Notes On a Surf Holiday, 2009 – Todd Stewart

Late Summer 2009 my wife finagled us a stay on a Martha’s Vineyard, a vacation with little or no surfing intentions behind it. I kept a short, daily sort of captain’s log during the thing.

Day One

Early into our first day of summer holiday, so early in fact that our coffee is still bubbling into the cups, early enough that the sun has not yet peaked over the buildings and the elevated train tracks and would not for a couple hours, my wife informs me that I can’t bring my board.

“You’re kidding, right?”

“No, we can’t take it on the ferry with us, and besides, I have no idea whether Leah’s car will hold it.”

“But I have soft racks, we’ll just pack them.”

“I am not about to walk off the ferry with some big surf board and say ‘surprise, can we put this somewhere?'”

I don’t know what to say. I had assumed I could take my surfboard to that rocky bit of Atlantic coastline, wide open to whatever summer swell might be available. We’ll be there a week. It is my holiday. I don’t know what to say.

The deliberation is short, nearly nonexistent. I won’t argue with my wife. I’d like to say because I am good at letting her have her way, that I listen to her needs and appreciate her point of view. But really, it’s because she’s probably right.

I pack my swim fins and my farmer john and hope to luck into such epic body surfing that no loss of longboard security blanket could ruin. This is the way of it with non-surfing vacations, I think to myself. This is how it goes when you’re not making the rules.

McDonalds has recently begun serving espresso. It is oddly as good, if not better than a certain ubiquitous espresso chain’s espresso product. However, the breakfast sandwiches still come as close to digestible plastic as you’ll find.

We descend the hill, walking west down the slope in the late afternoon sun away from the house, across a dirt road and down wooden stairs to the private beach. No swell to speak of. Just some boat wake. We are north. As far north as I’ve been on the eastern seaboard and the water is warmer than I had expected. Warm enough to jump right in. No thought to it. Warm enough that my three year old son happily flops himself belly first into my outstretched arms, practicing kicking his legs, splashing his hands. We stay for a long time in the buoyant, still waters off the leeward side if the island. Our first afternoon so far north.

Day Two

It is always startling what the salty sea air both quantitative and qualitatively can produce in sleep. This morning I wake a full two and a half hours later than my city clock will allow. And not the sort of hazy post-drunken two and a half hours. The kind that leaves you feeling caught up. It is also startling how once one has a child, one begins to speak through the children at one’s partner.

“Your father will get you dressed and take you the beach, I’ll be down later.”

It is always a drag, no matter how pleasurable the vicarious missive might actually be, to be told what to do through a sentence directed at your son.

The main house has two separate libraries. Both have shelves categorized by book topics. Biographies, histories, classic fiction, detective novels, travelogues. The guest house has a whole wall of books itself. Topics more or less bunched the same way.

No surf today.

Day Three

Talk in the northeast turns to culture more often than not. Paul is an information architect writing a memoir. Leah is a copy editor with deep Boston roots. Somebody’s friend’s uncle drove the car away from the bridge at Chapaquah.

A friend of the family visits us at the beach bringing a boy the same age as our son. They play in the sand. The mother is also an author. A well known author. She also has deep Boston roots. The kind where streets are named after her grandfathers.

There is not much sun today but it’s still warm. The already secluded private beach feels like a desert island. The websites say tomorrow will be fair and waist high on the eastern side of the island. Last night we drank beer and smoked after-dinner cigarettes and talked about how culture hinders technology. Time Warner and Verizon don’t want to let Google give everyone free WiFi. Moore’s law states that every two years processing power doubles, or something like that. In six years we ought to be set, Star Trek style. Hand held translators, computer robots who understand emotion tinged voice commands. But American culture isn’t ready for that. Apparently they’re ready in Japan. It’s already happening in Japan.

Surfing is a funny thing. Really, what surfing is, what we call surfing, isn’t the act of riding a wave-propelled swath of water. That part, that part where we actually ride, that short, ecstatic moment, is totally other. Something undefined, no matter what pattern recognition our minds can apply. Surfing, rather, is the bits in between. Bobbing on a board, going to the surf shop, watching a movie, telling tall tales, remembering heroes, reading magazines. This puts the very definition of surfing square into the auspices of culture, baggaged with all the inherent addiction to inertia.

We drive into town and I rent an eight foot soft top board for twenty dollars. I strap it to the top of the sedan with the soft racks I brought in my bag. When we get back to the house I drink two Budweisers and fall asleep on the veranda. When my son wakes me up, I paddle him out around the little bay at the bottom of the hill. Tomorrow morning will hopefully offer knee high point break waves. Tonight will hopefully offer some kind of fried fish.

Day Four

I wake up this morning at 5:30 to the sound of seabirds.

The little Honda we’ve been granted as our car to use has a sticky gas pedal and a broken radio. All one hears and feels in the morning, driving around the dappled, winding roads, morning sun poking through passing canopy, is the incessant pressing and depressing of the gas. The pedal sticks at 28 miles an hour, unsticking at 50. The speed limit is 35.

The one beach I know about, the one that has the surfing for sure, has a name like a Harry Potter character. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the author of the Harry Potter books studied the place names of the American Northeast when she was concocting character names.

The waves are small. Achilles high from shore, I’d say. But clean and wrapping as far as achilles high peelers will wrap around a tiny, mid beach point. It never fails to amaze me, coming back to a point break after beach break waves, how much wrapping point waves, no matter the size, embrace the eye.

I wade out over the rocks and look down at my soft top BZ, hand resting gingerly on the particularly unsoft top. The nose looks more like the prow of a ship. Three fins are bundled, dartboard style, on the underside of the precipitously foiled tail. These things ought to be called marshmallow rails or heavy sog cushions, not soft tops. As I settle my knees on the thing I tip back and forth. The stability is tenuous at best. They should call these things mush canoes perhaps. I paddle out and float at what I think is the takeoff, a disconcerting measure from the shore. A dog walker has stopped to stare at me, perhaps waiting patiently for the local great white to pass by on his morning commute. The rule around here seems to be standard poodle, black lab or golden retriever and you have to look like Morley Safer. Out in the water I swear the stout, observing octogenarian with his giant black poodle is in fact Morley Safer.

I feel for the first time the precariousness of my circumstance. The water is black. Pitch black. The boils bubble from the rocks underneath making spooky swirls. All the seabirds are perched on the rocks. None in the water. It is not even six in the morning yet and there is an eery calm. I am the eastern most soft mammalian pink-thing floating in this part of the Atlantic ocean. I am starting to reassess the increasingly ridiculous notion that I ought to be fitting in a surf on this holiday. A surf on a spongeboard in ankle high nothingness seems like an odd way to go. I haven’t felt this weird, or alone, in a long time. When I look back at the beach, Morley, my companion, and his beloved poodle whom I’ve named Hooch, have deserted me. I consider, seriously, trying to find them.

As I turn back around a bump rises not ten feet before me. I think it’s a good bump. I paddle for a moment, two strokes perhaps, and feel the blubbery thing beneath me get taken by the wave. I nearly lose my balance finding myself doing what amounts to a tiny squishy bottom turn into a thigh-high wave opening up in front of me the way only point break waves open up. More than anything I steer the board down the line and onto the rocks. I immediately paddle back out.

I find the soft top needs a lot of weight attention. Heels down and shuffle. Hand out to the tail doing a tripod for added purchase perhaps. I swear the thing nearly flies down the peeling 24 inch faces as I put that piece of shit through its paces for the next hour and a half of mid-femural fun. The Morley Safers gawk at my foamy virtuosity. Their dogs bark their approval. The white sharks stay away.

Leah’s seventy year old father likes movies with tits and guns. He lets this fact fly as we are preparing a late dinner of bluefish and corn.

“But,” he says, “my wife has a headache and gets to choose the movie tonight, so it will be some masterpiece pride and precious bullshit.”

He looks happy enough about it. He is some sort of doctor to many of Boston’s most prominent business people and politicians.

He is Irish Catholic from humble roots. He has made it.

Over dinner, Leah refers to my outlook as ecumenical.

“How ecumenical of you,” she says at some point.

The dinner conversation of the upper economic reaches of the Northeastern American seaboard is a brand new affair. Where I come from, conversations are there to make a point. To argue a point. To pass the salt. In the Northeast, conversations have no point. Topics turn tangentially, based on whatever seems the most interesting line of thought to follow. No one demands to be heard. No one needs to make the defining point. It is an extremely comfortable way to converse. The rhythms take hold and you simply talk. Expound.

After dinner, during after-dinner drinks, one of the younger cousins asks me how one becomes a television commercial editor. The room grows silent in anticipation. I have no way to answer this question; no previous experience in answering this question. I answer truthfully.

“You have to look a certain way. Have a certain obvious sensibility. Talk the right way. Maybe be mildly good looking. Most of all, you have to be in the right place at the right time.”

This seems to hit the Harvard and Yale educated like something straight out of town.

Day Five

There are stark differences between the east and west coasts of America. Granted, there lies a starker one in between. Yesterday, after my epic surf, I bought a newspaper at the grocer. The newspaper cost two dollars. In New York, when you buy a newspaper that costs two dollars, you bypass the line, slip two dollars onto the counter, wave the newspaper in the air and you’re on your way.

“The paper is two ten,” the pursed lips spit as I trot by, paper aloft.

I freeze.

From behind the counter, she regards me clinically.

“Excuse me?”

It feels like the grocery store has stopped any commerce to watch the off-islander get his comeuppance.

“2.10, that’s what it costs with tax” she says.

I give her the extra dollar and wait while she counts out ninety cents. Slowly.

There’s the difference. In New York they’ll wave you on just to save time. The government’s tax takes too much time. In New York, time is everything.

In California, they’ll wave you on just to screw the Man. The government shouldn’t be taxing the newspaper anyhow.

But here, in the Northeast, they are the government. This is the fertile crescent of our country’s governing independence. They’ll be damned if you’re not going to do your part. Odd, given the whole Tea Party thing.

We walk down the slope past the big stones through the trees and over the ridge. We pop out into the dirt road, turn the bend, down the gradual path, a right at the clearing, down the wooden stairs, past the assorted junkpile of lobsterpots, unused sunfish and plastic kayaks and onto the sand. The water, despite its northern Atlantic nature is warm to the toe, less inviting to the torso and then delicious to the shoulders. Once you’re all in it feels downright tropical. The bay is calm. Twenty feet off shore, beyond the initial rocks and seaweeds, is a sandbank where the color turns from New England brown to Caribbean green. I outfit my son in a yellow life preserver and paddle him around. His first time away from shore, in the water, on a surfboard. A soft top. I hope he forgives me when he’s older. Maybe I’ll lie and tell him it was a Brewer and the waves were overhead. We glide along the smooth surface and he is tense. This is a new experience for him. His tenseness makes me somehow more relaxed.

I drive into town and return the board. The same conchy looking guy is manning the rental station as before. I desperately want him to ask me how the surf was. I want to go into the story about how bad that board is but how anything can be used to have fun. It would be even better if he mentions that his friend saw some kooky guy ripping the shit out of an eight foot soft top at knee-high Harry Potter Point yesterday morning. I would chuckle and say something low key like like “yeah, it was fun.” He doesn’t ask anything. He just takes my money.

I buy another case of wine for the house.

Day Six

It’s our last day on the island and I find a stand-up paddleboard stuffed into the tall grasses off the beach. I put my son on top and we paddle around for a long time. He is far more relaxed today. I am a little more tense.

The big paddleboard is solid under my feet. The water is calm, the wind light, the air warm. I think of all the chatter I hear on surfing blogs, all the derision and complaining about SUPers clogging the lineup in California. Clash of cultures stuff. The spillage of lessened elbow room from land into water. I think perhaps I’ll go out and buy a paddleboard. My son seems to love it. And it will piss people off.

We leave late in the afternoon and eat at a McDonalds on our drive back. We order ice cream sundaes.

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