I woke up early the next morning. The sky was overcast. A stiff wind blew steadily out of the southeast.
Waves, I thought.
I ate breakfast, grabbed my surfboard, and headed to the beach. It was empty, except for a single fisherman casting his line from shore. I headed to the far side of the pier sure I’d see Tim or Mae Beth in the water. But no one was there, even though the wind was pushing three-foot waves steadily toward shore.
After I kicked off my sandals and tore off my shirt, I waded into shallow water, dropped my board, and began paddling toward the line of swells moving toward shore. Once I made it past the break, I sat up and waited for a good-sized wave.
I didn’t have to wait long. A swell rose up behind me and I paddled hard to make it. But I couldn’t paddle fast enough to catch it. I turned and paddled out to catch another wave. It didn’t take long for one to appear. This time I was in the right spot and the swell was much larger. It swooped me up without much trouble and off I went.
I glided along the face of the wave, using my hands to keep my balance, the way Tim had in his bedroom, pretending to ride a giant wave. But either the wave I rode was too fast or my board was too slow because the break caught up to me and I fell off.
When I surfaced, I watched my board tumble in the surf all the way to shore. I looked around, took a deep breath, and started to swim. After I retrieved my board, I tried again, but with the same result. I just couldn’t seem to stay ahead of the break no matter what I did. After two more tries, I gathered up my board and headed into shore.
That’s when I saw Sonny walking up the beach. He carried a surfboard under one arm, and in his free hand he held the end of a leash. At the other end of the leash was Candy, his wife’s English terrier.
“Hey, Billy-Boy,” Sonny called, as I dragged my board onto the beach. “Going home already?”
“Yeah, I just can’t seem to figure this surfing thing out.”
“What do you mean?” Sonny replied, as Candy yapped at a small bird scooting along the edge of the water.
“No matter what I do, I just can’t seem to stay ahead of the break. It always catches up to me and knocks me off my board.”
“Hmmm,” Sonny mused, rubbing his chin. “All right, have a seat and watch.”
I dropped my board in the sand and sat down next to Candy, who jumped up and began licking my face. Sonny kicked off his sandals, peeled off his shirt, and waded into the water with his board. The waves were really cooking now, a steady four-feet tall.
Once past the break, Sonny turned and caught the first wave rolling toward him. He stood, made a quick turn, and worked his board back and forth to stay just ahead of the break. For a large man, Sonny moved his feet effortlessly while keeping his upper body still, much like an accomplished ballroom dancer. As the wave petered out, Sonny kicked his board up and over the top of the froth and paddled out to catch another wave.
I watched Sonny for the better part of an hour, mesmerized by his quick skillful moves and perfect sense of balance. When he finally fell, after attempting a sharp cutback on a quick three-footer, I ran to get his board, which had tumbled all the way to shore.
“Man, are you good,” I said, as Sonny waded toward me.
“Was good,” Sonny chuckled. “Was good.”
Instead of taking his board, though, Sonny walked right past me and flopped down on the beach next to Candy.
“Whew, I’m beat,” Sonny moaned, as Candy licked his face. “Why don’t you take a turn?”
“Yeah, and use my board.”
“Your board!” I exclaimed.
“Sure, let’s see what you can do with it,” Sonny replied, petting Candy behind the ears.
I pushed Sonny’s board into deeper water, jumped on it, and started to paddle. Instantly I felt the difference. My board hardly moved it was so large and heavy. Not Sonny’s. It was shorter and lighter and glided through the water effortlessly.
I paddled out past the break, sat up, and waited for a wave.
When the first wave steamed toward me, I turned and paddled to catch it. I didn’t have to paddle long, the wave quickly swept me up and off I went.
I stood, pivoted, and immediately fell off.
When I surfaced Sonny’s board was floating nearby so I grabbed it and paddled out to catch another wave. In no time a solid four-footer steamed my way and I turned to catch it. Again, I didn’t have to paddle long or hard as the wave swept me up and off I went.
I stood, more carefully this time, and pivoted. The wave had a steep wall that was held up by the wind, which was now blowing out of the west. As I slid along the face of the wave, Sonny’s board began to wobble. The faster I went, the more it wobbled, until I lost my balance and fell off.
This time when I surfaced, Sonny’s board had tumbled all the way to shore, caught in the churning froth of the dying wave. I took a deep breath and started swimming.
When I reached the board, Sonny was standing at the water’s edge, waiting for me. “Keep your knees bent to lower your center of gravity, and work the board with your legs not your upper body.”
“Okay,” I replied, waving at Sonny. Then I grabbed Sonny’s board and began paddling back out into the surf, repeating to myself what Sonny had just said, Keep your knees bent, lower your center of gravity, work the board with your legs.
When I got past the break, I sat up and scanned the horizon for a wave. The waves had picked up. They were bigger and faster. I sat up, leaned forward, straining to see over the top of the incoming line of waves. That’s when I saw it—a fin.
“Shark!” I thought, as a fin sliced through the water not more than twenty feet from me.
I swiveled Sonny’s board around and began paddling as fast as I could. About midway to shore a smallish wave swept me up and I belly-rode it all the way to shore. When Sonny’s board hit the sand, I half-ran, half-swam to get up onto the beach.
“What’s the matter, Billy-Boy?” Sonny asked, running up to me. “You look like you saw a ghost.”
“Not a ghost,” I said, out of breath. “A shark!”
“That wasn’t a shark,” Sonny laughed.
“It wasn’t?” I said, surprised. “What was it?”
“It was a dolphin, that’s all.”
“Yeah, it just wanted to play.”
“Sure, dolphins love the waves just as much as you do.”
“But I thought it was a…”
“You thought it was a shark, because you don’t know the ocean yet,” Sonny said, cutting me off.
As he spoke I thought of what Jesse—Shark Man—had said: If you know the ocean, know the tides and currents, you’ll know everything you’ll need to know.
“Billy-Boy,” Sonny said, “why are you so afraid of the water?”
“I’m not. Really.”
“Yes, you are. Why?
I took a deep breath and kicked at the sand, “My stepdad.”
“Your stepdad? What did he do to you?”
“You mean, what didn’t he do to me?”
Sonny stood and stared at me, waiting for me to continue. I kicked at the sand some more, and took a deep breath.
“We used to go to the beach in Texas. It was an all-day adventure. Usually, when we got there, my stepdad would leave my mom and sisters and me alone and go off fishing. One day, he brought me along. Since I also went hunting with him, I didn’t think it was odd. Actually, I was happy to get away from my sisters.”
“We fished from a dock near a small marina, but we didn’t catch anything. After about an hour of this, he turned and said, ‘How about a swim?’ Before I could respond, he picked me up and threw me into the water. As I floundered around, trying to catch my breath, he started yelling, Shark! Shark!”
“Terrified, I swam to the dock, but he wouldn’t let me up. No matter what I did, he kept pushing me back into the water, all the while yelling, Shark! Shark! Finally, he reached out, grabbed me by the shirt, and hauled me onto the dock. I’ve been afraid of the water ever since.”
Sonny shook his head.
“Look, sharks are predators, you can’t deny that,” Sonny said at last, “but they’re more interested in other fish than they are in you. I mean, do you know what the odds are of getting bit by a shark?”
“You have a much greater chance of getting struck by lightning than you do of getting bit by a shark.”
“Really?” I said.
“Really,” Sonny replied. “So it’s time that you got over your fear. And, anyway, we’ve got work to do.”
“Work to do?”
“Well, yeah, your surfboard’s way too big for you,” Sonny said, chuckling. “Any idiot can see that.”
“But you sold it to me.”
“My mistake. Anyway, come on,” Sonny said, as he tucked his surfboard under one arm and grabbed the end of Candy’s leash with the other.
“Where are we going?”
“Where else? Sonny’s Surf and Sail.”