I float in the Pacific Ocean.
As I straddle my longboard, cool water lapping around me, I watch surfers up and down the coast take on baby waves, four-footers that will carry them a short distance before breaking into froth and foam.
I’m waiting for something better.
The sun beats down on the slip of my neck between my wet suit and hairline. The tender skin burns, but I don’t dare move to massage it. Seagulls circle overhead, squawking over the swilling water. They dive to the surface, then soar back up, carrying scraps of seaweed and tiny fish.
And then I see it—in the distance, coming toward me, coming for me. My gaze flickers over the green-blue water as I watch the wave take shape. It’s not a three-footer or even a four-footer. No, it’s much better. My fingers drum against my thighs, and I lean forward, gnawing my sun-chapped lip.
As the water climbs, mounting higher and higher, my body thrums with anticipation. Waves are mild in Santa Cruz. It’s rare to catch an overhead one, for me anything taller than five ten. But the wave coming for me now, the wave rattling toward me with unfettered determination, looks closer to ten feet, which would make it the tallest ride I’ve ever had.
I know I should feel fear—fear of a riptide dragging me under, fear of losing control and cracking my head against my board’s sharp fin—but all I feel is overwhelming adrenaline. This is it. My miracle wave.
The water hurtles forward with growing fury. I slide from my sitting position onto my stomach, my lower body pressed firmly against the board, hips taut and feet pointed. With a practiced arm, I paddle to the right so that my board spins to face the shore. I take two short breaths and then a single deep one, a ritual I’ve been doing since I was a little kid. And then, before I have time to second-guess or readjust, the wave is right behind me. I jump to my feet. The cold spray is everywhere, consuming and empowering. I’m riding the wave, a beautiful and terrifying barrel wave that arcs over my head so that I’m parallel to a wall of rushing water, the nose of my board just seconds ahead of the break.
But then my lead falters. The wall of water becomes a dome of water, surrounding me on all sides, and then I do the most reckless thing possible: I panic.
I should submit to the wave, dive under and wait for it to pass overhead. Instead, I try to keep going, which is basically impossible when ten feet of water crashes on top of you. The force slams into me, submerges me deep beneath the surface, cutting off all oxygen and any sense of up and down as I swirl like a helpless scrap of plankton. My board flips up behind me and knocks me hard in the side. I instinctively gasp and salt water rushes in, burning my throat.
Air. Air. Air.
I claw my way back to the choppy surface, gasping and wrestling onto my board for support. My heart pounds, my side throbs, and seawater clogs my ears. And in the distance, the remains of my miracle wave rocket toward shore without me.