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  • You hear several knocks rattling on your window. It’s 5am. Woozy and confused you roll out of bed. It’s the middle of the Durham winter, a mere stone’s throw away from the Arctic Circle. You climb into as many layers as you can fit into and stumble into the car with its engine running and surfboards stacked in the back. You squeeze into the backseat, with a pillow to the window and try to get back to that dream you were enjoying but can’t quite remember…

    You pull up beside a field and wind down the backseat window. It’s 6am and still not yet light, but you can vaguely see signs of white water down below from the cliff vantage point. You saw the promising swell charts last night, a solid northerly groundswell, light offshore winds and an early full moon low-tide but you don’t dare get your hopes up. If experience has taught you anything it’s that high expectations make bad travel companions.

    At the end of the poorly gritted road, you emerge from the car, resembling a gangly Michelin Man, wrapped in two hoodies and a fleecy jacket. It’s almost dawn and although you can’t actually see any waves, you’ve just been crammed in the car for an hour so there’s absolutely no way you’re not at least getting wet. You squeeze into your 6mm and scrape bubblegum scented wax on the board, more than perhaps is strictly needed, but you like the smell. Finally, you grab the leash and head off; gingerly weaving and sidestepping through the slippery rock pools, following the two eager silhouettes ahead to the ocean. The crashing sound of water is reassuring. Your fingers are numb but your heart is racing.

    You tiptoe over to the edge looking down like a nervous seal, before timing the jump off and paddling through the forest of kelp. Taking a deep breath, you push the nose of your board down and make the first duck-dive under an incoming wall of whitewash. The water is cold. It reminds you of a time when someone dared you to down a blueberry slush puppy in one foolish, icy chug. For a moment, your enthusiasm becomes questionable. The blood returns to your face and you seize what appears to be a lull between sets. Using the rip current you begin to paddle towards the horizon, racing the incoming mountains of water. You make it safely out back and sit for a minute to catch your breath. The waves are clean, you notice birds flying low, barely skimming the water looking for an early catch. The water is deceptively calm; punctuated by rolling, rhythmic swell, which doubles up as it approaches the reef, throwing out thunderous cavernous barrels, big enough perhaps to fit your small car inside. They are not unlike the quasi pornographic pictures of waves you might see in surf magazines; coupled with superlative-laden captions. You watch for a while, reduced to a state of inarticulate wonder.

    You paddle hard towards a bigger set looming on the horizon, not wishing to be caught inside the impact zone. You are feeling well and truly out of your comfort zone. You dive under just in time and bask in a transient rainbow materialising in the offshore spray, as it catches the reflection of the sun poking through a cloudy letterbox in the hemispheres. With the rugged cliffs in the periphery of your vision, you realise you could be in any corner of the planet, possibly New Zealand or Middle Earth. You position yourself for a wave, your feet find themselves on the board. Somehow you make the drop; arms flailing as you fly along the steep section, maybe only for a few seconds before jumping off, letting out an obligatory whoop: wired on a dopamine cocktail and watching the ochre sunrise rip through the sky, drenching the ocean with its ephemeral beauty. You feel like there is no other place in the world you’d rather be. Back in the line up, you strike up a conversation with an elderly local with kind eyes and a gregarious smile. He’s lived here his entire life, or at least you imagine he’s lived here his entire life. He replies and casually takes off mid conversation, bottom turning to set up for a sublime hack, his fins carving smooth artistic lines, spray from the lip is routinely sent skyward. You’ve only been surfing a few years and wonder if you’ll ever be capable of that. You hope so.

    You are now sitting deep for one of the bigger and more consequential waves, the local with the kind eyes and the gregarious smile gives you the nod to go, you don’t want to let on how scared you are. It’s there for the taking, spinning the board you turn and paddle down the glassy face, you’d be able to see down the falls, but the offshore spray blinds you. You are blissfully unaware of the outgoing tide and the ever-shallower rock shelf lurking beneath. It looks makeable, so you go for glory but as you pop up your front foot slips. B******S. As if the sea gods themselves were claiming retribution, the lip of the wave slingshots you into the blue oblivion. You almost smile as you take a brief moment to contemplate the gravity of your mistake. Like a rag doll in a washing machine, you are tossed around furiously in the whitewash, loading your ears, mouth and sinuses with salt water. Reaching the surface and gasping for air just as another wave lands a few metres ahead. Taking another deep breath you try to relax as you’re thrashed around once more, pinned to the kelp-cushioned rock. Eventually the churning water subsides and you are left, fibreglass and leash thankfully intact, with a newfound appreciation for oxygen. You paddle back into the line up, proverbial tail between your legs with a stray piece of kelp draped over your board.

    You feel the urge to use a toilet. There is no toilet out here. You feel an esoteric warmth, a gift from nature, swirling and spreading first down your legs and then up to your chest and arms. This new cosy feeling trumps any preconceptions of acceptable hygiene standards you may have held on land but you make a mental note to thoroughly wash your wetsuit afterwards. If this was Nintendo, you’d have just used your powerup and extra time would have appeared on the timer. This boost of warmth allows you to stay in the water for a few more waves before coming in through the kelpy rock pools, back to the car and for mug of hot coffee that warms you to the core. On the drive back, you are thoroughly exhausted, yet feeling excessively happy; a smile from ear to ear, in a daze that can only perhaps be compared to a kind of post-coital glow.

    You are perched at a window seat in Café Nero’s, watching people walk down Silver Street. The sky is a threatening shade of grey but it’s probably too cold to snow… you are definitely back in England. Two espresso shots weren’t enough to satiate your caffeine craving so you go and order a cappuccino. You didn’t see it coming. Nobody sees it coming when they’re leaning over to pick up espresso and frothed milk. Salt water unloads from your sinuses, streaming from your nose and landing into the unsuspecting cappuccino, completely ruining the artistic chocolate sprinkle pattern. The barista looks bewildered. At this point all you can really do is dig deep into your pockets, searching for loose change and scraps of dignity. You find the coins and ask for one salt free cappuccino.
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