No dreamlike corduroy today: no endless, mesmeric train. Overnight an angry wind has descended, whipping through the line-up, scouring the spindrift on the beach. Feathering peaks are laid waste, their spray driven into jet-streams of fine white vapor trails. Viewed from the boardwalk, the beach wears a fine white coat, a frozen dusting unsullied by a random furrow of a dog’s erratic ramblings or the train line of its owner’s steady trajectory. It’s the start of the Walkman decade; the two grommets jump up and down with excitement.
Just into their teenage years, Jamie Breuer and his buddy Brian are embarking on their first winter as hardcore surfers. Until now, their adventures into the big blue have been cut short by the snap of winter’s frosty embrace. No longer. The Breuer Grandmother’s Long Beach home has become advance base camp for this first expedition into the unknown. Prepped for a scheduled competition, they had their hopes dashed by organizers who felt the one- to two-foot side-shore chop was a waste of time. Man, what did they know? Jamie and Brian aren’t yet fully equipped summiteers, but they figure the burning stoke will see them through. Jamie stands clapping his gloveless hands, fingers marbled blue, warming them at intervals with steamy breath. Brian stamps his naked feet, hopping as he surveys the line-up. “Lets just get in there!” he says with an edge of impatience. They cavalry charge down the white – leashes trailing, feet skidding. The usual momentary scrunch of Velcro proves more problematic than usual: Jamie’s anaesthetized fingers are stubborn collaborators and Brian’s neoprene fattened digits fumble for the leash’s tag. They glance at each other before rushing with raised steps, into the white water. High pitched hoots and low-pitched growls emanate involuntarily from the brothers in arms as they emerge from their first duck dive, heads racked with icy shards, paddling with an increasing fury and vigour, as if pursued by some demon from the deep.
Twenty minutes later the boys sit huddled under the boardwalk, shivering in damp wetsuits. All their determination, all their pig headed willpower could not overcome the eventual realization that defeat was inevitable. They were frustratingly close; they had tasted victory, but not even their youthful enthusiasm could overcome the frailties of their neoprene vestiges and the biting cold of the Atlantic winter. Back on dry land, a moment of Zen-like clarity begins to crystallize in the minds of the frozen grommets. “What if we could take it in turns to surf; taking it in turn to wear the gloves and the boots?” says Jamie. There is an ancient eastern parable about Heaven and Hell. In loose terms it tells that those in Hell are confronted by a banquet of irresistible delights and they are invited to eat their fill. The drawback is that they can only eat using the chopsticks provided, and these are six feet long. No matter how hard they try, they cannot feed themselves. In Heaven, diners are confronted with the same banquet, the same chopsticks, the same conundrum. They, however, choose to feed one another. In a world where some find it hard enough to share a peak, there under the boardwalk of Long Beach, two young surfers have reached a moment of enlightenment. One stoked grommet sprints towards the oceanic playground, one huddles, towel in hand, to hoot and cheer on his friend while waiting his turn. “When we finally came in, we felt pretty triumphant about it,” says Jamie with a smile. Epiphany or not, Brian’s mother was none too happy at their quasi-hypothermic initiatives and there is nothing quite as frosty as a mother’s fury – not even a frigid North Atlantic.
Cold Path to Enlightenment is an excerpt from the North East USA chapter of Chris Nelson’s recently released Cold Water Souls: In Search of Surfing’s Cold Water Pioneers. Preview the book here, and click here if you’re interested in ordering a copy.