Monday 30 November 2020

A tribute to the Scheveningen surfers: And you are up. Dancing on top of the sea

In 2016, occasional columnist Joe Weeg was taught to surf by one of the five surfers killed in the sea on Monday. At the time, he wrote about Joost in a piece entitled Old Surfers on his blog, and we reproduce it here, as a tribute to the young men who died.

Update 2020: Joe writes: ‘I am always troubled by young death — which I saw a lot of in my former life as a prosecutor either as murder victims or car accident fatalities. And I think I have less resiliency during this time of the coronavirus. But these deaths seem particularly tragic.’

Old surfers

The old surfers float out just beyond the harbor, waiting, patient, lions in the tall grass. The noses of their surf boards are high up out of the water while they sit on the tails, their faces turned to the sea. The waves roll in. No one moves. Then, a larger curl is spotted. Far out in the ocean. It builds higher and higher. Wait. Wait. Wait. Explode. Paddle, paddle, paddle. There it is. Awesome. And you are up. Dancing on top of the sea. Immortal.

‘So, after you go into the water, come up like this, with your hands over your head, so you don’t get hit in the head with the board,’ the surfing instructor says.

Why are they going to try to hit us in the head with a board? I wonder.

The white-blonde, long-haired, wiry, freckled, limber, bearded, strong, laughing, smiling, impishly delightful Dutch surfing instructor shouts this advice over the blowing North Sea wind to us very pale folks sitting on the beach. Yup, a surfing class in the North Sea. Go figure.

Joost is our teacher at this surfing school in the Netherlands. Kind. Gentle. Great for beginners. And he’s my image of a surfer dude, cool as in cheesy movies and pop songs. Actually, I believe surfers might have evolved from a foreign species, you know, like runway models, professional football players, and nuns. But this guy seems genuinely interested in teaching my 25-year-old daughter and myself. So why not take a class?

Well, there is that small hiccup, really just a little bump in the road, a tiny fly in the ointment. Yup, you guessed it. I’m going to drown.

See, water is not my friend. Not for lack of trying, by the way. Back in the day, I would breeze through the two weeks of training in the shallow end of the pool, an exemplary student, a model for my brothers and sisters in the same class. But then we’d get to that last day, the day we show off all that we learned for our applauding parents, on that day they’d throw me into the deep end and have me swim to the other side. A wonderful test of skill and daring to be marked by a ceremony and a diploma that would start you on the path to a successful marriage and a fulfilling career in finance.

Unfortunately, my swimming lesson experience always somehow involved a bamboo pole poking it’s way towards me as I sat at the bottom of the deep end, slowly drowning. The idea of an actual rescue by a real person was apparently reserved for less expendable students. The bamboo pole would poke around until I would grab onto the prodding stick and they’d pull me up, landed and gasping on the side of the pool. My brothers and sisters, all seven of them, would line up to receive their badges of courage for successful completion. Not me. I alone would have to return for another two weeks of exemplary swimming, followed by the prodding bamboo pole, the landing and gasping, and the firm conviction that water is best enjoyed in a glass.

Joost gives me a kind, reassuring smile, and in excellent English says:

‘I’m not worried that someone is going to drown. I know where I put my people in the water. And if something happens, everyone here teaching surfing is a qualified lifesaver as well. The only thing that could happen, if there is a lot of wind, you want to protect the head as soon as you fall off the board, as soon as you come up. If you don’t, and come up, you might get hit by a board. Of course, you can always have an accident. Somebody could suffer a heart attack or a stroke. Stuff can happen. If something happens, all the people are ready.

Great. I’m covered. Drowning. Heart attack. Stroke. Head injury. Check, check, check, check.

Enough stalling, time to put on the wetsuit.

Although it is late July, the North Sea still demands a little protection so that you don’t turn into an iceberg while looking for the big wave. Everybody gets a wetsuit and goes into the dressing rooms to change.

‘I’m sorry, what do men wear under their wet suit?’

‘Really? You’re kidding me?’

All right. I can do this. One leg goes in. Fine. The second leg almost goes in. I fall over. Great. Recover with grace. Excellent. Look around to see who noticed. Nobody. Good. Pull up the second leg. Wonderful. Pull up to the waist. Oops. Why won’t it pull up to the waist? I’m stuck. And a little uncomfortable. And naked. Lord help me. I’m going to need to waddle out to the instructors and have them pull up my bottoms. This is horrible. People will point and shout. My very own daughter will be traumatized and disillusioned. From now on she will tell her friends that her father is dead to her. Listen, I’ve read about this. It happens with less. I’m going to have to move to Australia. This is DISASTROUS!

Next to me stands a middle-aged dad and his eight-year-old son. Part of our class. The dad helps his son into his wetsuit with a lot of tickling and giggling. He then puts on his own wetsuit with a quick tug and pull. Everything done. They’re ready to surf. But before they head out the door, he glances my way.

I’m a mess.

Without a word, he comes over, yanks up my pants, slips in my arms, zips up my back, tightens my collar, and gives me a pat on the back. ‘All ready?’ he says in Dutch. His son and I nod our heads dutifully, we follow him out the door and walk to the water.

And Joost teaches us to surf.

The day disappears in joy.

And in the evening, the old surfers are back out near the arm of the harbor. Their wet suits dully gleaming. The nose of their surfboards high. They look to the sea. No one moves. They wait for the wave. There it is. Wait. Wait. Wait. Explode.

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