• Evan Postier

The Agony and the Ecstasy: Surfing in Arecibo, Puerto Rico

Updated: Aug 5, 2018

Most settings for sports aren't the actual challenge themselves. I haven't heard of too many tennis players trying to get a good match going, but getting slammed to the tennis court and dragged along by some force of nature. Nor have I come across basketball players with big, gnarly scars from the hoop that could have killed them. Surfing, however, is different. If you don't know the setting, the conditions, or how to handle what can come your way, serious injury or even death are only a few waves out. That being said, there's also few sports that inspire profound awe from both the setting and participants; after all, who can look away from watching powerful waves that seem to be trying to crush the brave souls that dare ride beneath their shadow? The vast, unending water, able to lift and toss anything it pleases. You can't fully predict it, you can't sway or influence it and you definitely can't tame it- you can only take what it gives you. And yet, it's basic, reduced essence at the same time is serene and peaceful; the beautiful simplicity of paddling out on the water, the salt on your skin and sun on your back- no extra equipment or gear, no opening or closing hours, no out of bounds or penalties. Just you, a board and the sea. We drove from spot to spot in the soft yellow of the early morning sun, checking which area was producing the best waves in Arecibo, a section in the north-west of Puerto Rico famous for surfing. The water here hardly varies 4 degrees from the near perfect 80. The landscape underneath the water on the north and east sides of the islands is seriously deep, resulting in massive volumes pushed by the tides that are forced up quickly, making some world-class waves. We settled on a spot that was producing 4 to 5 foot waves and that featured a large, jagged rock formation connected to the shore that protruded far out into the ocean. Despite our early morning arrival, there were already a number of surfers on the water. After rubbing some wax on the board for a few minutes to give our bare feet plenty to grip, we finally walked into the sea, holding the tail edge of the board and jumping through each wave in order not to be sent backwards as it crashed against us. After jumping through waves for 20 feet or so, I pulled the board beneath me to begin paddling out.

Here's the serene part: picture the small droplets of water scattered across the top of the lemon-yellow board's waxed surface reflecting the sunlight as you paddle with your chin just above the board, alternating left and right arm strokes to arrive at the point where the waves really begin to grow in size as they slide towards the shore. The water is a comfortable 80 degrees, light is dancing across it's dark-blue surface, and the continuous thundering of waves down along the shore provides a soundtrack that seems to be as ancient as time itself. You reach just the right spot, center the board beneath you, and sit on your board to watch for your wave. Swells come in, varying in size. Surfers to your left seize an approaching wave that looks just steep enough to deem rideable, quickly rotating around in the water towards the shore and paddling with all of their might before the wave begins to lift them up. Just as the wave does so, they push themselves up on their board and throw their feet beneath them, dropping down on the slope of the wave, quickly vanishing under it's size as it pushes them along towards the beach behind you. This is how the vast majority of your time is spent: floating out on the water, scanning for waves and watching other surfers. It's surprising how little actual surfing of waves takes place- it's mostly just paddling, balancing on the board, and watching for your wave. There's also an important etiquette to follow: you can't take every wave that comes your way. You must only take the one that is just right when you are the nearest to it. There's also a definite pecking order: the best surfers get the best spots in the water, with the less skilled surfers gleaning the scrap waves that they don't take. How do you know who the best surfers are? You don't have to worry about knowing that. They're the ones that know how to read the water, exactly where to position themselves, and they are the ones that make it look easy- which, I can assure you, it most certainly is not. You need to not only be a strong swimmer, have good balance, be in great physical shape, but you also have to be just plain tough! Again, the waves simply DO NOT CARE about you. You can be slammed down into the water after that wave crests, sometimes sent tumbling around, other times thrown all the way down to the sea floor where anything hard or pointy will also not care about you. This is the harsh reality of surfing, and again illustrates how this serene sport can quickly turn on you if you're not careful or are just unfortunate. However, all of that danger, all of that waiting and studying the sea and all of that exertion can be wholly and 100% worth it: for those fleeting moments after you've paddled your heart out towards the shore with the wave lifting you up, and you are actually now standing up, sliding across the water... there's just nothing like it. Nothing. In that moment, it's just your two feet beneath you, a wall of water directly behind you and underneath you both pushing you along but also chasing you, and your heart racing as you are somehow traveling without moving your body. You pump your legs and shift your weight as you adjust to the ever-changing surface beneath you, and everything else in life melts away. For those few moments, your brain can only focus on what is immediately happening all around you. It's just you, a board and the sea. And then it's over.

You drop down back into the ocean, not far from where you started out on the beach. But it all leaves you wanting more, wanting that sudden, intense rush again. So you get back on your board and paddle back out, the sun again reflecting on the drops of water on the board, dancing on the ocean's surface. You again arrive at your spot in the sea, and you wait for the next wave.