Riding Blind

It's hard enough learning to surf. Just try it when you can't see and your instructor is deaf.

Surfing near Tofino.

Surfing near Tofino.     Photo: Paolo Marchesi

The Common Loaf bakery in Tofino smelled of coffee, cinnamon, and melted cheese. Though pleasant, the aroma gave me no map. It could have been a strip mall in a Michigan suburb. A truck in Ontario. For a moment I was everywhere and nowhere, until with a few words my old friend Colin Rulooff returned me to our Canadian west coast.

“These guys at the shop claim the swell is five feet,” he said. “Pffft. I’ll have to see it to believe it.”

The final clink of his knife and fork suggested he’d made short work of his sticky bun. I abandoned my utensils and dug in. We were going surfing. Shred was the verb of the day. I just hoped it wouldn’t apply to me personally. Though fit and active, we’re primarily just a couple of eggheaded dads.

“You want another?” he asked. “Gotta load up on carbs.”

“Naw, I’m good.”

“Come again?”

His chair scraped left. I assumed he was looking for my face.

“No, I’m OK,” I said, more loudly and with exaggerated enunciation.

The daffy notion that Colin, who is deaf, would someday teach me how to surf has been in the works for a long time. He first suggested this trip to the Pacific side of Vancouver Island 16 years ago, when we met in a logic course at Simon Fraser University, just outside Vancouver. Back then, Colin’s hearing clocks in at about 20 percent functionality in the right ear and 50 percent in the left. Today the weaker side is blotto, and the good side clings to 40 percent. If your lips evade his eyes, you’re either off the radar or spouting gibberish. I hadn’t seen much of him since graduation, so the difference was striking. Then again, I haven’t seen much in the past decade, so I’m sure my difference was tricking, too.

“What can you see in here,” he asked. “Like can you see me at all?”

I turned to the sound of rain on the bakery window. Outside was the village, its stands of old-growth cedar like a fence against the Pacific. Wilderness surfing, they call it. World-class waves, they say. A jade-colored canopy and gunmetal skies. But what did I know? Fifty-five degrees was all my skin said, and wet, wet, wet.

“Well, if my eyes were this window,” I explained, “you’d have to paint the left pane with beef gravy and the right with Vaseline. That’s about all I get now. Some shadows come through, but not much.’

It’s a well-rehearsed image, one I’ve cultivated over the years for the daily grilling from strangers about what I can or can’t see. Really, though, the most accurate description is that I’m blind.

“You ready? Let’s get you in a wetsuit,” Colin chirped. “It’s going to be awesome.”

I stoop up, unfolded my cane, and tripped over a chair. At least on the waves, or pinned below them, I’d have little in the way other than myself. My beginner’s anxiety crested.

“You’re going to watch out for me in the water, right?” I said.

Colin opened the door and guided me outside into a gorgeous smear.

“Huh?” he said. “Come again?”

TAKING TO THE FREEZING swell with a deaf guy was not a suicide attempt. In fact, I’m fairly accustomed to the gimpy life. My sight deteriorated over the course of 20 years, as if my eyes slowly bored themselves to death,, from a genetic misfire called retinitis pigmentosa. It’s painless, it’s irreversible, and it’s been a while. New drivers have fender benders; I was the teenager who impaled his mom’s car on a boulder. Clumsiness couldn’t explain it. I complained about the fog. There wasn’t any. When a doctor finally shined a light into my eyes, it didn’t reflect back. “You’re night blind,” he said. It was my 18th birthday. Twenty years later, I cannot remember my face. I haven’t seen it since 1997 or so.

But blindness, I find, isn’t much of an enemy. You plot about town, occasionally you piss between urinals, and you carry on. No big whoop. Embarrassment? Now that can dog the blind something awful. What’s more, white canes and Braille can’t cure the most dangerous side effect of my condition: the terminal malaise of keeping safe. Blindness is so bloody boring.

My surfing experiment was, in fact, just one of many extreme situations I’ve put myself in lately. The big picture, the big-kahuna project, is a book called Nothing to See Here. Through it, I want to learn how to enjoy this body, the one I’ve been left with after sight, by seeking out unique and obscure sensations around the world. Call it an education. What is the Eiffel Tower of touch? Take me to the iconic stink of a corpse flower or a durian orchard. Too bad I’ll never see the Great Sphinx, but I’ve heard a symphony of several hundred pissed-off Texas rattlesnakes and butchered a cow in a Tuscan village. They don’t make postcards for that.

For this adventure, I tapped the only surfer I knew. That surfer happened to be deaf. Not to worry. We’d figure out a system. I used to parrot Colin what our logic professor was saying while he copied notes from the blackboard for me. It sort of worked, too, until we were accused of plagiarism, having made identically strange errors in our assignments.

Traveling blind has an ironic backhand. The problem begins at home. I know the minutiae of the few square blocks in Vancouver where I live. I can snatch a number from the hook at my local deli without assistance, though you’d have to tell me what it says, or bump ahead in line. Detailed spatial memory makes my neighborhood seem immense. But to travel, to leave my rich mental map of those four blocks, actually disappears me into a smaller and more emaciated sense of place. As Colin and I drove toward the beach, Tofino appeared to me as inkblots of green and boxy shapes that suggested the occasional house. Maybe restaurants. Or clog shops. How am I supposed to know? It’s a peculiar frustration, to come all the way to this island only to feel like I’m trapped in a child’s pencil sketch.

“This is Chesterman Beach,” Colin said as he parked the car. “Let’s see how it looks before we suit up. This is where I used to live in the treehouse.”

Though he doesn’t reside in Tofino anymore, Colin has been coming here for 25 years. His first taste of cold-water surfing was at Chesterman, when he was 14, and his love for this fishing village was strong enough that it drew him back after high school to work odd jobs and share the waves with killer whales and lumberjacks. It was the mid-'80s and he was 17, a sponsored skateboarder ready to join the celebrated Bones Brigade team.

Giddy to his core, Colin held my elbow and pulled me like a wagon down to the beach. The waves sounded large, breaking on the shore with the hollow clap of a belly flop.

“Did your hearing ever get in the way of your skateboarding career?” I asked.

“No. Not at all.” He paused for a moment. “Well, except when I was competing. Sometimes I’d be on the run in a halfpipe and find out that they’d been asking me over the PA to get off for a while.”

Sign language wouldn’t have helped. He only knows how to sign “wet paint” and “be fruitful and multiply.” Didn’t matter, though. He’d already had enough of competition. He went to college and gave up the skateboarding circuit altogether, ducking out of class when the weather reports told him he had six hours to catch a ferry and drive the three hours of switchbacks to this beach.

I listened to Colin stare at the water. I think. Sunsets are about as informative to the ear. Maybe he was waiting for some assurance that I really wanted to go through with this. A go sign.

“I’m ready,” I mustered.

“Nope, this is slop,” he said. “We’ll try Cox Bay. It’s got different exposure. Don’t worry, we’ll get you up.”

IT SURPRISED ME TO learn how popular these frigid waters are: even with late-summer Pacific hovering around 50 degrees, there were still about 20 people in the water at Chesterman.

Wasn’t always this way. Charles McDiarmid, part owner of Tofino’s legendary Wickaninnish Inn, grew up here, before the first logging road connected the fishing village to the rest of the island. McDiarmid showed me around his astonishingly tactile hotel, putting my fingers on its hand-worked timber beams and decorative glass floats. Occasionally, you’ll find such floats washed up onshore, lost from their Japanese fishing nets across the ocean. I’ve never touched rooms more revealing of place than this.

“Back in the '50s,” he explained, “we had one guy in town who surged. That was it. Then the whole surf culture exploded in the '60s, and most important for us, wetsuit technology got better and better.”

After that, everybody looked at the waves differently. And the surfing population got another bump when the Vietnam War draft resisters from the U.S. found work as loggers and fishermen on Vancouver Island. The Californians saw an untapped opportunity for their boards, or so the legend goes.

At cox bay, about a 10-minute drive from Chesterman Beach, Colin and I were met by Devo, a local instructor with the Surf Sisters, who arrived in her school’s pink Volvo. For all I know, Devo has no last name, and it wouldn’t surprise me. She radiated the mellowness that comes of a career split between working as a nature guide and teaching people to surf. I hitched my hand to her elbow for guidance down to the water. The nerd-rock band Devo probably didn’t have biceps like her.

Devo made a plan. She would pitch me toward shore and Colin would catch. The proposed system calmed me a bit, but I also felt a little resentful at the extra care. Why can’t I drown like everybody else? Would diminished risk diminish what surfing is really like? We changed into our gear. I began by shoving my feet into the arms of my wetsuit.

“I’m a bit rusty,” Colin said, or threatened. “I don’t get out as much since I started teaching, you know.”

From our old logic class, Colin had carved a line into a position as a philosophy professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, a suburb away from our old alma mater. He lectures like nobody’s business and can, on occasion, answer questions that sound awfully similar to the ones he’s been asked. His specialty is the ancient puzzle, last updated in The Matrix, “How do we know we aren’t in a dream?”

I often ask myself the same thing. Always with me, whether I’m stripping down in the cold or feeling for the shape of my wetsuit, is my proximity to the phenomenal nature of things. Close your eyes and much of the world is extinguished. I refused gloves, not wanting to blind myself further, and I took off the neoprene hood covering my ears. Reduced to smell and taste, I would be less a body, more a floating brain. How close to death can you dress a man?

Devo took the lead. We dropped my longboard, and she mimed the basic dance steps necessary to get up and balanced.

“Lie on your stomach and put your hands like this,” she began.

“Like what?” I said.

“Like this.”

“What’s ‘like this’?”

You can see the problem. Devo switched tactics and put her hands on me like a sculptor. After a couple of dry runs, pushing myself up from the sand and swinging my feet under me, that was it. We waded into the icy push of the bay. I had no image of what I needed to do, only a faint new muscle memory of movement. Not much confidence comes of that. Put your fingers on the guitar like this and this and this. Now go play Led Zeppelin onstage.

As we slogged to the break, Colin yelled out some critical instructions in the event of a fall. “Make sure you stay under a bit, and put your hands above your head,” he shouted over the waves. “You don’t want the board to come back and hit you.”

Great, I thought. Falling large objects. The very thing blind folks are known for tracking.

BY THE TIME WE’D fought the waves chestdeep, I came to recognize the rhythm in the bay’s suck and punch. Though I couldn’t see the swells coming, I unconsciously took on their music and could anticipate when to turn my shoulder, cut into the wave, and brace for another slam. As we humped to the break, what bloomed in me was a sensation, a confidence, I’d been estranged from for a long time. It was a feeling of physical capability. The force of water that had blown me back and off my feet was now my partner. I’d learned to move with it on my own, nobody guiding me. When was the last time I’d walked this far without my cane? Without a friend’s elbow? Years. I was free.

We stopped when the water was just shy of my shoulders. The bunny slopes, I heard people call it. You may worry that there’s little thrill in that. Then again, blindfold yourself and wander through traffic to the post office. Just try to call it a stroll.

“After this bump,” said Devo, “get on your board, belly down, and stabilize. When I say ‘Dig,’ paddle hard until I shout to get up.”

Before I could ask where Colin would be, the bump hit me and I scrambled aboard. The water rushed a bit faster, almost like a stream, and the faint sound of Devo shouting “Dig!” popped in the air. I did as I was told. Then I lost her voice. No go signal. Just ocean in my ears and the plunking of my paddling hands.

Then I felt it.

A gentle lift. A rushing boil of water from behind me. This had to be it. Devo’s voice was buried in the wind. Colin was gone. I arched my back, pushed, thrust my left foot forward, and did the twist. You cannot write the simultaneity of a body in motion. Feeling for the sweet spot, the balance between our flesh and the buck of the ocean, I stood. Sort of.

In those few seconds, unsteady as a child, I felt all the drama of the Pacific give way. If you can’t see the world rushing by you, and if the wind is gusting about, nothing imparts a sense of movement. I was standing still. I could have been on a wet sidewalk.

But I did have a view. Instead of ogling the world from this rare angle, looking back at the beach, my attention dove deep inside. Like a baby, I was aware of every facet of muscle and balance a body calls upon to hold itself up. What an impossible miracle it is.

“You’ve got it!” Colin hollered from a few feet away. He was surfing parallel, watching out for me.

Yes, I’ve got it, I thought. Then it fell away, and so did I, on top of Colin. My face ground along his board, and we turned into a submerged head of disabled men.

Though I did get up a few more times and for longer stretches that morning, nothing reproduced my first buzz. I’ve never stood still like that before. Gravity, inertia, tide—everything, it seems, wants to take us down. Yet we stand.

Four hours later, when the carbs were gone and I could barely catch a breath, I flashed Colin the time-out signal. My hand tethered me to his elbow once again, and we waded our way back to shore.

“Well?” he asked. “What do you think? Think you’ll do it again sometime?”

“Huh?”

“Do you think you’ll ever—“

“Huh?”

Colin reared back and shoved me down into the water, laughing. I flung myself at him. Boys in a locker room, knocking our stupid bodies around.

“Look out!” he said, and pushed me under, into silence.

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