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 Bill Bernbeck
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Walkabout Journal

 Storm Waves 

Rain and wind beat the island mercilessly during the night and most of the next day. It was not a major gale by most standards, but it was enough to encourage one to stay indoors. The storm finally broke by late afternoon, and the sun started to make a meek appearance through the scattering clouds. I had been cooped inside long enough, so I ventured to watch the remaining light of day at one of the south shore beaches.  Pack up the camera gear and head for Surfside.

The winter sun was low in the far southwest when I arrived.  Belying the cold, it cast a warm glow over the ocean surface. The gale had exhausted its fury, but the momentum of the storm kept the waves steadily marching in. The surf was still high as legions of waves continued to pound the shore. They were impressive to this landlubber visitor.

Storm Surf, Nobadeer Beach                                                WBernbeck

Navigation charts call it the “Madaket Rip”, a shoal that extends out into the Atlantic from the neck of nearby Surfside Beach. The incoming waves slow down and swell over the rising bottom, only to have the following waves ram into their backside. They are then unleashed as they clear the shoal, only to meet with the energy of the waves reflected from shore. The water churned in a chaotic turmoil that I can only attempt to describe.

 Wave tops curled to form whitecaps, their frothy tops blown into spray by the offshore wind. The waves had a defined interval farther out, but when they reached the Rip they became irregular mountains crowning over the deep, dark troughs. A wave would spontaneously appear in one spot, and then suddenly disappear. It might reappear in another spot either in front of or behind the first. The waves reached higher and the troughs went deeper. Predictability was lost. The entire scene seemed to be bursting into chaos. Dante described the damnation of Hell’s inferno in an ordered sequence. I felt that Dante would have balked at trying to describe the watery maelstrom then unleashing in front of me. Just standing there, watching it all from the safety of the beach, was intimidating. With the primordial forces unleashed in front of me, I was sure I had reached the edge of possible experience.

Storm Waves                                                                              WBernbeck

I set up my equipment as close as I dared to the pounding surf. The luminance of the oncoming dusk was fading quickly, and I had to work fast before I lost all the definition in the waves.  Photographing the action of the waves turned into a more difficult task than I anticipated. They rose, peaked, broke, and spilled very quickly. I chose to shoot with a long telephoto to put the viewer right into the wave action. The waves had a mind of their own, and chose to peak and roll in a very haphazard way. I ended up shooting more by intuition than by actually seeing the image. I gathered a number of exposures, and then decided to just sit and watch the scene for a little longer. 

Then I saw him. I first noticed a small dark dot nestled between the waves in the distance and five or more troughs out from the beach. A little later, the same dot reappeared with a small dark crescent tip nearby. The dot and crescent gradually floated toward the beach, and emerged as a human figure carrying a surfboard. He was briefly outlined by the glaze of the shore runoff. My jaw dropped when I realized that this person had been alone somewhere out in the churn of the Rip. In the middle of the most intimidating water I had ever seen, he floated out into it. 

The irregular wave interval and random breaks deprived him of a ride.  I only saw him bob around, always the small dark dot in the wave troughs. He had gone out into the turbulence to experience it firsthand.  Where I found it awesome and intimidating, he had plunged right into it.   Once on shore, he gathered his gear and walked up into the distant dunes. 

Night gathered quickly as I packed my equipment and made my way back to the car. Thinking of the vast perspective of the day – the wild and violent ocean; the chaos of the Rip; that lone person putting himself directly into it all – I wondered what the limit of experience could possibly be.

Perhaps when we think we have reached our limit; when we think we are at the edge and can go no farther; there will always be another limit - somewhere beyond that edge. 

Storm Aftermath, Surfside Beach                            WBernbeck     

Bill Bernbeck
February 2008

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