The sky seems higher and wider; bluer than usual. The air is sweet with the faint tang of salt, bringing memories of childhood holidays, sandcastles and ice-creams, and endless summer days. Excitement begins to bubble.
We pull on our wetsuits, instantly becoming sleek seals. Bootees and gloves for me: it’s October after all, despite the sun, and the Atlantic can suck out your spirit even on the hottest of summer days. I can hardly contain my excitement; I want to squeal.
We gather up our boards and hurry across the beach. Warm sand sinks beneath our feet. The sea whispers our names. Overhead, herring gulls wheel and mew that long, pulsing cry that lifts you up into the sky and shows you the gleaming sea wherever you are, even if you are landlocked and yearning for the coast.
The surf rises up to look at us and crashes down in a maelstrom of foam and bravado. My first steps into the water go unnoticed through the wetsuit boots. Then I feel a slight chill in my legs as I walk deeper. But it doesn’t matter: the sun is warm and I am in the sea.
There are a couple of men swimming further out, so we wade out to where the big waves break. And then I begin to realize just how powerful the waves are out here. From the beach they look gentle, creamy. Here they tower above my head, curling their lips and pounding down around like a building collapsing.
We wait for each set to pulse through, jumping to clear the smaller waves before the larger ones pile up and darken the horizon. Our boards bounce and pull away from us in the swirling wake of the breakers. The undertow that builds the big waves sucks the sand out from under my feet; I have trouble balancing.
Then the waves lift us high and smash to smithereens, and we are enveloped in foam, hurtling towards the beach in a rush of roaring, swirling water that splashes in our face and thunders in our ears. It is exhilarating. We belong here. We are part of the sea. Again and again we rush to their embrace, throwing ourselves at their mercy, becoming one with their power.
But as the tide advances, the breakers grow in strength. Wading out to them becomes more difficult, though the ride back inshore is longer. Somehow, despite the flat sand of the bed, there are waves coming from three directions towards me, breaking sightly in sequence so that the water is choppy and broken. Sometimes they meet and build a giant wave whose surf tosses as high and white as a mountain above my head.
I wait for the last wave; the big one of the set rolling in from the deep green Cardigan Bay. Then I throw myself onto my board and hang on.
But my timing is off. Instead of catching the big wave formed from the three smaller ones, I have walked in too deep and caught the first one as it breaks. Then the other two immediately crash in on top of my head, flipping my board sideways out of my grip and tumbling me head-over-heels.
My eyes and mouth are clenched shut but there is water all around me and I am spinning and churning and bowling over in the breakers, my head cracking against the sea bed, my arms and legs flailing.
Just as I think I will run out of breath and start sucking in the water, I sense light in the blues and greens and browns swirling before my closed eyes, and feel ground beneath my hands. I roll over and stagger to my feet to avoid the next breaker washing towards me. My ears and hair are full of sand, my head banging, my vision wavering.
Ben insists I get out of the sea, but I know if I do I will never surf again. After waiting for my nausea to pass, I catch the next wave – a more gentle one this time – and spend some time coasting across the shallows, intending to go ashore in a few minutes.
But it is so addictive. You can’t just stop. There is always another wave coming in, calling to you, rolling over at the lip to tempt you. Just one more…
Later, the shock will rise up in my head like an inky wave of nightmare and what-ifs. But it soon passes. And looking back now, a few days later, I can barely remember anything except the thrill of the rushing foam around me and the swift water speeding me inshore like a landing swan.
I can’t wait to go again.