Ditch Plains Surfer
I remember my very first ride on a surfboard. It was the summer of 1976 – I just turned 15. For most of that summer and the one before, I’d spend long hours sitting on the soft Montauk sand watching the surfers. How graceful they rode the slow rolling waves. The small boards were quick, slicing up and down the moving mass of water. Longer boards were not so limber but the riders would walk its length, making the ride slow down and speed up. As I peered from the shore, my desire to ride these waves grew. I found a used nine and a half foot long Bunger Surfboard listed in the Newsday Classified ads – the precursor to Craig’s list – for twenty five dollars. It was fiberglass and heavy. The board was yellow with an inlay of a wood grain stripe running down the center from nose to tail. It was old, it was worn, and it was mine. With my new (old) Bunger, I could now sit in the section of the beach at Ditch Plains directly in front of the breaking waves. There’s an unwritten and unspoken law on a surfing beach – you don’t sit among the surfing community without a surfboard- unless, of course, you’re wearing a bikini. With great trepidation I approached the shore, surfboard tucked nicely under my arm, my heart pounding with anticipation. My excitement drowned out the fear…. (Maybe “drowned” is not the best word given this situation – let’s say “quenched”.) My excitement quenched the fear swimming through my head. (Yea, that’s better.) Stepping from the hot August sand into the cool ocean was always a shock, but I was focused on this new adventure. One more breaking wave and I was waist deep in the surf. In one swift move, my hands grabbed either side of the board and I leapt out of the water to lay belly down. As I began to paddle, I felt a new sensation of gliding across the top of the water. The board, so big, my entire body was completely out of the water which made the ride smooth and fast. I paddled out further and further from the shore, following the path of the veterans, around the outside of the breaking waves but instead of turning into the path of the ocean swells, on this maiden voyage with my new craft, I’d stay off to the west of the oncoming breakers. From this new vantage point, I was able to observe and learn. After some time, I finally decided I was ready to give it a try. I was fairly athletic, had good coordination and balance. It was just a matter of picking a nice rolling wave, get in front of it with a nice strong paddle then just stand up – couldn’t possibly be that hard. So, I see the perfect roller. I begin to paddle out in front of it. Glancing back – yes, it is coming fast – paddle faster, harder when I suddenly feel the back end of my board rise. I stop paddling. This must be it! I grab both side of my board, ready to push myself up to my feet. Suddenly, I feel a fast change in elevation as the wave lifts up me and the board. For a split second, I am, for the first time, looking down the front of a vertical wall of water at an angle only previously experienced via photos in surfing magazines in the comfort and security of dry land! My breath was taken away as I anticipate what seemed inevitable and I quickly realize this may not go as well as I had imagined. But, the wave passes me by and continues its path toward the beach. I sat back up on my board to catch my breath watching the breaking wave disappear onto the shore. As I sit rethinking my $25 investment, I hear something approaching me from behind – a great wall of water is rushing toward me. I can see the top of the wave is about to crest right on top of me. I have less than two seconds to decide whether I should lie down and paddle or bail out. The wave is growing as it approaches. Fear takes over and with all my might I fight to turn the board 180 degrees and get the nose pointing toward the oncoming wave. I barely get the board around in time as the massive wall is on me, I lay down on the board which is now inclined of the face of the wave. The board slices right through the top of the cresting wave. I hug the board tight for fear of losing it and take a deep breath as water washes over me. Shaking the water out of my hair, I refocus my eyes to see another wall of water racing toward me again. I was right in the path of the breaking waves and I would find they would come one after another. It seemed each wave would propel me back toward the rocky shore despite my efforts to paddle forward and out past the breaking waves. One after the next I battled the onslaught of Mother Nature – unforgiving and relentless. By the time I reached the safe haven outside the line of breaking surf I was exhausted. The power behind these small waves amazed me. Only three or four feet high from the side view appeared to be eight feet tall when looking up from your belly. Today was not going to be my day. Early the next morning I was out in the water, well rested and determined. The air felt cool as it blew across my wet skin. The ocean water was warm and inviting. The reflections from the sun caused the water to sparkle like white diamonds. The surf was calmer than the previous day with nice small rollers. There were very few surfers as well, which suited me fine; after yesterday, I certainly did not need an audience. The current is swift in Montauk. The water moves fast and I needed to be constantly paddling into position to catch an oncoming wave. I saw the other surfers catch the waves in the center where it peaks before it breaks so when caught, you’re riding away from the rolling break. I’ve seen it done hundreds of times and now it was my turn. After a few missed attempts I see another nice steady roller coming my way. This time I don’t turn to look, I just paddle as fast as I can until I feel the back of my board start to rise. The wave was here but I don’t turn to look. Instead, I change my alternating paddling motion to using both arms at the same time, pushing the water as hard and fast as I am able. Suddenly, I felt as if some external force had grabbed the board and is pushing it forward – so I stop paddling….. Yes, I am moving with the wave! Quickly, I push up and onto my feet, left foot in front of my right diagonally across the middle of the board. I lean forward slightly and I felt the board angle down – taking off like a shot! As I reached the bottom of the wave, thrilled I’m still on my feet, I leaned slowly back and the board cut to the left – miraculously responding to my motion like we were one. I didn’t dare move my feet, just gently shifting my body weight back over my right foot straightened out the board. To my left, the small mound of water is moving me and my Bunger forward. On my right, I can see the rocky bottom racing past me through the crystal clear Montauk waters. I am gliding across the water, being pushed by a wave. The wind is racing past me and the only sound I hear is the braking wave behind me like an outboard motor propelling me forward until it sounds no more. Then, just like that, the wave dies into the ocean and my board slows to a stop. As quickly as I stood under the power of the rushing wave, I drop to a sitting position back on the board. Did that just happen? Did anybody see me? Will anyone believe me? I can barely believe me! I did it! I sat there for a few moments, taking it all in. I was exuberant, triumphant, stunned and amazed. The thrill of that short ride was like nothing I could have imagined. I laid back down on my Bunger Surfboard and proudly paddled out to catch another wave. I had become a surfer and, at 15 years old, nothing was cooler than that.