Surf’s Up!

Rob Dinsmoor

“Get in the car, Ashley! Now!” Dad yelled, and I didn’t like the tone of his voice.

“I’m not going to North Conway! It’s boring!”

“I don’t care if you’re bored! I care if you’re still alive!”

He was being a drama queen, or at least that’s what I thought at the time. I probably should have listened, but the whole climate change emergency thing happened so quickly. In just a few days, the winter temperature on the North Shore went from the 20s to the 80s, and for me, it was a dream come true. The first day it happened, my BFF Caitlin and I went to Singing Beach, along with half the population of Manchester. (That’s Manchester, Massachusetts, by the way. The town was renamed “Manchester-By-the-Sea” so that people wouldn’t confuse it with Manchester, New Hampshire. As if.)

There was still some snow toward the back of the beach, but it would be toast soon. We walked to the far end of the beach, where the rocks and the mansions are, slathered on some SPF15, and lay on our towels in our thong bikinis. There were plenty of guys playing football and Frisbee right next to us. Just a coincidence, right?

But then my parents started to panic. Dad said the temperature was supposed to hit 90 by the end of the week, but that there was really no telling because the meteorologists all said that the next several days were going to be totally unpredictable. “You may think you know what’s going on, but trust me, you don’t,” he said. “There’s no telling what kind of repercussions weather like this is going to have. We could have hurricanes, tornados, floods, you name it.” Like I said, Dad was a real drama queen.

I remember one winter when I was in grade school, in 2007, when we had this freaky 70-degree day in February. It was totally awesome, but weird watching the sun set below the dunes at Crane Beach at 4:30 on a warm sunny day that felt like summer. I especially felt for the little kids playing with their shovels. For all they knew, it would stay warm and they would go to the beach every week—and they were in for a rude awakening. But the important thing was, there were no hurricanes and nobody died.

So, the last thing I wanted to do was get in the car with Mom, Dad, and Dakota and sit through traffic for hours to get to North Bumfuck, New Hampshire. I gave him the finger, climbed into my birthday Beamer, and took off. I decided to go see what Caitlin was up to.

Almost immediately, my cell phone rang, but I didn’t pick up, letting it go straight to voicemail. When I pulled over, I listened to the voicemail. I expected him to ream me out, but this was even worse. “Ash, it’s Dad. I’m sorry I was cross with you, but I’m very concerned. I hope you’ll come join us up in North Conway. Please call us. I promise I’ll be calmer when you call.” Whatever.

Caitlin and I went back to Singing Beach, but nobody was there. That’s probably because of the stench and the barricades. WTF? We got out of the car, walked across the parking lot and saw where the stink was coming from. There were a couple of whales that had washed up on the beach. It was gross, but also sad. I wondered whether they had been mates or something.

We drove up 127 to Magnolia Beach, which often stinks anyway because of all the mucky seaweed that hangs around at low tide, but today it stank even more than usual. At least one dead whale and what might at one time have been bluefish. We bagged it and went back to my house.

We watched TV while dining on ice cream and Mom’s white wine. Why not? If the world was going to end, we might as well enjoy our last moments, right? While channel-surfing, I came across an interview of some Harvard biologist talking about how accelerated global warming was affecting the eco-system, making wildlife migrate to places they didn’t belong and generally behave in unexpected ways. He was followed by a meteorologist talking about a rapidly developing hole in the ozone layer over the East Coast. I switched channels and saw a clip about traffic on I-95. Absolutely horrendous. It was a parking lot, except that there were assholes driving way off the road to get ahead in the traffic.

“Gee, I wish I’d gone with my family up to North Conway!” I said.

“Really?” Caitlin asked. She can be really thick sometimes.

“As if!”

After Caitlin left, I switched to Game of Thrones, available on demand, and fell asleep on the couch.

The next morning, I checked the surf report on my laptop and saw that, in the late afternoon, they were predicting a powerful offshore wind and four-foot waves on Good Harbor Beach—a perfect combination that doesn’t come around very often. I’ve always considered Good Harbor to be a surf spot for newbies and other losers. But going to my favorite local spot, Hampton Beach, meant driving up I-95 or Route 1, which might even be worse. And, well, four-foot waves—that was something. I immediately called Caitlin, and she was game. Caitlin’s parents were on vaca in Barcelona, so she could pretty much do what she wanted.

My surfboard was in the back of the garage, as I hadn’t used it since, like, forever. Usually, I’d surf in my wetsuit up until early November, but then it got so cold I just couldn’t stand it anymore, wetsuit or no. I looked out the window and saw some wild flowers and crocuses pushing up between patches of snow, along with butterflies! Sweet! But I had a nasty surprise when I opened the garage door.

It was full of spiders—huge and like none I’d ever seen—and they were literally covering everything in the garage with webs—rakes, hoes, shovels, the lawnmower, the snow blower, you name it. Don’t get me wrong, I think spiders are really gross, but my love of surfing overrode my hatred for spiders. Never get between a girl and her longboard!

I went into the kitchen and came back with a lighter, the Sunday newspaper, and a broom. I rolled up the newspaper and lit the end of it so it made a lot of smoke. I put that on the floor of the garage and watched the spiders start to skitter away from it. Then I used the broom to break up the spider webs and clear a path to the surfboard. That’s how I rescued it from the spider cave.

The trip to Caitlin’s was uneventful, partly because there was practically no one on the road. The only obstacles were these stampeding hordes of chipmunks that kept running under my tires and getting squished. It was totally gross.

Caitlin came bounding out of her house as soon as I pulled up. She was dressed appropriately in a floral bathing suit and a baseball cap. We strapped her surfboard to the top of mine and headed for Good Harbor. All along the way, we caught occasional glimpses of the ocean, which was totally stirred up. The main entrance to the beach was closed, as it always was in the winter, so we parked on a side street and carried our boards down to the beach.

I was so happy to see that there were no dead whales, but the sand fleas were jumping—and biting. Not only that, but so were the greenheads, these nasty flies whose bodies are so hard you can’t really crush them. The best thing you can do is smack them silly and then bury them in the sand, hoping they won’t be able to wiggle their way out and bite you again. The weird thing is, I’ve seen them at Crane Beach but never Singing Beach, and certainly not in February.

The waves were epic. As we waded in with our boards, we noticed how warm the water was. Usually, at this time of year, it got down into the 50s, but this felt like one of those beaches on St. John, back before the hurricanes flattened it. At first, we were battered back by the waves, even though we tried to get under them and surface behind them.

On the right side, the rocks form a natural barrier. We paddled on our stomachs in between the rocks and shore and waited there until just after a wave had passed, shot out behind it, waited for another wave and, when it started to nudge our boards forward, stood up. We had a few glorious rides and were a little surprised no one else was out there.

It was after a few rides that I started to see those red patches forming on Caitlin’s skin. Immediately, I looked down at my skin and I had them too!

“Caitlin!” I called out and she screamed, “Holy fuck, Ash! What’s going on?”

“Maybe it’s the ozone!”

“Let’s get out of here!” she said, starting to paddle for shore. Then she called out “Holy--! Something just bit me!” She held out her right hand and there was blood on her fingers, but I couldn’t tell how bad the bite was.

“What is it?” I cried out.

“I don’t know! Something big!”

Caitlin started to paddle toward shore, but something violently tugged her arm and the water around her surfboard turned red. She held up what was left of her arm, screaming, and a few seconds later, a huge shark came out of the water and scooped her off the surfboard like a raw oyster.

As sometimes happens in an emergency, I took a moment to step back mentally from the situation. There was nothing I could do to save Caitlin at this point. Even though I was totally freaking out, I didn’t paddle. Instead, I just crouched on the board until the waves washed me close to shore, into shallow water, jumped off, and sprinted onto the beach.

I ran back to the pile of stuff we’d laid out and put on my T-shirt and jacket to protect my skin, which was starting to blister and peel. Caitlin was nowhere to be seen.

I called 911 and the paramedics were there in 10 minutes. By then, the only signs of Caitlin were shreds of her floral bathing suit and some nondescript goo that the sand crabs got at immediately. The paramedics said there had been shark attacks all over Cape Ann. Apparently, something had gone wrong with their food supply, they said, and they were becoming particularly aggressive. They asked me all kinds of questions, including Caitlin’s next of kin, and whether I wanted an ambulance or anything, but I declined. “You really should think about evacuating,” one of them said.

“To where?” I asked, and he didn’t have an answer.

I must have been numb with shock while they were there, but afterward, I’ll admit it, I cried like a baby. I know it’s lame, but that’s what I did, remembering all the times Caitlin and I had growing up—boating, surfing, dating, and getting high. Then, for a while, I just sat there quietly, trying to think of nothing at all.

I checked my cell phone—I had a voicemail from Dad. “Hi, Pumpkin. Please call me. I’m afraid it’s too late for you to drive up here. There have been out-of-control forest fires all over New Hampshire. It’s complete chaos, and the police have barricaded the road because of violent episodes of road rage. Your Mom, Dakota, and I are holed up in the cabin with plenty of groceries, and I have my gas generator and rifle up here. I just wanted to hear your voice, in case I didn’t have a chance anytime soon.”

I continued to sit on that beach, contemplating things. The wind had picked up, blowing the sand around, and the waves were now huge, slamming against the rocks and even the mansion sitting on them. I remembered when Dad took me on a “photo expedition” during Hurricane Bill, back in 2009. Mom was bullshit, but Dad persisted, and we got lots of great photos and videos of huge waves crashing over the sea wall, and in some cases, slamming against mansions that had their windows all boarded up. Now, the sun began to set, turning the hemorrhaging clouds various shades of orange, pink and purple, as if someone had dropped food coloring into an aquarium and the crests of the waves and the mini sandstorms reflected all the pretty colors in the horizon.

I texted the picture to my Dad, adding, “I’m okay. It’s a whole new world down here. Savage, but oh so pretty . . .”


About the Author

Rob Dinsmoor is the author of three fictive memoirs: Tales of the TroupeThe Yoga Divas and Other Stories, and You Can Leave Anytime. He also co-authored a children's picture book titled Does Dixie Like Me? His story in Lowestoft Chronicle, 'Kundalini Yoga at the Arkham YMCA,' was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Recently, he appeared on stage on The Moth Story Slam. He lives on the North Shore of Massachusetts. Visit his Website at www.robertdinsmoor.com.