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Herring School

Surfing has gifted me with many adventures, both strange and fantastic. Ultimately it has helped me find a way back to myself and the world at large. The beauty taught by the ocean and its fluid connection to constant synchronicity is limitless. My love for it deepens every day, like a child who sees wisdom in a parent's face. That love has been tested many times, but it has endured. There've been pool sharks, snow storms, rope ladders, swamps, and bears. You name it. Surfing always passed the test. "Yes, I'd love to crawl through icy swamp puddles in mid-December while avoiding fresh bear sign in a tight rubber wetsuit for miles as long as there's surf!"

That's how much surfing means to me. I'd go through just about any obstacle, even Herring. Was that a typo? No, not at all. Let me explain.

Early dawn on a fine fall morning, a marine layer hangs just offshore. The wind softly blowing toward the waves, golden light gradually becoming the pale contrast before the brunch special. Westport always had a sense of grandeur. Hours of driving, sitting in anticipation, the sleepy coastal towns that ambled by– the turn into the state park, the excitement building, hastily parking, quickly suiting up, and sprinting up over the bluff to see the jetty. Admittedly, more often than not, it was a mess. But this morning was not that day. The contrast had been turned up. The water was glass, the sets were spaced out, and the waves were head-high cylinders. At this point, I practically leapt out of my wetsuit. But this is where Westport's grandeur kicks in because I was still on the bluff. Which meant I still had a five-minute walk before touching water. As I scrambled my way closer, I noticed something peculiar. Thousands and thousands of birds were in the water just outside the break. Up to this point, I had seen all kinds of weird shit in the water out there, so I didn't give it much thought and started to paddle out. Eager to get to those beautiful waves. Once I was waist-deep, I realized what the fuss was about. The Herring were in.

For those unaware, Herring can travel in massive schools, occasionally making their way to the shallows. The first few that bounced off me were passed off as a coincidence, but a few quickly became hundreds, and within seconds thousands were swirling around me. It was less salt water and more Herring. They would wiggle between my chest and the surfboard, making it challenging to stay on the board and eerily squishy. The little guys were bouncing off me from every direction. The first duck dive was horrifying! It was like diving into a wall of slimy wiggly fish. Several ricocheted off my face while others pelted my entire body as I dove through the wave. By the time I paddled through the swarm, I sat in the line-up, shell-shocked, bewildered by what was happening.

Nonetheless, it was still near perfect conditions. I could hear the other surfers as they reacted to the little fishies. Everyone was freaking out and squealing. Everybody out there was struck by the sheer absurdity and madness of the situation. It was surreal and shocking, but the conditions were so good nobody could leave.

Once I mustered up the courage to go for a wave, it was time to take the plunge. I made the drop, but the wave quickly closed out and gave me a roll along the sandbar. Instead of the usual sensation of hitting bottom (which was typically firm), it was a slithering, squirmy mess. I stood up quickly only to find myself chest deep in the swarm. They wormed their way all around me, wiggling between my armpits, squirming through my legs, and squirting through my feet as I tried to touch the sand. Let me say this, trying to stand and walk on tiny fish racing around you at warp speed is less than pleasant. It feels similar to a surprise full-body tickle-attack while being blindfolded. Except the assailant reeks of bad fish and has a million oily fingers that leave no stone unturned.

I managed to surf for an hour and a half before enough was enough. Even though the waves were perfect, that tickle monster awaited you after every wave. Every ride would end in hysterics. I would pop out of the water screaming, laughing, half insane– everyone out there was in an altered state, confused, nervous, rattled, hysterical and joyous. The absurdity of the situation made everything comical. The crowd was laughing, screaming, raving mad, and making the most out of the bizarre world we had found ourselves in. The oily fishy smell of the water, the huge flock of birds waiting patiently for a snack– the teaming, splashing, roiling seas. Even the ocean felt more like jell than water. All of it, from the pages of "Fact, is Stranger Than Fiction."

I can only look back on this absurd scene with reverence. Had you told my childhood self that I would someday voluntarily swim with a school of fish in dark, murky waters. And repeatedly let those very fish touch every square inch of my being. The answer would've been a resounding "NO THANKS!", "NO WAY!" Instead, because of my love for the ocean, I faced that uncertainty and even remained somewhat sane. The sea has many lessons. That day's lesson in the Herring school taught me that even though the unknown makes us uncomfortable– facing it can bring a joy we've never known. Humility comes in many forms, and remember to always close your mouth when duck diving unless you're hungry for herring.

-Comedy is the gift of facing one's fears.


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