I sat on a bench, which itself was placed several feet up on a wooden platform next to the ocean. The bench was a piecemeal of pallets and pillows, allowing me plenty of room to lean back and cross my legs in front of me, my sun-beaten head and chest propped up on elbows bent far behind me. I watched the three people at the ocean’s edge, just to the right of my center, out from behind a pair of sunglasses — the sunglasses would have to come off when I eventually got into the water myself, but in the early morning sunrise, I appreciate their aegis far too much. The small group, clustered at the edge of the world, with their waxed boarded tucked under the arms and braced hard against their hips, took their first steps into the shoreline waves. I sighed and cut my attention towards the instructor who strode up to the platform with me.
“Okay,” he started in an accent that was distinctly Germanic. He had two boards, one under each long arm and gazed momentarily out at the group that was now waist-deep in the waters, floating their boards — then back to me. “What do you remember?”
I pursed my lips together, turning inward for a moment. This was the part I was good at — the ‘learning information’ part, the formal education part. I was great when dealing with theory, but practice was what always threw me. I didn’t know if it was the dedication required to actually implement facts or what, but whatever it was, it had kept me from surfing for a long time. My whole life, really. Surfing took too much work. It surely wasn’t worth the time one needed to put in, and the propensity for getting hurt, to me, was far too high. Plus, I already dedicated all my extra time to learning and teaching yoga, a passion which didn’t leave room for much else.
Still, that didn’t stop me from fingering through surfing catalogues and watching surf videos whenever they appeared on my timeline. It certainly was appealing, that I never had trouble admitting. I massively admired those who went for it and surfed.
I liked the picturesque idea of surfing and, having grown up in Florida, I knew that I liked the people who surfed. I liked how it looked, and I already loved the ocean. I knew that with my interest in yoga, my balance and fitness would lend itself well to the sport — so when a friend introduced me to the concept of surf retreats, I resisted her only for her first few persuasive attempts. It really didn’t take much before I went jettisoning off to my very first SwellWomen surf adventure, in the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica.
“Well, it’s important to try and pop up in one fluid motion,” I began listing off “and the wave will carry you faster if your weight is in your back foot.” The instructor, Eddy, lifted his eyebrows in intrigue. “If a wave is coming at you, dive underneath it — and never ditch your board if another person is around you.” Besides the actual mechanics of the wave, that’s about all there was to it. Eddy nodded his head and motioned me to the grass behind the bench.
He put one of the boards on the ground — it lacked any fins that might be broken from beachside practice — and told me to place myself on top. I obeyed, shimmying onto my belly and shivering as I felt cold wax against my skin for the first time.
After my first five minutes in the water, I would eventually learn the magic of surfing that, at this point, willfully evaded me. This beautiful, albeit uncomfortable, magic of surfing is simply having the opportunity to face your weaknesses. It’s a gift, and a privilege. Many times the weaknesses we face on the water are ones that we didn’t even know we had. After all, take a person who is mostly land-bound and place them in the water, and they will be all sorts facing unknown challenges — the likes of which they had not yet even imagined. Things from sitting up straight and standing would become far more difficult when in the water, and people who played happily in the shoreline suddenly might become petrified when schooning over water 20 or 30 feet deep. These aren’t things that can be left ignored either, if one wished to truly transcend into a person who surfed.
I had come to this surf lesson inspired by all the beautiful photos I had seen, of women with flowing hair hanging-ten in a most poetic manner. The beauty of it was what attracted me, but I wasn’t yet aware that the most beautiful part of surfing happened on the inside, through such work that could not be considered glamorous. If you had asked me if I was mentally prepared to surf in that moment, I would have responded with a resounding yes. If you asked me now, I would say I always will have something new to learn, and new challenge to overcome — but you can’t use these things as an excuse, otherwise, you’ll never reap the rewards. You just have to face them.
Eddy circled me, an eagle and his prey, looking for sign of potential weakness. It wasn’t long before he found something.
“See how your feet are hanging off?” He tapped the soles of my feet with his own, and I instinctively scuttled forward a few inches. “Yeah, right there,” he amended and continued surveying my form. However, laying upon a board on dry land is easy work — there wasn’t much else for him to correct.
He sighed, bent down and placed an extended forefinger near the middle of the board, right beneath my nose. Cross-eyed, I looked at what he motioned towards. “See how your chin just hits the sticker on this board? Find a similar marker on the board you’ll take in the ocean, so you always know where to be. You won’t have to think about it much.” I nodded like a good student should, internalizing his words and committing them to memory right then and there.
Eddy stood back to his full height, leaving only his bare feet in my view.
“Now, lift through your back and paddle,” he instructed, almost surely with his chin nestled between his forefinger and thumb. I did so, feeling each muscle along my thoracic spine light up, pulling my chest up and away from the board. The yoga teacher in me smiled — cobra pose? Easy stuff! Even though I was finally able to look around, I kept my eyes trained on a spot just ahead of the board — wherever I wanted the board to go, as Eddy had stated about a half hour prior — and I began to move my arms in an awkward, dog-like paddle. I pulled my elbows up and back, then trust my cupped hands forward and brushed it against the ground as I pulled each one back and forth, pedaling as if this were a hand-powered bicycle.
All was fine and surprisingly easy; until I paddled for about 30 cumulative seconds, and my entire upper body became heavy and leadened. My breath came a little faster; a little more often. Surely this would get easier in the water (it wouldn’t) and I would get used to the repetitive action quickly (I wouldn’t) — eventually I lifted my chin to pass Eddy a look, who had grown suspiciously silent. His silent assessment was still underway, and in lieu of instruction, I heard the cry of a scarlet macaw emanate from somewhere nearby.
Eddy didn’t seem to have much to say (or perhaps he didn’t want to frighten me away from the realities of paddling out for the first time), and I was quickly tiring, so he moved on.
“Now, when you pop-up, try to get both feet over the stringer. Do it in one try — you just have to do it.”
I had known this part was coming. Eddy had explained the mechanics of the infamous ‘pop-up’ to me several times, and I knew that I was supposed to swing my feet underneath and place them perpendicular to the board… but I also knew that actually doing so would likely not be the picture-perfect move that I had on repeat in my head.
I stopped my paddling and made mental notes about which body parts I would move and in which order (first hands on the board, then flip the feet, draw the legs forward with the hip flexors, and then abs/back to stand), took a breath, and proceeded to execute the clunkiest group of movements my body had ever done. I added an entirely new body part, the knees, quite unintentionally — a move that would have surely throw me off my board had I been on a real wave, Eddy pointed out. My feet were totally wonky and when I finally lifted to stand, my hips and chest were about as far from stacked as they could possibly be.
It was like I was doing the hula, rather than riding a wave. Still quintessentially Hawaiian, but certainly not the intention.
I grimaced at Eddy and he grimaced right back, rolling me through several more rounds of pop-ups. However, no amount of drills can replace real practice on the ocean’s waves, so after my fifth earthbound knee-ride, he whistled and called me over to where the surfboards were laid out on racks. These boards looked far nicer than the one I had just been practicing on, which had been cracked and re-bound and scratched and tiger striped all to hell. I found myself mesmerized at the colors and the different sizes; it was like each board had a personality, and one surely had the right mix of features to be my perfect partner in this new adventure.
How on earth would I ever choose, I wondered, but ultimately the decision was not up to me. Eddy picked one out (one that was a little plainer looking than I would have preferred, but the secrets and wonders that it held for me were still untold. The tall instructor watched me as I tucked the board up against my hip, as I had seen my cohorts far off in the ocean do before, and struggled to reach my short arm across the width of the board.
“C’mon, let’s go,” he shouted over his shoulder as he strode across the yard, to the small set of stairs on the dock that led to the beach.
How had I gotten here, to this very moment in time? I wasn’t a surfer. I mean, I wasn’t long or lean like the women I saw in the magazines. I didn’t work out every day, or live near an ocean where I could hone my craft every morning. I was a fraud; a phony — a person who would watch the surf competitions with envy, but wouldn’t dare take that step for herself. I wasn’t a surfer, I was just a girl who was following a random dude in Costa Rica into the ocean, who was fairly certain that she was going to be pounded into submission by these waves. The waves didn’t look friendly, and I wasn’t dumb enough to believe that they were my friend: their only mission, it suddenly dawned on me, was to throw me from my board.
And you know, at that moment, I didn’t particularly feel like being thrown from my board. I didn’t want to, and I didn’t have to, and that (honestly) was that. I would watch from the shoreline, from my safe and secure place on the bench, and i’d be happy that I wasn’t out there making a fool out of myself.
I was small, and I was afraid, and I was making excuses.
You want to know what makes a surfer? Practice, of course, but practice is nothing without a sense of fearfulness. Yes, that’s fearfulness — not fearlessness! To be fearless is to not be human, and such a thing would strip surfing of all those elements that actually make it worthwhile. If surfing was easy, everyone would do it — and that fact is that everyone doesn’t do it. Very few people actually do! It’s a massive majority of people who sit on the shore and simply wish they could glide upon the waves like a watery ballet dancer, but they let their inhibitions dictate their reality.
Being a surfer, I would come to learn, is not about the lack of fear. It is about the management of fear, the utilization of fear, and the realization that fear does not have the power to hold us back. Once you’re out on the water, you simply don’t have a choice! Conquer your impulses, or your impulses — and the mother ocean — will conquer you.
Despite my sudden trepidation, my unwillingness to disappoint Eddy registered far louder. I tottered him, to the beach, as if I was in a haze. There were two dreadlocked strangers on the wooden platform now, out to take advantage of the emptiness of dawn patrol, and they both read the situation loud and clear: a young woman, almost shaking, following her instructor into the water for the first time. They wished me luck, but I barely heard them in passing. I could only offer them a weak smile in exchange for their well wishes.
Eddy stood at the water’s edge and I mimicked the way he wrapped the leash’s velcro around his ankle. I stood, focused on the morning’s glinting waters of dancing yellows and blues, as we waited for (what I now know as) the lull between sets. I pretended to look, unable to choke up any words, unable to see anything but the crashing of waves ahead.
“Do you remember what I said about the channel?” he asked. I nodded — there was an apparent channel created by two sandbars far off shore, where waves didn’t break. All you had to do was make it through the shoreline, paddle hard to the left, and it was all smooth sailing from there until you reached the line-up. Of course, this was all only theory to me, but I nodded all the same.
I wasn’t sure if that had registered with Eddy, because he rapidly called out “Okay, this is it. Follow me,” and strode into the water. I bit my tongue, took a breath, and stepped in.
I was directly behind him until the waters were waist-deep, at which point we began floating our boards and moved to walk beside each other. It was only seconds or so before a wave, which had initially broken far out from us and at this point was only a strong trickle, came towards us. I waited for Eddy to say something, to give me instruction, but I was met with silence — so I gasped out “What do I do?!” in awe at the small wall of water that rushed at us.
I had suddenly forgot everything he had ever said to me about the initial paddle out — and I was still in a place where my feet could still touch the ground.
With a calm air about him, Eddy showed me how to use a strong hang to tip the front of the board underneath the water’s surface so that the wave would roll right over it. The wave tumbled on towards me, then right on past me. At first, I was amazed that the wave hadn’t taken the board right out of my hands, dragging me (kicking and screaming) with it; but then I looked at the shape of the board with a new realization. I could see how smartly designed it was, to both work with and be pushed by the forces of the ocean.
Though my board was a dull khaki color and barely covered with of those amazing stickers, I regarded her with profound respect. Suddenly, my attention was drawn back to Eddy as he hauled his frame atop his own.
“You can do that when a bigger wave comes at you too, while you’re paddling. Push the nose down like this,” he straightened his arms to demonstrate how to handle an oncoming wave. He glanced over his shoulder at me, just to gaze out at the horizon again after a moment. “And always be alert. It’s when you’re not looking that you get surprises thrown at you. Now get on.”
I did as he bade me, lifting myself up on wobbly arms and scooting my body into place across the stringer, not unlike a seal trying to escape from circling killer whales below. I noticed how Eddy visibly lifted his shoulders and began paddling, perhaps only to prompt me to really focus on lifting my shoulders, and I followed suit as best I could.
I was hard-wired and focused, surely — but I wasn’t focused on the ocean or reading the pattern of the waves, as Eddy had instructed me. I was focused internally, on my mind that was chattering far too fast and far too often about how deep the ocean was becoming, or how the muscles of my arms and chest and shoulders screamed with the effort, or how water kept slamming against the bottom of my board, sending a fine mist into my eyes. I had a mantra repeating in my mind’s eye that I didn’t want to do this, and I didn’t want to be there, and I was dumb for thinking that I ever could do this.
The yogi in me shivers at the memory of such personal vexation, but the surfer wants to laugh and hug me, for it was only a matter of time before I proved myself wrong.
I remembered to pay attention to the ocean, just in time for a far larger wave to rush at me, a mere foot or so ahead of my board. It met me with great force, thrusting salt water in my eyes and mouth as it rolled me easily off my board and carried me, by my ankle, back ten feet or so. I was submerged for only a second before I bobbed to the top of the water, sputtering and blinking against the sting of the salt, trying to clear my gaze in case another wave was rolling in right behind it.
Eddy was frustratingly far from me now, seeing as I was almost halfway to shore. My heart beat wildly, entirely doused and awakened in the cold ocean waters for the first time that day. “W-what do I do?!” I shouted to no one, once again unable to recall even the most simple of instructions and unable to follow logical process. I had just been pushed off my board for the first time and swallowed a mouthful of seawater, and I needed my instructor to hold my hand — but he wasn’t there beside me. In fact, no one was.
Whether or not Eddy heard my cry for help, he offered a few words of yelled encouragement. “Get back on!” he called back through cupped hands, and yeah — I suppose that made sense.
I didn’t want to get back on, but I had to. It was get back on or quit, and who was I to quit after one small (though it didn’t feel small) faux-pas? I fished for the leash that drifted somewhere below me and pulled the board back to where I was, a little panicked and jerky in my movements as I made haste to avoid the next rolling set.
With a new spirit and deep desire not to be hit sidelong by any waves, I moved quickly to the left and coasted through the channel with relative ease. Eddy sat with the lineup of three people, the others on my retreat who were not so new to the sport as I was. As I approached the cluster of men and women bobbing up and down, they all broke out into applause. It made me happier than I let on — with the salt in my eyes and the heaving in my chest, all I could do was lay my cheek down on the board and recover my energy. I hadn’t realized it until that moment, but I was shaking.
It wasn’t from the cold.
Eddy waited patiently for me to recover. I rested easily knowing that he was there to warn me of any oncoming danger — plus we were waiting in the channel anyways, and there was little danger here.
Eventually, I knew I did pick my head up. I think Eddy expected me to comment about my tumble, or the mere exertion involved with paddling oneself out to the wave break. Instead, I turned to him, voice suddenly as stone-cold as the many rocks that jostled about in the shore’s waves.
“Are there any sharks here?” I asked without a whisper of hesitation.
Eddy laughed, as if he had heard this very question a thousand times before. “It’s the Pacific Ocean,” he chuckled, but with an air of seriousness. “You already know that answer.”
I swallowed thickly, because that response did nothing to soothe my nerves — but why should it? I was out there, far from land, amongst an element that was calm now but could crush me with little force. All sense of comfort had been take from me in the process of simply paddling out here, but I noticed something interesting as I looked out and surveyed my surfing companions: some of them had barely more experience than I did, but they didn’t regard the ocean with fear.
No, the way they interacted with these forces of nature was something between submission, equanimity and scientific understanding. I bobbed in the channel for nearly half and hour as I watched these surfers work with the power of a wave in order to catch it, then once they popped up on their board, it was as if their ego took a backseat and they allowed the hand of the ocean to work through them. By giving into the wave, it powered and propelled them forward — and if they fell, they found a new way to stow their ego and went limp, resurfacing unharmed and refreshed, ready to paddle back out and try again.
Why was I there, sitting out in a foreign ocean with a board beneath me, distinctly uncomfortable and uncertain in myself? At that time, I still didn’t quite know — but now, I look back on that shivering, fearful being and knew that was exactly why. Humans do not grow from the things we already know and inherently trust. The biggest growth, and the fastest and most efficient growth, comes from venturing into unknown territory. We expand to fit this new space almost automatically, to fill to vacuum that we created for ourselves.
It’s fascinating how we can assume any role with ease, once we’re able to quiet the voice in our head that tells us we can’t. Now, it’s easy for me to see that I was thirsty for that push into something big, but I didn’t know where to look.
So, I looked towards the ocean.
The rest of our morning on the water would prove to be trial after trial after trial. I was thrown off my board and found myself churning in the fated washing machine several times. I took oncoming waves at the side and swallowed so much seawater that I was worried I would be poisoned by the salinity. I may have faced death — or faced god — several times that day, and it took the support of my surfing brothers and sisters (or perhaps a deep and abiding desire not to be embarrassed by quitting) to keep me coming paddling back out to the line-up. In fact, I did not stand up this day, or the next day. However, the third morning I took an intentional knee-ride all the way to the show, and almost instantaneously, I was hooked on that feeling. From that point on, dedication cam easily.
Now there are few things I can conceive of facing with such trepidation, from family to business and all those nooks and crannies in between. I no longer entertain fear, because I surfed.
— and if I can surf, I can truly do anything.