One moment he was pulling round to meet the set when without warning the front hit like an explosion. The waves reared even higher and snapped above his head before he was ready. The vast torrent of water fell down on him; it was too late and too close for him to dive under, out of direct harm. The force first threw him off the board and then pushed him down. He could feel the leash stretch and go taut as he spun round under the weight of the spinning ocean, he curled into a ball hugging his knees, expecting the board to snap back like a cartoon cat on a rubber band –the board hitting him was always his worst nightmare, with the weight it carried he’d be knocked out cold to drown unaware and silently. He waited for the impact. Nothing. He was desperate for air, but in the darkness of the undersea it was impossible for him to tell which way was up. Something scraped past his leg. At first he thought it was the board, but he put out his hand as he was swirled past and grabbed…sand – the bottom. He was at the bottom of the sea, still spinning and almost out of breath.
With the last of the air in his lungs he pushed up to where he guessed the surface was – he must have been under for, for how long? Seconds, minutes, hours, about ten feet of beach? He didn’t care, yet he couldn’t stop calculating it anyway. Then. Then the surface ! He broke through the skin of the surface and gasped, seconds later another wave hit, with less force this time, but enough to push him down again. It was just as well since he’d taken less air in this time, but again he came up spluttering. His only way out was to get the board back and at least try to stay on the surface. His legs worked like pistons to keep afloat whilst he reached down and grabbed the leash to reel it in. There seemed to be something missing and he soon found out what. At the end of the leash was about three feet of board…the back three feet and a single fin to be precise. Shit. The board had snapped. But it was enough to float and gratefully, dimly aware of what he’d have to say to Victor, to the others, when he got back on the beach, he grasped the stump of board and tried to get his bearings. He sucked in each lungful of air in case it was his last before another enforced dive.
Matt washed about, disorientated, but seemingly out of the drop zone. He looked up but the rain altered shapes and the headland blurred away at the edges. He couldn’t quite work out what had happened. Then he realised. He was beyond the break again. At some point in being thrown around in the spin cycle of the last set he’d been pushed over into the rip. A rip that was running more viciously than he’d ever known and it had sluiced him further out to sea than he’d ever been, the wrong side of waves eight, ten, twelve feet tall, clutching a pathetically stunted fragment of board. Even if he’d had the full board he’d not have known what to do.
The rip had pulled him off to the left hand side of the bay, he was sloshed from side to side as the waves hit the cliff in explosions of ridiculous violence and washed back out to where he hung grimly, each one pushing him further out. The sky was dark and if there were any people watching from the land he couldn’t see them. His stomach filled with ice and he pissed in the wetsuit, warming momentarily before the next curtain of rain mixed in with spray slapped him square across the face.
He knew he couldn’t just sit and wait. The sea was rough and getting rougher, he was getting colder. Somewhere, seemingly a long time ago, he remembered that he shouldn’t do what he so desperately wanted to do – to swim back against the rip. Maybe it was one of the fishermen who’d told him, maybe he’d read it in a Jack London book or something, but he realised that to have any hope of getting back he had to swim across the rip. On one side there were the cliffs, vertical slabs, crumbled to meet the water’s open mouth, on the other it seemed like a mile across the bay. The cliffs then. Matt lay on the ragged piece of splintered balsa and varnish and tried to paddle it towards the relative shelter of the rocks – at least there he figured, even if he could get no further, he’d be out of the water and could wait it out until the tide dropped or the storm passed - or maybe both. He made good progress, perhaps too much. As he got near the cliff he felt a boost from behind and realised he’d been picked up by another wave and was flung forwards, surfing flat bellied towards the teeth of the rocks. He tried to pull off, but the force was visceral and refused all his attempts to leave its embrace. He was almost there when he let go of the board and shut his eyes – the momentum of the board lost he was pulled back behind the break once more and opened his eyes expecting to see pulverising granite approaching at speed but was gratified to see just the immense plume thrown up as the incompressible met the uncrushable. He was pushed out again by the backwash, struggling to hold on to the board with his numb fingers, gripping the waxed rails with all his strength. The sea rose and fell, smashed and splintered again and again against the cliff debris.
To get in Matt needed to get close enough to make the gap in the swell – to get up and behind the rocks jutting out from the base, away from the break tearing at the unimpressed rocks and rending smaller rocks, seaweed, soft bodies like Matt’s into so much broken flotsam and sand. The noise here was unimaginable – a constant howl of power – the snap and whip of the water, the low bass growl of the waves; once this would have impressed Matt, but now in the throat of the bay it sounded like nothing less than a war cry, a wail of intent, a shout of all consuming victory. It was as if the sea were claiming back its margins from the land and the people on it –one small exchange, Matt, for the bounty it had given up time and time again –here was another to add to the list of drowned sailors, snatched fishermen and suicidal cliff jumpers. Fair exchange for all the oil, the fish, the sand, the shit.
The board ground against some exposed and barnacled rocks, scraping and pitching. Matt felt it hit against the side of his trailing leg. A moments stinging and then too much else going on for him to pay any attention. He was floundering but could see a break in the otherwise blank cliff face, a crack, a hole, just above the waterline. He was floating almost immediately below the cliff path now, washing just behind the break, just out of reach of the impact zone and just that bit too far away to feel anything but exhaustion.
Then the gap. The waves stilled for a moment. Matt stared out at the horizon, looking for the tell tale signs of the next set, a ridge of approaching waves. They were there, but slowing, a long way out. Maybe thirty, maybe forty seconds away. He swung around and paddled across the juddering water, arms and legs pushing and pushing, pumping, flailing, moving. He could feel his heart thumping through the wetsuit, slamming against the hard surface of the board as he frantically tried to keep up the pace. His throat burned with the effort of breathing so fast, so deep. Mouthfuls of seawater were a minor inconvenience. He was getting closer. Here the water was still rising and falling by two, three feet as it hit the rock and backed away again, but it was manageable. As he reached the first rock he ditched the remains of the board, letting it go and feeling it tug on the leash. The rocks were still too sharp, too jagged for him to spare the time to undo the leash and the board bobbed around some six feet away like an ungrateful sullen pet. He clambered over the clustered rocks, wedged together and chanced a look up. The next set was rolling closer, maybe five seconds before it swept over the rocks and smashed against the cliff wall. Matt, clear headed now, hung in the water behind the rock, jammed his fingers and knees hard into any crevices he could, took a deep breath, ducked down under the surface and waited for the impact. He felt the water suck away from around him, he pushed himself down and. Crack ! The noise filled every bone in his body, muffled and sharp at the same moment. The pressure pushed him down, made him lose his grip momentarily, filled the underwater space with bubbles, millions of bubbles. Then it passed, leaving swirling eddies and a rain of salt water from the face of the cliffs. Matt surfaced. He’d done it. Now for the next move, less time now. Again he pushed towards the base of the cliff, grasping at rocks, able even to stand on some as he floundered for footing, he crouched in the lee of another granite boulder, rode out another impact and pulled further on.
Five, six waves had passed over him when he reached the relative calm of the crack he’d seen running diagonally up the face. He finally pulled off the leash and let the board go. It swung out into the rip and was pulled away from him, along with so much else.
The crack was about two feet wide and he pushed himself up clear of the area that bore the brunt of the sea’s malevolence. Matt sighed, exhausted and recognised for a second that this was not malevolence at all, it was his stupidity, his ego, the sea was just doing what it always did and the fact that he happened to be in it at the time would have been of no consequence to the salt water and all its attendant deities. His leg began to throb and he felt down, the suit was gashed badly on the left leg and blood was pouring from a cut on his calf about eight inches long. Hard to tell, he thought calmly. The blood was running freely, but the salt water was the main culprit there, succeeding in overwhelming the hot viscousness and transmuting it into something closer to it’s own form, all the while letting it bleed freely and refusing all attempts to let the wound shut of its own volition. Ignoring it he climbed higher up the cliff and found a half ledge, like one of those half seats they gave you in fast food restaurants when they didn’t want you to sit properly and spoil their turnover by stretching out your visit. He wedged himself on it and wondered if he’d ever get up or down again.
Around his feet the water carried on colliding with the rocks, but each one seemed to take the tide further out and he hoped that he might be able to climb down and even walk back to safety, although, now temporarily safe, that didn’t seem so fitting an end to the adventure as he’d have liked to retell afterwards. Nevertheless he wasn’t about to question it as a way out. His leg was hurting more now and he began to get worried about the blood.
The sky was darkening. Evening was coming. Matt was cold now. He’d tried yelling for at least an hour, but his voice was hoarse and cracked. No-one would have heard him anyway. Another hour had passed since he’d stopped and the water still lapped around below him. He was starting to get numb fingers and his damaged leg, although not bleeding any longer, was cold. Only one way to go. Up.
A few false starts almost made him give up, resign to the prospect of oblivion on the cliff face. Then he managed to get a solid handhold and pulled, literally pulled his weight up on the one hand, allowing him to swing his feet over to the next hold. But once started he realised, there was no stopping. Each few feet took an age, the rock was solid, but worn and rounded, hard to get a grip. Where it was more newly opened by the weather the edges splintered and cut, making reliance upon the holds dangerously foolhardy. Matt had time to look at the passing lines, the millions of years etched into the exposed edge of England. Here he was clutching at decayed and compressed primeval forest, next at the sea bed of an ice age long forgotten, hauling each painful inch on soil long ago returned to rock.
After maybe an hour, the darkness closing, he stopped at a band of chalky soil, grass tufts sticking out in rare displays of defiance. He was still at least thirty feet from the top and he’d covered no more than seventy in the last hour. The crack he was following widened, there was an overhang above him and he didn’t know how to get around it. For shelter and security he pushed himself deeper into the crack and saw that here the back opened to the same chalky crumbly half-soil he’d just seen. He pushed his hands into it, it was wet and fell away easily. He didn’t know why but he began to tear at it, pull at it, carve out a niche in the rocks, make room for him to…To what ? He didn’t know. He didn’t care anymore. He was tired, very scared and getting colder. He had the idea of making a snow hole, like those ones that arctic explorers always survived in during avalanches and the like, he’d seen that on TV. OK, so there was no ice, no snow, but the principles had to be the same. Beyond that he had no thoughts. Immediacy was all that mattered.