THE PULL OF THE WAVE
Celebrated blogger Baby Barista, aka Tim Kevan, swapped life at the bar in London for living by the ebb and flow of the tide in North Devon. But what does it all mean? He asks, in the first of this new series.
For anyone visiting North Devon, it’s almost impossible not to notice the effect that surfing has had on the local economy and culture from big brands like Tiki and Saltrock which now have a national presence to popular local boardmakers like Gulfstream. Yet despite this, surfing itself still remains a mystery for the majority of the population. What is it, for example, that drives people to get up at first light in the depths of Winter and clad themselves in thick rubber only to get pounded on the head by freezing cold walls of water as they paddle out towards the breaking waves? Or to give up well-paid jobs simply to be at the beck and call of a swell which can be as fickle as it is generous in what it delivers up from the far reaches of the Atlantic Ocean?
Despite the fact that many surfers spend much of their time either surfing or planning their lives around it, most would probably agree that it’s almost impossible to capture the full effect of the lure of the sea through words alone. As if just by trying to grasp its meaning would push it further from reach. Maybe it comes from our origins in the sea or the fact that our bodies are mostly water. As Goethe put it, “All is born of water; all is sustained by water.” But then again what it’s really all about is simply paddling out and harnessing the raw power of the ocean. Being at one with nature. Reacting to every small change in wind direction or swell size. Becoming another of the many creatures which live by the ebb and flow of the tide.
For my part, having been brought up by the sea in Minehead in Somerset and then ending up in the middle of London practising as a barrister the pull of the sea was almost visceral. As each year went by and the visits back increased, so the harder it became to return to the city. Finally about a year and a half ago I made the jump and moved back to the West Country and specifically Braunton in North Devon where I could finish a legal comedy novel I was writing for Bloomsbury Publishing and above all, I could surf.
But still, what does it all mean? As the surfers sit on their boards and stare at the horizon in search of the next set of waves it’s almost as if their minds are cleansed of the everyday worries. Distracted only by the oyster catchers or the odd porpoise, it’s as if the gentle rise and fall of the ocean literally feeds the soul and restores perspective on an otherwise disordered world. As Anne Morrow Lindbergh said in Gift from the Sea: “Rollers on the beach, wind in the pines, the slow flapping of herons across sand dunes…One becomes…flattened by the sea; bare, open, empty as the beach, erased by today’s tides of all yesterday’s scribblings.”
Then there are the waves themselves. Those bundles of energy which travel across the ocean before rising up and dissipating as they reach land. Only in those final moments can surfers share the journey. But like a Spring plant which has lain dormant in the soil for so long, this is the time that waves burst forth and blossom into altogether more impressive creatures. Then to catch such a beast in full flow, well, how can you explain that? As far back as 1777, canoe surfing was described in an account of the voyages of Captain James Cook in the following way: “I could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so fast and so smoothly by the sea”.
But riding the wave is about more than just pleasure. It’s a sense of timelessness, of other worldliness yet at the same time as connected to this world as it’s possible to be. Daniel Duane describes it in Caught Inside as “a small occurrence outside the linear march of time”. In The Four Quartets, T.S.Eliot describes “the still point of the turning world… [w]here past and future are gathered” and it is perhaps only in poetry and the evocation of life’s mysteries that one can approach the essence of surfing with any accuracy. The words of William Blake, for example, resonate far more than simply describing the physical act of surfing:
“To see the World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”
Then again, we can look back to the ancient Hawaiians themselves whose thoughts echo down the generations through the language they used. Specifically, their word for surfing is he’enalu which splits into two. He’e means to run, flow, slip, glide and also to flee as well as to ride a surfboard. Nalu means to suspend one’s judgment, to think within oneself and to search after any truth or fact as well as the surf itself. So, too, with the Hawaiian greeting Aloha which is broken down into alo, meaning “experience” and ha meaning “breath of life”.
But maybe also, it’s simply a tonic to the woes of modern life. Of the credit crunch, reality TV and an empty celebrity culture. Of bureaucracy, red tape and ever increasing health and safety regulations. Time away from worldly noise and chatter and a return to a simpler life if only for those precious moments in the sea. Above all else, perhaps, it is about freedom. As a Billabong advert once said: “Only a surfer knows the feeling.”
Tim Kevan is the co-author of ‘Why Lawyers Should Surf’ (with Dr Michelle Tempest) and his novel ‘BabyBarista and the Art of War’ will be published by Bloomsbury in August. For more information visit www.timkevan.com.