This is a story about that 'feeling' that only a surfer knows, a feeling that I've been lucky enough to experience a
handful of times in my life, each one of them a blessing. Recently, serendipity
provided me and a few friends the opportunity to explore a place that
only a handful of people have ever walked, much less surfed. It was a high voltage stoke and, I hope, a good tale.
Surfing gets into your blood and once it takes up residence, you just don't
feel right unless you get in a session now and again. I'm an old guy now,
but the stoke hasn't gone away. In fact, the less I'm actually in the water, the larger surfing looms in my
heart and mind. So it's a problem that I live on Cape Cod.
The Cape is a beautiful place, one of New England's crown jewels. The
spooky forest glades butt up against the immaculately tended landscaping and
gardens surrounding shingled Victorian
mansions. The ever present seascape surprises and delights the eye
unexpectedly. I love it here, but it's definitely not surf city.
There are waves out near Provincetown, and there are waves in
Rhode Island. There are even some mysto surf spots rumored on
But the 'upper cape' around Falmouth is just too sheltered behind
Vineyard to ever get real waves. I've often opined that Cape Cod would be the perfect place to live,
if only it had decent waves. The events below have changed that notion
Phil, Tim, Eric (a.k.a Rico) and I met in the parking lot in front of the Woods Hole Yacht
Club dock as the mid-morning sun burned off the last of the fog. Great Harbor was dead
calm and the sunlight reflecting off a slow rolling swell was almost hypnotic. Phil and I have been friends since I moved here in the mid
'90's. He's a professional mariner, working as a Captain and faculty
member for the Sea Education Association. Phil's day job involves sailing tall ships from Hawaii to Tahiti and back with a crew of college
students and for the last few years, he's taken advantage of the travel to surf all over Hawaii,
the Marquesas, Tahiti and California's west coast. He's way out of my
league, but a love for waves is a great equalizer and we're buddies in the water
Tim and Rico are new acquaintances for me, but the bond was immediate and
strong. Tim is a researcher for NOAA, studying whale migration patterns
and helping to preserve the more endangered species. Rico is the youngster
of the group, a graduate student finishing up his doctorate in marine biology at the
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Tim and Rico bring the precious gift of accurate wave
forecasting to our little group. With the advent of real time buoy reports and an abundance of Internet weather
resources, it's not exactly black magic these days,
but competent practitioners are highly valued and these two rawk.
While Tim and Rico lugged all the boards and gear down to the dock, Phil and I
took my skiff out to get South Swell, our aquatic chariot and, as my kids say,"
Dad's other sweetheart." South Swell is a Parker 25 pilothouse cruiser
with a 225 horsepower Yamaha four stroke outboard hanging off her tail.
She's the result of a year-long search and she's my first powerboat after a
lifetime of sailboats. Scratching the surface of South Swell's
Outer Banks lineage and
many seaworthy attributes would take a whole treatise and distract from the subject at
hand, so let's just say that she's a fast, capable and comfortable boat.
Phil and I pulled up to South Swell in the skiff and flew into the task of
readying the boat to get underway. It's almost a ballet as our efforts
flow around the boat, synchronicity of motion. Gear stowed, batteries
on, engine tilted down, switch on, startup & idle, skiff secured to
the mooring, fenders out for the dock, GPS on, Radar on standby, VHF radio on
scan, cast off the mooring and we're free, cutting through the still waters of
We picked up the guys and the gear at the dock and were soon heading through
Woods Hole Passage. Someday, I hope, this trip will be routine for us, but
today is a first. We don't know where we're going exactly, and we don't
know what we'll find when we get there. We're winging it on a quest for
surf based on our knowledge of wind, water and waves. To be fair, we've heard that it breaks out there, but
none of us has ever really seen it before.
I guess you could say that the
events that have led to this expedition began almost a year ago when I was thawing out from a
cruel New England winter.
I was sprawled on the couch in front of a roaring fire having spent the
afternoon preparing my sailboat, Dolphin, for another season on the water.
My muscles were sore from sanding and scrubbing and
painting, and I longed for warmer climes. I had the latest issue of my old-guy
surfing magazine clenched tightly in hand, a vicarious stoke pulsing in my veins. An article
caught my eye: the color of the water looks familiar. I feel like I've seen that
So I looked, then looked again, the little hairs on the back of my neck started
prickling and slowly the picture came into focus. I had been there before, in
fact it was in my neighborhood!
Like many surf magazine articles these days, the story was highly encrypted;
place names had been changed or outright invented, some of the directions provided
were mirrored through a crafty looking glass. The paradoxical goal of the
surf journalist is to brag about his local surf spot while preserving its
sanctity. Smile at the world from inside the tube, but avoid drawing the
unwashed masses to your little piece of paradise. As I deconstructed the
story, I realized that the author had left a thin
trail of breadcrumbs that might allow the astute and the worthy to follow the
trail to the pot of gold. I was the happy sleuth who suddenly realized that he could put the clues
Needless to say, I'm not at liberty to divulge the secret here and it
wouldn't mean much to you anyway. It's the sort of thing that you've got to
earn. If you're interested and motivated, you'll find it
soon enough anyway. So the place names and directions below are
and bogus, but the story is real enough and the stoke is the genuine article.
Flat Water Flying
As we cruised through Woods Hole Passage, South Swell was in her element, literally and figuratively. Flat water
with a light tailwind and we were flying across the waters of Fishhawk
Bay. Forty knots is crawling in a car, but on the water it makes you
feel like a gawd. The marine layer air was thick and warm and humid, so we
opened the windows and let it flow over us like a promise. I followed the
bottom contours along the island chain, dodging lobster pots along the
way. The chatter in the pilot house was pretty minimal, Tim and Rico scarfed down an early lunch while Phil briefed me on his latest schooner voyage
and the surf he'd caught in Oahu on the way home.
We passed Peschameesset Island and closed in on our destination; Kataymuck,
'The Great Fishing Place.' Long before the first European arrived in these
parts, the local Indians paddled their canoes to these islands from the mainland to harvest
the abundant seafood. The area is still rich in striped bass, bluefish,
lobster and the quahog clams that make New England clam chowder so deservedly
famous. As we cruised along the shoreline it was easy to imagine their
idyllic existence in a truly kinder, gentler world.
Our first stop was a rocky reef on the southwest end of Kataymuck
that is said to 'draw the swell in like a magnet' and produce quality waves in a
variety of conditions. The English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold crossed
the Atlantic Ocean in 1602, on a boat only twice the size of South Swell, and explored
the Cape and Islands for England. Martha's Vineyard is named after
Gosnold's daughter and the little bay where we stopped was once visited by Gosnold and his crew.
I'd been here several times before and as we dropped down off a plane and
pulled out the binoculars for a close up look. We could feel a strong swell
running beneath the boat, but it wasn't big enough and the direction wasn't
right for this place. We could see waves peeling along the rocky point,
perfectly formed ankle snappers that only whet our appetite for the real
thing. The shape of the waves we could see hinted at the quality we might
find here on another day, and it was easy to daydream about paddling from the
boat directly into a steaming lineup of perfect sets. Unfortunately this
was not the day for it. The question on all of our minds was whether we'd
completely strike out today.
Since we'd traveled all the way to land's end, our only option was to retrace
our steps and see if some of the other potential spots were catching the
swell. We decided to cruise back to Peschameesset and make a careful reconnaissance
around the east end of the island. Perhaps we'd find surfable waves, but
at a minimum we'd see the lay of the land that would help us in the
future. As we cruised back past the Channel, we caught a glimpse of
white water on the far side, but it was impossible to tell whether it was a
rideable wave, or just the deep ocean swell smashing into the shore.
It only took a few minutes to arrive back at Peschameesset and, as soon as we
made the turn into the channel, we could feel the swell line up again under the
hull. The waves we were feeling were produced by what Tim and Rico call a
"wind field" or localized low pressure area down off Cape Hatteras,
hundreds of miles to the south of us. They had watched it move up the
eastern seaboard via the buoys and they predicted "waist high waves by noon." As we rounded
the eastern end of the island the boat began to heave beneath us. We also began to see white water along the
As I maneuvered
us as close to shore as I dared, we could see peeling waves on the point. The
excitement, as they say, was palpable. We were like explorers who have sighted
their goal after a long journey. These waves would definitely be rideable if the swell were another foot or so
Surfing Kataymuck Channel
We rounded the point and begin the trek along the south side of Peschameesset,
back towards Kataymuck channel, our last and best chance for today. The swell
was dominant now, thick and fully formed, rolling in long liquid hummocks from the
southeast. Tim took a few bearings and looked at his watch, "four
foot southeast at six second intervals" he reported. Nothing special,
the kind of swell that these shores have seen once or twice a week for thousands
of years. The bad news is that even if we find surf today, it isn't going to be
spectacular. The good news is that if we find surf today at all, there are
sure to be some awesome days coming up later this summer and fall when the
southern hurricanes begin to do their scary weather magic.
We found a few potential sites along the south shore of Peschameesset, duly noted for the future, but mostly, our eyes are looking ahead to
Kataymuck Channel. We got the word on this place from a rare bird indeed,
a legendary local surfer who has been riding these waves with a few friends since the
1970's. He called Kataymuck Channel the largest and most consistent break
in the islands. As we approach the channel from the east and finally
get a good look at it, we see that he was right.
Tim and Rico were standing up along the cabin, so they saw it first and let
Phil and me know with their loud hoots. Even from the backside we could see the
waves peeling evenly across the channel reef. I drove the boat to the
outer channel buoy and let her drift so we could get a better look. There
were breaking waves on either side of the channel, a well formed left on the
east side and a nice, but smaller right, right to the west. Neither break
threatened the narrow channel, so we proceeded slowly through it, until we were
looking right into the curl of the waves. Waist high, just as predicted, but clearly the
place could handle a larger swell, probably much larger. Definitely
rideable fun-looking waves!
After navigating through the channel, we had a quick strategy session and
decided to try anchoring just outside the channel. With Phil guiding me in, we dropped the hook in about six
feet of water, let out enough scope on the anchor rode to keep it sunk in and tied her off. There was too much
current for me to feel comfortable leaving South Swell in an untested anchorage,
so I decided to stay onboard while the rest of the crew had a first taste of
Kataymuck juice. Hey, no matter what those kooks may tell
you, I wasn't influenced one tiny bit by the fact that they all had thick winter
wetsuits and my thin and skimpy springsuit didn't seem very robust protection
against the 50 degree water. Not a bit.
I settled myself up on the cabin top and
pulled out the camera to catch some shots of the first rides. Tim was the first one into the cold, dark water. There was a four knot
current flowing against him, so his progress towards the break was
leisurely. He also took his time getting positioned in the lineup, the way
we all do when surfing an unknown spot for the first time. I'm sure that he was also
revisiting my descriptions of a twenty foot Great White Shark that the Kataymuck
fishermen caught back in 1954. After all, Jaws was filmed right here!
By the time Rico and Phil were paddling toward the break, Tim had gotten his
bearings and taken off on a nice set wave. He dropped in, nailed the bottom turn and lined up on the wall of the waist high wave. Without even
being conscious of it, we all started shouting with pleasure. That moment
was the very essence of surfing, the shared brotherhood, the simple joy of
watching this minor miracle.
Rico & Phil soon joined Tim in the lineup and they all traded waves for
the next hour, cheering each other on, oblivious to the cold water and the
rushing currents of an ebbing tide. I watched from the boat with binoculars
and zoom lens, vicariously sharing every ride while keeping a close eye on South
Swell's anchor line. If the anchor slipped, we'd be on the rocks in a
matter of seconds, so keeping watch was the right call for a prudent
boatman. Besides, we'd found what we'd come for and over the coming months
the water would only get warmer and the swells larger and more frequent.
Over the coming months and years, we'll see this place better and, I'm sure,
we'll see it worse, but today was the first time and I
was filled with a vast contentment.
On the way home, with the wind at our
back, slipping South Swell down the faces of the same swell the crew had
recently been surfing and listening to the guys talking story about their best
rides, it occurred to me that we'd partaken in a timeless sacrament. To paraphrase an insight voiced in Dana Brown's new surf movie
Step Into Liquid, waves of all sorts surround us, lightwaves, soundwaves, radio
waves, microwaves, even heatwaves. Ocean waves are unique among all of these in that they are
at a human scale, one that we can see and feel and intuitively understand. The
power and beauty of ocean waves resonates in a visceral way and they present themselves to us in a medium that
invites us to join their motion and energy.
Surfing is a dynamic dance that allows you to join hands with a pure source
of energy. It's liberating and exciting and cathartic all at once. For me,
it's a sacrament, a brief and miraculous communion with something holy.
I'm not a big proponent of Faith, but I have faith in surfing. Looking
back into South Swell's cockpit and seeing the smiles, I knew that we'd been
graced this day. And that, I suppose, is The Feeling.
* 'Stoked' means exhilarated.
One of my landlubber friends told me I'd better explain this...
The phrase, 'Only a surfer knows the feeling,' is a trademark of Billabong
Surfboards which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary with a commemorative
book of the same name.
The NOAA National Data Buoy Center: http://www.ndbc.noaa.gov/
"So where is it?" I'm not gonna tell, so doan bother
asking. Besides, all the clues are there, get out your map!