Stay Salty:

Dawn Patrol, I Love You, But You're Bringing Me Down

My dog ate an entire bar of surf wax one night. I can’t say that I blame him. It smells delicious, and I left it within reach of his tiny frame and large appetite.

The smell of surf wax for me triggers a slightly different reaction than hunger. That sweet smell, for me, makes me think only of cold, crisp mornings standing in a parking lot scrubbing that wax across a board in the earliest hours of light. I will forever associate that smell with dawn patrol, especially Sticky Bumps cold water wax with damn near freezing my feet off before making the wise decision to suck it up and buy a pair of booties.

Which is, of course, the other smell I associate most with dawn patrol: the stench of booties, the smell of feet to an exponential power, still damp from the previous morning’s session no matter what attempts are made to dry them. There is no more repugnant part of packing up for dawn patrol than reaching down to grab a clammy pair of booties and being assaulted by their stink.

The balance between those two smells, the sweet and the stink, really is dawn patrol in a nutshell. Dawn patrol is the beauty of glassy waves, often to yourself, but saddled with being up earlier than the surf report, often in the bitter cold. Early mornings and bitter cold are not the things that most of us dream of when we start surfing. There’s certainly a lot less surf advertising focused on freezing your ass off for a few waves before work than there is about board shorts over tropical reef breaks.

There is a dawn patrol voice that tells you the things you need to do: stop hitting snooze; grab all your stuff; paddle out; ignore the cold; move away from anyone else in the water. Some people have a morning routine involving shaving, reading the paper, commuting. Dawn patrol is a routine, and sometimes a religion, of its own, practiced by people that both love it and hate it.

I’ve been fortunate enough this year to discover that by slightly altering my routine, I can surf at lunch. I don’t have to get up before dawn, the sun is out when I am in the water, and the crowds are still minimal. But with the winter shifting into a higher gear, the winds are beginning to blow earlier, and they are making up for their previous mildness. The blustery bastards are chasing me back to that pre-work routine, with clothes packed into a backpack for the day, wrinkled before even setting foot in the office.

We can only hope that the effort that we put into these early sessions is rewarded, with no morning sickness, no sucked-out or swampy tides, no packed parking lots when the swell comes in. Dawn patrol is a struggle to maintain momentum, in the water and out. Let a day go by, two, three, and suddenly that rhythm of getting up in time to get a full hour in the water becomes scrambling for a scant 45 minutes.

I find myself questioning the commitment to that rhythm taking 6-foot closeouts on the head, popping up in the frothing white water bubbling across the surface, like I’m paddling through the midst of some sort of saltwater Starbucks drink. There are so many factors that stack up that make dawn patrol a chore. And the first day of giving up on it feels good, the extra hour of sleep, the warm shower to start the day instead of rinsing off outdoors. It’s good for two days, three tops. After that, if I can’t find a way to surf, the alarm is once again screeching before the sun rises, gear is once again tossed into the car with the heat running, and I am desperately rubbing the grit out of my eyes before replacing it with salt.

There is, for me, a quintessential vision that explains the reason I keep going back. It is swinging down into a right-hander and looking up to see the sun barely creeping high enough to clear the land and shedding copper rays across the flats, and I am trying to pump down the wall with one eye on the section with the other squinting at that beautiful reflection. And while I will forever love the warm, easing rays of glass off, there is something about those crisp mornings that makes that light shine in sharp relief and makes every move stand out clearly.

There’s always going to be a spot in my heart for dawn patrol, but she sure is a frigid bitch.

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