5 Lessons From A Week Of Dawn Patrol

Late To No Party

Late To No Party
By Taylor Paul

I'm running around in the dark and I'm late. Grab my board from the garage and wetsuit off the dewy lawn chair. Wax. Fins. Leash. No time for coffee. I speed down King, airing off speed bumps. Left on Bay. A pickup turns in front of me at the stoplight on Mission and my low beams illuminate a longboard poking out the back. F–k. It's 6:17 a.m. I shouldn't have hit snooze. I take a right on West Cliff and see south swell lines intersecting the faint glow of a pre-dawn ocean. I'm late. I pull up to the Steamer Lane parking lot. It's closed. I flip a bitch and park along the street. Open the door. Shut the door. Open the back. My hurried breaths are like ghosts in the morning air. Suit up. Lock the door. Stash the key. Run across the grass, over the fence and along the cliff to the jump off. I look down on The Slot and can see four silhouettes paddling toward an approaching set. It's 6:30 a.m. Sunrise is in 27 minutes. I am so, so late.
The goal was to be the first surfer in the water. In fact, that was my goal for an entire week. Because every morning, at every good wave, some brave soul pioneers the day, and why shouldn't that be me? By week's end I'd have my answer, and the answer to questions I didn't even ask. A lesson a day, like a desktop calendar.

Lesson No. 1: Get your shit together. Board in car. Suit dried and turned rightside out. Coffee on autopilot for 15 minutes before your alarm, which should be set 10 minutes earlier than you think. Car backed into driveway. Basically, pretend your house is a crime scene and prepare to flee.

I get in the water at 6:10 a.m., and while it's almost completely dark, I'm still the third surfer in the water. I'm baffled. Are these guys raccoons? How can they see? As I approach the lineup, a shadowy, head-high wall comes right to me. I paddle too fast and the lip hits me on the back of the neck as I stand up. Shake it off. Squint down the line. I'm surfing by brail, roller coastering up and down the wave trying to find the lip and the bottom. After a few of these I realize I've just squandered a great wave and try to salvage the ride. I fade to the flats, lean hard into a bottom turn and point my nose toward the lip. The lip's not there but I'm committed to the movement and do a charades fin-throw as the wave peels on without me.
I take a deep breath. It can only get lighter, I reason, and it's true. As the sun peeks above the mountains I slowly build my mojo, catching more waves and surfing them more appropriately. But when the sun fully breaches the horizon it shines in my eyes like a cop's flashlight and, once again, I cannot see.

Lesson No. 2: Surfing this early is a Goldilocks situation, at least at rights in California. It's either too dark or too bright and the lighting that's just right only lasts for 20 minutes.

I don't go any earlier today because I decide that the race to be the first person in the water is futile, like competing with your friend to see who can get the girl with VD. Still, I'm the second one in today and start catching waves like I'm under the other guy's priority because I expect it will be crowded soon. By 7:15 on Monday and Tuesday there were over a dozen guys in the water. So I catch my waves, waiting for the line of army ants to march across the cliff and into the water. But it doesn't happen. A couple more surfers trickle in, but by the time I get out at 7:45, there are only five guys in the water.

Lesson No. 3: Surfline is a better indicator of crowds than it is waves. On Monday and Tuesday of my dawn patrol week, Surfline had posted its "orange" forecast, meaning it was "good." On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday it was green, or "fair to good." The waves were better and the crowd was a third of the size.

On my first three mornings, the air temperature was around 43 degrees, water around 59, and it felt good to jump in because compared to the air, the water was warm. But today when I get into the water I am pierced with stinging needles of brrr. The wind blew all yesterday afternoon and the upwelling has brought the cold water from the depths of the Monterey Bay onto my hands and face with freezing malice. It's miserable. I feel betrayed. Like, there should have been a sign or something.

Lesson No. 4: If you're going to surf before dawn, you are the guinea pig. There is nobody to warn you that the water temperature dropped, that red tide has come in or jellyfish have swarmed the lineup. You're the first one to stick your head in that foxhole and the rest of the surf community is your battalion.

Not first. Not second. Not even ninth. I don't know what number surfer I am in the water today because I slept in. Woke up at 7. Drank coffee. Walked the dog. Ate breakfast and worked for a couple hours. By the time I get down to The Lane around 11, I'm awake and loose and can actually see the waves, which look fun. I paddle out. There are three guys cuddling the cliff side and I join them, waiting for a high tide wedge to bounce off the rock. A set approaches and I am last in line. One wave. I sit. Two waves. I wait. Three waves. I'm up. I paddle, stand up and drive down the line. No hesitation, no squinting, no warm up. I let my instincts take over and lean into the best turn I've done all week, then follow it up with two more. Bam, bam, bam. I paddle back out to the point slowly, enjoying the high sun on my face. Halfway back out, I stop, pull my hood down and splash some water on the back of my neck. I'm warm.

Lesson No. 5: It's not worth it. Not that early. Not for me. Which is disappointing, because I used to love surfing early. Before school, before work. It was so satisfying to stroll into class or the office with your hair wet, salt crystalizing on your eyebrows. Lean over to pick up the pen that the cute girl dropped and have water run from your nose. Even if the waves were awful, you felt as if you were getting away with something. Like you had putt your ball between the speeding windmill paddles of life. But here I am today: a little older, a little less "employed." The windmill has slowed down a bit and I can surf when I please. And until is speeds up again — with a job, a kid, a meeting, whatever — I'll see you midmorning.