I learned to love the ocean as a child when my family rented a house on Cape Cod for our annual summer vcacation. Summer, for my brothers and me, was centered around the beach: fishing for crabs from the jetty, burying each other in the sand, but mostly just playing in the water. We brought inner tubes from my father’s car dealership and came up with all kinds of ways to use them. I would sometimes tie a brick on mine with rope, wade through the seaweed that always seemed to accumulate near the shore, paddle out to calm water, drop anchor and read.
The water was pretty calm most of the time, with very little in the way of waves — except for the one summer that we had a dramatic hurricane during our time on the Cape. We huddled in the house during the storm, cooking in the fireplace when we lost electricity. But when the storm passed, my typically safety-obsessed father took us to the beach and let us go in the wild and tumultuous post-storm ocean. He stood guard on the deserted beach watching our every move as we were tossed around by enormous waves.
As an adult, having moved south along the Atlantic Coast, I discovered the beaches of North Carolina. Nothing like the small patches of beach broken up by jetties that were the beaches of my childhood, the North Carolina beaches were vast expanses of sand, bordered on one side by seagrass and dunes, and on the other by apparently endless ocean.
The waves were different, too. The ocean was rarely calm there; the waves came in so many different forms, depending on the tide, previous storms, and the way the winter winds had shaped and reshaped the sand beneath the shoreline. We learned through practice, and multiple upendings, how to navigate the waters. Others in my family preferred the firm suport of boogie boards,, but I became attached to my big green “Tubby”: an inflatable tube with a sold, clear center, and hard plastic handles on each side. I became adept at leaping onto it, belly-down, legs dangling off the back, and then hanging on to the handles while I rode the waves to shore.
When huge, intimidating waves came, we learned to sink below the surface, allowing the power of the wave to wash above us before resurfacing. At high tide, the wave action often created deep gullies near the shoreline. Innocent-looking waves would then carry you briefly, but drop precipitously, the wave then crashing on top of you, driving you into the sand. My big, green Tubby would protect me from the full force of the crash, and give me something to hold on to as I stumbled to my feet again, onto the rocky sand near the water’s edge, scraping my knees as I rose up to trudge out for another ride. The very best was the occasional perfect low tide, when you could catch a wave far from the shore and ride it gloriously to the beach, tumbling off your tube before you were pushed onto the shore, then racing back through the bubbly waves for another thrilling ride.
Over the years, the parallels to navigating life wove themselves seamlessly into my thinking:
When the wave is too big, too frightening, too overwhelming, it pays to sink down, hold your breath, and wait for the power of the experience to pass before trying to move on.
When you get caught in rough water that theatens to drop you in a painful way, keep your resources close to cushion the blows: friends and family instead of my green Tubby.
And always, always keep your eyes open for those glorious days when the tide is out and vast shallow water shimmers before you. Wade out as far as you can, wait for the right wave, push off just before it hits you, and ride the power as far as it will take you.
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