My phone vibrates on the mattress to the left of my face. 6:05 am. I had set the alarm for 5 after 6, an effectively pointless gesture, but something about the humanity of a couple extra minutes sleep had appealed to me, as it often does. At times I even set the alarm for 2 or 3 minutes past the hour. We all have our habits. Anyways, there’d be no snoozing today. I could see it was already becoming light out, though not yet sunrise, and I could hear the surf, as I had all night, rolling, rushing, beckoning.
Quietly, I climbed down from my top bunk and slid into my wetsuit, still damp and cold from last night’s dusk surf. The soggy coastal winter air does little to dry wet neoprene, watery footprints on the ceramic tile, or dishrag streaks on the counter after last night’s chicken soup.
I look around the sprawling apartment in the half-light. It’s a white and modern beach house belonging to the family of my friend David Medina. They live in Lima and keep a place here to escape during the metropolis during the summer months. In the winter, though, the small fishing hamlet of Cerro Azul is as grey and humid as the rest of the rest of the central and south coast, so they make little use of it. David was quick to offer it up to us, for free, when we told him our hopes to surf the town’s clean left point break, as training for the bigger left-breaking waves of the north coast, where we’d be heading in a few weeks time. The kindness and generousity of the Medinas, along with so many other Peruvians I have met, are nothing short of astounding. I stopped dawdling and moved towards the glassy waters of the early morning grey of the sky.
Before I took up surfing, I speculated why the “dawn patrol” was such a coveted time for surfers. In winter, when waves are generally better, it can be hard to drag your resting body from beneath the covers into the chilly morning air. Harder still is putting yourself into the water. My first and obvious assumption, was that in the early hours, you can avoid crowds. Reduced competition for waves is, of course, a huge plus, especially on point breaks like Cerro Azul, where the wave consistently begins to break in the same location next to a point of land, and the “on-ramp” to drop into the wave is relatively small.
The next guess was the quasi-spiritual tranquility you get during the “madrugada.” Madrugada is spanish for “early morning”... roughly synonymous with “pre-dawn” and “dawn.” We don’t have a direct, one-word translation in English, certainly not one that sounds as beautiful, as peaceful, when rolled off in a Spanish tongue. We all know that calm, even meditative state you can achieve during the young hours of the day. Most religions have early morning rituals to honour and absorb the softness available during this somewhat other-worldly window. Your daily surroundings, your context, the places you see and go every day are of course the same during the early morning, but at the same time they are different during the madrugada. You see them in a stillness, a half-light.
This stillness. Peopless, windless, soundless. There’s another reason for surfing during the madrugada, and one I couldn’t fully understand until I began surfing more seriously. It’s the waves themselves. Unlike a powder skier, who seeks undisturbed pockets of snow before others have spoiled the stash, a surfer can technically find good waves at any hour of the day. However, the quality of a wave depends on wind just as much as swell-size, and it’s the often windless tranquility of the early morning that yields its so often well-shaped waves. Over night, the air masses onshore cool to temperatures relatively equal to their offshore counterparts, and uniform temperatures lead to still air. In effect, the wind too goes to can go to sleep on most evenings. Before the sun warms the air, there is little to wind disrupting the breaking of the waves.
I sit quietly on my board in the still waters. Though I have been surfing very frequently for over a year now, my background as a lake-kid still makes me marvel at the fact good waves can exist without wind. The humps of a heavy swell appear several hundred meters out, as if to remind me of this fact. I paddle hard towards the on-ramp and position myself for the break. The swell rises behind me and starts breaking to my right. Paddling, I feel the familiar liquid hill forming beneath me, lifting my feet above the rest of my body. I’m a kid on a crazy carpet sliding head-first down an icy schoolyard slope. Except this isn’t frozen grass and compact snow, and if I don’t stand up and cut left I can count on a good pounding in the tumultuous avalanche of foam to my right. I’m on my feet now. I cut down the wave’s glassy face onto the flat water in front of it, then continue my bottom turn back up the wall towards its curling lip. I feel the wave morphing and changing shape beneath me.
Most nature-based sports involve traversing, ascending, or descending stating forms: ascending a rocky wall, rolling a dirt trail on a bike, or sending it down a big old mountain on a pair of skis. Riding a form— of water, no less— that is dynamic, constantly changing, speeding up, slowing down with the shape of the seafloor, influence of the wind, direction of the swell… it’s a sensation incomparable to anything I have experienced. It can bring a seemingly contradictory overlap of tranquility and adrenaline, of speed and slow motion, of precise action and unthinking free-flow. As during many other “transcendent” type activities, the doer and the deed become indistinguishable, they become one another. A concert pianist “feels” the song, unthinking of the individual keynotes and finger movements; a top-tier athlete does not say to themselves, “left foot, right foot, look around, shoot.” A couple truly making love does not mechanically think through the movement; and if they do, the moment can be lost. In this way, the purest form of action seems not to be an action at all. The surfer doesn’t distinguish themselves from the wave, and isn’t “trying” to surf it.
Now of course this purity is very fleeting. I snap from my silly neo-zen musings and realize I’m totally in the wrong spot on the water. A massive wave absolutely crunches me, throwing me into an aggressive spin-cycle, forcing sea-water into my nose, ears and mouth. I gasp to the surface as the tumult subsides, hair all in my eyes. A local kid has paddled out and is eyeing this sputtering novice gringo surfer amusedly. “Purity of action” my ass. There was nothing transcendent or unifying about that god-damn wave. But that’s the point. Life can’t be transcendent all the time, or it would cease to be life, and those that constantly seek transcendence can end up in some pretty unbalanced places.
In the water, now glassy calm again, an off-white shape floats about 20 meters from me. Through the early morning mist I can… I think it’s… yep, it appears to be a dead baby dolphin. Wholly intact, it can’t have been dead long. It probably went last night.
The body is, well, a body and so I don’t want to go near it. But, it’s right near the on-ramp where the waves break so I follow local kid, clearly not his first dead-dolphin, towards it for a better position when the next set arrives. With no warning, not five feet from me, a mature dolphin cuts across my path in an arcing dorsal flash. Her fin is serrated and scratched. She isn’t large, but she’s evidently trying to tell the kid and I to keep our distance from her recently departed young. Two more dorsal fins appear just on the other side of the dead baby dolphin, surfacing near it, even nudging it. I catch another wave. Paddling back out, the dolphins are still swimming around their lost young, now sinking and resurfacing as its lifeless body takes on water. Yet, it doesn’t quite seem a funeral, because the mature dolphins are also leaping around playfully now and evidently feeding, as most sea creatures eat at dawn and dusk. More like a celebration of life with a self-serve buffet. The dolphin with the serrated fin leaps fully out of the water quite near to me, revealing her full size, about 5 feet from bottle-nose to tail.
I know how intelligent dolphins are; these ones are no strangers to black-clad humans floating on pieces of styrofoam, but I can’t shake the feeling that I am encroaching on their funerary celebration, their sending off of a lost youth at a breakfast bar…
The mist has now cleared and the wind is starting to come up. The baby dolphin has disappeared beneath the wave and its family is moving out beyond the point. Its body will likely wash up down the beach later today and will serve as a sandy smorgasbord for the crabs and seabirds of the peripheral marine community. I reckon it’s now about eight in the morning and the local teen crowd are paddling out and yelling insults at one another.
“Chupamelo!” (“Suck it!”)
Yep, today’s madrugada, with its otherworldly calm, empty and well-shaped waves, and dolphin sendoffs, has definitely come to a close. I realize how hungry I am. I’ll get off the water now for a few hours. I ride one in. I can already taste the hot coffee and potato pancakes as I walk up the beach towards the Medina’s apartment.