Among the many things on my bucket list as I knock on the door to forty, learning to surf is near the top. It is the one thing that I will learn before I die. The plan used to be to go back to graduate school, get my teaching license – then spend summers at the beach. I’m well on my way to the teaching license, but now my wife, Laura is a semi-famous photographer. (She will deny this and be mad at me for posting it, but it’s true. She rocks.) So, now, my plan is to go somewhere during winter break every year for two weeks and do nothing but surf.
Surfing is like skiing. If you don’t start when you are young, then it’s maddeningly difficult to learn. At least for me. Add arthritis, a general lack of being in shape and only trying it once a year or so and it becomes even more difficult.
There was this one day, though. There was one day, nearly ten years ago, an impossibly blue day, when things were perfect. I’d been living in a tent in the Outer Banks for nearly three months, working construction and bartending when I needed the money and reading, swimming and beach bumming when I didn’t. I’d been watching the surfers and decided it seemed easy. I cruised over to Cavalier surf shop and rented a board for a week. I was still of the opinion when I walked out of the shop with this unwieldy, eight-foot long thing under my arm that it would be, well, easy.
I was wrong. I was pummeled, beaten, knocked off the board, tangled in my leash and generally embarrassed. My chest was a complete rash from the wax. My shorts were all wrong for surfing and were repeatedly yanked off. I became obsessed. A few locals took pity on me and showed me a few pointers, but to no avail. I couldn’t get the “pop-up.” I could pop-off the board very well and did so repeatedly.
Then there was that day. I was a little dejected, but it was one of those beach mornings. When things are still cool but the sky is hinting at the heat to come. When people are wandering to the sand and the smell of sunscreen and tanning oils are just starting to waft out over the ocean. The water was like glass. The smell of breakfast was in the air. It was low tide and the waves were about waist high and rising. The water was impossibly blue.
I paddled out without even getting my hair wet. There were no thoughts in my mind, I was just simply there. A gull flew by me within inches, suddenly beautiful. I pulled around on a wave and paddled into it. Then, magically, I was on my feet. The wave rose behind me and there was this sensation of gliding, of flying over the water. I planted my left rail at the bottom to turn and promptly fell.
I didn’t care. Not one bit. I surfed all day that day, until I was weak and exhausted and my arms felt like rubber. That was a great day, and I intend to relive it.
I did learn a great way to cook fish that summer. In my wanderings around the coast, I was constantly around fish markets but rather limited in cooking methods and money. Monkfish, tuna, salmon, Rockfish and Sheep’s Head quickly became a staple in my diet, along with rice and whatever greens I could find at local markets. Farmer’s markets then weren’t the fad they are now, but roadside stands were plentiful. Between a diet of mostly fish, vegetables and rice and constant exercise, I was in the shape of my life.
A whole fish, cleaned and scaled, works best. Sheep’s head is my favorite, although a filet of salmon works well too. Build a campfire and allow it to burn down to coals. Rake the coals to one side. Wrap your fish in 7-10 sheets of newspaper (after seasoning with salt and pepper, of course) and tie to make a neat parcel. Walk down to the ocean and soak in sea water (you can also make salt water but it’s never as good). Oh, soak the fish, not yourself. If you get wet in the process, well, so be it. Place the package of fish on the sand and cover with coals and then sand. Wait 15-20 minutes, dependent upon the size of your fish, which is also exactly how much time it takes to make rice. When the paper is charred unwrap and enjoy!
Sadly enough, there aren’t any surviving pictures of this recipe (or of that one magical day) so I’ll recreate it on the grill and post them. There are a few remaining pictures of my typical campsite and a sunrise or two below. Enjoy and dream of summer! I know I am.