I woke up super early on the day of the surf contest, ate breakfast, and raced out the door, my board tucked under my arm. Luckily, it hadn’t been damaged by the collision with Tim’s board.
I ran toward the beach. I couldn’t wait to see what the waves were like. The low-pressure system was moving our way.
When I hit the beach, I stopped in my tracks. Perfect lines of four-foot waves stretched all the way to the horizon, with an occasional five- and six-footer slipping through.
I headed toward the pier, but I wasn’t the first one to arrive. The competition staff had arrived an hour or so earlier to set up the registration booth and the judges’ tower.
I stood in line with a couple of other surfers who had also arrived early. As I waited to sign in, Mae Beth walked up.
“Hi,” I replied. “Seen Tim?”
“I think he’s still mad at me. I haven’t seen him all week.”
“Don’t worry. He’ll be here,” Mae Beth said.
As the head judge explained the rules—three heats of twelve surfers each, with the top three surfers in each heat competing in the final round—Tim walked up.
“Hey,” I said, “sorry about…”
“Forget it,” he said, cutting me off.
I was in the first heat with a dozen other surfers. The junior competition was for thirteen through fifteen-year-olds. I had just made it, turning thirteen earlier in the summer.
I paddled out beyond the break, scanned the horizon for waves, and waited for the heat to start. When the horn sounded, most of the surfers took off on a small four-footer. I waited. So did several other surfers.
The next wave was bigger, but I waited again, along with another surfer. As the first lot of surfers paddled back out, a bigger wave approached. I paddled hard to get into position. So did the surfer who waited with me.
We both caught it, only I was the one in front, which meant that the other surfer had the advantage. I could hear him behind me, scoring points as he sliced up and down the wave close to the break.
Suddenly, I shifted my weight to my back foot, almost stopping my board. The sudden shift in speed surprised the other surfer and he lost his balance and fell off. Quickly, I leaned forward, regained my momentum, and rode the wave another fifty feet before exiting over the back of the wave.
From the shore I could hear Mae Beth and Sonny cheering me on. I could also hear my sisters and Mom doing the same. Buoyed by their encouragement, I paddled back out into the surf, and caught a couple of more waves before the heat ended. As I glided to shore, Mae Beth ran toward me.
“You made it to the finals,” Mae Beth shouted as she approached.
“What about you?” I asked. “When’s your heat?”
“I’m in the last heat,” Mae Beth replied, “with Tim.”
“What? Tim’s in your heat?” I replied.
“Yeah,” Mae Beth said, unfazed.
“Watch out for him,” I said. “Don’t let him…”
“Don’t worry,” Mae Beth said. “I can handle Tim.”
We stood on the beach and watched the second heat together. We didn’t talk, but I could feel Mae Beth’s presence next to me. Tim stood in a crowd of other surfers, occasionally glancing at us.
When the horn sounded to end the second heat, Mae Beth ran to get her board, joining the other surfers already heading out. Tim was among them.
As they got past the break, the horn to start the heat sounded.
Mae Beth and two other surfers caught the first wave. All three of them milked the wave for all it was worth.
Tim and another surfer caught the next wave. Tim roared up and down the face of the wave, leaving no room for the other surfer to maneuver. They both kicked out as the first group of surfers paddled toward them.
I could see Tim say something to Mae Beth as he passed her and Mae Beth say something right back to him.
They each rode several other waves, but not together, until the last wave of the heat. Only Tim and Mae Beth were in position to take the wave, a fast five-footer.
They paddled hard, trying to get the best position.
Tim caught it first, but Mae Beth was in better position, close to the break. It was a repeat of the incident earlier in the summer, only in reverse, when Tim caught up to Mae Beth and pushed her off her board.
This time, however, Mae Beth couldn’t push Tim or she’d be disqualified. So, she drove hard into the trough, trying to pass him, but she didn’t have enough speed. As she glided beneath him, her board bumped Tim’s, causing him to lose his balance and fall.
Mae Beth wavered, but regained her balance and rode out the wave before the horn sounded to end the heat. As she stepped out of the water, however, the head judge placed a red flag next to her name.
“You’ve been disqualified,” I shouted, racing up to Mae Beth.
“I know. I bumped Tim’s board trying to get around him. What about Tim, has he been disqualified?”
“No, only you.”
“So he’s in the finals,” Mae Beth said, “with you.”
“Right, with me.”
As we talked, Sonny walked up and gave Mae Beth a big bear hug. “Hey, you tried,” Sonny said, kissing the top of Mae Beth’s head. “You tried, and that’s all that counts.”
“Yeah,” Tim said, approaching, “she tried to knock me out.”
“Leave her alone,” I said, as Mae Beth buried her head in Sonny’s chest.
“Enough, boys,” Sonny interjected. “You’re both in the final round. Mae Beth’s not. That’s just how it is.”
As Sonny spoke, the horn sounded alerting the surfers in the final round to start paddling into position.
“Good luck, Billy-Boy,” Mae Beth said, turning toward me.
“Thanks,” I said, smiling.
“Good-luck, Tim,” Mae Beth said, turning toward Tim.
“Hey, thanks,” Tim replied, surprised by Mae Beth’s comment.
“Enough gushiness,” Sonny blurted. “Now get going.”
We grabbed our boards, jumped into the water, and started paddling.
“Hey, Billy-Boy,” Tim called, as he passed me, “good luck, I mean it, good luck.”
“You, too, Tim,” I replied. “You, too.”
The waves had grown steadily as the morning wore on. They were now consistently five-feet tall. I paddled hard toward the break with the other finalists.
After I cleared the break, I sat up, swiveled my board, and took off on a five-footer with two other surfers. I was closest to the break, which I milked for as many points as I could. After the other surfers kicked out, I did as well, paddling hard to catch another wave.
Meanwhile, Tim managed to catch a six-footer all by himself. He was tearing up and down the face of it, wracking up points as he did.
I turned and saw another five-footer approach, but I hesitated. Several others took off and caught it. That left only me and one other surfer in position for the next wave, which was even larger than the one that just went by.
We both paddled hard, toward the peak. Although I got there first, the other surfer cut back and forth in front of me, preventing me from scoring many points.
Frustrated, I waited for an opening. It came when he cut too hard back up the wave. I drove down hard into the trough and sped in front of him. Then, I leaned hard back into the wave and kicked out right in front of him.
A roar rose from the crowd as I sailed over the back of the wave. Mae Beth ran along the shore, waving at me, cheering me on. As I paddled back out, Tim, who was waiting for another wave, yelled, “Nice job, Billy-Boy.”
It went like this for the next few waves, each of us tearing up the wave, wracking up points—until I fell.
I had just caught a six-footer, and was streaming down the face of the wave into the trough, and I just lost my balance at the bottom. It was as simple as that.
I fell hard, but didn’t lose my board. But I did lose a lot of points, which I couldn’t afford since I was already trailing Tim and one other surfer.
I grabbed my board, turned, and started to paddle out to catch one last wave before the heat ended. As I did, I saw Tim and another surfer streaming toward me, each one ripping up the wave, back and forth, up and down.
Then Tim fell. But he didn’t fall because he lost his balance like me. He fell because the other surfer bumped his board, sending Tim cartwheeling into the surf.
I sat up and whirled my board around to face the scorer’s board, waiting for the judges to place a red flag beside the surfer’s name. But no flag appeared. They hadn’t seen the bump.
As the surfer continued to ride the wave, Tim surfaced, only to watch his own board tumble toward shore. Frustrated, he punched the surface of the water. Time was running out and he needed one last ride to win. But without a surfboard, he didn’t have a chance.
Watching Tim strike the water with his fist unleashed a flood of memories in me. It was as if the entire summer floated through my mind in that instant. Meeting Tim and Mae Beth. Learning to skateboard. Playing croquet. Helping Sonny work on my surfboard. Watching Jesse on the pier catch sharks.
Jesse! Shark Man!
The thought of him and what he told me earlier in the summer at Buddy’s jolted me out of my reverie: If you know the ocean, know the tides and currents, you’ll know everything you need to know.
I sat up, closed my eyes, put my hands on the surface of the water, and felt the ocean heave beneath me. I knew I couldn’t win the surfing contest, or even make it into the top three, but Tim could. One good ride and Tim could still win.
I opened my eyes, turned toward Tim, and yelled at the top of my lungs—“Here, Tim, take my board!”
As I yelled, I slid off my board and pushed it as hard as I could toward Tim. It skimmed across the surface of the water like a water bug straight for him. He caught it, shimmied onto it, and started paddling. Tim didn’t need a big wave. He just needed one last good ride before the horn sounded.
And he got it. A near seven-footer came out of nowhere. Tim paddled, caught it as it peaked, and took off. He dove deep into the trough, then cut sharply back up to the top, swiveled, and headed back down.
It was a fast wave, a point-getter, and Tim used its speed to rack up as many points as he could. But it was his exit that really thrilled the crowd. He had seen it before, in the park, skateboarding with me.
With still enough power in the wave to send him up and over the back of the wave, Tim cranked a hard turn straight up the face of the wave. As he cleared the wave, he grabbed the side of his board and spun around like a whirligig, not once or twice, but three times before landing in the water.
The crowd went wild, roaring its approval. Then, just as suddenly, it quieted. The head judge had just posted a red flag next to Tim’s name.
He’d been disqualified.
As the judges conferred around the scorer’s table, Sonny ran up to find out what was going on. Mae Beth followed right behind him. I swam for shore, following Tim who was ahead of me. When we got to shore, we raced to the judges’ table where we found Sonny arguing with the judges.
“You can’t disqualify Tim, he didn’t bump the other surfer,” Sonny yelled.
“That’s not why we disqualified him,” one of the judges replied.
“We disqualified him,” the head judge interjected, “because he didn’t finish the heat with his own board.”
“But there’s nothing in the rule book that says he can’t use someone else’s board,” Sonny shot back.
“Well, we’ll have to…“
“I ought to know,” Sonny shouted, cutting the judge off. “I wrote the rule book when I was president of the club.”
The judges stared at Sonny, then huddled to confer again. After several minutes, the head judge stepped up to the scorer’s board, and took down the red flag beside Tim’s name.
Mae Beth and I cheered as loud as we could.
Then, after rechecking each surfer’s point tally, the head judge took the microphone, and began to announce the results.
“Third place,” he began, “Curtis Brandt, Boca Raton.”
“Second place, Andy Morris, Pompano Beach.”
“First place,” the head judge began, but stopped until everyone was quiet. “First place,” he repeated, “Tim Olson, Deerfield Beach.”
A loud roar went up from the crowd, especially from Tim’s parents who were sitting in the stands next to my sisters.
Tim beamed as he accepted the first place ribbon, then he turned toward me. “You know, you are crazy!”
“Totally crazy!” Sonny added.
“No, he’s not crazy,” someone uttered. “He’s just a Shark Man.”
Shark Man! I whirled around. It was Jesse, standing several feet away.
Jesse nodded and smiled.
I smiled back.
“Hey, Shark Man,” a voice whispered.
I turned. It was Mae Beth.
“Hey,” I replied, breathless.
We stood still, gazing at each other, until Tim broke the silence.
“Okay, okay, come on, you two,” Tim muttered. “I’m hungry. What do you say we get something to eat?”
So we grabbed our stuff, and Mae Beth and I, and Tim and Sonny, and Jesse and my sisters turned and headed to Buddy’s Burger Shack.