Yesterday was the first day I ever saw somebody surf.
Yvonne is heading back to New York for two days to give her final exams to the students at the Merchant Marine Academy. I’m on my own till Thursday. Because Friday involves heading out to her land (more on that Friday) and Saturday is the day we head back, she wanted to see if she could catch some waves today.
Pensacola is suffering from overdevelopment, so the folks we’ve visited always tell me to write that it’s horrible down here, and that no one would ever want to visit. Therefore I know not to say that when we got to Pensacola Beach it looked, to my untrained eyes, gorgeous as usual. Yvonne, however, quickly set me straight as to the verdict from a surfer’s point of view.
“The waves are short and choppy,” she said. “Also, there’s wind, which blows the waves in all different directions.”
She continued to scan the beach.
“See those waves breaking by the beach line? That’s not a good sign.”
She paddled out, and I watched as she sat on her board, looking behind her for a wave to catch. I would later find out that sitting on the board—which looked so easy when she did it—was a skill in itself.
“You have to sit up straight, and have the tip of your board out of the water,” she said. “Most people, when they start, just sort of topple over.”
The waves were all over the place. As I stood there taking pictures, one came up to my ankles, and then the one right after it came up to my thighs, soaking my shorts.
“You want the waves to be predictable,” Yvonne told me. “In Hawaii, they come one right after another, The surfers get in formation—they call it a line up—and take them one at a time.”
She paddled back and forth, back and forth, her board riding the beginning of the wave. Then she’d give up as the wave petered out after a few feet. At last, a wave she judged as decent came, and she switched to laying face down on the board. She paddled as the wave carried her, popped up on her board, and rode a small wave almost to the beach, where it petered out.
“Not so good right here,” she said, carrying her board, “I’m going to walk a few yards over.” As we walked, Yvonne talked surfing.
“That really wasn’t much of a wave I caught,” she said. “When it’s just a small wave like that where it breaks right at the beach, they call it a white water wave. It almost doesn’t count.”
“I got a cool picture of you, though,” I said, showing her.
She smiled. “Good one. Just don’t say that it was a white water wave.”
“By the time that I’m done writing about it, it’ll be twenty or thirty feet high,” I said.
“Excellent,” she said.
We walked a few yards down, the wave Yvonne had just ridden becoming higher and higher in my mind, at least three or four stories. Once again, Yvonne paddled out. Still nothing great.
Finally, we tried one last spot. It began to rain, and as I watched Yvonne take one last stab and getting a decent wave, the rain picked up. I ducked under a large pier that divides the beach; on one side, there are lifeguard stations. On the other side, there’s only one, and after that, you’re on your own.
The lifeguard would have called in a beginning surfer, but he could tell that Yvonne has been surfing since she was sixteen. Above, as the waves broke in several different directions, a helicopter chugged overhead. Later Yvonne would tell me that it was a Coast Guard helicopter, presumably on the way to rescue a swimmer or surfer who didn’t have the swimming and surfing skills Yvonne has.
“Happens all the time,” she said. “And yes, some people go out, and don’t return.”
Once again, she paddled closer and farther, closer and farther. Then a wave came, and she again shifted her body so that she was laying on her board face down. She started to paddle, occasionally looking behind her.
The wave started to break, and she popped up. She went back and forth, cutting left, then right, then left again. When she was done, she paddled toward the beach, and then stood, tucking her board under her arm.
“It was as frustrating for me to watch you hunting for a wave as it must have been for you out there trying to catch one,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said, “but I finally got a good one, right there at the end.”
“You looked seriously cool out there,” I said.
“Thanks,” she said. “You know, when you catch a wave and ride one, it’s like floating when you do it right.”
The rain continued to pick up.
“Well,” she said, “I guess that’s it then.”