Zachary O in BO

Zachary Ostroff

PHOTOS: Max Houtzager

What was that?” I thought to myself. I spun my legs off of the twin mattress so fast that I nearly forgot to stand up. Still reeling from the sensations of the dream, I sat down cross-legged on the floor and tried to figure out what had just happened in my subconscious mind.

I found my gaze submersed in deep blue water. Looking around, my only neighbors were thick spherical bubbles the size of small apples. I didn’t know which way was up to oxygen or which way was down to the ocean floor, but for some reason I wasn’t worried. I felt something I had not felt in a long time: peace.
Suddenly white water rushed around me and I felt my body spinning every direction at once. In the rush of water molecules, just as I could feel my lungs tightening, the white water faded into a sunlit yellow hue, and I realized I was once again staring at my dorm room ceiling in Columbia University. I saw “7:25″ on my phone’s screen, five minutes before my alarm was set to wake me. Without moving my head, I reached my hand up onto my desk to tap the spacebar of my computer to turn on whatever music I had been listening to last night. As I brought my hand back under my chin to resume my dream analysis, I heard Eddie Vedder’s voice bellowing from my speakers, “Ooohhhhh….Ooooohhhhhh,” singing above the powerful movements of Pearl Jam. My eyes widened as I sharpened my hearing, realizing that good ol’ Ed gave me the answer: it was “Oceans,” a song about his love affair with surfing.
As summer vacation was just a few weeks away and these aquatic dreams became more common, I made a pact with myself that when I returned home to Northern California, I would brave the cold water and my fears of the ocean and finally learn how to surf.

Fast-forward to one mid-June afternoon, now back in California, sitting at a piano to compose some music. The sounds my fingers played began drawing images of water in my mind again. Without resolving the previous chord, I picked up my phone and texted my good friend Erik, an experienced waterman. The next morning we were on our way to a place that would become my second home over the coming year: Bolinas, California.
Following Panoramic Highway over winding hills, around off-camber roads and alongside a lagoon teeming with vitality, we hit an intersection and turned left, passing a beautiful farm with a 10 foot tall peace sign hanging from the barn. Minutes later, we descended into a small town, with no more than six or seven storefronts visible on the street. We turned right before I could fully take in the view, and ended up at the end of the road with a boat ramp leading down to flat sand and an even flatter ocean. With the sun illuminating our seaward path and the warmth of possibility in my chest, I pulled on my wetsuit, grabbed Erik’s 9’6″ longboard, and sprinted for the beach.
Erik gave me a rundown of the basics on the sand. At the time, only two other people were in the channel with us. There was a buzz of energy between the water and myself with every stroke I took, energy that both calmed and excited me.
My eyes moved from my white surfboard to the blue-green water, to the towering hillside in front of us, covered with flowing grass and redwood trees. Sitting on my craft, I almost felt like I didn’t deserve the sights of this hidden paradise.
“Zach, this one’s you!” I heard from behind me. I looked back and saw a mass of water about two feet tall and fifty feet wide rolling towards me. I laid down on my board and paddled as hard as I could towards shore. Seconds later, I felt my body lift and move quickly down the face of the wave. I raised my chest off the board, swung my front foot up, and fell off into the water.
Suddenly I was back in my dream again, seeing blue water all around me, serene yet unyieldingly powerful. Though this time, as I emerged, I found myself staring up at the beautiful sky with the sun spilling over mountains. I clambered back onto my board, heaving as much air as I could through my Cheshire cat grin. I hadn’t even ridden a wave and I already knew that I belonged.

Something magical happens when you’re riding a wave. Time seems to slow down as you observe every little ripple and texture on the wave’s surface. To ride the wave best, you must completely intonate yourself with the changing face and draw lines that allow you to harness the wave’s energy to its fullest.
I can only compare this intense state of flow to the one I experience when I am playing jazz on stage with musicians of the highest reactivity and compassion. I lose sense of self, future, past, and present and see the perfect notes to play in what seems likes minutes before I actually play them. When I’m riding my best waves, I visualize the line I need to draw. I shift my weight and make subtle changes to my trajectory as the thrill and speed send my mind into a buzzing state of bliss.
When I need answers and can’t seem to find them, I know that if I head to Bolinas, by the time I’m back on shore I’ll at least know which direction I need to start walking in.
The more I surf, the more I can bring with me the commitment, release, focus, and gratitude for the waves, real or metaphorical, that life blesses me with everyday. My near daily interactions with seals, kelp, fish and healing water have bred a personal need to protect the ocean, the body which gives us oxygen, food, and everything else that this uniquely habitable planet provides. I have met some of the best people I know suiting up in the parking lot, or out in the lineup sharing the gratefulness and stoke for my favorite tubular manifestation of the Earth’s energy. As my good friend David once put it, “When you paddle out, you have to leave everything on shore.” And when I reach land again, I always seem to find myself filled with gratitude for it all.