The alarm goes at five AM. You haven’t slept much anyhow. Woken up on the hour, every hour, haunted by the LED. You've agreed to sleep in the spare room downstairs when there's surf, so as not to wake the babies when you leave. Before you laid to rest you’ve checked the chart to double check which way the swell is heading, then you checked the coastal observations to see which way the wind is blowing. Then, you try to sleep. At five you stumble around in the dark, flick the kettle on, and run through the checklist in your mind (if you're sensible, you'll have loaded up the car the night before). Here on the crux of England and Wales, in the far corner of the Bristol Channel, there are five surfing coastlines to choose from, all equidistant give or take twenty minutes. You don’t feel guilt burning all that fuel. You'll do all the things you’re supposed to do. You know the importance of the Earth's preservation, but if you can't drive, you can't surf, and it all ceases to mean much to you. You're giving up surfing for nobody or for no thing. Though there's five coastlines to choose from, in the winter months it’s usually the far West of Wales that works for you. For all the variables, all the vagaries of tide, ebb, flow and season, there seems to be something else that draws you there. But the main thing is this one spot.
It's pitch black and there is nothing on the road apart from the odd lonely lorry with glaucic headlights and tired haunches ploughing over the Severn Bridge. You pay the tax and push into Cymru, and turn off as soon as you can and head northeast toward Abergavenny. Deeper now inland there's a chaos of vowels in the dark, broody resonance of the names of the towns you pass, and these syllables blend in your half-awake, half-dreaming mind with the shipping forecast. There are whispers in the speakers of storm warnings in the North Atlantic; tempests in sea areas that bear the names of wind blasted headlands and naval engagements. Tyne, Dogger, Bailey, Fastnet, Rockall, Malin. You are living on an archipelago and as the radio fades in and out you picture in your mind the imagined symmetries of anticyclones that push lines of swell toward the cobbles and points and the beaches and though your mind flickers images of old, whiskered men with tartan flasks peering through the dark from the wheelhouse.
The old wagon knows the way. It's been through here a thousand times before and doesn't complain as the hills steepen around you and the road narrows and fades and cambers until there's no radio coverage left. All this lends the dark heart of Wales another aspect. You remember this is guerrilla country, that this is a place that could survive when the transmitters have stopped transmitting and when there's no one left toreceive. You coax the wheels of the wagon though the Brecons for an hour and down into the valleys though stoic towns were there are chapels that are still chapels and soon (though not quite soon enough), you're in Ceredigion and the sign says it's twelve miles to the coast. It's cold out there, and despite the excited knot in your stomach and despite the fact that you've pledged a great portion of your life to the beautifully meaningless act that is riding a wave, you contemplate, from that heated, wheeled cocoon, that perhaps you won't go in today, that perhaps pulling on that still damp sheathe of neoprene is unimaginable in this deep winter, and you think that little bit of Brian Wilson- generated romance that’s still lit deep inside you could do with a little bit of a stoke, and you wonder in all the world, how many surfers are paddling out in these latitudes, in these temperatures? You think you must be mad and you'right, and you think that you must move to somewhere tropical, and as soon as the thought occurs you know you never will because the ebb and the flow of things on this high, moonward side of the planet is too special to give up and there's a swell heading from way out in the Atlantic and there's no wind too for you to worry about.
The thing about this one spot is that it's easy to miss, though it's in full view of the road. The distance of the layby lends a strange perspective, and every time you arrive and look seaward, despite the predictions and the observations and other scientific arrogances of the Met Office, you think the waves are disappointing. If you don't arrive at the right stage of the tide you can miss it completely. Who knows how many visiting surfers have headed straight past and south to clamber with the crowds, when if they had waited a while, they would have these waves to themselves? But you know better. You sit out the full tide and try to stop yourself from daydreaming again of that perfect day, that perfect wave that exists somewhere over the horizon. Because you’re here, now, and that is perfect as it needs to be. Soon, but not soon enough, as the tide drops, smooth, tapered shoulders begin to appear, peeling from left to right from the peak. As the lines rack up and feather, you can see a faint glistening of spray that arches up and over and back forming a gallery of rainbows against the steel grey and brown of the sea and the sky that disappears as the sets lull and push and bend over the cobbles.
Now is the time. You pull on that wet wetty and it snaps shut around your shoulders and the smell and the musk of it comforts you as your skin bristles gainst the cold, and you jump out into the foam with a flock of butterflies in your gut and a headache from the shocking cold as if you've chomped a big glug of ice cream too quickly. There's a lonely surfer already out who’s been waiting for a wave and you catch his eye as you paddle. A set starts to show and you watch him turn and spin and paddle and drop in a low, crouching swoop and you contemplate the clean line he draws before the wave closes down and pushes him deep inside. You can't help that shameful feeling of schadenfreude, as you know now that it's just you and the next set. But there's another duck and another dive to make, but eventually you're here, now, in the elemental rawness of it all and it is good. It's bigger than you thought (it always is here) but it's also mechanically predictable and slow enough to allow you time to think and as the tide drops further, the waves begin to wall up to the right as well as left as they shoal on the boulder floor. You breathe and relax into that easy drop into a bowl and you compress and look down the line of the walling wave as you lean on your rail and climb back for a second drop. There's more speed and power now, as the wall steepens and hollows and you stay stalled in the pocket, grabbing your outside rail to stop it from sliding ass, and then it bowls again and you straighten your legs and step forward to speed and all is forward projection and lift and glide and silence.
At midday the sun is hanging weak and low in the sky. Your calves have started to cramp, and every time you stop paddling to rest your teeth start chattering and you tell yourself the story again. The wind is getting up and you’ve had your share and you start dreaming of what you’re going to eat and what you’re going to drink, and the people you’re going to see and what you’ll tell them of this frigid morning. Just one more wave. Never download, never turn your back on the ocean. It’s twelve thirty now and somewhere on the other side of the world, a surfer is paddling out at dawn and he’s probably warmer than you are. But here you are in Ceredigion and it is good.