The Art of Watching Waves - Part II
By Ásta Karen Helgadóttir
Waves. I´ve always been drawn to the ocean, staring at it from the windows of my grandparent‘s summer house as a kid, keeping track of when the ferry was sailing past – usually twice a day unless the ocean was too wild. Sneaking to take my shoes and socks off quickly, pull my pants as high as I could and dip my feet in the cold water on the beach, running back and forth with the waves, trying not to get my pants wet and always failing. But it didn´t really have any meaning until I started surfing a few years ago. All of a sudden you find yourself staring at the waves to try to understand them, the currents, the rips, the tide, the swell, the wind…
Waiting for them to reveal their secrets to you. So many factors come into play when deciding, firstly, where it‘s safe to go in the water and, secondly, if the waves are working. Eventually learning how to read the waves so well that you can predict them, catch them and ultimately ride them seems like a very complicated science. Or is it an artform, one that requires years of study and practice to master? It seems to be known well by experienced surfers, some of whom have turned into good friends over time.
Sometimes someone will show up at the break at the same time as you and come over to take the measure of the waves together before going in. They‘ll say; „Look at the water over there, there‘s a strong current going out so be careful where you paddle“, „The tide is creating such a heavy backwash, see how it‘s creating backwards waves over there?“, „Ah damn, onshore is killing the waves, according the forecast they were supposed to be glassy!“ or „We should wait until the tide comes up a little, the waves will get better.“ I usually nod, sometimes I saw what they meant, often times I look intently at the water, trying to see it, but what they describe evades me. I guess this understanding, even familiarity with the ocean, wind and tides only grows with time and experience. My understanding has certainly grown in the short span of time I have been a surfer, but I know I have a long way to go.
But what is it that draws us to wave watching, and some of us eventually to surfing, initially? I can‘t really explain it, but for me the ocean has long been a kind of mirror. The way I perceive it reflects the way I feel or my headspace that particular day. If I am intimidated by the waves and they seem chaotic, I´m having an insecure, imposter syndrome kind of day. If the waves are big but I am determined to go in and at least catch one God damn wave, I´m in a stubborn mood. Opposite to many of my friends, who feel exhilarated at the
anticipation of going in the water, anxious to get in as soon as possible because they can‘t wait to be a part of the power of the waves, to ride the remnant force of a powerful storm, I am most often a bit doubtful before I go in, whatever the conditions. I look at the waves, try my hardest to hear what they‘re trying to say to me and start overthinking, doubting I will catch any wave that day. The waves are too big for me or too small for my board to catch anything. It can be hard to overcome these thoughts, but they are mine and only I can take
charge of them and decide whether to let them rule or not. Luckily, I‘m more bloody stubborn than most people may realize, so I always eventually overpower them, those suckers. It is often not until I just go in, despite my doubts, that my mind calms itself and I can focus on what I´m doing.
I´m already in the water, so whether I catch anything or not will just have to be seen. It is up to the conditions of the day, but mainly up to me, my head, my reading of the waves, my boldness and my rationality. I either focus or eat shit all session, my choice. When you are out there in the cold ocean, you have to be constantly thinking of your positioning, counting the waves, counting the minutes between sets, looking out for your friends, making sure there isn´t a big wave coming up behind you and be ready when the right wave comes for you. Of course on small, mellow days, or warm summer days, there can be more time to relax and and horse around in the water, not every session has massive sets and heavy winds. But my point is, when there‘s so much to think about and to do, so many natural instincts kicking in to keep you safe, there is no space for self doubt or overthinking. Decisions have to be made fast.
Surfing forces me to be completely in the moment and every time I go in the water is worth it. Feeling the power of the ocean all around you is always humbling. I either learned a lesson, spent time with friends, got rid of pent up stress, emotions or just excess energy, and felt in tune with the sea and the elements, if just for a fleeting moment. Then there are those days where all the stars align, the conditions are great, the waves are glassy, the sky is cotton candy pink and you get a few good rides. Those days, let me tell you, are priceless, and I suppose that‘s why we all keep coming back.