Learning to Surf Part 1 – Lessons learned while doing things that scare you

After many years of dreaming about taking a surfing lesson, I finally did it. A friend invited my family to join theirs at a surf class a month or so ago, and I told her that though we couldn’t go that day – it was Father’s Day, and a surfing lesson is not my husband’s idea of a good time – I would want to join her if they went again. When she asked again, I said yes and made it happen. 

I grew up in a town near Los Angeles, about a 45 minute drive from the beach. Some of the high school guys surfed, and I loved swimming. Swimming in the ocean as a kid both terrified and electrified me. I spent what felt like hours floating beyond the breaking waves, bobbing up and down. Getting in and out of the surf was always a test of my bravery. How would I fare in the waves? Would I get tossed? I hated being churned in the water with the uncertainty of exactly where I was and how long I had been under. The ocean is a humbling master. If there is any cluelessness about who is in charge, when you enter the ocean, you must learn that she is the power, and that you must proceed with thoughtfulness, caution, and care. 

I dreamt of being a surfer girl but never went with it. The long drive, the lack of friends who were interested in submitting to the power of the waves, my fears all kept me from going for it. I have kept up with that same line of thinking for so much of my life. A couple of years ago, I vowed to do a surf camp for my birthday but never followed through, another promise to myself that I broke. 

This time I couldn’t say no. I said NOW, and my daughter was equally excited to be going on this adventure with her friend. We woke up early, donned our bathing suits, had a quick breakfast and drove the 45 minutes to the beach from our Silicon Valley home to Santa Cruz, the town where I blossomed into adulthood as I pursued my Bachelor’s degree but successfully avoided surfing. 

As a triathlete and swimmer, I have done some ocean swimming. Each dive into the water is an act that terrifies me. Even as a strong swimmer, the waves, the animals in the heavy, dark, cold of the Pacific leave me slightly weary. In Santa Cruz, as part of a triathlon, I swam out past the wharf where the noisy and mean sea lions bark incessantly into the Monterey Bay, out and around a bright orange buoy that seemed ridiculously far away and back into the same beach where we took off to catch the waves on this surfing day. I mentioned this to the instructors and they both commended my bravery. Neither had done this. I was comforted by their admiration. If they thought that was courageous, then surfing wouldn’t be quite as scary as I had made it out to be. 

Once through the long trek across the beach with our surfboards, we practiced getting up into the surfing stance, much harder and more nuanced than I had always imagined, and then headed out into the water. 

I learned that you have to look up towards where you’re heading rather than down, where you instinctively want to focus, to be sure you get the stance correct and the balance right. My entire first day, I caught waves no problem but rode them in on my knees or wobbling up to stand and then fall. By the final waves, I finally figured out how to keep my eyes up instead of trained on the board. 

 It didn’t take long for me to realize that getting out through the waves on a surfboard was a lot easier and safer feeling than doing it while swimming. I had moments of fear. Whitewater washing towards me in roiling, boiling masses, a huge wall of wave growing as it approached. I pressed the board down and lifted my chest up, as I had seen the others do, and found myself over or through the wave, and once or twice, thrown off my board and roiling and boiling along with the whitewater.

In the last year, I have had a recurring dream of being out in the water past the break but witnessing huge swells. Sometime early in 2020, I dreamed that I rode one of the huge waves successfully but ducked through the wave before the power whisked me through to the end or until I wiped out into the underwater chaos. 

My daughter impressed me with her paddling endurance and resilience, her fearlessness in facing the waves. I lost sight of her for part of the morning, totally enrapt in learning to surf and trusting the instructors. When I scanned the ocean for a few moments and couldn’t spot her or the instructor, I looked to the beach. I saw my daughter up in the rocks and the instructor coaching her in some way. V, my friend, paddled over and told me that she had been in those rocks once, that when the waves break there, it can be terrifying. I decided to catch a wave in to check in. 

The surf at Cowell Beach in Santa Cruz on our first day out

When I determined that she was okay, I headed back out to ride a few more waves. Day 1 of surfing was a success for me, but turned into a big challenge for my daughter. 

Lessons / Questions that came up for me: 

  1. Look up to where you’re headed to get where you want to go.
  2. The things that were so terrifying are usually not as scary as we make them out to be.
  3. We often hesitate to pursue our dreams or things that we know will bring us joy, sometimes way too long. 
  4. Celebrating the joy of another is blissful. 
  5. Allowing my daughter her fear and her own reckoning with the experience will allow her to heal and come to terms with her own fear, and I need to trust that for her. 
  6. I can’t allow her fear to get in the way of me pursuing my own joy. 
  7. When is pressing someone cheerleading and when is it scarring? 
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