Posted by: M.A. | September 5, 2007

Excerpt from Driving Minnie’s Piano

Driving Minnie’s Piano — Memoirs of a Surfing Life in Nova Scotia by Lesley ChoyceBy Lesley Choyce


The headlands are covered with white, the spruce trees on top of the hills are green and the icy rocks I have to slip and slide over to get myself into the sea are glistening like jewels.

The water is cold (who would have guessed?) – just hovering below freezing. February and March have the coldest water of the year. The air temperature is a semi-tropical minus ten. (I’ll surf down to minus twenty but after that I find that my face muscles freeze and I start talking funny.)

I push off into the blue sea, knee-paddling while above gulls swoop and artic ducks fluff up their wings as they float on the surface.

I take long, deep strokes into the sea and pull clean winter salt air into my lungs. Soon, a couple of friends will join me, but right now, I’m alone in the sea, with a big smile on my face. Even though my journey to the place where the waves are breaking takes eight minutes of paddling, I feel like I’m a million miles from the claustrophobia of mainland North America. The high cliffs of Chebucto Head, far to the west, shimmer on the horizon, bolstered to near triple their height by the mirage effects of the winter sea. A container ship leaving Halifax Harbour also appears magnified like some huge extraterrestrial vessel. I myself am a tiny speck on this immense ocean, overwhelmed by how perfect it feels to be here, now, ready to tap the immaculate energy and grace of the sea.

These waves have travelled hundreds of kilometres from a brutal North Atlantic storm now wreaking havoc on fishermen unlucky enough to be working the tail of the Grand Banks. But here each wave is a work of perfection. I’ve paddled to my take-off point and sit for a minute, watching my breath make small clouds in the clear air.


The waves are about two metres high – “head high,” as we’d say. They roll towards me, then arch up into perfect peaks as the offshore wind pushes up the face of the waves, making them steep and smooth until they cascade forward, top to bottom, some creating hollow sections big enough to tuck a surfer into.

I wait, dwelling upon the euphoria of it all. I’ve abandoned the warm inside-world of work and life tied to the continent. Now I am drawn into this other plane of existence. I see my own version of the perfect wave headed my way. Three deep strokes and I’m off, dropping down the smooth, angled hill of water, an easy take-off at first but then the wind pumps hard against me as the wave goes vertical and I pull myself up onto my feet. I’m jamming a bottom turn just as the tip of the overhead wave blocks out the morning sun.

I go left and pull up higher onto the wave as it begins to feather. Then I do the usual: tuck down as the lip of the wave starts to spill forward, a pure two-metre waterfall. I’m shrewd, cunning and all-powerful, a small sea god in my endorphin-charged brain as I speed across the face of this blue-green wall of water.

But for some reason, I discover I’m not as clever as I believed. Sure, I’ve escaped from my office, left the troubled and vexing world of publishing behind me for now, but the sea would like to remind me that I am only a vulnerable guest in this winter domain. I am a player in the game but t have no real control over the rules that can change at any time.

I discover that my speed does not match the speed of the wave collapsing behind me from the peak. I tuck lower, adjust my position on the face of the wave for maximum warp only to discover that I’m too high up and fading too far back into the hollow bowl of the wave.

I realize this just as the lip of the wave connects with the left side of my face. It’s cold, numbing and as powerful as a Mike Tyson punch to the jaw. I’m sure I release a colourful syllable but nothing more as I lose my footing and pitch forward into a thundering mass of whitewater as the collapsing wave throws its salty weight from on high down upon me.

I hit the surface spread-eagled and then get slammed by the impact of a ton of winter water. Just for the record, water is more dense in the winter. When it hits you, it carries more tonnage. If it could get more dense than this, it would be frozen and then it would hurt worse.

Winter wipeouts are not pleasant but they are temporary. The trick to minimizing damage when working your karma through a winter wipeout is to dive deep and then come up quick. The idea is to let the wave go past you while you sink beneath the vector of energy.

The only problem with this is that you have a sudden craving for oxygen and the cold water on your face is causing your brain to seek asylum elsewhere. When you come up gasping for air, your lungs hurt and you feel the first sign of the brain-wrenching ice cream headache that is exploding inside your skull. Evolution has not prepared the unprotected human face for even seconds of immersion in water below the freezing point.

I gulp air, tough out the minute or so of the brain implosion and then get back up on my board and paddle back out towards the sea. I go through the checklist: I’m alive, I’m surfing, I will be a little more cautious on the next wave.

Right about then, a great army of grey clouds advances from the north and I see the squall advancing from the land. The sun is swallowed and it begins to snow. Because of the strength of the wind, the snow does not really fall to earth. This is horizontal snow, blowing straight into the waves, straight into my face.

I can no longer see the headland and can barely discern the next set of waves approaching. I let two slide under me and then paddle for the third. Paddle, stand, drop, bottom turn and then slide up into the pocket again, only this time, going right instead of left. All I can see is snow pelting me in the face. It’s cold, wet and creates a crazy visual kaleidoscope since I can only see about three feet in front. It makes the whole event that much more interesting. I have to feel the wave and use intuition to decide what it will do next. Luke Skywalker on a surfboard. In winter.

© 2006 Lesley Choyce

Lesley Choyce is a writer, poet, musician and playwright in Nova Scotia, Canada. He is the author of more than 65 books.

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Driving Minnie’s Piano is published by Pottersfield Press, distributed by Nimbus Publishing. To order with VISA, phone toll free 1-800-NIMBUS9 (1-800-646-2879)


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