In spite of all its changes, however, the surf has sometimes local characteristics as fixed as anything can be with which the fickle ocean has to do. For instance, on the Atlantic coast the storms are generally bred and nurtured in the east; the milder weather is born of southern or western winds, and therefore it is that those who have spent much time upon the New Jersey beaches have probably noticed that during very heavy weather the waves, as a rule, roll straight upon the shore; while when the surf is lighter it is apt to run diagonally, or, as they say, "sets" from the south. On the Long Island coast all this is reversed; there, when the storm-winds prevail, the "set" is strong from the east, and the foam and breakers race along the beach from Montauk toward the Metropolis; while at other times the surf will usually run straight on. It is hardly necessary to say that a surf without "set" is far more agreeable, and somewhat safer. A bather is not forced to fight constantly against the impulse that is drifting him down the beach and away from companions, ropes, and bathing-grounds.

Surf And Surf Bathing 107

Figure 2.

The strength and height of the waves depend mainly upon influences at work far out upon the ocean; but the beach, as shaped by its watery assailants, reacts upon them in turn. The finest surf will be found under the following conditions: First, let there be a storm well out at sea, sending the big rollers straight onto the beach, and then a sharp wind off-shore for a few hours. The effect of this will be, in the first instance, to thin the waves; and he who is fortunate enough to make trial of them under such circumstances will find a high, clean-cut surf, each breaker of which combs over in even sequence, and yet without such weight or body of water as to seriously threaten his equilibrium. Should that same wind off-shore blow for a few hours longer, the tops of the waves will be cut off, and the ocean become too calm to be interesting.

I speak of a "fine surf;" but were each man asked what he understands by it, or by the term "good bathing," his definition would probably be largely governed by his skill and ability to take care of himself. For instance, what would be highly satisfactory to a good surfman would be altogether too rough for those compelled by weakness, timidity, or inexperience to stand near the shore and look on; while what might be agreeable to them would be tame for him. The opinion of such as say, " Wasn't it splendid to-day ! Why, I swam way out to the bar," need not be considered. They don't enjoy surf-bathing; it is only the swimming that they care for, and they would doubtless be even better pleased at any point on Long Island Sound. But what I take to be, and what I mean by, "a good bathing-day," is one on which a man who understands himself can take the surf as it comes, either alone or "with convoy," and yet, when there is an ever-present excitement in the knowledge that a second's carelessness may result in an overthrow of both his person and his pride.

Turning now from the water to the beach itself, we find its formation varies from day to day and from year to year, almost as much as do the waves that are forever smiting it. It may deepen gradually or abruptly; and the shoaling of an abrupt beach is usually the result of some days' heavy sea "setting" from one direction or the other, which cuts away the sand above low-water mark, and spreads it out over the bottom. But that characteristic which at the same time varies and affects us most is the position and depth of what is known as the "ditch;' that is, where, sometimes at a few feet, sometimes at several yards from the shore, will be found a sudden declivity caused by the continual pounding of the surf along one line, and consequently lying farther out in heavy weather, and conversely.

As a source of danger this same "ditch" is often very material. Often a man ignorant of the surf, perhaps a poor swimmer, or no swimmer at all, starts to wade out waist- or breast-deep. To his eyes there is no sign of peril - one step more, and lo! he is beyond his depth; and that, too, just where the waves are pounding him down, and the conditions most potent to deprive him of his much-needed presence of mind. Nor is this all. He may not, of his own free will, take that last step which involves him in all this difficulty, for it is at the edge of the "ditch" where the "undertow ' is strongest; nay, more, the very strength of the "undertow" depends largely upon the depth of the ditch.

Doubtless we have all heard a great deal about this "undertow," as though it were some mysterious force working from the recesses of a treacherous ocean to draw unwary bathers to their doom. As a matter of fact, its presence is obviously natural, and the explanation of it more than simple. As each wave rolls in and breaks upon the beach, the volume of water which it carries does not remain there and sink into the sand: it flows back again; and, as the succeeding wave breaks over it, the receding one forms an undercurrent flowing outward of strength proportionate to the body of water contained in each breaker, and, again, proportionate in a great measure to the depth of the ditch. Where this latter is an appreciable depression, it can be readily seen that the water of receding waves will flow into it with similar effect to that of water going over a fall, and that a person standing near is very likely to be drawn over with it, and thus, if the ditch is deep enough, carried out of his depth. This is all there is to the much-talked-of "undertow," and the numerous accidents laid to its account.

It may be well to speak here of another phenomenon not infrequently observed. I do not recall ever seeing the name by which it is known in print; and, as the word is ignored by Webster, I shall invent my own spelling, and write it "sea-poose." This term is loosely used on different parts of the coast; but the true significance of it is briefly this: There will sometimes come, at every bathing-ground, days when the ocean seems to lose its head, and to act in a very capricious way. On such occasions it often happens that the beach is cut away at some one point, presumably where the sand happens to be softer and less capable of resisting the action of the water. There will then be found a little bay indenting the shore, perhaps ten feet, perhaps ten yards. The waves rolling into such a cove are deflected somewhat by its sides, and "set" together at its head, so that two wings of a breaker, so to speak, meet, and, running straight out from the point of junction, form a sort of double " undertow," which will, if the conditions that cause it continue, cut out along its course a depression or trench of varying depth and length. It can be readily understood that such a trench tends to strengthen the current that causes it; and these two factors, acting and reacting upon each other, occasion what might be called an artificial "undertow," which is sometimes strong enough to carry an unwary bather some distance out, in a fashion that will cause him either to be glad he is, or to wish he were, within the rectangle of the life-lines. I have sometimes heard old surfmen speak of what they call a "false poose;" but I have never been able to find out just what was meant by the expression, much less its causes and character. I shall, therefore, leave the question for those who delight to delve into the mysteries of local nomenclature.