I am freezing. I can't feel my toes, which I visually confirm are still attached to my chapped, red feet. Out of the water, one hand holds the zipper pull of my wetsuit as I brace myself to expose my skin to the chill winds...
I'm in Santa Cruz, California, and you'd think it wouldn't be so cold, but it is, I swear. Sure, I'm being a little dramatic too, but apparently it's the coldest time of the year here.
"Did you know it's the coldest time of the year here?" surfer dude #1 asks me. "Hey dude, this girl is out here in only a 3:2 with no booties or hood!" he says to surfer dude #2.
"Dude that's gnarly," says surfer dude #2.
Thanks, surfer guys, thanks; I appreciate the laudation... but I still can't feel my extremities.
For the cold, I couldn't feel my feet on the board. I wiped out a lot. A couple of days later, with a 4:3 and booties, I still couldn't feel my feet (booties are like blindfolds for your feet). I wiped out a little less.
I love the terrain of California's central coast; fat, wooly palm trees tower over fragrant, evergreen shrubbery, clinging together to the broken cliffs that fall away to deep emerald, kelp-filled seas. Crisp, salty winds rush up from the white froth that pounds against the rocks where sea lions sunbathe their corpulent yet lithe forms. The biting breeze is infused with eucalyptus, juniper and jasmine as the sun bakes the redwood duff, its piney scent rising up hotly from the dirt like cookies from an oven.
But I'm cold, so cold.
Lots of people hear "California" and think: sunshine, t-shirts, short-shorts, skateboards, sunglasses and bikinis on the beach. It's true that mid-afternoon during the summer temperatures can really peak, but you better have a sweater and a beanie in your backpack because by 7 pm those temperatures will have plunged right back down. And while it's never going to be objectively cold — it's rarely ever below 50 degrees F — it's not going to be all that warm either.
Families do run, laugh and play on the beach here, just in wetsuits. Anywhere north of LA, you'd be hard-pressed to find beach babes tanning on the sand outside of those few precious summer months. But even when summer finally comes and the beaches fill up, very few of those beachgoers are going to dip more than a toe in the water. Perhaps that's why, in Central Cali, if you don't surf you don't get in the ocean.
The cold waters of California are a gift of the North Pacific Gyre, the main current that circles around the Pacific Ocean, delivering nutrients, sea life, killer swells and frigid temps to North America's western coastline. But it's a process called "upwelling" that really creates the cold; the influence of the Coriolis Effect causes a convergence of surface winds, sea currents and the earth's rotation to push away the sun-warmed top layer of water from the coast, allowing the deep, frigid waters to rise up and take its place.
This phenomenon is responsible for the density of fish and the marine life that feed on it, making otters, sea lions, sharks and sea birds your surf buddies. It's also responsible for the chilly fog that famously blankets the Bay Area. The cold marine layer — which can include fog or not — sucks inward at night, drawn by the extreme inland temperatures which chase the sun as it leaves the sky, unconfined by the humidity-free air. It makes summertime night-sweaters a necessity; even in the valley in August, if you go out at night you carry a jacket.
Know your enemy... perhaps that's what I'm doing by studying the source of the cold: understand it to overcome it. Know yourself... I have also learned that I likely have Raynaud's Syndrome, the narrowing of blood vessels due to cold, which causes pain in the extremities when chilled. I can't quite equate surfing to a battle, because you need to succumb to the wave rather than defeat it, but I can say that the knowledge of myself and the ocean are both useful in some way. To know what you want and where you belong are incredible gifts; I know I belong in the sea albeit a much warmer one. In the meantime, I can happily enjoy the time I have here and love this place for what it is: cold, refreshing, beautiful, challenging and self-illuminating.