I should probably take a surfing lesson, I think to myself, but I am so eager to start surfing that I skip it. Besides, I’ve been reading surf magazines since I was 15, so even though I don’t have any actual surfing experience, my surf theory runs deep. Anyway, how hard can it be?
Mostly, since I don’t know what I’m doing, I just watch what the other surfers are doing and do whatever they do. It’s a beautiful day in Del Mar, California and the break zone is crowded with many knowledgeable surfers.
So Ice and I wade out into the waves until we can’t wade any deeper, lay our surfboards — our beautiful little waveriding miracle crafts — on the water, jump on and start paddling out to that magical spot where waves born several days ago, hundreds of miles out in the Pacific, at last reach the beach and shoulder themselves into crests.
The waves on this, my first day of surfing, are only two to three feet tall. Very mild. Easily managed on my longboard. I know from the thousands of surfing articles I’ve read that when I reach an incoming wave as I’m paddling out, I’m supposed to duck under it and let it pass over me. So that’s what I do, on my magnificent 8-4 Rusty longboard. I can’t believe this is finally happening!
We paddle out to the break zone — that magical spot where the waves transform from rolling sine waves into waves with crests and steep, surfable faces — and we find the locals have gathered there in a long, long line just sitting on their boards looking out to sea, watching and waiting for a good set of waves to arrive. Ice and I stop where they’re stopped, and sit on our boards.
Well, Ice sits on his board; I can’t quite get the hang of it. Balancing on a surfboard is tricky; even if you’re just trying to sit there.
I sit up on my board, my lower legs hanging off either side of the board. And immediately roll over — like a guy sitting on a barrel — and fall into the water.
I spit out some water and crawl back onto my board in paddling position, and once I’ve regained my lying-down balance I try to sit up again. As soon as I sit up, my board tries to squirm out from under me again. But this time I’m ready for it.
I find that my squirmy board is easier to control if I use my hands to help me. As the board starts to roll to the left, I push down on the board’s right side. When it tries to roll to my right I push down on its left side. I make about 10 of these adjustments every 20 seconds. At the same time, I’m gripping my board tightly with my thighs, like a mutton-buster riding a black sheep. To the surfer next to me — who is watching my struggles with growing curiosity — I must look like a guy who is trying to drown his surfboard.
But after about 20 seconds, even with my balance compensations and concentrated efforts, I roll beyond the balance point and I and my board roll over again, and I tumble into the ocean.
Again. I mean, cowboys riding angry, spit-fire, one ton bulls that are deliberately trying to buck them off its back, stay seated longer than I do, on my non-cognizant, just-lying-there surfboard bobbing on listless, mild waves.
It’s pretty obvious to the locals that they’re witnessing the surfing debut of a land lubber from a landlocked state. Hey, wanna share this wave with me amigo?
I crawl back onto my board and this time I just lie on my belly for a little while. This I can do. I look around at the other surfers who are sitting on their boards, staring peacefully, contemplatively, zenfully out at the silver-blue horizon. They do it so nonchalantly, with such ease. How do they do that? Does everybody else have a gyroscope mounted in their boards? Some are even reaching with their arms into the heavens with their eyes closed. You know you’ve reached a low point in your life when a hippy can do something that requires athletic ability better than you can.
And then suddenly every surfer in the break zone turns around 180 degrees, lies down on their boards and starts paddling hard. Ice does the same, and I, assuming that this must mean that a big wave is arriving, I try to do the same. But in the opening moments of my surfing debut everything I do on a surfboard is clumsy and slow.
I manage to get turned around until I’m facing the shore, but it takes me about four seconds to do it (the real surfers did it in less than a second) because my movements are so choppy and inefficient.
And I start paddling! But before I can propel myself four feet I feel the swell of the wave pass beneath me, and I watch it form into a crest, its front face continuing to steepen and most of the other surfers catch it, and ride it to shore.
Ice didn’t catch it either. He turns his surfboard around and paddles back out to the break zone — where I’m still sitting — and pulls up beside me. We’re the last two surfers still out here. “No biggie,” he says. “We’ll just catch the next wave.”
The next proper wave is forming even as he speaks and we again turn our boards to shore and paddle as hard and efficiently as we’re able, and I catch it! I am riding the face of the wave! Granted, I’m still lying on my board — I can’t quite control my balance enough to stand up (I’m in something very close to the Cobra yoga pose) — but regardless I am sliding down the face of the wave and I am aware of it rising higher and its face growing steeper and as it steepens my speed increases joyfully. Even as it’s happening, I am aware that this is one of the quintessential moments of my life; an unmistakable needle-glides-across-vinyl, electricity-enters-guitar kind of moments. It is the surreal feeling of the occurrence of a destined moment, when you emerge from the dream-fog into the actual. I’m quite sure my goosebumps are big enough to show through my wetsuit. I never do rise any higher than my Cobra asana, but I ride that wave all the way to the beach, completely suffused with exuberance!
Guess I didn’t need that surf lesson after all.
Ice too rides that same wave all the way to shore and when we stand up and gather our boards under our arms we high-five and whoop and holler and carry on like a couple idiot lubbers.
Then, after the moment and the adrenaline have subsided, we wade back out into the beautiful, perfectly cool ocean, through the waves, hop onto our boards and paddle back out for more.
Turns out that my catching that wave was pure beginner’s luck. For the next hour or so the incoming waves are much the same as the wave that I caught and rode to shore, but for the next hour after catching my first delicious wave, I am completely unable to do it again. I either miss it completely, or I catch it for a two or three second ride before it either passes uncaught beneath me, or rolls me like gravel in a cement mixer.
And every time I’m cement-mixered by a wave is like having a netty pot pour 1,000 cfs (cubic feet per second) through my nose. My mustache looks like birds nest soup (you can Google this, I’ll wait). Oh, you’re back? I know, gross, right?
And even as we watch, the waves grow larger. Then larger still. And Ice and I, after missing a wave, keep paddling out to the break zone, keep hoping and trying to catch one. And we keep either missing it or getting rolled.
But somewhere deep in our complex, top-of-the-foodchain mammalian brains all of the minutiae and subtlety of catching a wave is being sorted, analyzed, categorized and worked out.
And after an hour of failing to catch waves, I do the unmanliest thing of all: I stop and ask for directions. Which is a dude who paddles out and parks beside me in the breakzone. “Sorry to bother you but, you see, I’m new at this . . .”
He tells me that when I see a good wave approaching to paddle as hard and fast as I can toward the beach to match my momentum with that of the wave’s, and as I feel it rise beneath me and the face of it begin to steepen to “push down on the nose of my board and then, just pop up.”
That’s really good advice. Except for that last part. I’m 43 years old: I no longer “just pop up.” But, regardless of my middle-aged inability to “just pop up” I still follow his directions. And it results in the best high-five of my life!
It happens like this:
The sets keep coming in. Steady and strong, and Ice and I keep trying — to no avail — to catch one of them. But fortunately for us, surfing is just like everything else new you’ve ever tried: You fail, fail, fail. Fail, fail, fail. And then you don’t.
Right about the time when Ice and I are wondering if we’ll ever get the hang of this, Ice catches a beautiful wave and starts riding it to shore. And then, miraculously, I catch the very next wave. I want this wave!
And after so many failed attempts, I am growing discouraged and tired, so I put every last ounce of mojo into my stroke. And — as mentioned above — I catch it!
There is a point in this endlessly-too-short journey from break zone to shore where I realize that I have caught the wave, and I then rise from paddling position to the yoga Cobra position, and following my recently-acquired directions given to me by the nice surfer dude, I push down on the nose of my board. Somehow this pushing down on the nose business keeps my momentum coursing down the face of the steepening wave.
While pushing down on the nose of my board, I first rise into an approximation of the Cobra asana, while still trying to center my balance enough to stand up.
My board wavers side to side, like a skateboard with the dreaded speed wobbles, but carefully I center myself and rise from the Cobra asana up to my knees.
I then attempt the delicate, treacherous, Jenga-esque task of standing up on my board. So I move my right leg from its knee to its foot.
I want to stand up — mostly so I can tell my friends that, “Yeah, I stood up” — but my balance isn’t yet accomplished enough to allow it. And here I must admit that I am very content to ride that wave all the way to the shore balanced on one knee and one foot. And that is exactly what I do.
One wave in front of me Ice rode his wave to shore, tucked his board under his left arm and proceeded to wade back into the surf to catch the next set when he sees me riding toward him balanced (barely), and precariously on one knee and one foot.
And when he sees me wave-plowing toward him he yells, “Yeah buddy!” and holds up his hand in high-five position and as I ride by on my surfboard I high-five him.
Best. High-five. Ever!