I just returned from Sayulita, Mexico; my first official surfing trip. “Official” means I wanted to take a surfing lesson then have a few days to practice what I had been taught. I accomplished both, and so much more.
My first surfing lesson happened in February of 2011. It was a birthday present to myself after completing my fieldwork in Australia. After decades of desire, I finally jumped in. I met my instructor Ryan on a warm Sydney afternoon at the Manly Beach ferry terminal. A short drive later and we were in a small cove replete with small waves, and completely alone in the water. Already I was hooked.
Over the next two hours I would laugh as hard as I had for many months, ingest more salt water than I had in many years, and feel like a kid as never before. And yes, I managed to “get up” a handful of times. I did not once feel the rush of being engulfed in a gnarly barrel. As I think back, I did not even see any of the waves I rode. But ride a few I did. And sit I did too.
What ultimately set the hooks of surfing into my soul were the times between rides. The watching swells and waves while sitting on a long board, and wondering if I really did look like prey to a shark. The peacefulness of just sitting there embedded itself deep and fast. My recent experience in Mexico added a layer to this.
My first day in Sayulita was spent on a long, soft and wide surfboard. Save for a few miscues, I managed to get up every time I tried. By the end of the lesson, while riding a wave, I felt sufficiently cocky to actually walk to the nose of the board, hang five (ten seemed risky), and then return to the prescribed neophyte’s position. The instructors laughed and hinted at the high likelihood of a Geritol sponsorship. I was beside myself with joy.
The next two days were spent testing out shorter soft boards (downsizing from 9′ to 8′), working on my foot placement after popping up from the prone position required to paddle, and becoming more adept at sitting stably on the board and waiting for waves. By days four and five, and with the help of a 70-something Mexican surf guru, I was beginning to master the balance of sitting and turning the nose toward shore when a desired wave approached. To my great pleasure, as I became more adept at sitting quietly, my vision of the subtle changes in the ocean and incoming waves became more focused. (Yep, there is a huge metaphor there. Really the backbone of this post. I will let y’all define that as you like.)
By day six I had graduated to a full hard board, with a waxed top and all, and was riding the biggest waves of the week. (Still shorter than your average sized SUV but hey, bigger than the first day.) And I was still enjoying the time in between waves, watching the undulations, thinking of friends, smelling the surf and smiling at all of us attempting something new.
On the final day in Sayulita, as I reached my physical limit, I chose a swell I was sure would be the defining moment of my surfing career. I paddled as if my life depended on it. I had misjudged. The wave was building slower than I had expected and instead of starting to crest at the expected time, it merely rolled gently under me and broke high on shore. As it passed under my flailing arms I sat up, a huge smile on my face. No frustration. Just so much joy and comfort in knowing I had not gotten it right and that there was still so much to practice. I summoned a bit more energy, turned myself away from shore, and paddled back out refreshed and awake, and still with the biggest smile on my face.