[T]hen all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled 5,000 years ago.” — Herman Melville, “Moby-Dick,” or “The Whale.”
Call me BUD/S trainee. The ocean is my nemesis. Over time, the water will become my refuge and my security blanket but not in the beginning. In the beginning, the dark and cold waters are my implacable foe. Not until I receive my full salt water baptism and walk the ceremony of graduation will I learn to love the sea again.
There exists no circumlocution amongst BUD/S instructors. They tell us we are going to paddle our small rubber boats out through the rumbling and frothing surf and then paddle them back again straight at a collection of rocks stacked upon the shore. These are not mere pebbles collected at the shoreline. No, these are boulders, unmovable in the waves. A few are cobbles, able to be flung up by the tumultuous waters.
Some among us peer at the instructors through our squinted eyes and see in their visages our futures foretold. We see nothing less than calamity and brains dashed out upon the rocks alongside our dreams of finishing BUD/S training. We look upon broken and battered bones and envision our appendages deformed and splintered. No matter. We start out anyway as we know this is a part of it. It is as inevitable as the waves rising up out of the ocean into foaming white masses of roiling thunder made physical.
This day the surf zone is especially angry and surging forward with vengeance. That is no coincidence. The schedule has been altered to accommodate nature’s turbulent mood. The instructors simply cannot abide foregoing this rare opportunity to put us to the test. “Grab your boats, men. Head to the surf zone.” We respond reflexively as always but with fear in our bellies. Lord, do not let this be my last day in BUD/S lest it be my last day on Earth.
As I and my boat crew carry our small craft into the surf zone we all leap aboard when the depth allows it. The crewmen begin to furiously work the oars as though their very lives depend upon it. I begin the steady and rhythmic cadence of “stroke, stroke” to indicate that all must paddle frantically forward straight at the approaching waves. The entirety of the Pacific seems to conspire against us, as wave upon wave crashes before us.
The sets come quickly, towering waves following closely one behind another. They resemble some apocalyptic apparition sent straight from Hell to batter us and force us under the surface. We are an affront to the ocean’s power daring to challenge the supremacy of nature over man. We finally reach the moment when we must ascend the last wave and exit the surf zone to the safety beyond the breakers.
The men paddle relentlessly while as coxswain I keep us straight and true up the face of the wave. We come perilously close to full vertical and just as it seems that we will fall backward like some felled tree we slide over the crest to safety. We have moved beyond the first circle of our oceanic hell. We must now navigate a mere 150 yards north up the shoreline to bring ourselves in line with the rocks stacked like a dark and squat tower on the shore.
Our trial now is to ride atop a wave back to shore such that we make a controlled landing on top of the rocks. We must then alight from the boat onto the rocks and move it off the rocks quickly onto shore before we are struck by the next incoming wave and scattered upon the rocks. This is the key to maintaining our physical well-being over the course of the next few minutes and we are all acutely aware of the extreme orthopedic danger in which we find ourselves.
As we wait to choose our wave, the men paddle and I keep us straight with my oar acting as rudder, waiting for the moment to call “hold” atop the perfect wave. Our aquatic version of a bucking bull approaches and I decide we shall ride this one in. “Stroke boys, here she is!” We summit the wave and hold precariously upon its apex. The rocks approach fast and I spot our landing zone. We all repeat in our minds the mantra to keep our bodies out from between boat and rock.
The moment arrives and the wave we have harnessed crashes upon the rocks. We count it a miracle that the boat remains mostly upright, listing only a bit aft as it hangs on to a section of rock through sheer friction. “Out,” I shout unnecessarily as the men know what they are to do. They jump onto the rocks and find a secure foothold and begin to move the boat up the rocks and out of the danger of the oncoming waves.
Twenty feet more and we are safe. We have arrived on dry rocks and are near the safety of the sand. We survived to make another run at it. Meanwhile the ocean waves roll on as they have done for the last 5,000 years and as they will do for 5,000 more.
Featured image courtesy of U.S. Navy