There’s a subculture of masculinity — for better or worse — that doesn’t operate under the premise that more muscle means more manly. Instead, peacocking comes in the form of engaging with fear. It’s Jackass. It’s skate culture. It’s me at five years old breaking my arm trying to climb monkey bars that were too high for a short king. It’s breaking my leg at age seven teaching myself how to ride a bicycle in the rain after watching Dave Mirra do a backflip on his.
To partake in this flailing madness, you need not show that you’re the biggest or the strongest. In this world, filling your bag with stories of how you ate shit — how you basically begged inanimate objects or Mother Nature to punish you — is the point.
For 30 years, I was one of those guys hypnotized by the risk of being physically destroyed. Case in point (beyond, of course, the aforementioned broken limbs): Though I’ve been surfing since I was 11, I’ve never been great at it. It isn’t uncommon, then, for me to sacrifice my body to a wipeout in exchange for that feeling you get when you walk away unscathed when you should be broken.
But last week, roughly a month after my 30th birthday, on a brisk Friday night 50 yards from the shores of Malibu, all that changed. Out there in the Pacific Ocean, floating on my surfboard, alone and in the dark, peering into the foggy abyss — trying to judge what’s a wave and what’s a ghost — I surrendered.
I’m no athlete. Never really have been. So I don’t know what it’s like to have to give up something because my body isn’t quite as malleable as it was in my youth. I do know, though, that last week when I tried night surfing for the first time, I couldn’t hack it. I felt my body tighten when faced with the potential of excruciating pain. My hopes crushed and rendered dizzy after the first blind collision.
I’m not suggesting that at 30 I’m done surfing, or even that my body is in any better or worse shape than it was when I was 28. But I am saying that at 30 — six years younger than Johnny Knoxville was when he stopped mutilating his body for glory — the jackass part of my brain, the part that says “fuck it, let’s ride,” abandoned me in the night.
In 2010, Red Bull Surfing posted a video of pro surfers Bruce Irons, Jamie O’Brien, and Ian Walsh paddling into crystalline flaps of water at the most famed surf break in the world: Pipeline in Hawaii. I can’t remember when I first came across the footage, but it was instantly romantic. There they were, three of the most fearless surfers to ever do it, zig-zagging like fireflies against one of nature’s great paradoxes — the placid and archaic wave.
And they were doing it in the dark.
Seven years later, the New York Times reported that night surfing in Southern California was gaining popularity for surfers desperately trying to avoid crowds. Helmut Igel was one such night surfer interviewed for the story. “He recalled collisions — and a 12-foot sneaker wave that gave him and a friend the spin-cycle treatment,” writes Jared Whitlock. “But those incidents have not kept him from going out a few times a month.”
That same year CBS News reported on the emerging phenomenon that had even dispatched its own brand of surfboards. Roy Johnson, a surfboard shaper, told the network’s news division that he crafts surfboards with LED lights built into them. “According to Sean [Johnson’s son], while the LEDs signal his position to other surfers for safety, mostly, they make an impression back on shore,” per the report.
Still, despite this cottage industry of EDC-inspired surfboards, based on my own experience surfing until dusk, it’s safe to say that the vast majority of surfers pack it in once the sun is gone. Night surfing is, despite the ever-increasing number of crowded surf breaks, relegated to a small batch of surfers, crazy enough to brave onyx-colored waters without lifeguards.
But now, with America officially in fuck it mode, there I was — in water cold enough to make my hands numb, daring myself to recreate some of the same mystique from that 2010 night surfing video. I know we’re in a pandemic, and no, I don’t have a death wish. But with little else to elevate my heart rate these days, I figured it was time to find out if surfing beneath the moonlight was as fun as it looked.
I arrived at the beach a little after 8 p.m. with the sun nearly buried behind the mountains — the residual light just enough so that I could see a handful of other surfers take their final rides back to shore as I prepared to go in. I kept things fairly simple, gear-wise. I wore my wetsuit, and for only the second time in my surfing life, I slipped on some booties and hung a waterproof headlamp from my neck, hoping it would help me see a potential shark.
Craig O’Connell, a marine biologist, tells me that while some of the larger, more potentially dangerous sharks are crepuscular — i.e., “they’re more active at both dawn and dusk” — that doesn’t mean there’s less risk if I’m surfing at night. “Sharks have very precise sensory systems so even if it’s completely dark out, they can easily detect your presence,” he explains. “Does this mean they’re out there hunting us? No, there is no shark species in existence that has humans as a preferred prey item in their diet.”
But he adds, “By wearing a headlamp, you may be inadvertently illuminating your board to create the perfect surface silhouette for a shark. This may spark their curiosity and cause them to want to investigate.”
For the record, the headlamp was night-diving instructor Javier Lopez’s idea. Or at least, he suggested I carry some sort of light with me in the water; I choose a headlight because that’s exactly how the night surfers in Cap Frehel, France do it. “Generally, as a scuba diver, we’d always go in with a primary light or a torch, which is bright enough for what we’re trying to do and how far we want to see,” Lopez says.
But again, this might not have been the best idea. Australian big wave surfer Mark Visser, who in 2011 famously night-surfed 30-foot waves at the Hawaiian break Jaws, warns that carrying lights in the water could actually make it harder to see. “If you look at a street light, a torch or even just a small light, it takes a while for your eyes to readjust again,” he writes via email the day before my night surf. “The only light you can look at without it really being an issue is a red light.”
Plus, he adds, “To see in the dark, you need to be in total darkness for about 45 minutes.”
Typically when I’m surfing, I paddle around until I’ve found the right place in the water to sit up and relax while I wait for a decent wave. In desolate, murky waters, however, I opted to keep as much of my body above the water as possible. Rather than dangle my legs, slightly submerged and floating like chum for sharks, I rested them horizontally atop my board with even my elbows tucked against my sides, my hands grazing against slimy floating objects I couldn’t see. To my left, in the distance, the moonlight rippled against the ocean’s surface.
Paddling past the break, to what appeared to be a safe space beyond the 3- to 4-foot waves, granted me a few minutes of reflection. I was scared. But not scared enough to pack it in and paddle back to shore. I just wanted one wave — one wave to add to my bag of other daring, dangerous memories.
There isn’t much of a difference between being underwater at night and being underwater during the day. I could at least tell which way was up thanks to the near-full moon. “At night, vertigo becomes a factor,” Lopez had told me. “If you go, make sure it’s during a full moon.”
The problems, then, were all above water. During the day, when you’ve been punished by a wave that grabs the tail of your board and pulls you down like a rollercoaster falling backward, breaking through the surface of the ocean is a hopeful struggle. It’s both a literal and figurative breath of fresh air. At night, however, with your board idling like a tombstone, sparse moonlight isn’t enough to prevent you from feeling like you’ve been cast away, stranded and alone in the middle of the deep black sea. This is why you begin to flail even though everything you know and have known about ocean safety tells you not to panic.
Visser, who has surfed at night in far more precarious waters, tells me, “Something I was afraid of was being held down underwater and not knowing which way was up or down so I had to do a lot of training around this stuff.” Part of that training he told the New York Times in 2017 was realizing “that lights pointed in any direction but behind him were blinding.” Which is to say that my plans to use my headlamp to track incoming waves wasn’t gonna work.
Despite preparing for four years, Visser admits that night surfing has “a lot of unnerving aspects to it.” Not least because people have died doing it. “On Oct. 27, 2015, just as night began to fall, the big-wave surfer Alec Cooke paddled out at Waimea Bay in Oahu, Hawaii,” reads the New York Times piece. “After Cooke was reported missing, emergency responders found his surfboard washed up on shore, but not him.” Three days later, the body of Kenneth Mann — another surfer out at night — was found still attached to a piece of his surfboard.
As I found my way back to my board, I wasn’t thinking about dying or sharks. Drifting closer to the moonlight, all I could think about was that one wave again. I rubbed the ocean out and away from my eyes and stared into the limitless black before me.
According to Visser, my eyes should have more or less been adjusted already. But they weren’t. A truck passed along the Pacific Coast Highway, blasting a glow across the ocean and giving me just enough time to see a wave coming. I directed my board toward the shore and began to paddle in the direction of the rolling hills. But as the truck’s lights abandoned the ocean surface, trying to time when to paddle and when to pop up became pure folly.
I dared to stay under the water for a few more seconds as the wave crashed above me. I could only imagine the range of thoughts my girlfriend, my brother and my friend were contemplating onshore. I reached for my headlamp and flashed the light as I broke through the ocean’s surface. At least this way, they’d know I was still alive.
I gave it a couple of more shots, but with every failed one came disillusionment. When I was 13, I fell off my skateboard and bruised four ribs while attempting to scale down a hill that for months had appeared un-skateable. Back then, however, every fall was but a momentary distraction. It happens. You assess. You don’t look back. Even after the worst ones, I knew I had to try again. I hoped that the same ambivalence toward physical pain would find me once more in the darkened sea, but it did not.
Instead, I could only ask myself, “What the fuck am I doing — 100 or so yards from the shore, paddling around on a surfboard in search of fearlessness, the kind that only comes when you don’t care that you can’t see too far out in front of you?”
I looked to the shore and saw a flashing lantern held up by my girlfriend, who was more than ready for this final episode of my own personal Jackass to end.
This time, I swam toward it.