Twenty-eight feet never looked so small. On our third day in Costa Rica, we went deep sea fishing, me battling my life-long fear of the ocean to spend a day at sea with Jacob and Jasper. The young man who we purchased the tickets from had a shared history on North Carolina’s Outer Banks where Jasper and I had spent our childhood summers. He told of his team’s record-breaking catches while pointing to snapshots of boats at sea. There were a variety, most with large cabins, though it was hard to make out the details.
“That doesn’t look like twenty-eight feet,” Jasper said as the little boat that picked us up on the beach approached one of the dozens of bigger boats waiting for passengers in the cove.
“It could be,” I said, mentally measuring off ten foot increments on the simple fiberglass shell. Once on board, I could see there was no cabin … no bathroom … only four molded fiberglass seats under a tiny square shade. This was it for the next seven hours.
My expectations had been set by my one other experience fishing off-shore. Jasper and Julia and I had gone with our dad and his girlfriend at the time off of Bimini Island in the Bahamas. The boat was tall and elegant, like the girlfriend. Jasper recalled catching a wahoo at the end of the trip. I remembered nothing but rhythmic rocking and staring out over the endless sea. But I’m sure there was a cabin. I’m sure there was a bathroom.
“How’re you doing?” Jasper shouted over the motor a few miles into the trip.
“Good,” I shouted back. “Better than I thought!”
I surprised myself by enjoying being on the water. The sea wasn’t making it easy, either. It was choppy, and the boat bounced up and down over two and three foot swells. The captain expertly aimed the nose into the smoothest path of travel and cut the engine strategically and ever so slightly to minimize the jarring. Despite the rough seas, only a few drops of spray managed to reach us.
I had imagined myself panicking the moment we passed a good swimming distance from shore. But there we were, the mountains faded to light gray silhouettes behind us. I was strangely comforted by the boats steady roar and sea slapping the sides of the boat. Instead of fearing death by drowning or sharks, I was mesmerized by the sun glinting off the waves, the salty air, the glimpse of fish jumping every so often. I turned at a flash of silver to watch a flying fish glide just above the waves for seconds before plopping back into the sea. My breath caught at the wonder of it.
Though I lived just 25 miles from the Pacific Ocean, I hadn’t felt connected to the sea in a long time. Southern California’s Pacific is frigid year-round. Here, in the warm waters along the Costa Rican shore, I felt at home. Like August on the Outer Banks, the ocean here was warm enough to hang out in for hours. Famously big surf brought surfers from around the world to our little Playa Hermosa hotel. We were warned of rough water and rip tides. But the tides were manageable after cutting our teeth in Nags Head’s notorious surf. We swam before breakfast each morning, before sunset each evening, and once or twice in between.
The early mornings were usually calmest, with big perfect waves sliding through a glassy surface under sunrise. By mid-morning, the tides or winds changed to bring rougher waters. Our last two days brought us water calm enough to float in for long periods between each set of three or four big waves. We dove under the rolling whitewater, rode in on smooth faces and relaxed into long back floats on smooth rolling water.
Even though Playa Hermosa was on a different ocean and continent, this beach felt very much like coming home. We slept with our windows open to the salt air and crashing waves. The sounds and scents and humidity took me back to my love of the ocean. A love that outweighed my childish fear of sharks and stingrays.
After one shriek at an imagined black fin, I jumped out of the ocean like the Jesus Christ lizard Jacob told us about.
“And there you are,” Jasper said when I calmed down and rejoined them in the surf. “I just had a flashback to your 7 year old self.”
And yet the ocean calmed me. There, with my brother and my son, I felt connected to love and to place and to time standing still. I felt grounded and nurtured and at peace. I felt a coming together of my childhood self and myself as a grown-up. I felt joy. My return to the sea was also a return to me.