Tuesday, October 13, 2020

If That's Not Love, Then What Is It? - My Journey Learning How To Surf

I've spent 2020 almost entirely in rural Ghana and in Mexico.  I've been bit by some mosquitos during that time, but no bug bit me as hard as the surfing bug.  I live a 10 minute walk from the Pacific Ocean and I've been learning to surf over the past couple of weeks.  I'm still learning, but I have experienced every emotion on the spectrum in the past few days.  Everything from the sheer terror of being held under by a wave, to the sheer joy of riding one - along with every fear, second-guess and apprehension in between.  I have felt in one moment like a man living his dream - the highest of highs.  And in the next moment I have wondered why I ever came here and whether the whole thing was a bad idea and I should just go home.  But what is there for me to do if I quit?  I don't really want to do anything else.  And where is home, anyway?  

How did I get here?

My fascination with surfing began as a kid reading Surfer Magazine, which I heard closed it's doors this year after being in publication since 1962.  This is a great tragedy to me, because Surfer Magazine singlehandedly got me hooked on surfing, even though I had never been and didn't know how to do it.  I thought the pro surfers were the coolest guys in the world.  I read all of the articles and the stories.  I learned about geography and places I didn't even know existed.  I loved Surfer Magazine.

That's why the first thing I ever bought with my own money was a surfboard.  When I was about 10, I saved up $50 from my allowance and bought a used blue and white surfboard out of the Pennysaver.  I waxed it religiously, but only took it out a few times.  Rides to the beach were the issue then, and by the time I reached high school I was involved in other activities (working out, baseball, hockey) and just never got around to learning how to surf.  I even lived on South Mission Beach in college, and never learned then.  Similar to playing the guitar, I just didn't know how to get started.  I think that's the biggest problem for most people when it comes to learning most things.

After living in landlocked places for the first several months of this year, I began to miss the beach greatly.  Even though I never became a real surfer in San Diego, I did come to love the beach.  So I decided to move to Manzanillo, Colima.  It was the closest beach to me and it's much more low key than Puerto Vallarta, which is a couple hours drive north along the Pacific Coast.  I did some research and learned that Manzanillo had some good beginner surfing beaches, so I came to Manzanillo.

The first step was finding a board, which was frankly harder than I thought in a place that is practically made for learning to surf.  I couldn't find any boards near my location in the classifieds, but I did manage to locate a surf shop in town.  They only had one surfboard.  A shortboard with no fins.  And the screws for the fins were missing.  So I didn't have a board.  Until a local rider walked into the shop.  He said I needed some snap-in fins.  He also said he had a set he would sell me.  Perfect.  I was in business.

He said he had to run an errand and would pick me up on the way back.  It turned out to be a long errand, and I had to wait at the shop for a little while, but he came back as promised.  He spoke English well and I learned that he was a local architect who had spent some time in Orange County, California.  We became friends and I hung out at his place on the beach for a bit.  He sold me the fins.  Now I had a board and a new friend.  My surfing career was off to a great start.

Now the problem was that I didn't know how to surf.  I had seen plenty of other people surf, and I used to paddle out as a kid whenever I got the opportunity.  So how hard could it be?  The answer is really fucking hard.  Pretty much the hardest thing I've ever done.  But that's because I didn't do it properly.  I was so excited to have a board and have the beach right in front of me that I hopped out into the water and began paddling immediately.  For a few moments, it was complete joy.  I was living the dream and I hadn't even stood up yet.  I hadn't even paddled for a wave yet.  I had conquered my entire life just by showing up and being out there.  Nothing could stop me.

Until I started having fierce pains in my ribs and sternum.  I wasn't even tired from swimming yet, and the pain in my chest became too much to bear.  I was riding a shortboard (not a foam board), and my lack of conditioning for pressure on my chest combined with poor paddling technique had resulted in fierce pain.  I knew I needed to go back to the beach to avoid causing myself further injury.  It was complete heartbreak.  I literally cried on the beach and got really embarrassed and angry when I realized there was a security guard watching me.  I wasn't crying because my chest was hurt.  My feelings were.  How could I have come this far to have it end so soon?  This got me thinking that maybe I should get some lessons.

Instead of getting lessons, I decided to go back out on my own.  I waited a couple days for the pain in my chest to subside, then gave it another shot.  With the exact same result.  Another heartbreak.  This time, instead of crying I ordered a padded a rashguard.

The padded rash guard came earlier than expected and now I was back in business, once again.  Now I was feeling like it was meant to be.  If God didn't want me to make it this far, he would have shut it down a lot time ago.  It was time to paddle out again.

I took the rashguard out for a test paddle and it worked like a charm.  I had no pain in my ribs and was able to stay out until I got tired, which wasn't that long because I have not been swimming regularly and didn't have much swimming stamina.  The fact that I was able to paddle without pain built my confidence, even though I tired relatively quickly from lack of regular swimming.  

I did some online research and learned ways to improve my paddling and duck diving techniques.  My skills were improving, but far from mastered.  I knew that the way to improve them was to practice.  So I took the board out again.  This is when things got pretty scary.

I practiced paddling around on the inside for a while and duck diving a few waves.  I was controlling the board and staying balanced better than in my previous sessions.  And my duck dive technique was getting better.  My confidence grew.  

By sheer luck I managed to paddle for a big inside wave (maybe 3 feet) at the perfect time.  I paddled and paddled and was ALMOST in position to take off down the face, but just missed the wave because my paddling wasn't good enough yet.  A better surfer would have taken off down the face for a perfect ride.  My skills weren't at that level yet, but my confidence was.  I knew that I was razor close to catching that wave and I knew that if I could get that close once, then I could do it again.  So I paddled outside and decided to take on some bigger waves.  This was not a good choice.

I got to the outside and waited for a swell, which was good.  I let the first couple waves of the set pass to the get the timing of the waves.  Which was also good.  Then I saw a big swell coming and paddled like a madman for it.  I wanted to get an early start because I had just missed the last wave.  But I started too early, or maybe too late.  And the wave crashed right on top of me.

It was 3-4 foot surf that day and I figured I would be safe out there, even though I was a beginner, since it wasn't a particularly big day.  I am a competent swimmer and I took wipeouts in the ocean as a kid, so I didn't think the conditions were particularly scary.  It turns out that the waves don't have to be big to be scary.

I got smashed by the wave, put through the washing machine and held under.  I couldn't breathe and I was very scared.  I knew to stay calm from my days at Oceanside Aquatics Camp when I was a kid, so I held my breathe and tried to relax.  But I was held under for longer than I was comfortable.  I was finally able to scramble to the surface once the turbulence dissipated and gasped for air.  I knew there would be another wave coming, and there was.

I was separated from my board, and I had the choice of either 1) going for the board, or 2) waiting for the wave to come and diving under it.  I decided that the board, as a floatation device, was the better choice.  I swam quickly and out of breath to the board and arrived just in time to attempt a duck dive.  But my duck diving technique is still not good and I got blown back by the whitewash and taken for another tumble.  Again I held my breath and tried to relax.  Again I was terrified that I wouldn't be let up in time.  Again I made it to the surface and gasped for air.  Again there was another wave coming.  Again I swam to my board.

This time I made a better decision.  Rather than attempting another poor duck dive and getting wiped out again, I turned around and faced the beach and tried to catch the whitewash in like a boogie board.  The technique worked.  I got taken for the wild, bucking bronco ride of my life, but I managed to stay on the board and ride it into the inside.  I used the same technique to ride the inside whitewash to the shore.  When I got back to the beach, my legs felt like lead.  I was happy to be alive, but also very angry.  Angry at myself for not being a better surfer.  Angry that I put myself in that situation.  Angry that I even decided to come Manzanillo in the first place.  What made me decide to pursue this, anyway?  Maybe this was a bad idea and I should move away from the beach altogether.  It might be safer.  Then I went home and cried for the second time.

Instead of moving from the beach, I contacted a surfing instructor.  I got a recommendation from my friend who sold me the fins, and I've taken two lessons in the past two days.  I've already built a network of three surfing instructors now - in addition to my friend who sold me the fins.  My surfing community is growing and therefore my support system is growing.  Learning to surf by myself on a shortboard has been one of the hardest experiences I've ever had.  The learning curve is steep, and the consequences are drastic.  That's why it's better to have someone out there with you.  It's also better to learn on a foam board (which the instructor's provide), and it's also better to learn in 1-2 foot surf rather than 3-4 feet.  I realize these things now, but I didn't know it at the time.

I guess the moral of the story here is to sign up for some lessons if you want to learn to surf.  If you don't have a friend or relative who is willing to go out with you and teach you for several sessions (most people don't), then hire someone.  Going out by yourself as a beginner can be mortally dangerous and downright terrifying, even if you're a competent swimmer in small surf.  I am not an experienced surfer, but I am experienced at learning things and I believe you should get a teacher for this one.  For safety reasons, if nothing else.

With that said, I am completely obsessed with surfing.  It's all I think about.  I'm already thinking about how I can structure my daily routine to make me a better surfer.  I'm obsessed.  It's a form of madness.  The closest thing I can compare it to is falling in love.  You experience every emotion that exists.  Sometimes all at once.  You crave it, but you're scared of it.  You think about it all the time.  It's the first thing you think of in the morning and the last thing you think of when you go to sleep.  It's an addiction.  It gets into your veins and stays there.  It's an itch and there's only one way to scratch it.

Like any wild crush, I have no idea how long the intoxication will last or how it's going to end.  It could be 10 minutes or 10 days or 10 years or the rest of my life.  I might have a bad wipeout tomorrow and decide I never want to do it again.  I might move to a landlocked place and surfing might go back to being nothing more than a dream.  But right now it's my reality.  Almost my entire reality.  And I'm not even good at it, yet.  

If this isn't love, then it's some kind of madness that's similar to love in almost every way.  You fear it more than anything in the world, but need it more than anything in the world.  It takes you out of your comfort zone and makes you feel completely powerless.  It connects you to something higher than you.  Dare I say, God.  It's a calling.  You do it because you have to, not because you want to.  You do it because it's the only way you can achieve any semblance of peace in your life.  Any semblance of freedom.  Any semblance of reality.  Any semblance of doing what you want and being the person you want to be.  You will do crazy things for it.  Make a fool of yourself for it.  Crash and burn for it.  Get sucked over the falls and pounded into oblivion for it.  Then come back for more.  It's the only thing that matters.  Everything else is just details.  If that's not love, then what is it?