The Inland Paddler: Always Something to Learn

Dawn Patrol Paddle Surf Run

When A Dawn Patrol Paddle Surf Run Doesn’t Go As Planned

Dawn Patrol Paddle Surf Run

No matter what the conditions, there is always something to learn.

Even if the board stays in the rack, your clothes stay dry and you go for a walk instead of a ride.

There is always something to take away.

That’s my morning mantra when the 3:30 alarm goes off and I stumble downstairs to put the coffee on in preparation for my Dawn Patrol, which means a two hour, 15 minute drive passed the dark tobacco, corn and soybean fields of Eastern North Carolina to the coast.  Our conditions are extremely changeable, so it’s always a risk.  Rarely do the conditions I expect materialize by the time my toes hit the sand.

It would be tempting to not go, to crawl back to bed. But, if I depended on the forecast, I might never get anything done, let alone improve my paddle surfing.

On this morning, as I walked the dog in my suburban inland neighborhood, I was so focused on the memory of last week’s amazing session – the one where I caught every single wave I paddled after – that the unseasonably cool, dry air didn’t register.  I didn’t think to look at the temperatures in the weather report.  Instead, I called up SwellInfo and the reddish-brown color coding of yesterday had turned to a more optimistic blue.  And the wave height looked good.  Boards up! Let’s go!

As I pulled into the lot at Access Two, on the north end of Wrightsville Beach, I got my first clue that things would not be quite as anticipated.  There were few cars, I recognized none of them and not a single one had roof racks.

When I jumped out of my vehicle, I got my second.  It was cold! Chilly. By the time I was over the dunes and onto the beach, I was wishing for a jacket. Not only was it cold, but it was windy.  Weatherbug told me it was 61 and the water temp 20 degrees warmer.  The wind was easily blowing 10-15 from the North.  Spindrift was flying off the waves, which were indeed the promised thigh to waist high, but they were closing out and the periods were quit short.  It was a messy day at best.

I scampered back to the car and pulled on my long sleeved rash guard, checked the forecast which had indeed changed again, and went back out on the beach.  Sitting down on the surfboard shaped bench, I could see the inlet.  In just the short time I’d been gone – long enough to switch  tops – the inlet’s demeanor had changed.  It had been quiet when I took my first look.  Now it was roiling….it was a morning worthy of a Carolina Cup Graveyard start. 

Dawn Patrol Paddle Surf Run

I sat and just watched.

I think it was someone in Step Into Liquid  – Dana Brown’s awesome movie about the people who love waves and riding them – who observed that there is no other sport where the participants go to just gaze at the playing field or who are content with just looking.  Serena Williams doesn’t go out of her way just to look at the tennis court.  Beckham doesn’t stop by the stadium just to stare at the pitch.  But those of us who catch waves can be content to just stare and watch the ocean, the water, the waves all day long.   We don’t have to get in. Oh sure, we’d rather paddle out, but sometimes even just looking will do.

Dawn Patrol Paddle Surf Run

Sometimes even, it’s hard to tear ourselves away.

There is always something to learn.

In my effort to progress in my paddle surfing, I try always find the “Lesson of the Day.”  So, it was tempting to think that my lesson for this day was something like “always pay attention to ALL of the forecast” or “always have a jacket and a neoprene top in the car.” And both those things are indeed good ideas.  But as I felt the cool sand between my toes, inhaled the salt air, I figured there was more than that.

I walked down to the inlet. Just to look.  And to learn.  Or rather to test myself on what I have learned since I’ve been seriously studying waves in the past two years.  I watched the faint lines far out to see and tried to predict when and where they would start to rise up.  I tried to guess which ones would break left and right.  And I tried to identify the ones I would go after if I was out there.  I counted the time between sets and the number of waves in each set.  And I noticed the horizon line – it was not straight and clean.  If you looked carefully, it was sort of scalloped.  Like something, something was out there. The beginning of bumps. Far out at sea.

Dawn Patrol Paddle Surf Run

I realized, as I picked up a few pieces of sea glass, that there are treasures to be had in the waves, even when you decide you don’t want to try to ride them.  My treasure this morning was being in the moment.  Being there to see these particular waves end their long journey and come to shore in this particular fashion on this day.  Plenty of other folks were on the beach, looking  down or up, for other treasures – shells, or hidden and discarded “found objects”, or even treasurers in the sky – birders were watching the shore and seabirds with just as much enthusiasm as I watched the ocean’s undulations.

We were all taking away something different, but no less meaningful.  I’d leave the beach with a smile, even if my board never left the top of my car.



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