I’m fascinated by the tides.
The way the ocean swells and recedes, how the landscape changes within a short time frame, how it forces us to adapt to its rhythms.
Playa Estero is the gorgeous black sand beach in Santa Catalina, Panama where I’m learning to surf. It’s one of the best beaches for surfing newbies.
Last week, our surf lessons were all at low or mid-tide.
To get to the main part of the beach from the main road, we crossed a shallow stream. It was about ankle-deep and about as wide as a surfboard is long — the perfect spot to clean off the surfboards on the way back from surfing.
On the far side, the shiny black sandy beach stretched out before us. There was plenty of beach before we hit the ocean.
On Friday afternoon around 5 pm, the beach was dotted with people sitting and watching the surfers. A bike. Bags of surf gear. People relaxing and reading. The sun bounced off the black sand as it slowly faded behind the far end of the horizon line to the right.
When I came for my surf lesson on Monday afternoon at 5 pm, it was a completely different story.
There’s a cliche about how quickly the tides can change. It’s no joke.
The Swell of High Tide
I met Kione, my surf instructor, at Mama Ines, a hotel and restaurant built into the bluff overlooking the beach. The bartender took my bag for safekeeping behind the bar.
We walked down the steps from Mama Ines. But instead of letting out on the small part of the beach, we walked right into the ocean, entering at our knees and quickly waist deep.
The little “stream” that separated this road side of the beach from the main part of the beach had disappeared. The little stream was now a wide river, easily waist-high for most adults.
If you bring a bag to the beach at high tide it better be a dry bag — the kind that keeps water out and floats (here’s the one I got for my trip; I’ve been very happy with it). Otherwise you’ll need to carry it over your head while you swim across.
On Friday at 5 pm it was low tide. By Monday at the same time it was high tide.
The Force of Gravity
The tides are dictated by the gravitational pull of the moon. Around the new moon and full moon, the tides range is at it at its maximum; the high tide is higher and the low tide is lower. The extremes peak two days after the full moon. Sunday was the full moon. Today’s swell was bigger than yesterday’s and tomorrow’s will be even greater.
Today, my surf lesson was at 3 pm; I finished approximately 45 minutes before high tide. I decided to stay at Mama Ines for a drink and a snack while watching the ocean. I grabbed a table overlooking the ocean and spent two hours watching the ocean rise and then watched the tide roll away.
If you’ve never done this, I highly recommend it.
Nature gives us the greatest show on earth.
I sat and watched the ocean swell and then recede, as the sun slowly faded in the distance. I watched as people adapted to cross the river to get to the main part of the beach, which was covered in waves.
A rhythmic flow of expansion and contraction, swelling and receding, giving forth and pulling back.
Recognizing Our Limited Control
However much you think you control in this life, the movement of the ocean shows you that you do not control much.
We can add days to a calendar, change the numbers on the linear clock, but the moon still follows her process in her own timing.
The ocean swells and contracts in her own rhythm. There is nothing we can do to control the tides.
Clocks do not control this process. It happens in rhythmic, cyclical time.
Waxing and waning. Contracting and expanding. Swelling and receding.
This happens on its own accord, in its own rhythm, in its own timing.
The only thing we can do is sit, watch, and surrender.