Since I was a kid I’d wanted to surf.
The idea of riding a rushing wave and seeing the world from on top of the waters’ surface had such an allure. Not to mention the image I’d pieced together from movies, magazines and the Beach Boys.
Relaxed, calm and nonchalant, surfers seemed the epitome of cool in the face of danger, but it wasn’t until I saw someone surfing in person that I actually pushed to make it happen.
Four months ago.
I was on Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles walking down the coastline with a few friends when we saw some surfers in the water. Taking advantage of the chance, we headed out onto the jetty and as I watched them seeking, ducking and riding the waves I noticed something magical that media had never been able to communicate:
One guy in particular grabbed my attention. For almost 30 minutes I couldn’t take my eyes off him as he made his way for the break. Swimming towards the crashing waves he’d dive beneath them, pop up on the other side, and restart his swim. Over and over again he did this.
The tranquility with which he approached the constant resistance of the ocean was beautiful; he never strained to beat the next wave, with an ocean full of them to stress would be a waste of his energy. Without any guaranteed pay off he just took them as they came, working constantly, simply to put himself in a position where he could finally try.
In that moment I knew I had to surf. Catching a wave became more than merely living out an image, it became something to strive for.
A chance to try.
Two months ago, I got my opportunity. I went to Costa Rica, a certifiable surfing mecca, as a volunteer at a yoga resort on the Osa Peninsula. Leading up to my arrival, I knew I’d be living on the beach and so thought that it could be my chance, and I hoped for a place with waves to learn.
When I finally arrived, the first thing I did after dropping my bags was check the beach and I was delighted to see an ocean of waves staring back at me with the promise of opportunity. I made the arrangements with my boss and waited for the right waves to show.
Byron had the demeanor I had always imagined in a surfer: relaxed, friendly, he carried himself without a worry. We introduced ourselves quickly and he showed me to my board.
The thing was a beast and I’ll be honest, I was a little disappointed to see how enormous it was. There was no way I’d be able to dive under the waves like the surfers I’d seen in California, but according to Byron its size would help me stand and find balance.
After he explained the basics and some safety moves we jumped on our boards and paddled out to meet the waves. As I made my way I thought of the surfer from Manhattan Beach and reminded myself to keep my pace, not to rush and take the waves as they came.
And come they did.
Unable to duck dive with the bigger board I was forced to flip the entire thing over. Submerged I’d hold on as tightly as I could and let the white of the wave wash over me pushing me back about 10 feet every time. Then, once the danger passed, I’d roll back over, pull myself onto the board again and paddle onwards.
Twenty minutes, and I can’t remember how many waves later, I finally met up with Byron past the break. The realization that this was going to be hard began to dawn on me, but I was happy to be on the cusp of going for my first wave.
Waiting and reading.
Reading the waves is an acquired skill. To me every one of them looked like a great opportunity, but to Byron’s experienced eyes only about one in ten was actually worth going for.
When a chance one finally did come along I’d turn away from the wave, wait for the undercurrent to pull me back towards it and then swim as hard as I could.
The wave would catch me and I’d start speeding up. At my maximum speed I’d pull my head and chest up, thrust one leg forward and pop up into position. If I found my center I’d ride, if not, well…
I tried and fell and swam and rolled and tried and fell again and again. Sometimes I came close others I missed by a mile, I felt the entire range of failure and it started to wear on me.
Making my way back for the umpteenth time; my neck hurting from constantly looking forward, my arms aching from pulling my weight, and my pride deeply wounded, the terrible thought that every dodge and roll was followed by an another inevitable wave set in.
When I finally reached Byron I could tell he saw the fatigue on my face. “Todo, Bien?” he asked. I nodded slowly. “That one was really close man” he continued. I didn’t want to hear it.
My head hanging, I sat up on the board and took a moment to gather myself.
The ocean glittered and the mountains were clear jagged teeth across the peninsula. A beautiful white ebbis flew above; so purely white it looked like a hole in the bright azul sky. I breathed in deeply and remembered that I was living a dream. Here I was surfing, and with all these waves I had as many chances to succeed, as I liked.
I turned back to Byron, the look of worry still on his face, and asked him calmly, “How do you say—there are always other waves—in Spanish?” A smile spread across his face as he responded, “Siempre hay otras olas, now turn around.”
I got my board into position, waited to be pulled and began to swim as hard as I could. I felt myself picked up and pushed by the wave. I reached my max speed and with a quick two movements, stood up and popped into position, center intact.
I felt myself soar, the water rushing under me like speeding cement. The mist and wind blowing swiftly in my face, I looked around and saw the world from on top of a wave for the very first time: a beautiful rush of perspective.
The moment slowed until finally there wasn’t enough momentum to keep me afloat. I fell into the water with a huge smile across my face. I could hear Byron hooting and hollering from back past the break, “Whoooooo, yeah Joe!”
Ecstatic with my success I got back on my board and began to make my way back out to try again. Flipping under the first rushing wave, I found myself unable to keep from smiling.
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Assistant Ed: Judith Andersson / Ed: Bryonie Wise