It's a point of fact, and a point of pride: surfers who grow up riding the beachbreaks of the mid-Atlantic coast can tube-ride with the best of them, all around the world. Why? Because when the surf is barreling here, even on a medium-size swell, the waves drop and pitch so quickly that getting into them requires lightning-fast reflexes, years of practice, and a charge-it mindset that may very well toss you over the falls and land you on your head to suffer a vicious beat-down by a half-ton of gravelly churning water. And even if you do make the drop, pull in, and find yourself enjoying the magical outlook from inside the green room, you've probably only got two seconds to enjoy it before the whole thing closes out on you and sucks you into laundry-cycle somersaults as your board tombstones over top of you for all your friends to see. That's what we call "fun" around here.
"Two seconds? That's long!" said writer and local activist Matt Walker while I was discussing the title for this post. "It's more like one. Or maybe a half."
He's right, of course. My camera shoots eight frames a second and rarely do I ever get a sequence of more than four or five shots of someone covered up inside a barrel before we both get pitched. And it's usually more like one or two frames. Which means that most barrel rides on your average "good" day around here are about a quarter of a second. Catching a two-second barrel means you totally scored. People on the beach will be hooting and cheering for you -- once they see you come up for air.
So when Outer Bankers go to places like Hawaii and Indonesia where long, perfect tubes are the order of the day, they have a natural advantage over California point-break riders. They've spent half their lives getting munched and crunched and tossed by barrels just as powerful, but twice as critical, as the beautiful lines of the Mentawais or G-Land. They know how fast to paddle, what angles are makeable and what angles are suicide, and how to spring from a paddling to a standing position in, well, something like a sixteenth of a second or less. So when they travel to places where the waves are hollow and long, it's like paradise. After years pulling into wave after wave of beachbreak beat-downs, pulling into a hollow wave at a world-class spot is a piece of cake.
Now that's not to say that there aren't good days around here, when the swell comes in at just the right angle, the wind is a perfect offshore billow, the lines are just right and you can ride completely covered up for a goodfive, six seconds or more . It does happen. Every ten years or so. Somewhere to the south. Or at least I've heard stories...
But to judge a barrel ride by its duration is to miss the point entirely. The real feat is making the drop, pulling inside it, and getting that split-second view of the inside of a wave, with the sun filtering through the lip overhead and your view on the outside world reduced to the light at the end of the tunnel. Yeah, it's great to make it through, to get spit out like Gerry Lopez at Pipeline, to emerge heroically and pull off a soul arch like it ain't no thing...but I will submit to you that there is something almost equally satisfying about getting closed out, about being taken by the spiraliing kinetic power of the swell and becoming one with the roiling mass of whitewater that it creates in the last few seconds of its life. A wave from a good swell may have travelled hundreds -- in some case thousands -- of miles before bursting on to the shore like a supernova. And to get caught up inside that explosion, to feel the raw power of one of nature's most elemental phenomena, well it's a singular experience; and it takes balls to endure that kind of thrashing over and over in the course of a surf session and still paddle out for more. It's a kamikaze flight, a dance with death, but for most it ends with whoops of delight as they emerge from under the water, with sand in every orifice and a maybe a bruise or two from hitting the bottom.
Fortunately the bottom here is sand. None of this "getting closed out is fun!" stuff is applicable to shallow reefs or rock bottoms. Charge at your own risk.