For the first twenty-two years of my life, I didn’t go more than a few weeks without feeling the freshness of the sea breeze; a blessing that has often been taken for granted. In the autumn of my twenty-second year of existence, circumstances took me to Saint Petersburg, Russia, where I immersed myself into a world of frozen waters, metro riding, and tea-drinking. This time near the Arctic was a defiance to my concept of familiarity, a wake-up call to my inveterate relationship with the sea, or at the very least a better understanding of what it means to be cold.
I arrived in St. Petersburg at the beginning of October, in time to witness the intense transition of colors that come with this slow-paced, melancholic season. As autumn came to an end, signs of ‘sea-starvation’ began to surface and a yearning for unobstructed horizons stirred a soft anxiety inside me. At this time of the year, the fact St. Petersburg is sliced by canals and has its western borders set by the Gulf of Finland makes no difference when looking for water in its liquid state, let alone waves. Even at the beach, that squeaky sound emitted by the pressing of a foot against the sand was replaced by the drier, colder squeak of snow. In order to address this growing uneasiness from the lack of salt water, I searched for ways to feel – if not all, then at least some – the sensations that riding a wave or simply being by the sea can provide. I noticed that the city center sidewalks were constantly cleared of snow, so by taking the last train inbound, when the streets were dozing, I had the opportunity to catch long, concrete waves on a skateboard. They were uncrowded, went both right and left, and required no forecasting; definitely not the same as sea-surfing, but probably the closest thing to it available. I would get home at 3 am, my body and soul cleansed, my mind renewed – much like the aesthesis that dawn patrols stimulated.
The arrival of winter brought frantic snowfalls, and mother nature deprived me of the joys of ‘concrete surfing’. Like any other animal, I adapted, tackling the need to be in contact with my sea-self by plunging into water-related topics. I studied swell charts, read surf literature, stayed tuned to the news, brainstormed future trips, and researched about a new found passion for surfboard design. Things like falling asleep to a “sounds of the sea” video on YouTube, or almost overdosing on surf films were passive ways of dealing with the lack of barrels and bottom turns, but worked wonders. Most of all, I reflected on everything that a life in the brine had given me so far; memories of remarkable sessions found space between daily thoughts and led me into vivid daydreams as the metro swerved from side to side on its mundane, scheduled course. Yet the tendency to drift into a tropical realm – so to cope with the challenges of my newfound reality – made no difference to the fact that life carried on. It was important to acknowledge that albeit the grass may have seemed greener on the other side, I should at least mow the field I happened to be at with an open mind.
When spring arrived, I found myself waxing a surfboard and getting ready for a session in Hossegor, France. As I listened to the wax rubbing the deck, smelling its fruity scent, I realized that even those tiny aspects of surfing had been chronically overlooked. I paddled out unhurriedly, opening my eyes underwater with every duck-dive so to truly feel that stinging sensation of salt in my iris. Once in the line-up, I felt my body thump; my lineaments changed with the stretching of a soft, ineluctable smile. I was a factor of that equation, an element of that compound, a part of that whole. A set wave approached and I veered with agility – a contradictory move considering I hadn’t surfed in six months –, careful not to mess up the take-off. There was an interesting needlessness to maneuver, and I was eager to simply ride the wave until its cycle was complete. Thoughts of those cold nights skateboarding under the city lights popped into my head, only to be blown by the breeze that intensified as I glided along the wave’s face. I closed my eyes – something I had never tried before while surfing – and let inertia carry me, sightless. Among water drops and sunlight, I re-entered the state that, at least to me, had always represented the nub of surfing: the sense of being here. In twenty-two years leaching onto shores, never could I imagine that a winter in Russia’s ancient capital would revitalize my bond with surfing – yet it did exactly so. Another set approached on the horizon; it was good to be home.
Text & photos: Kim Feldmann