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Beach Grit

Read: Why I didn’t surf on 9/11!

Derek Rielly

by Derek Rielly

A beautiful story from the New York Times… 

Has it really been sixteen years since a gang of mostly Saudi thugs flew two planes into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon, another, bound for DC, into the dirt in Pennsylvania?

With the benefit of the distance of time, it’s very easy to forget what an awesome (in the literal sense) event it was. Thousands dead. Four airliners destroyed. Downtown NYC buried in ash.

If you weren’t alive then, you might forget what wasn’t exactly the opening gambit in the Islamic-West conflict (bombings of embassies, an earlier bombing of  the Trade Center, Marines killed by the score in Beirut etc) but it was the one that opened the West’s eyes to a formidable, and let’s face it, a very brave, foe.

My gal was in New York at the time and she called me at midnight, weepy, and said something real bad had happened, something about terrorism. I value sleep very highly, my eyes have a tendency to get buried under flaps of skin if I don’t get eight hours, and I told her very sharply that I’d turn on the television on in the morning and see if there was anything about it there.

And, like, oowee, she underplayed it. When she finally got a plane out one week later, the flight attendants fell to their knees and led the passengers in a group prayer. Ironic, yes. But they were the times.

Anyway, today, as the anniversary of September 11, 2001, the New York Times ran a very good story on why one man didn’t surf that day, even though the surf was very… very… good. Head-high, water so warm you could wear trunks.

Here’s a taste.

A large but widely ignored presence in New York City on the eve of Sept. 11, 2001, was Hurricane Erin, its cyclonic swirl starkly visible in weather maps like an ominous asterisk just off the coast. Two groups noticed: meteorologists, who mentioned the storm in passing, if at all, in news reports; and surfers, who chattered breathlessly about it.

The meteorologists were blasé because at no point in its journey from the tropics had Hurricane Erin threatened to make landfall, except briefly as it brushed past Bermuda, and it was now poised to be blown out to sea by a powerful cold front. But the same winds that would be flushing the storm away from land would also be grooming the big waves that it had been steadily producing in its crawl up the East Coast. This was to be a once-in-a-decade swell. Surfers were, as they say, “frothing.”

That these glorious waves would be arriving on a Tuesday, a workday morning, was a problem but hardly an insoluble one. Like many other surfers in the area, I planned to call in sick. In my case, however, this was complicated by my having recently been named director of the writing program at the college in Brooklyn where I taught. Tuesday, Sept. 11, was the first day of classes.

I had scheduled myself to teach the main writing seminar taken by freshmen, which met at 10 a.m. When I pictured these eager new arrivals reading the sign posted on the classroom door announcing my absence, then turning away in disappointment, yes, I felt guilty — but nowhere near so guilty as not to cancel class. A class, after all, could be made up later in the semester; a once-in-a-decade swell was an evanescent natural miracle of sorts. I wanted to make a good first impression, a solid directorial debut, but I wanted to go surfing more.

Thus the disruptive power of surfing, which exerts an allegiance to itself and a faithlessness to the rest of the world that is capable of ending romantic relationships and terminating gainful employment at the rise of a swell. If I had never learned to surf, Tuesday would have dawned like any other workday and I would have fulfilled my teacherly duties ignorant of the oceanic joy on offer.

Want the rest? Click here.