Changing Currents

Artwork by Kevin Tole
During the seven years that I have lived here on the beach, there was always a rip tide that flowed South to North along the beach. It’s strength varied with the size of the waves generating it, but under average conditions I could swim out front without too much concern for my safety. I’d just jump in as far South as possible and then let it carry me back to where I was even with the house, get out, walk South and repeat. Alternatively, I could swim out past the current and hang out in the deeper water.

On one occasion when the waves were particularly huge, I did find myself fighting the rip despite having no intention of getting wet. I just wanted to get my feet wet – I knew the currents were too strong to risk jumping in – but I misjudged how far up the shorebreak was washing, got grabbed by a particularly strong wave and was dragged into the sea. Thankfully I was wearing a bathing suit and didn’t panic,but as the current curved and began to pull me towards where waves were crashing on some large exposed rocks, I recognized that I needed to do something.

I recalled that the best way to get out of a rip is to swim at a ninety degree angle to it, so I turned and swam away from the shore, and its safety, and when I thought I’d swum far enough, I began swimming back in. Before I could get onto shore though, the current grabbed me again and whipped me right back to where I’d just been worrying about getting smashed on the rocks. Now I was getting, well, concerned. As I continued swimming in an attempt to maintain my position, I looked up at the hill where the house sits and saw Felipe, the property caretaker, watering the plants. It was clear he was oblivious to the peril I was in. Even if he had been aware of the situation, it wouldn’t have mattered because the man can’t swim and we have no rope or life ring that he could throw to me. My stomach churned as the thought flashed through my mind that I could drown out there and Felipe would be none the wiser for it until he needed more cigarettes. Having been eaten by sharks, my body would never turn up – my disappearance would remain forever a mystery to all except the dogs, whose twelve eyes watched me intently from the beach. I resolved that my fate was in my hands only and turned again to swim out away from the current.

This time though I swam further,much further, out past the southerly rocky point where I knew the rip tide originated. I reasoned that from this angle the current would sweep me all the way in to the beach, instead of back to where the surf pounded the rocks. 

It worked. I managed to make the beach and got out, spent and with the sound of my heart thumping loudly in my ears. My only witnesses, the dogs, greeted me as only dogs can – noses poking and hind legs jumping with tails wagging wildly.

Last Saturday, when I took the dogs to the beach for their evening walk, I noticed something had changed. The ocean in front of the house which is bordered on the North and South sides by rocky points, didn’t look the same. There’s been sand building up in that area all summer, but it seemed like suddenly there was a huge amount of sand extending a good 50 yards out to sea. The ocean’s surface was dappled with evidence of new eddies and the water appeared to be flowing wildly all over the place. Were I more experienced in ocean matters I would have paid closer attention to what was going on in the water, but after seven years of constancy, I figured nothing much had changed except for the amount of sand on the bottom.

I jumped in the water and came up relishing the cooling sensation of the water cascading off my face. When I turned around to look towards the beach, I discovered it was quickly receding and I was already, in a matter of a few seconds, more than 50 yards from land. It was a rude awakening. I tried to swim back to shore, but it became obvious that it was going to take more than a few strokes of front crawl to get me there. The current was overpowering me. I wasn’t feeling particularly energetic or I might have seen the circumstances as a challenge and tried to overcome the current. Instead I stroked patiently and when a wave broke over me, I paddled hard and body surfed it as far as it would take me. I did this several times and was soon back at the beach. Panting I hauled myself out of the water and turned to look back at the sea in amazement.

That’s when I noticed that just down the beach, a huge U-shaped swath of sand had eroded from the beach in a manner I’d never seen before. It was over 15 feet deep and 50 feet wide. I looked as though a backhoe had come in and removed loads of sand. In front of where the sand was missing, was a large flat area where the sand had been dumped and the water was now only a foot deep for 30 yards out into the sea.The dogs and I walked out onto it – it gave under my weight lending it a foamy, cushiony feel. Perhaps in response to this sensation the dogs began to jump and play in the water. They seemed to recognize that this was a safe area out of the impact zone of the surf, which was crashing further out than usual on the edge of the newly deposited sand.

I wondered at how suddenly the changes had occurred and caught me unawares.

That evening, as the sky turned rosy and shades of coral, I reflected on how the changing currents in the sea reflect events in my life: like the sea, my life shifted ninety degrees in the three days around the full moon and my emotions continue to shift like the sands on the beach.


My Love Affair with Cortez

Ocean Wave by John Sweeney
We’re hovering at the peak of hurricane season here in Baja California Sur. By this point in the summer, we usually have had several tropical storms and hurricanes form somewhere south of the peninsula, generating waves, wind and occasionally rain showers. So far we’ve had three hurricanes produce some nice swell – Dora, Greg, and Eugene came and went with the only consequence being a few minor surf-related injuries and broken surfboards.
For the past two weeks, daily notices from the National Hurricane Center consistently reported that there was no chance of a storm forming. So when I awoke last Sunday morning to a sky blanketed in a layer of dark grey clouds, I was surprised. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been, considering how, throughout the night, bright bursts of blazing white lightning woke me every hour followed by the rumbling of distant thunder.
That morning, looking North up the Sea of Cortez, the sky seemed to seep into the sea – air and water, both the same color of gun-metal steel, obscured any separation between them. Overhead and southward, patches of blue sky showed, but to the East and West large thunderheads grew and grumbled, threatening to envelope the East Cape. Grey vertical lines told me it was already raining out at sea and, I thought, probably inland closer to the mountains.
I checked the surf at my local break through the binoculars to confirm the surf report indicating the current swell was peaking. No one was out yet, but the sets were coming in consistently, breaking well outside the boil I use to get a clear idea of size from my mile-distant vantage point.
I hurried my preparations, applied a coat of sunscreen despite the overcast, loaded the ATV with a small cooler of water and fruit while I let the engine warm up. I stopped on my way up the driveway to rally my guest, a surfer who quickly loaded his board and jumped on the back of the moto with my most portable canine, Peanut.
There were three people out when we arrived at the break and by the time I paddled out there was one more, making us five in all. My friend opted to wait on the beach and chat with another surfer who’d just arrived. The paddle out was uneventful and once in the lineup and not noticing any large swell lines on the horizon, I decided to paddle a little inside to catch one of the smaller waves I’d seen breaking consistently from the beach.  As I paddled past the other surfers, they chatted seemingly oblivious to the perfect wave lining up with where I was headed. A couple more strokes and I was gliding down the face, cutting back to the curl and then carving up and down across the face of the glassy, head-high wave. I laughed at my luck, how the wave seemed to come right to me. I’d barely been in the water ten minutes.
Paddling back out I noticed the tell-tale sign of a dark bulge on the horizon – a set was headed our way. I paddled further out past the other surfers who stayed where they were. I was intent on determining which wave to go for, so I didn’t notice when Dave caught the first, smaller wave of the set. The third wave was the beauty and I turned and paddled hard. I was a bit late and the wave jacked up threatening to pitch me forward off the now vertical face. I jumped to my feet and somehow, by some miracle, managed to dig the rail of my board into the face of the wave just right and make the takeoff. It was easily four feet over my head as I carved along the smooth face, feeling the surge of power under my feet. I kicked out just as it closed out and saw Dave digging through the white water generated by my wave. Two perfect waves in a row – this was boding to be a good session.
Somehow as the morning progressed I managed to be in the right place more often than not. I surprised myself at how good I felt on each wave. I finally seemed to be in tune with my new-used 6’8” Roger Beal hybrid fish – was it was the blue lightning bolts painted on the deck? As I considered the possibility, the clouds pressed in from overhead and a clap of thunder announced the coming rain.
It started gradually – I felt the odd drop on my back and then saw the dark impressions they made on the water’s shiny grey surface. As the drops grew in size, their impact grew to flashes of dark and light, a large drop of water rebounding with each one and then disappearing in the embrace of sea water. The sensation of the droplets’ coolness against my skin was arousing and contrasted with the warmth of the seawater enveloping my legs.
The tide was rising and there was talk in the lineup that the quality of the waves was diminishing. A couple people went in and then another, until finally it was just me and one other surfer. That’s when my friend paddled out. As we sat there, surrounded by grey clouds and pock-marked grey water, he remarked that he’d never surfed in the rain in Baja. “I feel like I’m in Indo,” he said. Indonesia, I thought, one day I’ll know what it’s like to surf Indo.
Soon it was just the two of us and while my arms were starting to fatigue, the waves seemed to be getting better than they’d been just a half hour earlier when everyone else went in to the beach. I smiled at my handsome friend and the thought occurred to me that it was a shame there were people on the beach – the coolness of the rain and the warm sea water caressing my skin sent me into a reverie in which I pictured the two of us peeling off our suits and surfing Hawaiian-style.
There is a sensuality about surfing, about immersing yourself in a warm sea that I’ve never heard surfers discuss. It’s that sensuality that I believe made me fall in love with the water the first time I felt it against my skin: Half Moon Lake, Quebec may be thousands of miles away and radically different from the Sea of Cortez, but it’s all the same water, evaporating, condensing and morphing from mountain stream, into river, and cool ocean currents. For me, it’s been a life-long love affair that just keeps getting better.