‘This music crept by me upon the waters,
Allaying both their fury and my passion
With its sweet air: thence I have followed it
Or it hath drawn me rather.’
When I was at school we studied Shakespeare’s Tempest. I remember our teacher trying to explain to us – a classroom of giggling fifteen-year-olds going through the sea-change of adolescence – what a sea-change was. It must have been frustrating. Our school was less than a mile from the sea and we knew as well as any kids on the planet how it changed. Our very landscape changed with the tides, and the tides changed with the moon and the waves changed with the wind and mountainous swells rose out of placid lakes all in the space of an afternoon. Earlier that summer some other children – city children – had clambered down too far on the rocks beneath Land’s End, got swept off by the seemingly calm sea, and drowned. We would not have done that. We understood the sea. The problem was, we didn’t understand ourselves. We hadn’t made the connection. We hadn’t worked out that our new monthly periods and storms of PMT were like spring tides, and our watery flesh and salty skin and unbearable mood-swings were only the human face of this great untrammelled wilderness that had been roaring in our ears our whole lives, from the moment we woke until the moment we fell asleep.
It was only later, when I grew up and started surfing, that I began to understand what our teacher and Shakespeare had been trying to tell us – that the sea is as powerful a metaphor as any for human experience. I have come to suspect that this, more than the thrill of the ride, is the reason why surfing is so addictive. It’s a controversial position. In their latest ad campaign, surf industry giant O’Neill claims that Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. But I’m not sure clambering into a cold, damp wetsuit before breakfast in order to get smacked in the face by lumps of freezing water qualifies as fun, exactly. Surfing is more essential than fun. Like breathing and eating.
Another thing Shakespeare was trying to tell us, and something that I have since learned from the ocean, is that humans need, more than anything, to make sense of their lives. I believe it’s no accident that I got hooked on chasing waves in my early twenties, a time when my life made so little sense I could barely drag myself out of bed in the morning. I had been utterly nailed by my first experiences of love and death and it was only in the sea, where getting nailed was survivable and to be expected, that I began to find something resembling a sense of perspective. On land my legs wobbled with grief and everything I looked at was tinged with loss. In the sea, everything I looked at was impersonal and constantly changing. I spent half my time underwater, eyes open on a world as mysterious as the inside of my own troubled head. Face to face with all that change and supported by the salty water I gradually learned to trust life again.
Ten years have happened since then. Ten years of choices that make sense only in the context of surfing. I have been scratching a living as a DJ, singer-songwriter and author where there aren’t any people, living in a tin shack with no hot water, when I could have gone to London and been paid properly. I’ve never had a job, because only by working for myself can I stay free enough to surf whenever I need to. I have no savings, because I’ve spent any money I have managed to make on trips to far-flung corners of the world. I have damaged and lost relationships, filled my ears with water, burned my eyes and broken my nose. I tore the ligaments in my knee so badly I couldn’t walk for three months. But in spite of all this, I feel a deep sense of gratitude. I know I am one of the very, very lucky ones. Even in the winter, when the wind chill is pulling the temperature down to below zero and the ground is a hard frost. When my bones ache with numbness and I have to hold one hand in the other and use it like a piece of wood to turn the key to unlock my van. Especially in the winter, where just getting changed requires the kind of strong determination of an Olympic athlete. When the wind is howling offshore, the spray off the back of the waves is like a freezing pressure hose and a dark grey sky is spitting hailstones. Because winter sucks, and sometimes life sucks, and sometimes the only thing for it is to paddle out into the big old, sea-changing ocean and get smacked in the face for a few hours. Trust me, it works.
This is a piece I wrote for the winter 2014 edition of the Barefoot Diaries, a quarterly magazine exploring a slower, deeper, more intimate connection with the land.