By Lesley Choyce
I was in Paris when twenty-five-year-old Kevin Shawn Coker drowned while surfing back home at Lawrencetown Beach. When I arrived back home, exhausted from a series of airline misadventures and delays, I learned of Kevin’s death and I took it pretty hard.
I didn’t know him very well but I’d surfed with him once or twice. He was from PEI, drove an old Volvo station wagon, and seemed like a pretty nice guy. He was relatively new to surfing and I gave him credit for working through his learning curve during winter conditions. In order to learn to surf well, you have to wipe out a lot. The dues you pay for winter wipe outs in near zero degree salt water is fairly stiff. Only the truly surf‑addicted are willing to undergo the punishment for the reward.
On the day of Kevin’s accident, he was surfing alone. Back home here, I asked every surfer I knew what the conditions were like that day. I had this strong need to know every detail. I have this gut feeling that every person who surfs at the beach where I live is somehow part of my community or my extended family. So now one member of that community had died tragically and I wanted to understand what went wrong.
The bare bones of the story suggest that Kevin drove out to the beach on a pretty rugged day. A strong northeast wind was roaring, the waves were not great surfing waves ‑‑ head-high, maybe a bit more, and gnarly. A lot of wind up the face of a wave, a bit of a rip headed out past the point. Grey, cold, gusty and pretty ugly. Not a great day to surf. But the guy had made his trip to the beach, was hungry for waves ‑‑ I’m guessing here ‑‑ and went surfing alone. Something happened while he was out there and he didn’t make it back to shore. He must have been far enough out when it occurred and that sent him drifting (still attached to his board by the leash) in the wind-driven current that was pushing him away from the beach and west to where he was found by the Coast Guard in Portuguese Cove on the other side of Halifax Harbour.
I’ve surfed plenty of times in similar conditions and if I was home, I’d probably have waited for better waves, more favourable winds, or surfed some place else. This is all a matter of comfort more than safety I guess, so I don’t judge Kevin as being totally careless, or foolhardy. I’ve surfed plenty of times alone ‑‑ never something I’d advise anyone to do. I’ve had more years of surfing experience than Kevin did but had it been me out there that day — had I not had a book launch in France ‑‑ well, tide and timing could have done the same damned thing.
So what to make of this tragedy? Aside from feeling a personal loss of a member of my tribe, this brotherhood/sisterhood of Nova Scotia surfing, I feel a tremendous loss of innocence. No one has ever drowned here before in a surfing accident. It’s even extremely rare for anyone to get hurt.
There were a couple of stitches over the years when somebody drove their fin into somebody else while dropping in on a wave. Most of us have been thrashed, thumped and held down a bit too long by cold, unforgiving waves when we least expected it. I remember getting smacked across the bridge of my nose once when I kicked out of a wave. A great cinematic geyser of blood poured all over my dry suit. I put my tooth through my lip in last year’s surf contest while crouched inside a mighty fine beachbreak barrel. But up to now, surfing in Nova Scotia, even during the blisteringly cold months of January and February, was not a life and death thing.
One haunting voice in my head tells me that if I had not been playing poet in Paris that day, I would have made a surf check or two at the beach as would be my usual weekend thing to do. If I had run into Kevin suiting up in his old Volvo, I would have told him to go to the cove in Seaforth and save himself some pounding from the gloomy-looking waves. Smaller waves but more protection from the wind, perhaps. Too late for that now.
People, surfers included, don’t tend to like other people who give unsolicited advice. But I’ll do it more often now to kids who look like they are about to surf potentially dangerous waves. I’ll do it even if they think I’m an uptight old fart. I’ll do it even if they laugh at me. Not a big deal.
No this wasn’t supposed to be a rant about safety. Surfing, after all, is partly a business of taking chances. Trying to do a thing you don’t think you are capable of doing. Throwing your board off the lip, squeezing tight into a watery tube and then trying to make it out. Playing it a little closer to the danger zone than the last time. The danger is more in your head than in reality, but it feels good to push your limits once in a while.
A couple of years ago, a visiting surfer from South Carolina (he said he was an unemployed minister in a denomination I wasn’t familiar with) stopped by my house asking me if I’d rent him a board. The waves were huge that day from a hurricane going by to the south. It was summer, though, and the water was warm. I asked him first about how well he could surf and he told me he was a real hot shot. I couldn’t bring myself to rent him a board but I loaned him one and told him where he could surf. It was a place that I felt was safe for a foreigner. Even though he was a supposed hot shot, he’d never surfed a coast with actual rocks before. I told him not to surf the Big Left which was big and raging like a freight train that day, a place that gets its kicks from sucking you over the meaty falls and then pummelling you along the rocky shore mercilessly.
The South Carolina surfing minister disavowed my commandments and, looking for the bigger thrill of danger, went straight to the place I told him to avoid. He never even made it into the water. Instead, he stood in front of a great sea-soaked bolder waiting for some slack between sets for paddling out. Before that hiatus arrived, he was targeted by the biggest, meanest wave of the day that roared up and gave him a forceful body slam up against the boulder. He took a fairly serious ding to the head and ended up on my sofa, just shy of a trip to the hospital. I decided never again to loan any of my old boards to strangers who thought they understood the power of our waves.
One of the great unspoken codes of surfing, and we have all sorts of unsaid primitive laws in the republic of surfing, is that you always help out anybody in trouble in the water. Surfers have hauled in maybe a dozen swimmers over the years who got into trouble at Larrytown. And if I got smacked unconscious by my board while surfing, I trust that even my meanest enemy in the water (if I had one) would haul my sorry ass ashore and coax me back to consciousness with whatever it might take. But, hey, it’s a fairly sparsely populated coast and it’s hard not to surf alone if you only have yourself for company and the waves are a nifty six foot and peeling clean like crystal ware at your favourite secret spot.
I have in recent years slacked off on surfing what I consider to be big stupid waves. Cold winter conditions with relentless overhead walls, big churning piles of white water and no recognizable path to the lineup without punching through a dozen senseless walls of winter wave. Winter surfing is an inevitable package of pleasure and pain. Cold water, under water, frigid saltwater on the face for overly long seconds hurts like hell. My advice to myself on that issue is always the same: don’t wipe out. Stay above the water line. But it doesn’t always work that way.
The physical impact of very cold water on your body is generally hard to imagine unless you’ve been there. I try to avoid all that physical pain but without total success. Last winter my dry suit zipper came undone while surfing on a minus 20 degree day. I flopped into the sea after a good glassy ride and my suit sucked up half the Atlantic Ocean. The sea was not my friend that day but it garnered no true malevolence. I always have to remind myself that the sea is neither cruel nor kind. It follows laws of weather, physics and hydraulics or El Nino logic but doesn’t decide to give pain or pleasure on a whim.
Feeling the stiletto sting of bitter cold water and looking a little like the Michelin man, I slowly floundered ashore, still attached to my board, crawled up on the ice-capped rocks, lay down to drain the water out of my suit, then stumbled like a numb loser to my car and eventually a long slow thaw in the shower.
When all of those tragic victims were dying in the icy waters as the Titanic was sinking, I identified with their pain. I have had a good a taste of what it must be like to drown at sea in the North Atlantic. The actual intensity of the cold often seems to me to be beyond reason but that’s only because we were not cut out for that climate. Seals and whales obviously have no gripes nor do those little seabirds from the Arctic, the dovekies, who sometimes keep me company in the ocean.
So all I know is that I still feel pretty badly about the death of this young guy who had been surfing here at my beach. I care about who he was even though I didn’t know him very well and feel diminished by his death. I even feel a kind of responsibility. On the surface that responsibility is illogical. How could I have known something was going to happen and prepared for it? Illogical, right? No, there is a fundamental logic here that revolves around (corny as this sounds) caring.
So I guess this caring thing means speaking up even when it’s unwanted. Giving advice, feeling a certain responsibility to other people. Complaining sometimes. Whether I can change anything, give the right advice or whatever, I should give it a shot. Other people’s pain is, to some degree, my pain and I’d like to minimize it if I can.
I saw this guy on TV from Carlsbad, California, talking about this thing that happened. He thought there was a problem with the bridge of an overhead part of a expressway. He heard an odd noise each time he drove over it. He thought something was wrong with the bridge but he let it go. One day, the bridge fell down and it killed someone who had been driving over it. He said he’d never keep his mouth shut again about something he thought was wrong. He became a great and tireless complainer in the high hopes that he could save someone else some grief.
I identify more with losers and victims and people with problems than I do with successful types and the obnoxious winners of the world ‑- the sports stars, the Emmy award winning actors and the blatantly wealthy. But I’m not always good at following through with my altruistic nature.
Yet something about the death of Kevin Shawn Coker makes me feel more connected to people. And it’s all tied in to feeling some personal loss of a fellow surfer, a member of my extended family of surfing.
But I wasn’t even here that blustery Saturday. I was in Paris, staying at a cheap hotel on the Left Bank. I could spit into the Seine out my window if I wanted to (but I didn’t). I was there as part of another community, one of writers and readers, part of some gargantuan book festival called le Salon du Livre. I liked the family feeling of being embraced (well, at least acknowledged) by people whose lives were tied to writing creative thoughts down on paper and sharing them with an audience. And while in Paris, I hunkered down on a bench along the Seine and studied that brown, sluggish, depressed little river that has been so romanticized by novelists and film makers over the years. The river is imprisoned by high rock walls. The water moves along in a dreary European sort of way, without any real enthusiasm. It doesn’t smell that good. But it was the only body of water available to me and so I mediated by its banks and felt homesick for Nova Scotia, for an animated ocean, for waves, for sweet-smelling sea air, for surging salt water and for my next chance to go surfing.
And although I was treated well in Paris, I felt disconnected and anonymous for the most part. Not a lot of eye contact and people spend way too much time just sitting around in cafes and bars drinking minuscule cups of coffee or glasses of red wine. I would think that would lead to a sort of lethargy which is alien to the energized Nova Scotia creative mind.
So I was glad to get back home. About a week after Kevin had drowned, I went surfing where he had and I caught some fine early morning waves in his honour. I apologized to the wind and the sea for not having been around to lend assistance or give advice. I knew the innocence of surfing here was gone for good but I still felt a strong, powerful bond with the sea, the indifferent sea that gives and takes. And it’s almost a back-handed reminder that caution and caring are the greatest of human responsibilities that should not be shirked.
© Lesley Choyce