Emilie Phillips updated September 25, 2017
It’s fall and the tropical storms are passing by New England. Jose left us with sunny skies, 2-3 foot swell, 80 degree air, and warm water. A great day for surfing. The parking lot at Jenness Beach was packed, and the water was carpeted with black neoprene. We drove past the beach to Rye Harbor. From the harbor, it’s a mile paddle back to Jenness along the coast; not a big deal in kayaks, but too far for surf boards. Isaac swam in the harbor with an enthusiastic dog chasing balls while Tyson and I loaded our minimal gear into the kayaks. Tyson and Isaac, as usual, would take the Bullitt with the front cockpit open. We filled the bow with extra flotation bags, and we brought the bilge pump expecting waves to top the coaming.
Once we paddled out past the breakwater, I felt the longer swells rolling under my boat. Ten seconds between waves. The Isles of Shoals, clearly visible at the top of each swell, disappeared when I slid to the bottom. These waves were shaped by winds far off in the ocean — gradually rising and falling, almost smooth on the surface, and utterly discounted by Isaac. It wasn’t until we had been out for a while that Isaac asked with puzzlement, “why are we going up and down?”
On the way between Rye Harbor and Jenness Beach the waves peaked and broke roaring towards rocks 10ft tall at the shoreline. A few surfers bravely waited for a good one. We paddled prudently by. Next there’s a little bay that might offer surf at a lower tide. Today, at high tide, the waves hurried into the bay and then crashed into the cobble beach. From half way out the bay, I heard the water growl and hiss as it drained out of the cobble after each wave — dumping waves. Not a good place to land. Even 1 foot dumping waves are enough to pummel you.
Tyson paddled hard to keep up with one wave in the bay, but didn’t get much ride for his effort. So we paddled on to Jenness. At Jenness we found good waves, long ridges sweeping across the neoprene heads. I pondered the wakes etched by the surf boards and the raised hands of those left behind cheering their friends. Pointy kayaks and surfers don’t mix. The good news is our long boats can surf shallower waves than the surfers, so we picked an area that was less good in their opinion, but good enough for us. Tyson was wary of the waves: 23 foot kayak, only one person steering at the back, and a little kid. So I volunteered to test the waters.
I fell off the back of the first wave, too timid and didn’t start paddling until the wave was almost on me. I caught the second wave, though I had to paddle hard to get down on the face. I settled into a sweet spot and then rode it straight in. No weaving or tricks. When I saw the wave starting to break, I turned to carve back up over the wave. Instead it broke full length next to me and caught me in a side surf. At high tide, there’s no beach exposed at Jenness. The end of the ride is a hill of rocks. I dug my edge in trying to turn, but nothing happened. I was still being swept to shore. There was plenty of water between me and shore, so I waited a few more seconds to see what the wave would do. 1, 2, 3, 4 … I felt the muddy foam at my side slacken, so I pulled as hard as I could, brought my bow over the wave, and stroked fast to turn my kayak to face the next wave that crashed in to me. I caught sight of Tyson and Isaac. They were already closer to shore than I liked, only just outside the breaking zone. I raced to go warn them of the danger of being swept into the rocks. Next time I saw them over a wave, Tyson had turned the Bullitt around and was paddling back out.
I tried to take a picture of them climbing a wave, but then that same wall of green steepened to the point of breaking above me. I clenched my camera in my mouth, paddled as hard as I could, and tucked my head bracing for impact. I came out the other side sputtering but no worse. The next wave was steep, but not steep enough to wash me back onto the rocks. A few more big waves and I was out. I caught up with Tyson to deliver my message.
He had seen enough of my ride in to already know what I had learned. “I wasn’t worried about you,” he said, “you had your boat between you and shore, but I wasn’t sure if the boat would survive.” We stayed well outside the breaking waves after that.
I caught two waves, these times concentrating on a clean and early turn out. Tyson also got in two good rides. Or at least they would have been good if he weren’t worrying about controlling the boat and Isaac. Isaac thought they were awesome. On Tyson’s last ride in, I watched his stern disappear over the wave. As the wave rose higher and higher I considered how I would rescue the two of them in the surf. I caught the next wave. From the top of my wave, I spotted Tyson safely paddling back out.
Tyson declared himself done and said we should quit while we were ahead. I agreed. Isaac, on the other hand did not. “Go back there where it’s fun!” he demanded. We paddled back to the harbor with Isaac moping most of the way. He didn’t cheer up until he found another kid to play with while we loaded boats on the car. Isaac beat us to the car to be first to go eat ice cream.