a freelance journal

To Start the Heater.

“Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray.”

There has been a lot of interest in the surf media lately regarding the vast stretches of coastline, fingers of rock, and unchecked reefs in the unexplored, great cold north.  It’s been kicked around here at “the notes” to try just such an expedition.  Such notions have been acted on before.

“In the gold rush of the Yukon 70,000 people left to reap their prize.  40,000 returned.  Without exception, the one thing they had not prepared for was the cold.”

The recent swell activity came on the heels of one of the southeast’s worst ice and snow in recent memory.  It would appear that the same has been true for the other side of the continent and of course the winter swells responsible for hundreds of shipwrecks and countless lost lives that are winter in the Outer Banks have been pumping.  Without exception, the one thing which the media glosses over is the cold.  Every guy that schleps their laptop or puts pen to paper on their return addresses the idea, but little more.  Not in the true sense of cold.  Not in its significances.

At 43 degrees the Atlantic delivered its lessons of heat and cold in the form of clean, head high surf.  The prevailing offshore wind cooled the registered 32 degree air temperature to something far colder and more painful.

“Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe.”

“It was nine o’clock. There was no sun nor hint of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun. This fact did not worry the man. He was used to the lack of sun. It had been days since he had seen the sun, and he knew that a few more days must pass…

At the man’s heels trotted a dog, a big native [lab], the proper [cold weather hunting companion], [black]-coated and without any visible or temperamental difference from its brother, the wild wolf. The animal was depressed by the tremendous cold. It knew that it was no time for travelling. Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man’s judgment.”

The phone rang mid-morning.  A great pall seemed settled over the lower Cape Fear.  Plans were made for the hour or two which could be tolerated at temperatures below man’s normal limits.  The range, which despite incredible advancement in layered suits of rubber, affects the soul hearty enough, or foolish enough, to attempt to brave its slow, dense and deathly medium in varying degrees of pain and denial.  Sonny opted to stay on the warmth of the couch.  He only raised his head as the gear was loaded into the truck.  His instinct told him this was no time for going to the sea.  No such voice of reason spoke to “the notes” or his brother.  After all, all a man really needs is his own two hands and a level head and he can survive the cold.

“The extremities were the first to feel its absence. His wet feet froze the faster, and his exposed fingers numbed the faster, though they had not yet begun to freeze.”

Then the chill seems gone.  It’s not cold.  The surf is good.  All is well.  The toes have stopped feeling and the drive to paddle hard enough to get in the wave early seems only vaguely necessary.  It is much easier to simply sit inside and take the late drop.  One hold down on the inside does not seem so bad.  The second hurts, but the surf is good and the next wave will be ridden as you see it in your mind instead of as a stiff, slow and near hypothermic body.

“It struck him as curious that he could run at all on feet so frozen that he could not feel them when they struck the earth and took the weight of his body. He seemed to himself to skim along above the surface, and to have no connection with the earth. Somewhere he had once seen a winged Mercury, and he wondered if Mercury felt as he felt when skimming over the earth.”

To turn and paddle flushes the suit with water anew and the eagerness to paddle as necessary seems dull, vague, and the mind wanders.  The echo of pain returning to the hands and toes despite modern advancement allows for a reflection on the poor drowned souls who must have flung themselves overboard in the vain hope to reach land from their wreck on Diamond, Frying Pan or Cape Fear shoals.  Such an incredible pain must have entered the body.  A fear, cold and certain.  Now, there is only the wait for the last wave.  Just one more before the big toes are totally devoid of sensation and offer no balance as you try to round off a bottom turn, only to discover that you’ve placed your feet in a horrible position to begin with.  The last wave will satisfy and there will be the warmth of the heater and the shower back at the house beyond.

“Once in a while the thought reiterated itself that it was very cold and that he had never experienced such cold.”

The body shakes uncontrollably and you must find shelter or risk loss of consciousness.  To wait so long on the last wave was foolish indeed.  It did arrive, as it always will, but the extensions of your body are frozen somewhere out on the end of your core and the pitch over the falls was not surprising but elicits curses anew and you think, well, maybe one more. Turning to face the lineup you have no ability to duck the oncoming sets and find yourself washed ashore.  What is surprising is the terrible cold as no there is no water protecting the suit from the wind and it cuts through the damp neoprene with a icy quickness.  Your hands and feet are hopelessly frozen by the time you reach the truck.  Your fingers will neither clutch nor grasp the key.  Attempting to remove the suit is forgotten over the desire for the heater to become nuclear in intensity.  Visible confirmation that your feet are still attached to you will have to wait till home and shower, which seems thousands of miles away.

Such was the risk by a duo out on the north end of Carolina Beach.  It was good surf that had been absent for quite a while.   The pain in the hands upon warming in the truck was excruciating and hands were beaten on legs and groans were audible as blood rushed into partially frozen fingers.

The swelling and cracking of your appendages in the hot shower confirms the notion that for “the notes”, there will be no such expedition to the great cold north.  Not for this hombre. Mis dias están al sur de la frontera por favor.


8 responses

  1. Padre, truly nicely done. A great read indeed. My fingers and toes began to numb as I read through your tale. Where were the quotes from, I wonder? I anticipate your latest post like I do my next issue of The Surfer’s Journal, with rapacious enthusiasm.

    All my love.


    January 17, 2011 at 10:56 pm

    • Thanks Mac. That is quite a compliment my man. Honestly. Thank you. My only question is when do we next go surf?

      January 18, 2011 at 10:04 pm

      • I mean, you used “rapacious”. Awesome!.

        January 18, 2011 at 10:08 pm

  2. Mom

    Great post! Enjoyed it very much. Seems like skiing was much warmer but I know you’re all in for the long haul!

    January 20, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    • ropy jets

      Sue!!! Its Mac Janney. Your boys are awesome!! I bet you’re proud!

      Hey, I’m terribly sorry for spilling coffee on your white carpet AND destroying your nutcracker years ago when I stayed in your home. Please give my love to Big Fred.



      January 21, 2011 at 8:21 am

    • Thanks Mom. Sometimes I think about waxing up the skis and taking off for the mountains, a lot of time spent up there but then we get swell…

      January 21, 2011 at 10:03 am

  3. Michael N.

    I too felt the sting this winter’s temps have delivered…in a five+ year old wetsuit that hadn’t hadn’t exercised its elastic properties all year! Still, having that numb body and mind (after only an hour for me) brings about an euphoric calm feeling;though, it’s still not enough for me to even consider the adventure you speak of here. Great post, thanks for sharing.

    January 23, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    • It’s pretty darn cold. Way more fun with a buddy, so let me know and we’ll go for a surf.
      Good to hear from you Mike. Hope fatherhood is treating you well.

      January 24, 2011 at 12:09 pm

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