Here’s a piece from my close friend Brian, a TV reporter and a life-long surfer. Brian makes Positively Jersey for New Jersey’s News 12. I don’t know anyone so good at synthesizing comedy and tragedy into a complete story as Brian.
For weeks in March and April, hundreds of people were dying of coronavirus every day in New York and New Jersey. The dead were stacked in refrigerated trailers outside the overflowing hospital morgues. The states, then the global epicenter of the pandemic, were in a state of near total lockdown, with traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike down 95 percent, the streets of my town eerily empty.
I spent most afternoons interviewing people immersed in that living hell, then listening to their words over and over again as I edited them down to two minute tv packages.
An emergency room nurse who counsels other first responders grappling with trauma but who hadn’t seen her own two year old daughter in a month.
A funeral home director who cried on the phone to me about not being able to comfort, or even hold a proper funeral for a couple whose intellectually disabled daughter had died alone in the hospital.
A man whose last words to his father: “I love you dad, you’re the best father there ever was” were delivered via facetime video and the heroic nurse who held the phone while he said good bye.
A morgue technician grapping with “just so much death” that she would stop at a florist on the way to work to buy a daffodil to place on the bodybags inside the refrigerated trailers.
When I was done, I would send in my story, close my laptop and take a deep breath.
Then I’d go surf my freaking brains out.
At the height of the crisis I found myself surfing day after day, longer and more intensely – and better – than I had in years.
The entries from my journal include April 15, a day 351 people in New Jersey died, when I rode one sunset tinged orange runner after another.
There was April 18, when I watched from the outside as my daughter peeled across the face of a three foot runner for a full four seconds, her first legit ride across the face of a wave. A moment no surfer – or surfing parent – can ever forget.
There were four session weeks and five session weeks. Morning pre-work sessions where I dialed into the morning office zoom meeting from the front seat of my van in the beach parking lot, then hung up and went to catch more waves.
Freed from obligations like driving my kids to school or attending family events, no longer commuting to work, I suddenly had vast amounts of free time on my hands to surf.
And more than ever, surfing felt desperately necessary.
I’ve always described a surf session as one stop shopping. You get the benefits of a trip to the gym, a walk in the woods and an uplifting church worship wrapped up in one.
I needed all that more than ever.
But there was another layer of urgency too. Because every drive to the beach, every wave I paddled into, felt like it could be the last for a long, long, time.
The lockdown created a feeling that the walls were closing in. State, county and towns had closed their parks. Towns along the Jersey shore were beginning to rope off beaches and boardwalks. My instagram feed was full of posts by surfers in meccas like California and Puerto Rico lamenting coronavirus surfing bans in those places. I met a guy in the water one day who had cut his winter stint in Costa Rica short to surf in New Jersey.
Yet, somehow, officials in New Jersey, a nanny state where some towns ban even eating or being on the beach at night to watch the stars, were leaving surfers alone. In a world turned upside down, it seemed the most astonishing turn of events yet.
Surfing took on an illicit feel, like we’d better be sneaky about it. No one spoke of our good fortune so as to not jinx it.
Surfers ran in and out of the water like we were pool hopping in some suburban backyard at midnight. I stretched sessions far longer than I ever normally would, convinced that every wave I caught would be the last for months. I became hyper-aware of every glint of light off the wave, every turn and drop. For weeks, I woke up every morning and scrolled through my phone, paranoid, looking for news that surfing had been banned.
In the end, they never did ban surfing in New Jersey. I have my theories as to why – that officials either made an epidemiologicaly sensible decision or just forgot winter surfers existed – but mostly we just lucked out.
From my local surf spot, you can see the New York City skyline.
Bobbing out there between sets I would gaze at the city and imagine the scenes playing out in all the hospitals in Queens and Brooklyn. The rows of people on ventilators. The people out of work, the thousands growing more lonely in their apartments.
And then a wave would come, and I would turn my board around and take off.
Going on a surf tear despite the pandemic was enough of an incongruous and survivor-guilt inducing paradox on its own.
But to be doing it because of the pandemic felt even more strange.
At one point after a particularly bad week of worrying about my kid, who has kidney disease, my elderly parents and two married friends who both were fighting the virus while caring for two young children (both are now okay) I appeared on camera in my bathrobe on my front porch and told viewers I was “kinda losing it.”
I was effectively telling the world that I was struggling mightily.
I’ll never forget how much better I felt after my televised admission of vulnerability.
But that Monday brought another shot of south swell that lit up my local break and helped just as much.
Our experiences in the outdoors are always shaped as much by the personal context in which we do them as by the scenery, terrain or conditions.
A hike up a mountain we’ve done twenty times feels different the day after your mother has died. I will never forget my first surf sessions after two other local disasters, 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy. I shed tears into the ocean both times.
At this point, surfing through the pandemic is something I’m still processing. It has underscored its importance in my own life. At age 49, I’ve doubled down on the conditioning, so I can keep at it as long as possible.
But the larger lesson is still coming into focus. To figure that out I need to compare my pandemic surf binge to the shit that other people went through.
As the outbreak raged, so many people had the things that sustain them taken away just when they needed them most. Musicians robbed of an audiences. Swimmers denied access to pools. Hikers shut out of national and state parks.
Yet I was lucky. I had my thing. In heaps.
There’s a lesson about the utter failure of the system in there somewhere. That we couldn’t keep at least some of these things up and running when folks needed them most. And maybe it’s a failure that there’s simply not MORE of it ALL- more trails, more accessible surf breaks, more parks that would have made overcrowding a non issue – and more awareness by officials that people needed this stuff.
I know it more acutely now. And a realization is taking shape that I need to turn that deeper knowledge into greater action and advocacy for all the stuff I mentioned in the previous paragraph.
Because I surfed through the pandemic. And as it has so many times before, I’m pretty sure it saved me.