In Print: Claire Jenck’s Road to the Ocean

claire portrait in black raincoat with orange hat

Winter brings the best northwest waves. When friends find out I surf in Washington, they are usually incredulous. “No, what? In winter? But it’s so cold” they say. I should try to persuade them otherwise. I should tell them how wild the peninsula is, how uncrowded and pristine, about how last year I surfed with a whale spouting nearby. Instead, with a small shrug, I usually agree. More waves for me..

They are right on one point though – it can get a bit chilly towards the end of a session. When the waves are pumping and it’s raining and you head out for just one more, just one more, just one more, and then it’s dark and your fingers feel like little chunks of ice attached to the ends of your arms. They are right on that one.

In my mind, there are two parts to surfing. The easier bit is one that looks hard. It’s the push-up and then the stand up. Then you’re on it, surfing the beast. But before that happens there is the deceptively simple part, where you read the waves. You crane your neck from your sea level perch to glimpse the behemoth advancing in the next set, ready to swallow you whole. This part is full of silently calculated decisions. Should you move farther out in the lineup? Or perhaps paddle to the left – it looks cleaner over there. Where is that rock by the shore, the one you made a mental note to avoid at all costs? Are you drifting out to sea?

claire heading out into the waves in wetsuit

When you have read the wave, found the takeoff zone, given a few strong strokes, felt the momentum of your board shoot down the face, pushed up, found your feet, turned your body down the line – then comes the fleeting feeling of float, of lifting off. As if the wave could go on forever, past the beach, onto dry land, flying away with you riding down it. Your wave could be only a second, it could be ten, but it never feels like enough.

That feeling has me hooked. A few years ago I decided my partner and I needed an adventure mobile, something to bring us consistently closer to the water. We decided a school bus was the way to go. Ours is a short bus, a 22-footer purchased from friends who never got around to converting it. I like to think we bought it back before #vanlife was really heating up, before Instagram handles abounded with photos of bare feet and stunning vistas framed by open Sprinter-van doors.

claire pulling on her wetsuit in costal pine forest

We spent months ripping out the interior, painstakingly re-insulating, re-caulking, and installing a wooden floor left over from a family member’s house renovation. I found a wood-burning stove from an ice shack in Wisconsin and carefully put a stovepipe through the bus roof. A few days later while driving I noticed smoked pouring from the rooftop pipe. I learned the hard way to douse the fire with plenty of water before getting on the road.

We spent hours wiring new lights, new speakers, and had more than a few days dedicated to sussing out hidden rust spots. A fresh exterior paint job took a summer day and four trips to Ace Hardware for a working spray gun. Inside, the first bed I built was a work in process, a folding contraption that we never actually got around to folding. Dresser drawers were underneath, requiring a contortion act to reach. The remedial second time around, the bed was much improved, a lightweight sliding affair I felt better about showing to our friends. Overhead cupboards and a passenger seat rounded out the build. Most importantly, a surfboard rack under the bed held my board.

Claire's blue bus in old growth forest

The little bus has proven well-suited for the NW winters. When those cold days roll around and my fingers are frozen from just one more wave, I feel grateful for a warm interior where I can peel off my wetsuit. If I think ahead I make a pot of hot water and have it ready for tea, the cup warming my frozen hands as my suit drip-dries on a line and I stare out the window hungrily awaiting the arrival of the next set sliding into view.


Words by:Claire Jencks

Follow her on Instagram:@cmontanaj