THE LAST WAVE
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.