What Is A "Dawn Patrol"

Riders of the early morning surf welcome the Dawn patrol

USA, California, surfer watching sunrise on beach
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For those unfamiliar with the term, “dawn patrol” refers to a surfer’s arrival to the beach at or just before sunrise.

Dawn Patrol

The inclusion of the word “patrol” is idiosyncratic with the common conception of the casual surf attitude; however, the connotation of some militaristic mission impossible is justified. Once you’ve seen a surfer tune their equipment, grab their surf gear, and set off into the darkness intent on accomplishment, you might change your outlook on surfers forever. When it comes to the dawn patrol, surfers are soldiers…soldiers of fortune. If they are fortunate enough, the morning mission will yield big results.

In the old days, a dawn patrol was a hit or miss situation. Armed with only one’s knowledge of weather maps and swell trends, intrepid riders of the morning mist were more often greeted with mirror-like flatness or on-shore slop than with the epic barrels that swirled around their dreams the night before.

Today, what with the Internet’s infinite resources, we can watch the swells rise and shift in real-time and read experts’ opinions of future swell events. Mother Nature, however, still has the power to render even the most perfectly planned dawn patrol pointless, leaving early risers heavy with caffeine haze and packed with unspent stoke.

So what’s the point? Why not simply wait until the sun warms up the morning sick surf and you can mosey on down to the beach later in the day or even wait for your buddies to call with a report?

There is no easy answer. However, there are several uneasy answers.

For one, most surfers don’t have the motivation to leave the house under cloak of night and pain of cold to jump into a black ocean for want of a couple uncrowded waves, so there looms the carrot of solitude, the allure of being the first to break the seal of the unsoiled swell that has come up overnight.

It’s the call from the dawn, that gray limbo between the black shark infested night and the molten cracked glow in the morning sky. It’s being present as the sun first warms the earth and shifts the winds, grooming the swell in the presence of a few lucky surf junkies. It’s the romantic danger of nocturnal predators below scrounging for one more bite before retiring for the day with no one on the beach to call for help. And of course, it is the satisfaction you feel as you crawl from the water, beaten and drained of your surf lust as hoards of groggy slow pokes with bed head sip from styrofoam cups and wish they were you.

To load up your boards as neighbors sleep, to walk into class sunburned, to sit at your desk sore from hours of wave riding: these are the reasons for the dawn patrol.

Not everyone is cut out for a life of dawn patrols, just like not everyone is cut out for the military. But once you have trained yourself, nothing else will suffice. You begin to love the mission as much as the surfing. It’s the thrill of the hunt, the love of the “patrol”. Driving through night fog or biking desolate streets hearken back to our primitive hunting instincts. Somewhere there lurks the prize with no one else around. Waves are peeling unscarred by the jagged lines of the unworthy.

Your significant other may think you’re psychotic. Your mom may think you’re on crack. You’re kids don’t care since you come back home branded with a smile. You are a dawn patroller, a surfer who makes his own fortune, a soldier who laughs at danger, a hunter who lets nothing keep him from his prize. You squeeze the most from life as you blur the line between night and day. I think even the National Anthem mentioned a flag is waving in the dawn’s early light. And I'll bet that flag was waving in offshore winds.