Going from “I’ve surfed” to “Surfer” Essay

Whence in California, one must do as the Californians do.

If I was to truly follow this advice, my days would be filled with eating sushi, doing yoga, drinking wine, being blonde, and adding the prefix “the” before any freeway I might happen to mention. Can’t you just picture someone on a street corner in South Boston telling you to take the 93 up to the 95 to get to New Hampsha?

All of that aside, one aspect of San Diego life I am hereby trying to adopt is surfing. When I was back east, I spent one week every summer vacationing on Cape Cod at a house that had a surfboard. My parents then moved to the Cape two years ago and I bought a surfboard for the first time. All of this is to say that prior to yesterday I had been surfing about a dozen times in my life. I can ride a basic wave, but I ain’t tearin’ up shit. I’ve surfed, but I’m certainly no surfer.

My plan now is to change that

Enter Russ – my new 8-foot 6-inch, fiberglass surfboard boyfriend. He’s made by Rusty and is quite yellow. I keep him on a blue leash. He is quite large – if you can stand up on an aircraft carrier, you can stand up on Russ – which basically just means he’s a good board to learn on. He does have a pointed rather than a more rounded nose, which I’m told means he can be turned and maneuvered a bit more easily than a traditional beginner’s egg-shaped board. I figure I’ll master riding waves with him first, then move on to a shorter board when I’m feeling sufficiently ready.

Yesterday I took Russ for his maiden voyage at Mission Beach, which will represent his home base and where I’ll do 90% of my surfing. My journey towards overtaking Kelly Slater was hence underway, and began as many a surfing journey do – with a friendly reminder that nature can easily kick your ass with the slap of one measly wave.

One of my far too few takeaways from Peter Heller’s book Kook was that before running into the water anywhere, you should spend 15 or 20 minutes surveying the break from the beach. I took this advice to heart by staring at the ocean for about 3 minutes – hell, I stare at the break everyday when I’m sitting on my deck drinking Coronas, right? What do I need to waste all that additional time for? I even concluded that the waves looked smaller than normal.

As I began fighting my way out towards where the waves were breaking I once again realized what I consider to be the first moment of enlightenment for any new surfer – standing up on your board isn’t the tough part of learning to surf – getting out into the deeper water through the oncoming surf is. I knew that the surf at Mission Beach is often substantial in size from being out there without a board, but when you’re trying to haul 8’6″ of awkwardly maneuvered fiberglass with you it soon becomes quite a predicament. And the waves were suddenly getting bigger than I initially thought they were from the beach. Funny how that happens.

After inhaling my lungs for a few minutes, I quickly came to the realization that between the waves and the rip current I simply wasn’t going to make it out far enough to catch the waves as they were breaking. It wasn’t for lack of effort, and I’m a better swimmer than most – it was simply a concession that had to be made. No problem, really, as the already crashed waves were rolling by me with way more than sufficient force for surfing.

And then it happened – I started off like a stud. Four rides in a row all the way into the beach. I even turned a little. I saw some vacationers watching. I was the king of the surfing world – Russ and me, me and Russ. Nice wetsuit you soft little 13 year old Cali-loser surfing beside me. Mother nature must have heard me, because she then decided to punish my cocky ass.

The first form of punishment she delivered was somewhat equivalent to a white wash. A very large wave rolled in far enough that I was able to catch it as it broke, but it basically just crashed on my head and sent salt water running through my mouth and then out my ringing ears. There was a momentary daze and some choking. I think I felt some seaweed tickle my thalamus. When I looked up the vacationers suddenly weren’t so impressed.

Now feeling a little feisty, I went back for more. This is when I experienced what I’ll forever refer to as my first Total Wipeout. I now consider a Total Wipeout to be the following – when a mega wave crashes on you, propelling you and your surfboard down into the ground rather than propelling you forward towards the beach. You lose all control of everything as your limbs and your surfboard flail everywhere.

You realize in an instant that your board is very close to you, is very hard, and also has razor-sharp fins on the back of it. In the same instant you realize you have no control over whether it hits you upside the head or cuts your ear off, and you wrap your arms around your head in an effort to protect yourself. You then bang into the ground, gasp for air but swallow only a gulp full of salt water, and then realize your being held under water and can’t breath.

It’s quite scary and unpleasant, really. Eventually you will surface, check to see if you’re bleeding from your ears, and realize that you’re alive. You’ll then proceed to lie on your board and ride a small wave into shore, where you’ll proceed to lie on your back and heave awkwardly on the sand for a few minutes.

The whole shebang, door to door, lasted about 40 minutes.

Later on in the day, I caught Russ staring at me from the doorway and went back out for 15 minutes or so with mixed results. But the message from my earlier session was still ringing clearly in my ears – the waves are much stronger than you, and you’ve got a long way to go before you’re a “surfer.”

High School
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