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Surfing 101

I wandered my way into the 54 degree water of the Pacific Ocean this past weekend -- a wetsuit on and eight-foot board in hand for the first time in my life.

No experience in my life has lead me to believe that i’ve got a natural aptitude for sports that require my feet to stand in line with one another atop a single board; I never got passed heel-sliding my way down on a snowboard, and quickly stepped off any skateboard I tried standing on. Nor have I ever been super comfortable in the ocean. I like to tell myself it’s because of that ONE time I was swept out in an undertow at age three that has left me with unresolved post-traumatic stress all these years later. In reality, I think I just have a perfectly rational fear of sharks and am one of the many that enjoys being able to see what’s going on below my feet when I’m in water. Add all this up and it makes sense that I never gave surfing a try. But, it didn’t seem right to live 20 miles from the coast of California for six months and never take a board out in the surf. When in Rome, do what the Romans do!

Thirty-five bucks got me a suit and a board from Nor Cal Surf Shop and a few months of climbing with a friend got me some free instruction (bear in mind I said free, not quality). So with premiere conditions rolling in on the tide this morning, we headed over the mountains to Pacifica. Lesson one of the day was how a wetsuit actually works. Perhaps this is common knowledge I have been missing out on. Having never worn one, I had it in my mind that the skin tight nature of the suits was to keep water completely out therefore keeping the wearer dry. Not so. Those are appropriately named “dry-suits”. Wetsuits work off of closed-cell neoprene that use small bubbles of nitrogen to fill the microscopic gaps in the material. Nitrogen conducts heat transfer far less than water, which means it allows for much less heat to escape from inside the suit. The small amount of water that is allowed to seep in between your skin and the neoprene layer gets trapped there and is quickly warmed by the body heat we emit. This thin, warmed layer of water then acts something like a fluid, heated blanket retained inside the suit. So after you stomach the first, full submersion of chilly water, viola! You are kept comfortable. Pro-tip: if available, wear booties. Neoprene boots act in the same manner and can save your feet from getting cut up on rocks. Going barefoot leaves you with bright red and bloody toes.

Lesson two was a cumulative one from the experience as a whole: surfing is hard. Really hard. And I’m not talking about my inability to balance myself on a board -- that’s just a personal handicap. I think the challenge comes from the fact that you are subjecting yourself to being along for the ride on something you can’t stop. I’ll explain…

Perhaps with the exceptions of paragliding, skydiving, and bull riding, most sports can be controlled. If you are running in football or soccer, you can stop running. If you are swimming in a pool, you can stop swimming. If you are riding a horse and running fast, you can bring the horse to a halt. If you are skiing down a crazy line on the side of a mountain -- except for extreme cases -- you can stop skiing. Surfing is the first sport I have experienced where once you put yourself into motion, you are along for the ride. It is a wild sensation to feel yourself be picked up by a wave -- this awesome, intense, force generated on its own and moving beneath you -- and be carried forward. The problem is there is no stopping. Expert surfers seem to be able to track up and down a wave pretty well much like a boarder on a slope and check some speed in that manner. But once you’re moving there are two ways your run ends: 1) you successfully ride the wave to completion and slowly slide under the surface in calm water as the wave’s energy runs out; 2) you bail (intentionally or unintentionally) and get swallowed up in the maelstrom of crushing water-weight that is bearing down behind you.

I had my own experience with option two (the unintentional version) a couple times on this outing. The waves were small in the grand scheme of what’s surfable, maybe ten feet or so, but as I found out ten feet is more than enough to send you for a good tumble. While practicing technique to paddle out and break through the surf, I became separated from my source of instruction. Before I knew it, I was a solid distance from shore, sitting on my board looking like a pro as I moved with the motion of the waves rolling beneath me without a damn clue as to how I was going to get back in. I was under no illusion that i’d be riding a wave back to shore, so I went for the next best thing: boogie-board my way in. Attempting to mirror the actions of those other surfers around me, I decided I would go when they went. Keep in mind these are people who seemed competent with surfing and were waiting for the biggest sets to roll through.

Three or four surfers locked-target on a set coming in and began turning their boards shoreward in preparation. I followed suit. Once I got turned around I knew I was committed. The chances of me accomplishing my goal were slim; the chances of me being able to turn back around in time without getting side-swiped and dumped by the incoming wave seemed absolutely zero. So with a “f*** it,” muttered under my breath, I began to paddle in. It really felt like I was moving myself forward with great speed. In reality, I was probably pretty close to standing still. My arms propelled myself nowhere quick enough to match the momentum of the wave, and in one blurred span of time the back of my board got picked up as the front got dipped into the water and I was spectacularly front-flipped into the ocean.

Going under amidst a rolling wave is pretty intense. My time under water was maybe eight or ten seconds. But in the moment, and for someone who isn’t trained at holding their breath for long amounts of time, my first thought was “oh-no, what if I run out of air before I come back up.” Under the wave you lose all sense of direction. Just the sense of being in motion registers with your brain.

Luckily I did pop up quickly. In fact, I popped up just in time to grapple my way back onto my board and immediately attempt a round two with the next wave that was moving quickly toward me. Pretty sure Einstein had a saying about what it’s called when we attempt the same thing in the same manner yet expect different results...? I attempted to paddle in. Ten feet up another wave, I was carried. Head first into the ocean, I was once again sent. And yet again, I came up sputtering with just enough time to get picked up for a third round. The best things come in threes!

By the end of the third wave, the remaining white water carried me to shore and dumped me there like a body pushed out of a car from a gang-crime. I had officially been rejected by the ocean. The left side of my hand felt like I had punched a wall and there was a cut on my left foot, but between the bursts of coughing up salt-water and panting, I was laughing my ass of at how ridiculous I must have looked in the water.

After I had caught my breath and met back up with my friend, I relegated myself to staying in the kiddy-section. White water boogie-boarding was good practice to familiarize myself with the sensation of being picked up by moving water without the risk of being put through a washing machine again. A few successful runs were made in and I was even getting down the motion of popping up from the prone position to my knees -- Mavericks surfing competition, here I come!

I made one more venture out to deep water, this time sticking close to my friend and the only source of instruction I had available to me. The trick, I quickly learned, is generating enough speed on your own the match the incoming wave. With enough momentum you are gently lifted by the wave and carried with it rather than scooped up and chucked forward. My non-science minded analogy would be this: if two trains were going the same speed, you could step from one to the other gracefully with the relative sensation that neither were moving; if you tried to jump onto one of these trains just by running alongside you would be ripped forward and barely hold on.

Coached by my friend this time, I paddled as hard as I could with the mentality I was trying to outrun the wave. Sure enough, with much more forward momentum built up this time (and better body position on the board), I was lifted upward and moved along by water that was breaking all around me. SUCH a surreal experience. It was a weird mixture of adrenaline fueled excitement with the fear that I was about to be catapulted again at any moment. In this aspect, I think surfing could be matched only by sports where you are carried by the wind. Mother nature can be a ferociously powerful force. To be able to dip a toe (no pun intended) into those waters and for a short time move with that force is absolutely incredible.

So did I sell you on giving surfing a try!? If not, just re-read that previous paragraph a few more times and let the rest of the post fade away. Despite my humbling moments in the water, it really was an incredible experience and I would be willing to do it again (WITH BOOTIES!). It had been a while since I tried something completely new for the first time. I think it’s easy for us to get locked into the same daily rituals and lost in the sensation of normal. Subsequently, we can be left with apprehension of the unknown. But experiences that can register sensations completely foreign to our brain are stimulating, engaging, and exciting!! In addition to being a great morning out with a friend while enjoying the beautiful California coastline, surfing was a small step on my personal path of trying to experience more.

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