I got my first surfboard on my 17th birthday, 12th May 1979. It wasn’t a custom made model but was what was called a ‘pop-out’ in those days. At 7-foot long, white with a long red arrow on the deck (presumably to indicate which was the front and the intended direction of travel!), it was the perfect present for a Londoner newly arrived to the wilds of North Cornwall. My Dad, Merlin, and I drove to the coast, it had been sunny inland but a sea fog covered the beach. We had no wet suits so wearing just swimming trunks we walked through the ghostly mist to the water’s edge, Merlin with his wooden plank and me with my untested board. We froze in the Atlantic spring water but that day began something which was to become a major passion.
So today, the 12th May 2016, I find myself at Chicama in Northern Peru. Sitting on my first floor balcony I can see all the way to La Punta and watch what is generally accepted to be one of the best and longest left-handed waves in the world peel flawlessly off the rocky point. We arrived four days ago and I have been in the water every day. It has not been easy. Not only am I not what is termed ‘surf fit’ but years of being thrown onto sandbars and rocky reefs around the world has left me somewhat stiff in the neck and middle back. Thus surfing these days cause me a reasonable degree of physical discomfort, in fact it hurts!
They say you should quit while you’re ahead. That being the case I should have thrown the towel in the ring at least 15-years ago, maybe more, who can pin a date on their best performance ever? But I have persevered, still riding what is a short board, a 6”6” thruster (3-fins). The longer boards that the mature suffer seems to gravitate towards in his twilight years has never held much appeal. I like to carve and have always been prepared to pay the price for that privilege with a shorter but higher performance board. So, my first three sessions at Chicama were punishing in the extreme. My second morning, after making it out to the take-off point in front of a large rocky outcrop with a sizeable swell smashing on to it, I found I had no power in my arms. A cruel build up of lactic acid from the day before left me dead in the water. Watching perfect wave after perfect wave peel off before me was a punishment almost beyond bearing. I spent 24-hours in rehab – aka the tender care of the lovely Grace. Massage, yoga, good food and plenty of rest did the trick and on the evening of the 11th of May I paddled into the lineup a reinvigorated version of the lame duck of 24-hours previously. After some judicious positioning I was in the perfect place to bag a Chicama rocket. And bag one I did, one of the longest waves I have ever ridden. To anyone who has ever surfed I do not need to describe the sensation of hurtling along a feathering wall of water as it unfurls as though the very ocean is being unzipped. As exhilarating as it is addictive, one is nowhere else for those moments than planing across the surface of water at what seems like incredible speed and hopefully with more than a fair amount of grace. It is pure pleasure of the most soul-tingling variety.
I was elated as I walked away from the water last night but a strange thought was preoccupying me. I could not keep doing this, the towel was going to have to be thrown in the ring one day and it began to dawn on me that my birthday as the anniversary of my first surf was the ideal time to do it. There was a very strong sense of this being the right time and place. I resolved to sleep on it.
This morning I rose at 6am and pulled back the curtain. The sight that greeted me was the stuff of legend. Through a dense sea fog caused by the cold Humboldt current meeting the arid Peruvian desert I could make out solid lines of swell stretching far out to the horizon. The whole ocean looked like an enormous piece of corduroy. My mind was made up, today would be my last day as a surfer, or rather as someone who occasionally went in the water and suffered as a result. Enough of this raging against the dying of the light, time to lay to rest this all consuming call to ride the waves.
So I suited up, selected a short board, and made the 20-minute walk to La Punta with Grace. Then with a soft kiss I waded out over the rocks and into the foaming ocean. It was not the best surf of my life, I never expected it to be, but I treasured every moment of it. The few waves I got were fine for a middle-aged man to content himself with as the locals and other Young Turks soared down the line with that effortless ease of youth. They run on a different fuel to me now and good luck to them. After coming out I stood for a long time on the sand. I wanted to go back in but knew deep inside that I was exhausted, physically and mentally. There will be other ways to sport in the ocean, swimming, snorkelling, sailing and Stand Up Paddle-boarding await.
So, to a passion that began on a foggy beach in Cornwall, England and ended on a foggy one in Northern Peru thirty seven years later. Thank you, to everyone I’ve ever chatted to out in the lineup, shared a wave with or a post-surf coffee and pasty. To Cornwall, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Australia, Tahiti, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Peru: thank you for your waves, your smiling faces and some of the best moments of my life.