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A Surf Session Matthew Clark will never forget

Posted: Friday May 22, 2009     By: Matthew Clark     Categories: Surf Sessions | Matthew Clark

Some surf sessions are ordinary, this one was not.

Slipped into my wetsuit as I did any other day.

We had planned to meet at the beach at 3 p.m., two of my best friends with whom I've grown up surfing with. As a naturally optimistic person, I showed up earlier and was in the water before they had arrived.

A light fog blanketed sand and sea, the air was warm yet the ocean remained cool through the second week of May. A hood wasn't needed; however I've always preferred the uncomfortable warmth an attached winter hood provided in direct sunlight over the bunched up rubber it would become had I pulled it over the back of my head. I let the neoprene give whatever protection from the sun it may. Gloves and boots remain an essential addition to the winter suit throughout April and into May in New York; however, one can always find the "true men" who bare their hands and feet to the still frigid ocean. Maybe itís their attempt to draw one's eyes from the lack of equipment in other regions?

The stretch of beach we choose to surf regularly is a peaky shore break which, on the right days, can form a heaving left barrel. Short rides, short paddles.

My early arrival was unnecessary as there were nearly three hours until the tide completely filled in. The ocean was a mish mash of whitewash points and heads. Practice had always been a priority of mine, first in and last out. I plunged into the surf.

They had arrived almost in unison forty minutes later, one leading the other in and were quickly floating near me. We exchanged small talk and jokingly hooted at one another when someone rode a wave. We've always had fun in the surf, no matter how heavy or miserable the conditions, crushing the shoulder of each otherís wave were a sign of good times and brotherly love. The three of us in the surf.

The wind had never cooperated with anyone in New York and it doesn't drawl either. I've always imagined wind as more than an invisible force that creates and destroys waves; it was the mischievous and temperamental third party in the surfer-ocean relationship. The howling and whipping onshore winds, pushing miniature peaks across a wave's face, disrupting a rider's flow with the smallest of bumps, it seems there's never a break. It was no different this day.

Peak to peak, paddling back out, all in all a run of the mill session. Even with the onshores I flittered quickly in several waist high barrels, though they were nothing to write home about. Trading off waves for nearly two hours, I had no reason to expect anything but an ordinary, somewhat forgettable, session.

I doubt I could prove this, but in my opinion, the beach replenishment project that had taken place here had not only destroyed an amazing beach break, but it had also created a hazardous place for bathers. Throughout the year bulldozers move back and forth across the sands pushing them from here to there and back again. The shoreline used to have character and now it was a straight line with no personality whatsoever. Rip currents litter the lineup and move across the beach with ferocity. Sand had built up so much in one area that there was a constant rip current running through the face throughout the entire session. This point along the beach also had been serving up some of the larger peaks and, due to the quick current's, a much steeper face, sometimes with the odd double up on the face.

I had been sitting for some time to the right of the peak catching some lefts and working on a maneuver I still don't have down pat. A frothy looking right appeared as I returned to my position in the lineup and the only person near the peak was paddling back into the lineup from the flats. I gave a quick kick or two and began the bottom turn. As soon as I began scooping into this wave it was partially pitching over me. The onshore wind had made it an ugly barrel with water droplets everywhere, but I could clearly see the exit. Unfortunately it was about 3 or 4 feet past the absolute deepest makeable point in the barrel and I knew I had no chance of making it out. Mind you, this is all happening within one second of real time. For this split second I had a view followed by a blinding bright light, pounding pain throughout my head and neck trailing off into the middle of my back, and the chill you get when your lower teeth are forced up and past your top front teeth, scraping and scratching.

"I need to get to the beach, I just bit the tip of my tongue off" I thought quickly in my head as I floated to the surface, the next waves whitewash already upon me and ushering me quickly to thigh deep water and to the sand. The rush of adrenaline pulsing through my body did nothing for the pain I was experiencing. Still tethered to my board I dragged it onto the sand and clutched the back of my neck and continued moving my tongue around my mouth to gain feeling again. "Something's not right", I went over the wave I had taken only 20 seconds before, and realized the bright light was my head plowing into the packed sand bottom and it being compressed into my neck, shoulders, and back. There was no give when my head hit the sand and the entire weight of my body and whatever extra weight of that waves lip added to it. Propelled, driven, and slammed head first into the sand, I knew the seriousness of the injury and not to turn, twist, or roll my neck. People were already coming to the shore from out in the lineup as I was spitting blood from my mouth.

"What happened? ARE YOU ALRIGHT?" we're two questions I heard several times while lying on my back on the sand but wasn't positive who was asking. My focus was actually more on trying to see if I bit the tip of my tongue off rather than my neck and what I had done to it. After verifying I had only bit through my tongue and not chopped it completely off, I realized I could feel everything in my body, but I can't move my neck and I need to go home.

"I don't have insurance", "How did this happen?" and "This is serious" kept running through my mind. I finally stood up and began to really feel the pain running through my head and spine. I unzipped my chest zipper and painfully pulled the hood over my head as well as took my gloves off. I felt for the spot right where my hairline began on the front right part of my forehead, a silver dollar sized point on my body that for a moment bore the entire weight of my body. The swelling had already begun.

I rushed home, able to drive, and went over the two seconds that had potential to change my life forever. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined something like this happening on the most mediocre of days. All of the precautions I had taken surfing slabby reefs and massive beach breaks, this happens, at my home spot, on an onshore wind slop spring day. I was beside myself.

After several days of playing wait and see, my condition hadn't changed much so a doctorís visit was necessary. Money shouldn't be a problem for most people because they have insurance, but with my career choice, it is, which I bashfully explained upon seeing the doctor.

"No insurance, no problem, we'll work something out. You're just lucky you're not in a much worse position right now." The doctor explained. "Let's have you take an x-ray just for precautionary purposes. I doubt you'd be sitting here, the way you are, if there were any fractures, but I can't stress enough how lucky you are." The doctor continued.

After all was said and done I suffered from neck strain and pinched nerves from compaction. Three weeks of recovery later and I'm still having trouble sleeping, cannot turn my head quickly to the left and have a bottomless feeling in my stomach that this will be a lifelong issue. While a lot of people I know would be quick to post a topic on a forum selling their gear and being responsible, I'd never give it up. The ocean, like the paralyzing beauties of the world, will give you reason to believe you're in control, and with a swift and potent slap, break you in two leaving you astonished of the strength she bears.

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