Nor’easter Part II/Montauk
My chance to surf big waves came just a few days after a Nor’easter slammed Long Island. The sky was periwinkle blue. The wind was “offshore,”- perfect for surfing because it smooths the faces of the waves. “The Surf Report” indicated that the waves were a sizable eight feet.
Only Montauk would do in surf this big. The wind was right-a few knots. I’d go to my favorite break; Ditch Plains has the perfect bottom for surfing. The waves “line up,” which makes for the perfect long ride. A “rock dance” is required to get out, but the surfer is rewarded for her foot-crushing endeavors. It’s easier to get out past the dangerous shore-break with a rock bottom because calm-water “channels” form. Swimmers fear “rip currents;” surfers revel in them because they ease the long paddle past the breaking waves.
I love the car ride to Montauk. Although, I’m a local girl, it’s always fresh. My heart soars each time I drive the long, narrow, Napeague strip in East Hampton. I pass dune after dune. I’ve secretly camped along that hilly shore, filled with dune grass, beach-plum roses, and high-bush blueberry. I’ve felt a rush of freedom while riding a moped-wind in my hair-then ditching it along the sandy path to the beach (camouflaged carefully), then pitching a tent in the forest.
I thrill to see the beauty of the extensive preserved forests from Hither Hills Overlook. I marvel at the handiwork of local activists, citizens, and officials. Some of these heroes are dead or forgotten, save for the memory of trees.
I greet old haunts as I pass Shagwong’s Bar and Restaurant in the sleepy Village of Montauk. I’ve spent many happy days playing pool there and enjoying a summer’s gin and tonic. Sometimes, “one eyed” Pete would come play.
One summer, I worked on Peconic Queen- a fishing boat-out of the northern Gosman’s dock area. Nancy Walton, a surfer, and I were cooks. We’d put out to sea at 3:30 a.m, and cook hot bacon and eggs for the fisherman while “under sail,”. The boat would pitch mercilessly, shifting the breakfast food side to side in the latched refrigerator.
One time, there was a commotion on the top deck. Everybody yelled when a sharp fin circled our bait lines. The crewmen caught the beast on a hook, then snagged it with a pole and pulled it on board. “Blam! Blam!”The captain drew a gun to finish the poor creature off as it bit and snarled on the deck. “Mako,” the crew declared. “Nice meal. Watch out for bullets.”
I find myself on hilly Old Montauk Highway. Each time I reach a high point, I see the surf winding around the Montauk coastline. “Wow, it’s really big, and nicely formed.” It’s hard to explain how it feels when the surf is just right. There’s a sense of deep joy and wonder. I open the windows wide, breathe the sea air deeply, and smell the wildflowers. The Dutch sailors knew they were approaching Montauk because they could smell the wildflowers from their decks.
I arrive at Ditch Plains and bump my way-dust flying- to the far dirt parking lot near the East Deck Motel. Yellow honeysuckle and surf wax mingle with the salt air. There’s a lot of excitement as the surfers suit up to “hit the surf.” I’ve shoveled my “Cannibal” surfboard, wetsuit, and leash into the car. I carefully don my “shortie” one leg at a time, place my shock chord on my right leg, and run down to the rocky shore over jagged rocks. I wax my board with vanilla surf wax so I don’t slip off my watery perch.
The waves have crisp, smooth faces. The offshore Wind has kissed them senseless- into perfection. The water is deep steely blue.
I wade carefully into the sea until I am up to my waist. The cold water enters my tight wetsuit and washes over the small of my back. “Aaaa!” I navigate the shore break by pressing the nose of my board under tidal surges. I carefully place my feet on slippery mossy rocks, making sure I have a steady toe grip before each wave breaks. I dive shallowly so I don’t hit my head on a rock. “Wave!” I paddle like crazy, shift my weight forward before it hits, and then dive, board and all, like some mad seabird under the swirling white-water mass. “Too late!” The sea foam throws me backwards, separating rider from mount. The shock chord pulls my leg out of the socket!
At last, a break in the wave action, I paddle madly to avoid the next line of watery soldiers, marching shoreward, like an invading force. “I can make it!”I paddle harder. My lungs expand to twice their size. I sputter water as I make it over the wave.“Whack!”– a wave hits me in the head. “What was I thinking coming out in waves this size?!”
A final set approaches. “No! Nooooo!” I’m not beyond the impact zone. An eight foot wave smashes directly in front of me. I jump off my board- a “duck dive” won’t do. I hold onto the “nose” and plunge it into the dark depths of the Ditch Plains Sea, so I’m not dragged to a watery death. I paddle rigorously toward the promise of safety beyond the impact zone.
Finally, winded, wet, and breathing heavily, I’m where I ought to be. “Success!” I sit up on my board, gasping like a beached “Blow-fish,” and rest. I gaze on my wave warrior brethren, who have also made it out. They sit bobbing up and down like black-clad seals.
What a marvel Montauk is from the water. The majestic Montauk cliffs grace my eyes. The sweep of the Montauk’ shoreline thrills. The wet sea kisses my face; I taste the salt on my lips.
There’s something primal about surfing. You must be one with the moment, in which you find yourself, or the Surf gods will punish you-badly. You will get caught “inside” in whitewater eddies, like a lost canoeist going over the falls.
“A set!” I wait for the third wave. It’s perfect. My “Cannibal” is ready! I’m at the peak, which will give me “right of way”. “Yes, I will be the Queen of this wave!” It “hollows out.” I have just the right angle for takeoff. The wave is “peeling”-breaking from one end to another. I paddle arm over arm, head up, back arched, legs slightly apart, then gleefully slide down the mountain of water, faster and faster as it steepens. I brace my hands on either side of the board, which falls out from under me. In one fluid motion, I push my body off the board and smoothly draw my feet beneath me. The wave takes me. I am free. I am one with water. I…am.
My love-making session with the Sea continues for hours in joy and rhythm. The Sea speaks to me; I speak back. Perhaps, it’s God Himself that I hear when I surf, when I walk on water, like Saint Peter reaching toward Christ in a storm. He breathes the Sea into existence. He speaks the waves. He speaks the foam. When I dance on water, a song rings in my ears- “How Great Thou Art.”“Oh Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds Thy hands have made…”
There’s a shout in the midst of my revelry. Something’s in the water! I turn to see. It looks like a tree swimming to and fro, far off on the blue horizon. A few surfers, from our brave entourage, paddle their surfboards seaward to greet and flank the creature. I sit transfixed on the outer bar watching. “What is it?”
At last, the “tree-monster” comes into view. I can’t believe it! A large brown buck is swimming for its life. When it spies the surfers, it turns and scrambles to head back out to sea. Four surfers surround the frightened animal and shepard the massive creature toward the rocky shore. They steer the buck toward me, gently coaxing, petting, and pushing him to safety. His antlers rock to and fro. He is several feet from my Cannibal. I witness his massive brown head. I look directly into his soft brown eyes. The startled creature looks into mine. He is beautiful. A wave rolls over his head and back. He pops up out of the whitewater, snorting seawater. The shepards faithfully keep their watch and bring him safely to the shore, where he stumbles upon the mossy sea boulders. He pulls himself from the surf, spent.
All eyes are transfixed upon him. The exhausted buck stares at us for several magical moments as he takes his rest-breathing heavily. He shakes his muscular body and runs quickly toward the dunes. We are left to enjoy the Montauk waves in awesome wonder.