Surfing Squidsocket Bluffs

On an overcast New England morning in October the sea and the sky were matching shades of gloom, like the crusty slag on a crucible of molten lead. Woody and I were standing on the dock in Woods Hole having a brief conference before setting out on a surfing expedition.  We figured we had a ten percent chance of finding surfable waves, but we'd been watching this swell develop for almost a week now and today was as good as it was going to get.  There were going to be great waves somewhere today for sure, thick, powerful waves from a storm up north.  The trick would be to find them, and we were prepared to go hunting.  We didn't talk much as I piloted South Swell down Vineyard Sound. We've been on this track many times before. Woody settled into a morning meditation as I sipped my coffee and drove the boat.

Our problem today wasn't the size of the swell, but its direction, east north east. The best swells for most of the places we surf come roaring up from the south, produced by late summer hurricanes.  So we knew we'd be lucky to find anything at all, and to make matters worse, there was a cold nor'easter roaring down from the Canadian Maritimes. Fortunately we were cruising in the lee of the island, so the seas were flat and South Swell sliced through the frigid water like a sharp knife. We traveled the 14 miles to our first lookout point in under a half hour and dropped the hook in a small cove. 

We'd outrun a band of clouds and were temporarily bathed in a thin lemony sunshine. The brisk offshore winds were pulling veils of spray off the back of each wave that broke along the rocky shoreline in front of us. The waves were perfectly shaped but tiny, barely knee high and not nearly worth getting wet in the 50 degree water. The easterly swell just couldn't wrap far enough around to deliver any power to our south-facing breaks. The small waves we watched had wrapped over 180 degrees around the islands to break here, physics in motion

Gap-jawed wonder aside, we still wanted to find some surf, so I turned to my partner for guidance.  Woody has surfed every decent swell that has hit the Cape in remembered history, and it's only sensible to defer to his 20-plus years of experience.

"So, Kahuna, what's the call? Where can we find this swell's Daddy?"

My partner Woody is, I think it's fair to say, a taciturn fellow, not given to squandering syllables unnecessarily. He considered the situation gravely for a long moment before pronouncing his judgment: 

"Squidsocket Bluffs1  is probably breaking," quoth the quiet man, as he gazed stoically into the gloom obscuring our southern horizon.  

Whose name was writ in water

Squidsocket is enough of a journey that I needed to consult my charts a bit before getting underway.  It's a 25 mile trip out there and maybe 40 from there back to Woods Hole.  At a scale of 1:80,000 that's about ten inches on the NOAA Martha's Vineyard to Block Island nautical chart.  Doesn't look like much really.  On the other hand, the wind had been gusting 30 knots earlier and coming home we would be running against both the wind and the tide, so it could be rough sledding.  The first concern is fuel, but we've got plenty.  In a prescient moment last week, I made the leap of faith and filled the tanks one last time; it was an optimistic gesture this late in the New England boating season.  

Next, I cranked up the NOAA coastal weather forecast on the VHF radio.  If you get the impression that NOAA info is a big deal in New England boating, you'd be right.  This place is a boater's paradise, but it routinely kills a few fools every year for disrespecting the basics.  It's not nice to mess with Mother Nature, and around here she has sharp teeth.  Anyway, my ears perked up as the NOAA synthesized female humanoid voice intoned the forecast for our neck of the woods, 

Small craft advisory 

Synopsis for Massachusetts and Rhode Island coastal waters:
Low pres just NE of Georges Bank will remain well offshore through
Fri, But generate easterly swells that will build to 20 Ft on the
outer coastal waters tonight. The high seas will create hazardous
conditions for small craft operators through Fri. 
A small craft advisory is in effect for Vineyard Sound and the islands. 
High winds and large swells may be expected."

The low pressure trough was to the north of us and would continue to send up waves and strong winds through the rest of the day.  That wasn't a surprise. It meant pounding through some nasty chop on the way home, but we weren't strangers to that and South Swell was built for the snotty conditions off Cape Hatteras.  The ice chest was full of food, and we had plenty of fuel and water.  So after punching in a few waypoints on the GPS chartplotter, Woody hauled up the hook and I put the pedal to the metal.  In a few seconds we were flying.

Our route took us through some famous waters: an ancient merchant ship's graveyard, a lighthouse already famous when Melville wrote that fish book, and a pristine island beach rumored to be owned by the family of Jacqueline Onassis that was respectfully dubbed 'O-Land' by the local surfers. The journey is a sensual barrage, complete with the roaring precision growls of the engine, the percussive slaps and slams of the water against the boat's hull, and a whirling mist of salt rime coating the windshield.  On occasion, we hit a swell just wrong and there was a sickening shudder as South Swell absorbed the shock.  Woody and I both feel these as actual pain; the instinctual empathy that sailors share with their craft.  She protects us from a hostile sea, and we do our imperfect best to return the favor.


South Swell is a fast boat, and we made good time by hugging the shoreline to dodge the worst of the wind and waves.  We got a good look at the waves wrapping around O-Land, but the angle was still wrong and we weren't tempted to stop.  I remember as a teenager, reading with fascination the National Geographic stories on Thor Heyerdahl, who first unraveled the basics of Polynesian navigation systems.  He was convinced that the Polynesian Islands were settled by people from Peru, and he theorized that the Polynesians used the prevailing winds and the swells to accurately navigate across thousands of miles of open ocean.  He applied his theories to practice in the 1947 voyage of the Kon-Tiki that successfully reached the Tuamotu Islands.  I was reminded of Heyerdahl when the motion aboard our boat changed dramatically as we rounded Squidsocket Point and felt the undiluted force of the swell at last.  

Ocean waves are particularly complex phenomena, with all the subtle harmonic characteristics of sound waves or radio waves, or even light waves, but they have the satisfying attribute of operating on a human-sized scale.  So you can watch them, and they can knock you around.  You can get physical with an ocean wave in a way that is utterly addictive.  I find waves almost hypnotic, sensory narcotics that tap into a subliminal channel that stirs me in ways I find difficult to express.  Waves move me, deeply, like memories of a past life, or the gauzy fabric of a repetitive dream.  Like the unexpected recognition of hearing the voice of an old friend.  The waves pounding the local beaches have a character that takes time and experience to understand, and the large, slow rolling north east swell that Woody and I encountered as we neared our destination held all the anticipation of making a new acquaintance.  

My phlegmatic compadre rose from his seat and pointed to a thumb of dark land in the hazy distance.  "Let's take a look there first, then we can backtrack until we find a good spot to anchor."  Hey, he's timely, direct, and unambiguous.  A blessed relief from most of the windy morons I often find myself confronted with of late.  People talk too much these days, and say too little in the process.  Woody speaks when he's got something to say.  Refreshing.

World Class at Ball's Beach

People always want to know how big the waves were when I try to describe a surf trip.  I've completely given up attempting to accurately describe the size of big waves to non-surfers.  If the waves were overhead or bigger, I just tell them to imagine the biggest, scariest wave they can think of, then double it, and that's what it was like.  That, of course, is unconscionable hyperbole from one perspective, but in fact it describes with high fidelity the response most people would experience if you plopped them on a surfboard and pushed them over the edge of a six foot wave. The power of even a modest-sized wave is not illusory in the slightest sense.  Determining the actual force of a wave is difficult due to the many variables involved, but it has been estimated that a waist high wave can produce forces of several thousand pounds per square foot.  If you've ever seen an unfortunate boat broken up in the surf, you'll find this very easy to believe.  

We pulled up outside of Ball's Beach, named for the wealthy bluestocking industrialist who built  the mansion perched above the point. Ball's is a big wave venue that can handle most any sized easterly swell the Atlantic conjures up.  The break is susceptible to wind, but the cliffs were blocking today's wind almost completely, leaving only a light offshore breeze, and the place was totally going off. It's difficult to determine the size of a wave from the back, but as we cruised slowly up and down the lineup, it was clear that these were world class waves. 

There was already a posse of six surfers in the water when we arrived and they appeared to be sharing waves pretty equitably as each set arrived.  The guys in the water barely noticed us hovering outside the break, generally a sign that they've got their hands full and aren't worried about crowd control.  Woody and I are both hypersensitive to good manners in the water.  Bad attitudes lead to bad vibes and we both agree that there's no place for that in our surfing lives.  I know it sounds lame, but surfing is a spiritual thing for us, a brief contact with something sacred, and bad behavior in the water seems akin to desecrating a shrine.  Anyway, we practice polite surfing and we both agreed without even speaking that Ball's was full up already and we needed to look further.

East Coast Malibu

We backtracked a mile or so to the Bluff, a long crescent of cobbled beach with a rocky reef on the west end.  We were the only ones there, and had several breaks to choose from.  I found a nice patch of sandy bottom to anchor in while Woody suited up.  Did I mention that the water here is COLD in October?  Well it is, and as soon as we stopped, I began the intricate psychological dance that allows me to convince myself that total immersion in icy salt water is a good thing.  

Making matters worse is the spectacle of watching my erstwhile partner casually donning his vastly superior armor.  Woody wears a drysuit2, I wear a wetsuit, and the difference is day and night.  Wetsuits keep you warm by heating the thin layer of water between your body and your suit, and I guess they work pretty well over all, but please note that to get the process going, you first have to get that thin layer of water into the wetsuit and that part is inevitably painful.  Drysuits, on the other hand, have snug cuffs at the feet, wrists and neck, operating on the sensible principle of  keeping the water away from your skin in the first place.  So, while I'm tugging with mighty huffs and grunts at the thick neoprene rubber of my BodyGlove Storm Trooper (a state of the art steamer wetsuit), Woody is casually slipping into thick woolen hiking socks and fluffy fleece jammies.  As the cold black rubber of my hood distorts my face like a painful instrument of torture or a particularly ambitious S&M sex toy, Woody steps into his thin loose fitting drysuit, slaps the zipper closed and happily leaps onto his board without a backward glance.  Callous knave!

Enough whinging though, in due course I joined Woody who was sitting on his board just off a partially submerged rocky reef.  The reef focused the swell's energy, causing it to steepen and break.  As we sat waiting for a set to come I called to Woody asking if he was certain that we were lined up okay.  He shouted something into the breeze, then turned seaward and began paddling like his life depended on it.  As it turned out, that wasn't too far off the mark.  A huge set was already feathering outside of us, and the rock itself was immediately behind him.  From my position, it was more prudent to paddle away from the rock to avoid the break, and I made the shoulder with relative ease.  As I came over the lip I could see Woody still scratching madly to avoid an even larger wave.  He met the face of the wave as it approached the vertical and for an instant it looked like it was going to throw him over backwards onto the barely covered reef.  He hung for a second in the translucent aquamarine wall of the wave before punching through it to safety.  

We regrouped at a more conservative position to wait for another set.  Woody didn't say anything, but his eyes were still pretty wide open and he had a mildly stunned adrenaline look about him.  The waves were much bigger than they looked from the boat, and they were thicker too.  Powerful. There was a mild current pulling us back towards the reef and I found myself paddling against it in a slow but constant tug of war.  Woody let the current carry him and, as the next set approached, he was ideally positioned on the first wave.  He was still outside of me, so I watched him drop into that trademarked 'survival crouch' of his.  He made the bottom, angled into a turn then rocketed past me beneath a huge breaking section.  I thought he'd pop out the back of the wave, but as I kept watching there was no sign of him until I heard a happy shout and saw him pulling out a hundred yards inshore of me.

Whatever else these waves were, they offered up a nice long ride, like the famous Malibu surf beach 3700 miles to the west of us.  The last wave of the set angled toward me perfectly and I took a deep breath, swung my board around, and began to paddle.  My takeoff was a little bit late, so the wave was really steep already when I stood up.  I arched backwards, positioning my weight towards the tail of the board to keep the nose from pearl-diving into the water.  It felt like I was free falling for a moment as I slid down the face of the wave, then my board grabbed the surface again and begin to carve into the wall of water.  I made it to the unbroken shoulder of the wave and suddenly felt triumphant.  The line of steepening water stretched out before me in symmetrical perfection.  I rode to the crest of the wave then cut back from the lip and made the drop again, and again.  I had the familiar but wonderful feeling that the wave was playing with me, encouraging me to explore its unfolding patterns and eddies.  Once you're at that point in a wave, surfing isn't hard at all; it's more like remembering a dance step, you hear the music and your body just moves.  Inexpressible Bliss.

The wave seemed to go on and on.  Towards the beach, it suddenly accelerated and steepened.   I took a step towards the nose of my board and went into a defensive crouch, grabbing a rail with my hand for stability.  With my face inches from the wave, and my free hand tracing lightly along it's surface, I just forgot to pull out and the ride ended as I was rudely slapped by the shorebreak and buried in the sand and foam beneath it.  As I retrieved my board and turned to paddle back out I saw Woody sitting on his board with both arms in the air, smiling like a maniac.  He'd watched my entire ride, and was hooting with approval.  That's got to be one of the best feelings in the world.  

Big Wednesday, The Movie

Standing next to my board and basking in my friend's approval, I was reminded of the movie Big Wednesday3, Hollywood's 1978 attempt at atoning for the egregious Beach Blanket Bingo movies of the 1960's. Big Wednesday was written and directed by John Milius who had already achieved some fame as a writer and director for The Wind and the Lion and  Jeremiah Johnson, as well as uncredited but notable scriptwriting in Dirty Harry and Jaws (the Indianapolis shark frenzy monologue).  Milius was the consummate Hollywood insider, and his friendship with Francis Ford Coppola was already crafting the toxic and beautiful brew that would result in the screenplay for Apocalypse Now in 1979.  

Milius was also a surfer, and he cast other surfers for the lead roles in Big WednesdayJan-Michael Vincent (as Matt Johnson), William Katt (as Jack Barlowe), and Gary Busey (as Leroy "The Masochist"). In addition, Milius used world class surfers for the stand-ins and captured some very nice surfing by  Jay Riddle, Peter Townend, Ian Cairns, Billy Hamilton, Bruce Raymond, and Jackie Dunn.  There's even a cameo appearance by Jerry Lopez, who has to be one of the all time coolest characters in surfing.  

The film was derided by the surfing community when it first came out, but over the years they've warmed to it, and Big Wednesday is now considered a classic.  It tracks the lives of three friends during the tumultuous early 1960's, capturing both the silliness and the grandeur of the surfing lifestyle.  The story is set in Southern California and many of the archetypal surf stories ring true: destructo parties in La Jolla, suicide missions to Tijuana, and waking up hungover and grotty on the beach for an early morning surf session.  The movie also covers the quirky trajectory of 1960's surfing as the sport made its transition from long boards to short, from alcohol to psychedelics and from the carefree life on a beach to the deadly serious confrontation with the Vietnam draft

Mostly though, Big Wednesday is about the friendships that arise out of surfing, and the deep bonding that occurs when you share experiences like Woody and I did on our Big Wednesday at the bluffs.  The waves don't have to be huge to open up your soul.  In some sense every wave you ride is a personal test, but when it gets big and scary it makes you tap into something that's hard to describe, something related to honesty and faith, but more universal, something that doesn't belong to you, but is just out there for you to tap into if you can open yourself up to it. If you find it, it changes you forever. 

A day will come that is like no other... and nothing that happens after will ever be the same
-Bear, Big Wednesday


1  People and place names have been encrypted to foil kooks and encourage character amongst the menehunes.
2  Update: I cratered and bought myself a drysuit:
3  Big Wednesday IMDB Review and Filmography:

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