Breaking Free: A Day as a Boston Surfer

It is early; I wake up and can see that it is well before the sun will rise. I check my phone; it’s 5:15 a.m. I feel the anticipation start to grow and know that I won’t be able to fall back asleep. I have been thinking about this day for over a week – studying and hoping that all the factors would come together just right. Fumbling around in the dark, I find the coffee maker and press the magic button. I open my laptop and go straight to see if the surf cast has changed overnight, comparing the charts one last time. It is better than I had hoped, and my date with Hurricane Kate is a go.

I go through the checklist one more time: board, fins, wetsuit, mittens, booties, towel, food, and, most importantly, coffee. After a quick breakfast, I grab my pack and board bag and head out the door for the first leg of the not-so-traditional trip to the beach.

As I only live about 300 feet from the Kenmore Square T stop, this is by far the easiest leg. Even at 6 a.m., the T is starting to fill with people headed to work to further their careers. From the first glance, it is apparent that I do not belong among these early commuters. This career thing, I’m still not completely sure what it is. From the looks on their faces, it looks like misery.

I have to take the C train from Kenmore to Haymarket. Depending on the day, it’s close to a 20-minute ride. On the Green line, the newer trains have higher ceilings, allowing me to stand my 7’ 2” surfboard vertically. I am still stiff and not fully awake, so I try to loosen up. I dig through my bag to find my thermos and take a few more sips of coffee. I start to think about what I am going to do and where I will be in a few short hours. A voice crackles over the intercom, “Next stop, Park Street. Change here for the Red and Orange lines.” It is early; I’ll stay on the Green line to Haymarket.

“Negotiating the halls of the subway with a surfboard is a slightly nerve-wracking experience.”

[Photo: Tucker Cowles]
[Photo: Tucker Cowles]
Once at Haymarket, my commute intersects with so many others. All of us are bottlenecked by the Government Center detour. Negotiating the halls of the subway with a surfboard is a slightly nerve-wracking experience. I am carrying close to 30 pounds between my board bag and backpack, walking narrow hallways, and surrounded by hundreds of people, all staring at their phones or using their headphones to talk to some distant being. A grin appears on my face, because it seems that everyone is talking to themselves, and they all seem to be a little crazy. Then, I realize that they are looking at me like I am crazy. I can’t help but notice people staring, wondering, “Who is this guy? What is he carrying? Why won’t he just get out of my way?”

“Excuse me.” I get bumped, and my heart skips a beat, for fear of hitting someone and, more importantly, fear of dinging my board.

After a few moments, I finally reach the platform and see a familiar face. The platform is packed and everyone looks at me like I am an idiot, but they’re looking at another gentleman like he is crazy. I don’t know his name, but I recognize him. Every time I come out this way, here he is panhandling for change, and he asks me what is in the bag. Every time I tell him that it’s a surfboard, but he never remembers. He usually tells me that I’m crazy, and we laugh.

Right on cue, he starts talking to me. I tell him I don’t have any money, but I go through my backpack and pull out an extra banana. I am completely broke, and I’ve pretty much always been broke and probably always will be. He is happy to have something to eat. While I wait for my train, I listen to him. He is often defensive and combative, but of everything he says, I am most impressed by his pride. Everyone else on the platform ignores him, and if anything, they look at him as if he is something other than human. There seems to be so few who are capable of having compassion for this man.

“I feel incredibly out of place, lost, and disconnected from everyone, but after all, I am heading out to find something that probably none of these people have ever felt or even dared to pursue.”

My train arrives, and it is a mad, awkward dash to board. The Orange line trains are too short for me to stand my board vertically, and the train is packed. As a result, I have to stand in the middle of the aisle with my board between my legs. I try to take up as little room as possible and not to block anyone in, all while the looks from around the car are ones of disgust and astonishment that someone would take up so much space. I feel incredibly out of place, lost, and disconnected from everyone, but after all, I am heading out to find something that probably none of these people have ever felt or even dared to pursue.

After only one stop, I have to force my way off the train, through the crowd of people and onto the State Street platform. Now I have to wait for the Blue line to Wonderland. As I walk onto the platform, I realize that I am the only one going outbound. Perfect. I look at my phone; it’s now 6:45. I hope to be at Nahant by 8 and in the water by 8:30. The train arrives, and I board alone. I sprawl out, and take out my thermos, food, and my book. I try to read, but I can’t focus. My mind is already in the water. My thoughts start to drift to how ridiculous this trip to the beach is, how carrying my board around is such a pain, and how the whole ordeal will take me eight-plus hours just to catch a few waves.

I realize just how much of a commitment it is – time, financially, physically, and mentally. I realize that I have never been able to commit myself to anything as much as I have to surfing or climbing. I’ve never been able to fully commit to another person, a job, to school, or anything for that matter. I have always been willing to get up and leave, to go after the things that make me the happiest. Something about those things drives me and pushes me to leave it all behind. It is this feeling of restlessness, constraint, and stagnation, and I can’t help but to toss everything to the side, so I can, just for a few moments, surf, ski, or climb.

“Next stop, Wonderland.” The voice startles me. I realize just how lost in thought I was, caught in no-man’s land. I exit the train and work my way to the bus stop. I now have to wait for the 441 or 442 bus to take me to Lynn. It doesn’t take long for the 441 to round the corner, but like clockwork, the bus driver needs to take his break. Slowly, a group gathers around the empty bus, waiting, and I hope that the bus isn’t too full. These 15 minutes seem to creep by without progress. I come to realize that I can’t point out where Wonderland is on the map. Maybe I have just fallen down the dream-filled rabbit hole.

The bus driver finally returns, and I board the bus first, so I can stake my claim. As we drive, the landscape becomes less city like and more like a forgotten land, forgotten by progress. Rundown buildings and dirty streets become more and more apparent. Every once in awhile, I can catch a glimpse of the harbor, where I will soon be.

“I can’t help to think that this man has no idea what I have gone through just to get here and how much this 7-foot piece of foam really means to me.”

[Photo: Tucker Cowles]
[Photo: Tucker Cowles]
The bus driver looks in the mirror and asks, “Is that thing secure?”

The bus driver looks in the mirror and asks, “Is that thing secure?”

“Yes sir,” as I smile, because I can’t help to think that this man has no idea what I have gone through just to get here and how much this 7-foot piece of foam really means to me. Since I moved to Boston three months ago, it has been my lifeline – the only thing keeping my sanity afloat. It would destroy me if I were to ding it now.

Finally, we get to Lynn. This marks the start of the last leg of the journey. From Central Square in Lynn, I have about a mile and a half walk out to the neck of Nahant. The current deposits most of the sand on the far side of the beach, which helps waves break more consistently. A hike with a 30-pound bag doesn’t sound too bad, but about 10 of those pounds are hanging off one shoulder. The strap slowly wears into my shoulder as I walk.

One of the major factors for the quality of the swell today is a 20 mph offshore wind. As I walk down the beach, the wind tries to do all it can to blow me away. My board is now a sail. I put my head down and lean into the wind, forcing my way through. I can see the far end of the beach. Kate has arrived. I can see her sets of blown kisses, beckoning someone to come greet them. My feet become lighter, and my fight stronger. I notice my mood has completely changed; where once I was anxious for the anticipated excitement, I am now elated, brimming with the possibilities of what is about to come.

The bathrooms are closed for the winter, but I use them to hide from the wind. I pull out my thermos and check the time, 8:17 – not too bad. I have to leave Nahant by noon, so I can make it back for work in time. That leaves me about 3 hours to surf.

I pull out my board and wetsuit. Hiding from the wind, I slowly and carefully get my suit on. Today is the first time I have pulled out my winter suit this year, and there is no way to put on this 6 mm suit of armor with any grace. I pull, twist, adjust, and pull again, slowly working the suit over my hips and shoulders. I wax my board and take one last sip of coffee.

Before I paddle out, I take a moment to scout exactly where to sit in the water. The wind is strong and makes the waves stand up nice and tall. A set rolls in. The first wave stands up and then immediately crashes all at once in a close out. The second wave is bigger and breaks a little further out. The third is bigger yet and breaks even further, and then, it curls – a slight hope of a mini barrel. The fourth, the biggest of all, stands up and breaks in a long, beautiful left. I can’t help the grin on my face.

I quickly warm up and stretch, and think about all that I went through to get here, and about surfing being an adventure. It’s in the ocean and in the mountains that I find myself being truly happy; it is in those places I feel whole, where I can uncover who I truly am and who I want to become.

It does not seem right to call being your true self an adventure, but then, it occurs to me that it isn’t the surf or climbing trips, hiking, or skiing in the backcountry that is the adventure, but that it’s in how far you are willing to go to be in those places. It’s in everyday mundane life, during which we lie and make excuses to ourselves about why we’re not there, not in the pictures of stunning beaches, hanging on pristine granite, or standing above an unblemished powder fill line. The adventure is the point where we stop making excuses and throw everything to the side to run after something we knew as children: unadulterated happiness.

The ocean calms for a brief instance, and I take my chance. I am thankful for being here, and to have everything line up. I pick up my board, and without a second thought, I run and jump into the Northern Atlantic. The water and wind may be cold, but my elation will be the source of my warmth.