The story behind the photo

Photo:  Matt Lusk

Photo: Matt Lusk

This photo is one of my favorites. Matt Lusk took it and I used it for the cover of When Oceans Rise. I get asked about this photo a lot so I figured I’d share the story of how it came about. 

It was circa November 2012 on the Outer Banks of North Carolina in Cape Hatteras. This was the first Nor’easter of the season and there weren’t many places to surf this day. The winds were howling and the ocean was essentially out of control. When it gets like that the Lighthouse is about the only option. Whenever I’m on the Outer Banks I stay with Jesse Hines. Jesse is one of my closest friends and biggest sources of inspiration. He is a world-class surfer who had a long and successful career as a professional, known mostly for surfing some of the world’s scariest waves. I’ve surfed with him enough to know that when he gets really excited about the wave forecast it generally means I’m going to be terrified.  

Jesse and I made our way south from his house toward Hatteras. We checked a few spots along the way but everything was disorganized and too big for the sandbars to handle. When we arrived at the Lighthouse we met up with Matt Lusk and Brett Barley. Brett is a successful professional as well and enjoys the same types of waves as Jesse. 

The waves looked anything but inviting: rain, howling winds, cleanup sets that just washed through the line-up, lots of close-outs, and you could literally see the river-like current that the Lighthouse is known for. I thought it would be easy to convince them not to paddle out. But every once in a while there would be a random wave that looked almost makeable and that was enough to get Jesse and Brett interested. 

As they suited up I debated if it was worth joining them. Not wanting to be the only one who didn’t give it a go I decided I’d suit up as well. We began the paddle out together and before I had time to think I got swept down the beach. I was separated from Jesse and Brett rather quickly but kept paddling. After a bit of nonstop duck diving I looked back to see where I was and realized the current had already taken me well past where I needed to be. I turned around and headed back to shore feeling a bit sheepish for not making it out. 

The photo was taken as I stood there contemplating whether or not I wanted to try the paddle out again. Jesse and Brett are two of the best surfers I’ve ever seen in those types of conditions. As I watched them struggle to find a surf-able wave I realized that it was far out of my league. I waited at the waters edge for about fifteen minutes to see if the ocean would have a lull long enough to let me get out to the line-up, but it was relentless. I finally decided to leave it to the pros and I headed back to the car. It was very humbling not to make it out, even more humbling when your friends do and you don’t. 

I really wanted to get a good surf photo that day, and I figured the only way it would be possible was to actually catch a wave. The fact I didn’t even stand up on a wave is a testament to Matt Lusk’s talent as a photographer—making lemonade out of lemons. I love how he captured the scale of what paddling out on a day like that is really like. Often photos have a way of taming the experience, making the reality of the situation seem less critical or threatening. Part of what I love about it is how Lusk was able to not only capture the scale but also the feeling and the moment of contemplation. Anyone who’s paddled out on a big day knows that feeling and has certainly had that inner dialogue about whether or not it’s worth it.    

Another reason I like this photo is that it reminds me that God’s grace is as relentless as the ocean. It’s amazing how He is able to bring something good out of any situation. I would’ve never imagined one of my favorite photos would come from one of my most humbling surf experiences. It reminds me of something I heard my friend say one time. He said, “God is able to win with any hand.” Sometimes life has a way of making it difficult to believe that statement, but then I look at this photo and I’m reminded if God did it once He can do it again.