If you read only one thing this week, make it Alice Gregory’s essay on big-wave surfing in n+1. And then let’s talk about it. Because damn. This is a good essay.
Reporting from the scene at Mavericks, the colossal wave that occasionally breaks along the California coast and kills some of the world’s best surfers, Gregory displays a talent for articulating the impossibility of articulating her subject.
Surfers have the odd habit of saying “I drowned” when they mean “I almost drowned.” Drowning, after all, feels like almost drowning until it feels like nothing. When I ask Dollar to explain the sensation of almost drowning, his answer, and the way he holds his face as he says it, makes me feel that the question is an intrusive one. “It’s just depressing and lonely,” he says, not making eye contact. “The lights start turning off, literally. It blinks in your mind and goes black. Pretty soon, it’s just lights out and you’re done.” He pauses awkwardly. “It’s really fucking weird.”
In the process she explains why surfers talk they’re like stoned.
Skindog’s wave is, for lack of a better word, awesome. Or insane. Or a slow, silent what the fuck. Such a big wave produces such a crude reaction that there’s really no need for more precise vocabulary. Maybe surfers talk the way they do because they’re used to being amazed, and that carries over into their ordinary interactions. This wave does not inspire nuanced feelings in me. Basically, I’m just like, dude.
After a while she reveals that she’s a bit of a surfer herself. We should have known—her prose ranks with the best surf novelists.
I haven’t been on a surfboard in years, and until coming out here I had forgotten that I know something about it. I know that certain numbers — degrees of water temperature, knots of wind speed, seconds of swell interval — are, for surfers, indicators of happiness. I know what the horizon looks like when a set of waves is coming in and to expect a terrible ice cream headache after a wipeout. I know what a surfer’s truck smells like (mildewed neoprene and coconut wax), and that there is no greater feeling than being cold and then peeing in your wetsuit.
For her surfing is ultimately a kind of knowledge—something huge that moves beneath and beyond us.
I luxuriate for a few minutes in the experience of knowing something for sure without having to think about it at all.
Basically, I’m just like, dude.
– Brian Hurley