Outside, the neighborhood is dark and quiet. Inside, my wife and daughters are deep asleep buried underneath a crazed mishmash of blankets. The sun isn’t due to rise for another hour. There’s a swell coming.
Standing outside, I pause next to the car. Camera bag on one shoulder. Wetsuit, still damp from the previous evening, on the other. Slowly breathing in the cool, damp pre-dawn air, I listen. Underneath the early morning rumble of PCH come faint booms. It showed.
Winter is my favorite time of the year to be in the water in Southern California. The sun has shifted slightly south creating a beautiful soft morning light that gently wraps around everything. The swells shifted from southerly to northwesterly. Spots that had laid dormant for months come alive. The water cools and the crowd thins.
I drive slowly through the neighborhood watching the sky wake from its dark slumber. I headed towards one of my favorite spots. It was at the end of long beach beneath towering sandstone cliffs. Not many made the long walk. Some of my favorite surf imagery came from there.
I stood at the top of the cliffs waiting. Studying. The swell was here. Beautiful clean hollow waves peeling down the beach.
The sun was still not quite high enough to bring light, and life, to the wave below. It would happen soon enough. Sometimes I became lost in watching the slow march of the light across the sand. The shadow being pushed away. Forms took on definition. The waves sparkled, beckoning.
I began my ritual. Putting the camera together. Then the housing. Getting undressed. Sliding into a damp wetsuit. Grabbing fins and trotting down the trail. The sand on the beach was still cold. The water would be colder. Sitting in the sand, gauging the swell, putting on fins. Spitting on the lens port. Walking into the water. Watching in swirl around my feet. Gently tugging me away from the beach. Waist deep water. Dunk the housing and it’s time to swim. Dive under the first wave. White noise in my ears. Enveloped in the cold. Buffeted by power that had traveled a few thousand miles to end here. Rising to the surface. Darkness to light. Floating. Waiting. Watching.
The swell was big that morning. Bigger than I had anticipated. I was alone in the water. The sun rose over the cliffs. The light and swell aligned. The water arching overhead became a translucent turquoise canopy. The view only lasted a moment while I swam through the wave.
This was one of the reasons I became a photographer. To preserve that moment That one spectacular natural moment.
Putting myself into that moment was a physical challenge. I needed intimate knowledge of that spot. How the currents moved. The direction of the swell. What the sand was doing below me. Where did I need to swim? How deep, or late, could I be? How long could I hang on the face? I took my fair share of beatings.
That morning, though, it all came together.