THE LAST WAVE

Carve - - CONTENTS - WORDS AND PHO­TOS BY CHRISTO­PHER BICK­FORD

Le­gends of the Sand­bar is a peak into a surf com­mu­nity by Christoper Bick­ford, sweet shots and vibes we can all re­late to.

LE­GENDS OF THE SAND­BAR IS A PHO­TO­GRAPHIC TRIB­UTE TO A STORMY OUT­POST IN THE MID-AT­LANTIC AND THE SURFERS WHO MAKE IT THEIR HOME. IT'S ABOUT A TIGHT-KNIT BAND OF MEN AND WOMEN WHO SAC­RI­FICE THE STA­BIL­ITY AND COM­FORT OF LIFE IN MAIN­LAND AMER­ICA PURELY TO IN­DULGE THEIR PAS­SION FOR WAVE-RID­ING. THE PROJECT IS A CEL­E­BRA­TION OF NA­TURE, COM­MU­NITY, LAND­SCAPE, THE RAW BEAUTY OF LIVES LIVED CLOSE TO THE EDGE, AND THE KI­NETIC ARTISTRY OF SURF­ING IN A CHAL­LENG­ING AQUATIC EN­VI­RON­MENT.

Au­thor and pho­tog­ra­pher Christo­pher Bick­ford has been work­ing on the project since 2008. The book com­bines pho­tos and tales from a surf­ing com­mu­nity which works much as our own small cor­ners of the UK and Ire­land. We all have groms, we all have le­gends, we all have sto­ries that re­flect our every­day rit­u­als, lives, deaths and com­mon ex­pe­ri­ences; The hi­lar­ity of the car-park dawn pa­trol await­ing ghost swells, the mad­ness of flat spells, the crazy spur of the mo­ment party, wait­ing for the days of days at a sand­bank that at best will be C+ on a global scale yet A+ in our mem­o­ries. Pur­su­ing what is es­sen­tially a point­less yet un­equally re­ward­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. And when the time comes we will en­cour­age our off­spring to stick two fin­gers up to the man and to live their lives by the ebb and flow of tides, the turn­ing of the sea­sons and to for­ever chase that one last wave.

The howls be­gin some­time around din­ner time, on any sum­mer evening the swell is over two feet. Three notes, the pitch of the last ris­ing and then falling in a long sus­tain. Just one more!

It’s round-up time for the groms, and they are not go­ing qui­etly. Moms and dads stand an­kle-deep at the shore­line, wav­ing, whistling, or just stand­ing cross armed in their sternest par­ent­ing pose. Re­gard­less of their tac­tics, they all know it could well be a half hour be­fore they can get those lit­tle mon­grels out of the wa­ter and off the beach. But Mom and Dad, likely be­ing surfers them­selves, know the feel­ing well enough not to push too hard. Groms may be the most vo­cal in their re­luc­tance to get out of the wa­ter, but ev­ery surfer, body­boarder, stand-up pad­dle­boarder — even the most ca­sual va­ca­tion­ing body­surfer — knows the feel­ing. That end-of-day des­per­a­tion for one last wave. Most of us lose the wail some­time in ado­les­cence, but we never lose voice in­side our heads. Just one more.

For most surfers It’s not just a ques­tion of de­sire or greed. It’s a mat­ter of hon­our. You al­ways take one last wave. No­body pad­dles in. You only pad­dle out. To get in, you must ride in, tri­umphantly. Chances are the surf has de­te­ri­o­rated, your arms have turned to jelly, and the next few waves you take off on are all close­outs, or they dis­solve into mush be­fore you get a good ride, or your nose sticks on the bot­tom turn. Those waves don’t count. It has to be a good one, or at the very least a re­spectable one, to count as the last wave. Some­thing that will wrap up the ses­sion on a good note. Be­cause de­spite all the war sto­ries of epic rides from the past, or even post-ses­sion dis­cus­sions of the wave of the day, you’re only as good as your last wave. And the only chance you’ll have to bet­ter that is on your next wave. To live a life of surf is to nav­i­gate the con­tin­uum be­tween rides, liv­ing high on the rush of the wave you’ve just rid­den, and liv­ing through the in­ter­ven­ing min­utes, days, or weeks on the stoke you’re build­ing for the waves to come.

But there are times in life when the stoke wa­vers. Life hap­pens. Duty

calls. The win­ter wa­ter feels colder, the aches from pre­vi­ous wipe­outs and worn-out joints start to as­sert them­selves. Re­spon­si­bil­i­ties beckon

— the kids, the yard, the job — and the reg­u­lar­ity of set­tling into your du­ties be­comes com­fort­able, even en­joy­able. And be­fore you know what’s hap­pened, the surf ver­sus work dilemma has re­versed it­self in your mind. You be­gin to find your­self feel­ing guilty for not go­ing surf­ing. It’s a beau­ti­ful day, the swell is pump­ing, and you’re mak­ing ex­cuses as to why you can’t pad­dle out. You’re not up to it, you’ve got things that need get­ting done, you’d rather feel the sat­is­fac­tion of ac­com­plish­ing some­thing than pad­dle around in the in­fi­nite ocean wait­ing for a wave to ride. Still, all day it op­presses you. You may even drive out to the Light­house or Avalon Pier, watch the guys out, mind-surf a few waves, search in­side for the get-up-and go to suit up and get on it. But in­stead you keep watch­ing, and even­tu­ally you head back to your truck, and get back to work, or go to the post of­fice, or pick up the kids, or what­ever your rou­tine calls you to do.

It doesn’t hap­pen this way to ev­ery­one. There are hold­outs, buff grey­haired gents who will brag that they’ve never missed a swell in their life. The only thing that will take them out, they boast, is the death bed.

Too, there are those whose in­ter­ests sim­ply pivot else­where: to art, to pol­i­tics, to bird­watch­ing, maybe even to an ac­tual ca­reer. As ex­cit­ing as surf­ing can be, it’s not the only pur­suit in the world that in­spires pas­sion and ob­ses­sion in its prac­ti­tion­ers. There will still be days, of course, even for those who have strayed from the flock. A late-sum­mer Sun­day with friends and fam­ily at the lo­cal beach ac­cess, boards scat­tered about in the sand, the surf a solid four feet. Be a crime not to pad­dle out for a cou­ple on a day like that. Maybe a few af­ter­noons in the fall, af­ter a big swell when the size has dropped to some­thing man­age­able and work trucks with long­boards hang­ing out the back line the side streets of Kitty Hawk and the park­ing lots of Nags Head. Your old board, yel­lowed from age but still wa­ter­tight enough to float you for a few hours. Maybe next year you’ll get back into it for real. Call up Scooter and get your­self a new board shaped.

Maybe it’s your re­tire­ment plan: sell the house, col­lect your So­cial Se­cu­rity, surf, surf, and surf. But surf­ing is a vo­ca­tion that re­quires a great deal of phys­i­cal ef­fort. Even those who stick with it through mid­dle age and be­yond lament that they can’t surf like they used to. Their moves be­come slower. They need thicker boards to hold their weight. Even putting on a wet­suit be­comes an or­deal — all that twist­ing, stretch­ing, pulling. You’re ex­hausted be­fore you even get in the wa­ter. But even if it’s only a few times a year, ev­ery step onto the deck for a vet­eran surfer reaches back along a trail of rides that goes back decades.

And with all that his­tory to look back on, you just don’t need as many waves. Just one more, maybe, and then one more af­ter that. And with any luck, one more af­ter that. Has any­one ever kicked out of a wave and said, that was the last wave I will ever ride in my life? Ever?

Most of us will never recog­nise the last wave when we ride it. It’s just the last wave of that day, and we fully ex­pect there will be more. And, be­cause at the time it didn’t seem sig­nif­i­cant, we might not even re­mem­ber it with any clar­ity. But life is un­pre­dictable. A shoul­der in­jury, a move in­land, or sheer en­tropy: your surf­ing life could end any num­ber of ways, most likely be­fore you want it to. And you’ll wish you’d paid more at­ten­tion to that last wave. Hon­oured it. Con­se­crated it some­how.

Look­ing back on a life­time spent chas­ing wa­ter walls, most will find that in­di­vid­ual waves lose their im­port in an im­pres­sion­ist movie filled with sun­light, storm clouds, salt spray, laugh­ter, and tears. Maybe a hand­ful stick in your mind; clear mem­o­ries of es­pe­cially sig­nif­i­cant rides, the par­tic­u­lar feel of a cer­tain wave on a cer­tain swell, the shape and colour and dy­nam­ics of the board you were rid­ing at the time, maybe even the qual­ity of day and the friends you were with when you caught it. You hold on to these mo­ments of mnemonic clar­ity like old pho­tos, snap­shots in your mind of sec­onds when you crushed it, when all was pure bliss, whether you were nose-rid­ing on an in­fi­nite point­break or rock­et­ing through the jaws of a gnarly, spit­ting dragon-bar­rel.

None of those waves ex­ist any­more. At best they only ever lasted half a minute; most of them only a few sec­onds. They were lost to the world as soon as you launched off the last ramp, or kicked out with a flair, or bailed into the white­wa­ter. Only mem­o­ries of them live on, and mem­ory is an un­re­li­able and capri­cious stor­age de­vice, a stut­ter­ing half-lit re­play ma­chine of mo­ments van­ished into the nether­world we call the past. It skips and grinds and scratches in its grooves; like a folk­tale it gets trans­formed in the telling; de­tails are ex­ag­ger­ated, lost, changed. His­tory be­comes leg­end.

Years from now you’ll run into an old surf buddy and he’ll re­call a ses­sion you’ve to­tally for­got­ten, or dis­pute the par­tic­u­lars of your favourite story. Once you’ve passed on and the mind that holds those mem­o­ries no longer in­hab­its this world, there will be noth­ing more than sec­ond­hand ac­counts of your ex­ploits, maybe a few pho­tos, per­haps some video footage, to re­call those waves of yore, those sec­onds of per­fec­tion.

Even­tu­ally, even these bits of ar­chae­ol­ogy will fade, crum­ble, or sim­ply cor­rode in­side an­cient hard drives. Noth­ing was ever ac­com­plished by surf­ing. At least, noth­ing that can be mea­sured by the met­rics of in­dus­trial pro­duc­tiv­ity. Sure, one can ar­gue that it’s good for the soul, good for the body. And it’s beau­ti­ful to watch. And surfers as a group have banded to­gether to ad­vo­cate bet­ter ste­ward­ship of the oceans, to help chil­dren with autism, to give wounded war­riors a path­way out of post-trau­matic de­spair. The surf­ing com­mu­nity has done great things in the world.

In it­self, how­ever, the act of pad­dling through heavy crash­ing waves, and then rid­ing one back in, of­ten hold­ing

on for dear life, seems al­most Sisyphean in its point­less­ness. But any­one who has ever sol­diered through the steep learn­ing curve just to get one good dance astride a ca­reen­ing liq­uid wall of pure ele­men­tal force can tell you, there’s noth­ing else like it in this world. Given the ephemeral na­ture of ex­is­tence, need there be any bet­ter rea­son to go catch waves than to know that feel­ing? It’s a ques­tion that few surfers will waste time pon­der­ing. Philoso­phers can de­bate the whys and where­fores. Mean­time there’s a wave out there.

We can­not know what the fu­ture will hold, just as surely as we can­not hold on to the past. And the present is an ever-shift­ing panoply of ac­tions, re­ac­tions, sit­u­a­tions and sen­sa­tions, some good, some bad, some in­dif­fer­ent, but none of them con­stant. Our time on this earth will pass, as will our chil­dren’s and their chil­dren’s, and on an on into an un­cer­tain des­tiny. Cy­cles within cy­cles, births and deaths within a time­frame the mea­sure of which is im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict.

One day, one of those chil­dren will ride one last wave. And then, one very bright day, eons hence, the oceans will va­por­ise in the gaseous ex­pan­sion of a red sun burning it­self out in a blaze of hy­dro­gen glory. Our turquoise wa­ter-swad­dled planet will be sub­sumed in a gi­ant wave, pulsing out into the far reaches of a uni­verse made up of count­less other waves. Wave upon wave, ex­pand­ing out­ward, for­ever. And ever. And ever.

And upon that wave, we all shall ride.

left: Just one more wave. It may only last there or four sec­onds in real life, but the smile will last a life­time.

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