The night before our second surf lesson, my lanky 10 year old daughter, Cielle chatted nervously and excitedly, I thought, about heading out into the surf. An hour before the 4pm lesson, though, she proclaimed that she didn’t want to surf through tears and loud cries of protest.
Our family friends, who had joined us at the same hotel so the kids could play and we could adventure together, were planning on getting out in the surf before heading home. My husband passed them in the hall as he headed to the park with our bouncy son and energetic puppy and mentioned to them that Cielle was not feeling so motivated to surf.
As I tried to parse what was going on for Cielle, I received the text:
“We will go to the same surf spot as you. In case that changes anything for Cielle.”
Cielle’s first surf lesson ended with her stuck at the bottom of a rock wall along the side of the cove of Cowell Beach while the high tide surf kept her pushed up the rocks. The surf instructor talked her off the rocks and they headed over to the beach. I caught a wave in to check in. The surf instructor, a young, tall 20 something year old girl, said she’d stay with Cielle. She explained that her dad had counseled that when young kids run into trouble in the surf, it’s best not to push.
Back in the hotel room, I tossed the idea around. “Do I push her to do this today?” I told her her friend would be out in the water with us. She reluctantly agreed.
On the drive along the coastal road, beachy residential homes lining the way, she chattered.
“I feel like I’m about to go on the roller coaster at Great America, the one that turns you upside down!”
“I’m feeling the same way,” I told her honestly. The thought, “Should I have admitted that to her?” ran through my head as I confessed my own nervousness.
She was positive, upbeat, and brave. We parked and saw our friends. They were busy suiting up, bare bodies squishing into wetsuits, the way of the surfer. All newbies, the sense of awkwardness pushed me to move on quickly and we set off to check out the break.
We walked out on one small vista point and looked left down the cliffs, the cool breeze picking up and giving us goosebumps. The surfers were riding what looked like manageable waves. Then we walked down the street, past Jim O’Neill (of O’Neill surfing fame)’s house, and looked right, watching the swells and the surfers in their interplay.
Cielle nervously chattered as we walked to meet the instructor at the van in the lot across the road. We waited as car after car drove past us and crossed over to where two men in wetsuits were talking about the surf and their students.
I had brought my triathlon wetsuit, which has a more open construction for mobility in the arms, and the instructor told me that I should wear one of their brand new suits. So I stuffed my tri suit into my bag and started pulling on my wetsuit after telling Cielle to make sure to put the zipper of hers in back. She got both feet in and pulled half way up but couldn’t budge the rest, and I caught on.
“Take the suit off and let’s start again. You have to do one leg at a time.”
I helped her pull the sticky tight material up her leg, got the other one on and pulled the suit up. The instructor then told us, “Get the mesh up and over her knees so that you can get the suit to fit right, otherwise it will be sagging out there.” Like tights on wet legs, we slowly inched the wetsuit material up her legs, pulled the rest of the suit up, and then we were ready to go.
Luckily our instructor, Rick, a former pro triathlete and longtime surfer, carried Cielle’s board and mine had a handle. To carry the board is an art in and of itself. Rick explained that it’s like a sail on a windy day. I carefully maneuvered my board the few blocks to the staircase. Surfing in Santa Cruz is no joke. You have to be ready to lift, walk, endure long distance with some weight, and then jump in the water!
Before every surf lesson, the instructor gives a spiel, laying out their philosophy about the pop up. Rick went into great detail which was perfect for me. Cielle checked out before she spotted her friend, E, and then once they were 10 feet apart, her brain was somewhere else completely. I listened with a careful ear, recognizing that this gentleman knew this spot like the back of his hand.
Surfing well takes a combination of skill and knowledge. You have to know how the beach is formed, how the waves behave, what the tide is like in that spot. Then if you have the understanding of what kind of bump in the ocean you’re looking for, you will know when to paddle and jump on your board. But first, you must learn how to ride the wave.
Rick explained to me that at 16, he drove down from Walnut Creek to the beach to learn how to surf. It took him a year to stand up on his board, so he recounted to me. Lessons are the way to go if you want to learn how to surf quickly.
Another thing about surfing is that it’s mostly paddling and sitting. Cielle, Rick, and I pushed out past the small waves, Cielle a little reticent, and started paddling our way to the outside of the reef that Rick was taking us to. E and her dad paddled out with us.
Rick was ready to get me moving as soon as we arrived. He spotted a swell, got me turned around, and I was off on my knees. Each wave is exhilarating, even on your knees. As I went I started repeating the rules he had told me about the pop up. Look up. Look where you want to go. Hands on the rails of the board (the sides) for the pop up. Slide your knees in and then stand up.
I paddled back, and he was watching the surf. Cielle was ho-humming and comfortable on the board, though she was drifting a little. Rick found a piece of kelp and had her hold on, telling her it was planted into the ocean floor and wouldn’t be going anywhere. Another wave came along, and he pushed me into it.
I spent the next 5 or 6 waves falling forward and backward, testing out the rules of the pop up, getting instruction from Rick and paddling straight back to him like he had told me to do. Cielle rode one wave and looked a little bewildered. E was sitting out in the swells with Cielle and I asked if Cielle wanted to stay or go. She was ready to head back to the beach. She looked at me sheepishly, and I told her that I wanted her to have fun, not to be miserable.
Cielle clearly stated that she wanted to get back to shore without riding any waves. Rick promised that was what he would do for her. We paddled back together, Cielle literally toed in by Rick with his big toe on her board and his eye on the surf, stopping here and there to wait out a swell. We came into shore, made sure Cielle was settled with E and her mom, and then paddled right back out talking about Cielle. He said he knew she didn’t want to be in the water from the very beginning which made sense to me – she had checked out before we were in the water, and he had noted that.
In the ensuing 40 minutes, I rode waves and fell as I tried to stand up over and over. Rick adjusted our position, finding a friendlier ride, and I nearly got up. We decided one more ride would be good. I caught the wave, following all of the directions the best that I could and rode the wave until it wasn’t safe anymore. I was elated! Cielle’s friend’s family was standing on the rock watching unbeknownst to me and when I came to the end I saw them cheering.
We paddled back into shore. Some instructors are good at reading waves but not people. As an instructor, Rick was clearly as skilled in reading his students as the waves. We found friendly connections the entire time we were out in the water, and I learned a lot about him. We talked about our kids, his in their 20s, and how they don’t respond well to being pushed to do things they don’t want to do. They didn’t become gymnasts or triathletes or surfers. They found their own passions. Perhaps this was his gentle way of helping me process my experience with Cielle.
Cielle and E grabbed the board and team-carried it up the stairs as I followed with Rick, talking the entire way. As we wrapped up our lesson, I looked at Cielle and told her that I was proud that she came out and did as much as she did given her experience getting stuck on the rocks. She quietly told me that she never planned on surfing again. It wasn’t defiant or angry, just matter of fact. I told her that I was 45 when I went surfing for the first time, so I understand.
I didn’t tell her that so many of the things I told myself I never would do ended up being things I did eventually, that as she gets older, her curiosity may be piqued again. I held back from this knowing that she didn’t need to hear it. Her experience will be her guide.
You cannot control the ocean. It does what it does. You control what you do on the ocean. You decide whether you want to ride a wave or not. You decide how you will maneuver on it….whether on your knees, standing, or with the skills you learn along the way. There is no convincing the wave to move differently.
It’s the same with our kids and so much in life, especially when it comes to people. The most powerful work we can do is to control our responses to the waves of our lives and learn to ride them. The art is how we fall and get back up, how we artfully move through each wave and whether we decide to learn how in the first place.