I learned to surf on a whim. My friend Ellen had a work trip in Hawaii (Oahu) and I tagged along, staying for free in her room. During the day she worked her ass off in 12-plus-hours of standards meetings, and at night we drank Mai Tais together with her colleagues. While she was stuffed in a conference room debating the merits of our company’s way to store map data on a CD versus our competitors, I roamed the island.
Sure, I felt a little guilty. But, dwelling on the injustice wasn’t going to do either of us any good. I’d wake up, go to the gym, hit the Japanese style breakfast, walk along the beach, shop, get a fruit shake and sushi for lunch, play in the waves, and shop in the craft markets. By the time Ellen returned from each day’s meetings, I would be waiting with Mai Tais in hand on our balcony, full of energy to listen about her day’s frustrations under the fluorescent lights.
That is probably how my week would have progressed—not a bad week!—if I hadn’t met Mike. Mike with his big smile and muscled torso was standing at my fruit shake stand. Like the neighborhood crack dealer, he offered me my first surf lesson for free.
And, as he somehow knew I would be, I was hooked. It was only an hour, and it involved very little paddling and was not long enough for me to develop surf rash. I had no idea the pain and effort surfing involved. All I knew was that standing up on a surfboard was an incredible rush—a strange combination of zen and pride, peace and adrenaline.
For our second day’s lesson he drove us to the North Shore, our boards casually slung in the back of his pickup truck.
My eyes widened as I saw the waves. The huge waves. The waves that could wash away the entire pick up truck.
Mike looked at me, smiled his magnetic smile, and rubbed my shoulders in encouragement. “You’ll love it. You were a champ yesterday. You’ll do great!”
Who was I to challenge this maestro of his sport. If he said I’d be great, surely he knew best.
With forced bravado I carried my board into the water, and started paddling out behind Mike.
Within minutes the illusion cracked.
Surfing is hard. Ridiculously hard.
As I lay on my belly and paddled my arms as hard as I could, I was barely inching forward. Worse, every few seconds a giant wave would crash in front of me. And I kept being slammed in the face with white water, occasionally being knocked from the board completely.
Whenever Mike looked back at me I managed to smile, and pretend that this weird waterboarding paddling treadmill wasn’t pure torture. I refused to give up. I kept paddling.
Pretty soon my knees, thighs and belly were covered with something I would learn is called surf rash. Tiny red raw bumps caused by a reaction to surf wax, that were screeching in pain in the salt water and every time I slid them over the board.
Twenty minutes later, I finally made it “out.” I was past the breaking waves, into the calm of the open water. I paddled bravely over Mike, who was straddling his board, keeping an eye on me and the ocean.
“Ready for your first wave?” he asked, skipping the gushing praise I thought I deserved for getting out. “After you catch the wave, paddle back to me.”
That’s when the illusion shattered into pieces. Every time I rode a wave into shore I would have to paddle back through the white water.
Swallowing, I assumed the position, and paddled with all my might as the wave Mike indicated started to break right behind me. “Pop up!” I heard him call out behind me, and my body obeyed. I stood up, and was surfing.
I turned my head and Mike’s fists were in the air, celebrating my success. I turned back to shore and rode the wave, my body electric with joy. After jumping off the board, I began the long painful paddle back to Mike, and back to my next fix.
My next few times surfing after Hawaii I realized what a fluke my first experience had been. In San Diego, Costa Rica and Mexico the ocean kicked my ass much harder than it had in Hawaii. The water was colder. The beaches were rockier. My body immediately broke out into surf rash whenever I looked at a board. And the waves were not as easy to catch.
But, I kept at it. Like a true addict I turned a blind eye to the signs that I was hurting myself. I laughed off my arms that were so sore I couldn’t lift them to brush my hair. I slathered on aloe vera and Neosporin to my surf rash, pretending my body didn’t look like I had taken a cheese grater to it. And I was secretly proud of all the bumps and bruises making me look like a 7-year old girl at the end of summer.
Every wave I actually caught washed away the pain.
And, it wasn’t just the thrill of the ride I craved. I relished the whole ritual. Waking up before dawn, and waxing my board. Carrying it down to the beach, my feet tortured by the pebbled roads. Paddling out in the dark, silent water. Watching the sunrise over the horizon. Straddling the board and gently rocking as I watched the first class surfers cutting across the sea. Spotting the occasional turtle or dolphin. And, yes, riding the few waves I managed to catch.
Surfing taught me patience. And living in the moment. And that the wave missed is just as beautiful as the wave caught. And that anything worth doing is worth working hard for.
Surfing taught me that I am strong, and can be graceful, and have great determination. It reminded me to look around, catch my breath, and just go for it.
I went to Puerto Rico for New Year’s a few years ago. I had never been before, and it was burning a hole in my bucket list. I was dying to get there.
When we decided to go, one of the women I was going with told me about Rincon, the surf town in the northwest of the island. I immediately signed up for surf lessons.
It has been years since I last surfed, but I was focused on getting back on a board.
It was a lot harder than I remembered. The paddling turned my arms into spaghetti. The rocks under the water make my legs look like purple eggplants. The surf rash turned my belly into hamburger. (I must be hungry as I write this!!)
But, it was also so much more rewarding than I remembered. I earned every wave I caught. Each ride was a celebration. Every time I made it back out after seemingly endless paddling was a triumph. The turtle that swam by my board was a miracle.
It is clear: I am not a natural surfer. But without any doubt: I am a surfer.