else out, and it’s not eerie or ominous, but inviting. In fact, this setup was arranged just for you by the gods.
Except you’re not at the beach. You’re about 30 minutes away, and you’re stuck in gridlock traffic. The light is fading fast and casting shadows that seem to rest on your soul. Now the sun is beneath the horizon and painting its last gasp low in the sky. You’re not going to make it. The day turns black.