An estuary lay steaming in the early morning sun, the colours of the water in its upper reaches a toffee-brown, but here, close to where a bridge of sand lay between it and the green-blue sea beyond, the water was clear. So clear that the great shovel-headed fish in the channel swimming lazily against the outgoing tide looked suspended in air. The sound of waves, their crashing muffled by the intervening dunes, rose above the cries of sea-birds in the sky. Fish were on the move beyond the line of breakers and the sun-dappled surface was broken, here and there, with the glistening, arced backs of sharp-eyed dolphins.
The outgoing flow of the estuary carved the channel seaward, but in the chaos where ocean met lake, the channel turned gradually to the south. It continued to run parallel to the beach before forking and branching into a broad underwater delta. The sand here rippled and the whiting darted. Out to sea, but to the north, lay an island. More a point of land whose lingering connection to the continent became more and more tenuous with each cycle of tide. The schools of bait fish were driven towards it. The convergence of stony beach, brown-stone reef and long, breaking waves peeling southwards from the island’s east-most point conspired to corral the fish. Here, the hunters waited.
On mats of spongy bark they sat. Bobbing on the swell, spears and nets in hand. Looking south, they shielded their eyes and called to one another in anticipation of the school’s arrival. One young hunter stood on her vessel; its prow tied with string and sealed with blackened-sap. With her hands she paddled back and forth to stay close to that part of the bay where the peeling waves partially blocked any escape for the prey. The current grew stronger as the tide continued to ebb and soon she lost ground; her craft being drawn between reef and sand bank so that, in the moments of calm between waves, she slipped beyond the break.
Floating out here was not new to her, but the direction of the swell and the way it broke and peeled away from the island meant that the barrier they planned to use as a tool for hunting fish now separated her from the group. She could see them beyond the line of breakers and knew that the school had arrived; spears and nets were being thrown and shouts floated across the air.
To return she had to choose; a long paddle down behind the line of waves and then back up to the group, a risky attempt to scamper on to the rocky beach or wait for a break in the waves and paddle as fast as she could directly back to the group. While she thought, a dolphin broke the surface beside her then streaked forward through a wave towards the beach. Needing no further encouragement, and wishing to return before the school broke and ran, she looked behind and scanned the horizon. The waves were grouped and she counted three as they passed under her, a long gap, another three, another gap. She realised her moment had arrived and, whilst kneeling, paddled as hard as she could for the other side. She did not realise, though, that she had been pushed further north than she realised and that what lay on the other side of broken water was reef and rocky beach. With a fright, she steered her craft towards the south to angle away from the hazard, but in doing so, lost time. The gap between waves passed and, looking behind her, she saw the first of the next three waves approach. Paddling fast, she felt her craft get pulled back towards the wave as it sucked up the sea in front of it, but the wave passed her at the last moment, peaking as she rose over its crest.
The offshore breeze blew spray back into her face. Gasping, she looked behind again and saw that the next wave was bigger. In fear, she dug deeper with her hands, willing the craft forward. Her eyes focused on the beach beyond. She could see the group looking towards her, waving and shouting but did not need to turn around to understand why. Still paddling to angle away from the rocky shore to her right, she felt the same sensation of being drawn backwards by the wave. Realising there was no other option but to paddle harder and harder, she stroked the water desperately, knowing her life depended on it.
This time though, something felt different. She felt energy below her and the craft began to slide forward, whilst tilting in a way that she had to lean back to avoid falling. In an instant, the wave began to break; spilling white water and propelling her forward across its face. As her craft skimmed along, she lost her fear and yelped with joy. Not just because she was surviving, but because was there, slicing along the blue arc of rolling water.She raced down the line of wave until it passed beyond the shallow sand bank and into deeper water. Here she found herself in calm waters not far from the outliers of her group. She paddled towards them, her heart racing, and saw in their eyes something hard to describe; almost as if they were seeing her anew.