For a whole week, I had been watching the storm develop in the southern Atlantic. Lee was growing into a hurricane and was predicted to track northward up the East Coast. Most people watch these storms and hope they dissipate, but those of us who like to ride the waves they produce want them to grow and pass a few hundred miles offshore, just close enough to stir the sea and push storm waves our way.
Lee had done just that. Wandering up the coast, it grew larger and began pushing swell toward New England. Images of hollow green waves, posted by surfers in Florida and the Carolinas, were filtering up, priming expectations for what the storm might bring.
And so, it was time for planning and decisions about where to go and when to be there. There are so many variables in surfing that to get a spot at its best takes a delicate balancing of knowledge, experience, intuition, timing, and luck. Everything is in motion: tide, swell direction, wind direction, crowds, access. It’s fertile ground for second-guessing and indecision. What if I make the wrong call and miss out on the best waves this storm produces? It’s a curse of choice, something so constant in surfing that it has a name: “down the beach syndrome,” a condition where things always seem a little better at the next spot over.
I headed north to New Hampshire to meet Eli, my partner in traveling, surfing, and life. From there, we would analyze reports and make our best guesses as to where we would find the waves we were looking for. The whole northeast coast was glowing with potential. We had a thousand decisions to make.
The next morning, we woke early, made coffee, and looked at updated storm reports. Everywhere from Maine to Rhode Island had the potential to be really good. We packed boards in the dark, still deliberating: Stay here and hope the swell fills in more? Drive three hours south to Rhode Island, where the reports say it’s already good? Head north to Maine and try to find that mysterious wave that breaks only a few times a year? We turned the headlights on and drove south.
The eastern sky was blushing pink to our left, the green and tan of salt marshes just waking. Sipping coffee from travel mugs, we tried to manage our expectations. We talked about the idea of hope. And about what it means to make the right choice. Then we made our most important decision: there would be no right or wrong.
Chasing a storm is about adventure, about going and finding out what happens, about being present in our surroundings. There would be no certainty in our choices, but we could choose to be certain in our commitment to them. Whatever our decisions, we would be present with them, not second-guess them, and in doing so, we would make each one the right one.
Rhode Island was good. Not perfect. Nothing ever is in surfing. We surfed big warm waves for three hours and then watched from boulders on a point while the swell filled in. Bees climbed over goldenrod, harvesting orange pollen from flowers the color of the fall sun. The tide moved in, wet the rocks at the foot of the bank, and began to slide back. Should we stay and surf? Or try to get back to New Hampshire before dark to get in the water there? We decided to go north.
Fieldstone walls, splashed green and orange with lichen, turned to weedy Jersey barriers, and then back again to jumbled granite lines along narrow roads and hay fields. The swell had arrived in New Hampshire. We surfed in steel-blue water, rusty kelp and wrack anchored on the rock reef brushing our feet.
The next morning was the peak of the swell. Would we surf the beach or the reef? The point or the river mouth? What’s the best tide for each spot? We paddled out at an old favorite. When the crowd became too thick, we nestled our beach chairs into the tumbled, hissing cobbles to watch the surfers. The people behind us on the seawall cheered for good waves and turned to silhouettes as the sun sank into the salt marsh and the soft bellies of purple clouds turned orange.
Home again, I don’t remember any particular wave from the swell. So much focus on finding the perfect wave and memory doesn’t retain a single one. What I remember are the ideas, whispered over the lips of coffee mugs in the car before sunrise. I remember sitting on the boulders at the point, the sun warming the black coat wrapped tight around my body. I remember how the goldenrod leaned seaward in the north wind. I remember laughing and eating bananas with almond butter and salt and the sounds of people cheering when they saw someone make a good wave. I remember the silhouettes and that sunset and the shared moments when we were fully present, making each decision the right one.