This is the sea.
by Elizabeth C. Creely
When I stand in front of the wave, I bow before it
three times, and then
I jump straight into it.
I am a tentative Brendan,
lunging through salt water and seaweed to an island that is
out there over there under that
down below, in the sea.
This is a picture of the Wedge, as captured by my nephew Alex Hodges in a moment of rare repose. The Wedge is a south-facing beach, which at times is comparable to narrow shingle, because of the cluttered littoral zone. It is in Newport Beach, at the very end of the Balboa Peninsula. The Wedge was created by the insertion of a jetty by the Army Corps of Engineers back in the thirties. Before then the Newport Bay snaked its way through the man-made islands of the Newport Harbor, created by the mud of the bay, to the ocean. The relationship between bay and ocean goes back and forth and back and forth: the tide comes in and out it goes again. The confluence of the bay and the ocean used to be a turbulent spot with long snaking waves, that surfers took advantage of on their longboards back in the forties. (Witness this clip at 1:19 of a man on his board being ushered into the bay.) Then the Jetty was built on the bones of an old groin. Mere turbulence begat total chaos.
The Wedge is called the Wedge because of the following conditions: The wave-pattern get amplified by the presence of the jetty. Here’s how I would describe it, based on forty years of direct observation: A wave rolls in – a south-facing swell. If you were to be riding effortlessly on top of that wave, you would look to your right. You would notice that the wave is dragging along the rocky side of the jetty.
This section of the wave must reconcile with itself somehow, and it does, with massive amounts of force, re-enfolding itself with itself, creating a shape I’ve seen so many times I can’t describe it. A wedge. Or sort of a triangle, maybe, a mountain peak of white that caps a glistening blue-green barrel (this is on a sunny summer day: the wave is sullen, turbid and grey at other times and frankly murderous). If I were to land on just one image to describe what happens at the Wedge I would say that a mountain, a veritable Mont Blanc, appears in the water. It is buttressed by the waves rolling in behind it.
The wave gets one last assist: there is a sand bar that lies just a few feet from the shore and this causes the wave to rear up again, like a maddened horse. It’s impossible not to refer to other things when you try to describe the waves at the Wedge. A mountain. A horse. A wave.
Are you at the Wedge, watching the waves? Here is an important question. Where are you in relation to this wave? Before you answer that, know that the ground beneath you is steep and unstable. There is a drop-off which the unwary discover after walking a few feet into the little waves. Suddenly the ground drops away from beneath you and you have no traction, no bargaining power a’tall with the tide.
Perhaps you stood on what you thought of as the shore. Perhaps you walked in intending to stand ankle-deep in the water. The wave has other ideas. As it hits the shore, it slices layers of sand from the bank. The sand slides away under your feet. Ankle deep quickly becomes knee deep. You turn and try to walk up what has suddenly become a steep wall. The sand falls away. You feel as though you’re dragging the weight of the ocean behind you. Knee deep becomes waist deep. Then you feel the undertow.
This is when you know that you are not standing on the shore. You are in the ocean.
I have always dreamed of waves. I have been watching towering walls of water move toward me since I was a little girl darting in and out of the waves in Balboa on the south-facing beaches from 13th street down to the Wedge. Swimming out and swimming in, I was in constant confluence with the waves. It was totally un-navigated territory, made new each time, because as anyone experienced with wave-dwelling will tell you, no wave is ever the same.
I narrowly escaped drowning at the Wedge when I was sixteen. I was caught in the strike zone- the place where the waves cycle in and out so rapidly, you can make no headway, and are reduced to panic-stricken thrashing, which tires you out and increases the odds you’ll never set foot on dry land again. I was in danger, but what I felt most acutely was chagrined shame. How stupid I was to not listen to my Dad who knew the Wedge was not a good place to swim. I finally fought my way out during a lull, and stepped forward shakily, each step a fight against the arms of the ocean that were still clutching my waist, pleading with me to stay. I picked up my towel and left. That was the last time I swam there.
But I have met that wave since then, the most powerful wave in the world, in a dream. A wall of water collects itself to rear up far over my head, up, up into the reaches of the sky, towering, a grey wall of barely contained force. It never moves. Or, if it does, the movement is imminent, almost implied. What matters is that it’s there, demonstrating its power and might as I stare at it, unbelieving.
It is so large that the lights of the known world can be seen twinkling though its watery walls. In my dream I scramble up the quickly eroding bank and escape, clumsy, and fearful, feeling the threat at my back, knowing that the movement of the wave is there waiting. It will always be there.
This is, after all, the sea.
Mai Huli`oe I Kokua o Ke Kai!
Elizabeth C. Creely, San Francisco, June 2013