“I own a surfboard, but I’m not a surfer.” This is my go-to script when discussing the salty sport.“Surfing is the hardest sport I’ve ever tried.” Is the next sentence that flows off my tongue. It’s all true. I purchased a 9’6” bright red longboard before ever attempting to tackle a wave, and once I did, found it to be the most challenging, intimidating and exhilarating activity I’ve pursued.
Surfing requires balance, coordination, strength, mental composure, a love of water and proclivity for adrenaline. When I first donned a wetsuit at age 30, I didn’t possess many of these attributes. I was physically clumsy, preferred reading on the beach vs. frolicking in the waves, and I’ve got a weird quirk about putting my face under water. I hate it. While I grew up thoroughly enjoying swimming in pools and lakes with my dad and siblings, I would rarely immerse my head. Like a cat, when water touches my face, I instantly recoil. Even in the shower. I know, it’s ridiculous.
(I have a couple theories why this is, but not enough blog space to elaborate. Perhaps another time we’ll examine my two near drownings along with early belief that maintaining a perfectly made up face to gain male attention was more important than letting go to playfully swim. I’ve predominately overcome these, gratefully, but I still swim with my face fully above the surface!)
Submersion underwater is non-negotiable in surfing. My face was going to get wet; no way around it. But when one is 30 years old, in a new relationship, leaping into life in a fresh, adventurous way and one’s boyfriend says, “I want to take you surfing!!” one does not say “I can’t do that, I don’t like to get my face wet”. One purchases a surfboard and wetsuit and faces their watery foe head-on (after vomiting in the grassy dunes on the way to the waterfront.)
My first surf adventure was at Short Sands on the Oregon Coast. Lucky for me, my older brother is an excellent surfer and was there to walk me through the process. I’ll never forget laying shakily atop the unfamiliar red surfboard as he held tightly to the sides, chest deep in the water. When the right wave was near, he’d say “Paddle” and push me ahead of the wave. Next, he’d instruct me to “Get up!” as I struggled to get vertical. The ocean was threatening and unpredictable. My brother: reliable and serene.
I’ve surfed a few dozen times since then, but not well. I’d schlep out into the cold liquid and hours would pass as I fell again and again. I’d make it up to my knees a handful of times, but rarely to my feet. The water was frigid, salt relentlessly stung my eyes, and the neck of my wetsuit suffocated me. Mostly, I stood waist deep with my feet firmly planted on the sand, looking out toward limitless rolling waves, hoping everyone was too busy to notice I hardly tried.
Besides avoiding plunging my face under, I was burdened with all the “normal” fears associated with entering a vast, creature-filled body of water:
- Deep, primal fear of what lies beneath the surface: jelly fish, stingrays, and sharks oh my!
- Fear of possible and probable injury: surfboards are hard when they hit your head and fins are VERY sharp when they cut your ankle, thigh or arm
- Fear of unpredictable, merciless currents, waves and riptides: the ocean has a reputation of tumbling people like socks in a giant washing machine.
Signage along the shore warns of the risks assumed by stepping into the sea. The ocean plays by her own rules, and if you don’t know or understand them, you can easily end up a victim to the game.
All of that sounds awful as I put it on paper. “Why do it at all?” you ask. (I’m asking myself as I write this as well.)
I persisted because my partner at the time was into it and it was something to do as a couple. It was also an activity in common with my brother and bonding moments with him were rare and special. I persisted because it was the sexy thing to do. It feels young and trendy to wear a bikini top and a wetsuit pulled up to my waist, flaunting natural beachy waves in my hair. I persisted to belong; to join the after party without feeling like a fraud on dry land when everyone else had kicked ass in, or had their ass kicked by, the ocean.
More significant were the few exceptional moments when I got it. I mean really got it. The wave swelled under me, my body found its way upright and I maintained a balanced, athletic posture all the way to the foamy whitewater at the shore; the moment I caught a wave. That was a feeling I wanted more of. A feeling of alive seldom achieved in any other sport.
That sensation was so pleasant, so magnetic, it was worth facing all my aforementioned fears. Besides, I had a secret weapon to deal with anxiety, pain or discomfort: simply self-medicate with substances. Being a little tipsy, a little numb and a little checked out helped me tolerate the surfing situation (not to mention all other hard things in life). The day would pass in sea-salt tinted haze. Somehow, I’d make it safely to dry land and move on to more savory pastimes such as reading, beach combing, and more drinking. Alcohol washed away worry and Vicodin dulled the dread as I hesitantly paddled out into the Pacific, though they certainly never assisted in gaining balance or expertise.
WARNING: Do not ever surf under the influence. I am in no way insinuating substances ACTUALLY made me brave. They simply numbed my fear. Which means they also numbed my joy. And then I became an addict and lost my job and many relationships and almost my nursing license along with my dignity and it’s taken me years to overcome the shame and sickness that ensued from thinking it was a good idea to self-medicate. I’m simply relaying how my brain worked at the time, before I understood the catastrophic consequences and life-threatening risks I was taking and before I truly loved myself. Ok, with that out of the way….
The seductive call of surfing sang to me again in Costa Rica, while traveling with family. The waves were comparatively warm and small, but I was no less terrified than I’d been in the polar Pacific. All my previous fears remained, with one major distinction: I had no addictive crutch to calm my shaking nerves.
In Costa Rica I would be surfing sober, and I lacked a backup coping mechanism. I longed for a super strong IPA and little white pill to transform my cowardice into (false) confidence.