Zhadi's Den

Random essays on wine, writing, moving to San Francisco, surfing, cats (exotic and otherwise) and zombies...depending on my mood.

Monday, June 06, 2005

On Learning to Surf

(This is an essay I wrote shortly after learning to surf a few years back - I know it's not a new and original post, but I'm in the middle of rewrites and figured it was better than nothing!)

Death is not the only circumstance that can make one a widow. Ask any wife or girlfriend whose significant other turns from an attentive companion to a couch potato with a beer can super-glued to one hand during football season. For Brian, discovering surfing was like finding religion; all other considerations became secondary.

Brian would return from surfing with a giddy enthusiasm I hadn't seen in years. I had to buy him a waterproof watch so he wouldn't lose track of time while in the water. It worked. Most of the time. I'd watch Brian and Jim, Brian's surf 'guru', out in the water. Sometimes they'd catch the waves and navigate them with an easy grace that seemed effortless. Other times they'd wipe out and vanish beneath a wall of water, boards shooting up from the white foam and slamming back down, sometimes on top of the rider, who would appear a few seconds later. I soon realized that I could either resign myself to being a surf widow at the tender young age of 40 or join them. Several things, however, stood between a surfboard and me.

First was a long-standing fear of swimming in the ocean. Since I'm a Southern California native, I'm expected to be a water baby, but the first time I encountered a wave bigger than me when I was about two or three, I screamed bloody murder and ran for the high ground towards safety, my mom and the picnic basket. Subsequent forays into the ocean brought jellyfish, riptides and shark sightings. Then JAWS was released. Wading ankle deep while walking along the shore and collecting shells became my idea of swimming in salt water.

"What about sharks?" I'd whimper when Brian urged me to join him.

"They're all migrating down south in the Atlantic and eating the Florida surfers." Perhaps not the most scientifically sound argument, but I had to admit there weren't many reported shark attacks in our neck of the woods.

The second obstacle was all I'd heard about attitude from local surfers at various breaks -- quaintly referred to as 'stink eye' -- that can escalate into fist fights, broken boards and slashed tires. "What if I accidentally get in someone's way and he gets pissed off?" was my argument. Brian pointed out that we'd be surfing with Jim at his home break.

"Besides," he added, "I seriously doubt some kid is gonna yell 'stupid kook, you dinged my board!' and punch you out." Okay, so the idea of a 40-year old woman getting into a pissing contest with some kid in his twenties was kind of ludicrous.

"What about the whole beach/youth culture?" In other words, everyone will look good in a wetsuit but me.

He shrugged. "We work in Hollywood. You're the one that always says ageism is a bunch of crap." D'oh! But I had one more procrastinating card to play.

"What if I get hit with a surfboard? What if I get hurt?"

"Hon," Brian said gently, "It might happen. But it's worth it."

And so it was that I found myself uncomfortably wriggling my body into a borrowed wetsuit (I felt like a neoprene sausage) and rubbing wax on 20 pounds of 9 foot 6 inch longboard named Betsy. The wax was for traction, the wetsuit belonged to a neighbor and Betsy was Guru Jim's, the board he used to teach kooks (beginners) the art of surfing.

I felt like such a fake as we went down the stairs, passing sun-bleached, well-muscled surfers who'd finished for the day, their boards tucked easily under one arm. At least they weren't unfriendly. But then we were with a local. This was Jim's home break.

Once on the sand, I put Betsy's leash on, nine feet of rubber cording attached to the back of the board, which fastens around one ankle with a thick band of Velcro. This way, if -- okay, when -- I lost control of the board, I wouldn't have to chase it into shore or worry about it rocketing into shore and slamming into another surfer or innocent bystander wading in the water.

It was time to go in the water. Jim told me that the first thing he did when his feet got wet was offer up a little invocation to Huna, god of the ocean. "Huna, please do not let me be eaten by any of your sea creatures or drown." Succinct and to the point.

My feet hit the water, I shut my eyes and started a heartfelt prayer which covered every possible angle I could come up with as far as ways I could be injured or killed while surfing. "Huna, please don't let me be eaten, stung, cut or bitten by any of your creatures or drown or be hit with someone else's surfboard or hit someone else or get sand in my wetsuit..."

You known when you're on the beach and looking out at the ocean and those gentle four-foot swells curling in and washing to shore? They don't look very big, do they? Try standing under one as it lifts three feet above your head as you're waist deep in the water and you realize, too late, that you are standing exactly where it's gonna break. The world becomes a spin cycle of white foam and murky water and for a terrifying instant, up and down have no meaning. When the pressure finally relents and you pop back to the surface, there might be another wave waiting to repeat the experience or worse, your board snapping back on the leash right into your head.

Experienced surfers paddle out beyond the break, bob around like seals and wait for good waves. They catch them right before they break and basically propel their boards down the face of the wave. If you feel like you're falling headfirst down a flight of stairs, it means you've done it right. Time it wrong and you either miss your ride or end up in spin cycle for a few minutes. Beginners start out inside the break and catch the whitewater, which can either be great or for shit depending on the conditions. That was just fine with this kook; the thought of being pounded while navigating the waves out beyond the break, not to mention the possibility of getting in the way of other surfers or meeting the front end of a thruster with my head terrified me.
Betsy was steady and forgiving as I flung myself awkwardly on top of her for the first time and paddled feebly in front of a moderate sized wave. "Dig harder!" was Jim's advice. I did, but not hard enough. I felt the wave's momentum lift the board and pass under me. "Try again," said Jim. One does not argue with one's guru. I tried again, paddling fiercely ahead of another white-foamed wave.

This time I was rewarded with a sudden surge of energy and the sensation of flying towards the shore, what I'd imagine a magic carpet ride would feel like. It was scary as well as exhilarating. The power of that wave felt like being hooked up to a rocket with no landing gear. Betsy took me true and steady into the shallows, coming to a gentle halt as her skeg burrowed into the sand. I rolled off to the side like a lazy seal, grinning from ear to ear as both Jim and Brian gave me a thumbs up to acknowledge my first wave. Didn't matter that I'd ridden it in on my stomach. Didn't matter that I couldn't lift my arms the next day. With that first wave, I was hooked. I bought a secondhand 8-foot surfboard and began hitting the waves with the boys on a regular basis.

I caught more rides on my stomach, soon graduating to hands and knees. Soon I could balance on my knees while riding the whitewater into shore. But I desperately wanted to catch a ride standing, something that seemed to come naturally to everyone but me.

I told myself to be patient. After all, I wasn't a teenager who'd spent his or her life riding skateboards. I watched enviously as better surfers (i.e. everyone else in the water) sprang to their feet and made spectacular turns across the face of the waves. I made the transition from knees, to one knee and one foot. I practiced pop ups (lying flat on your stomach as if you've just collapsed while doing push ups and then popping up to your feet in a low crouch) at home. Brian and I watched surf movies: Point Break, Big Wednesday, In God's Hands, Blood Surf. I perused surf magazines for some insight. I learned many things, including how to out-surf a mutant crocodile (Blood Surf) and how to date a professional surfer (Surfing Girl, the Tiger Beat of surf magazines), but the final step continued to elude me.

I quickly learned to duck and cover when surfacing after a wipeout so that I wouldn't take hit to the head or face. It didn't always work. So far I've been bonked on the top of the head and taken a brisk smack to the cheekbone by the front of my board when I lost control of her in some particularly juicy whitewater. My resulting shiner was impressive (see the picture in a previous post). Jim said these incidents were payment towards my first year's 'dues' as a surfer.

I quickly got into the spirit of things and tore a muscle in my calf the next day when jumping onto my board without stretching out enough beforehand. I quickly followed that up by badly pulling one of my intercostal muscles. At this rate, I'd have my dues paid in no time, plus a down payment on someone else's too. But I didn't care. My muscles were becoming toned again, my waist and thighs had been excavated out of the layer of fat I'd worn for three years and donning my wetsuit was no longer a five-minute session of grunting and swearing.

When I finally stood up on my board, it was nothing spectacular. I didn't suddenly start carving my way across the face or dip my hand into the water while riding a tube like a character in Blue Crush (and doesn't that sound like a sports drink, folks?). It lasted maybe 10 seconds and I rode straight into shore like the kook that I was. But in those 10 seconds, I felt like I'd conquered the world.

Since then I've had days when I've managed to stand after catching unbroken waves. It takes me a while to scramble to my feet (more of a slither up than a pop up) and I still ride them straight in, but I'm learning. I've been out in the ocean for evening glass and watched the sun go down, the color of the water turning to pewter around and over me. I've been in the ocean a few hundred yards from a pod of dolphins.

I've also had days where I can't seem to stay on my board even on my stomach. I've had Greg Brady wipeouts (where your board flies up into the air and you vanish out of sight under the water for at least 10 seconds) in two feet of water. I even experienced my first case of surf rage when some jerk, with no regard for anyone else's right of way in the cramped line-up at Venice Beach, nearly plowed down Brian. "Dude, you dinged my husband!"

I'm sure there are young surfers wondering what the hell people like me are doing out in their waves, trying to learn something they consider the province of the young and hard bodied. Well, guess what? Now that I've discovered this fountain of youth, I'm not about to give it up. Learn to share. When you're my age and dealing with the arrogance of youth, you'll be glad you did.

Okay, back to present day now.

Since moving to San Francisco, I've only been surfing twice, both times back in San Diego. I have the best of intentions of surfing at the beach near my house (Ocean Beach, to be specific), but haven't had the budget to buy a thicker wetsuit, something that every Northern California surfer that I've talked to, assures me I need before going into the water here.

I've also been told that yeah, there are 18 foot Great Whites off the shore here...and while I know the odds of getting attacked by a shark are about the same as getting hit by lightning, the thought of encountering a shark twice the size of my nine foot surfboard is enough to give a gal pause...

But I'll let you know when I try it.


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