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Surfing isn’t just an activity – it’s a life philosophy.
At one time or another, everyone has visions of becoming a beach bum. They dream of lounging under palm trees, inspecting stray coconuts, and evenings spent sitting around bonfires as a dread-locked guitarist deftly strums a tune.
Perhaps most of all, they dream of riding a surf board, skin bronzed, muscles toned, hurtling down a wave and laughing in the face of bitter death beneath the surface.
Only those with the resolve to shrug off society and the 40 hour work week can hope to achieve this dream. But for the rest of us, we can pretend to live the life on weekly beach trips, like the one I attended in Sydney, Australia.
I was a city resident for 4 months, working off and on as a junk mail stacker in a publishing house. That sounds about as interesting as it actually was.
Fill the slots in the machine with useless flyers advertising cheap Christmas products, wait until it’s almost empty, fill it again.
My only consolation during these achingly long shifts was not the constant Nickelback playing on the radio, but instead the weekends of sunshine and sand. I would sit on my beach towel, watching the surfers navigate the waves like a pianist would slide his fingers across the keys.
It was weeks before I would get the courage to try it for myself, and yet, it was an experience unlike any other.
“I’ll never forget how much I hated surfing the first time I tried it,” remarks Mike Reed, a friend of mine who accompanied me on subsequent surfing trips, who also happens to be much better at it.
“Imagine a 12-year-old kid with a giant longboard, attempting to paddle out on one of the windiest, choppiest days South bay, Los Angeles had ever seen. After getting worked by wave after wave, I dragged my frail boy body and board out of the sea and called my mom to come get me. As miserable as I was that day, I had no idea that surfing would later become one of my favorite past times.”
A week before my surfing trip, Mike prepared me for my “trial by water” with some essential viewing. We rented “Point Break,” that Academy Award winning film starring Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze. (Just kidding, it didn’t win any awards).
Aside from watching Keanu utter such riveting lines as, “I am an FBI agent!” the film showcases some incredible waves, and arguably made me more nervous to hit the surf.
Watching Keanu Reeves bail on the reefs is only entertaining until you start to picture yourself being tossed around like a sock in a washing machine.
Your First Time
Yet Mike assured me that like anything, surfing gets easier with practice. He clearly recalls the moment he knew that surfing would be a part of his life.
“I’ll never forget when I realized how amazing it is to ride a wave. We were surfing this local spot called Shit Pipe (I won’t tell where cause I might get in trouble). I see this peaking wave coming at me. This wave didn’t look too gnar so I turned around and started paddling.
I felt the momentum, popped up and dropped in. I guess my vision was off that day because all of a sudden I was standing at the bottom of the biggest wave I’d ever seen. I didn’t know what to do so I just let the wave take me. I heard my friend hollering. “YEAH!” from inside the curl, stoking me on even more.
Then the beach backwash collided with my wave and I exploded into the air and ate it. But those moments before I bailed is the reason I still surf today.”
Unfortunately, my first time was not as poetic. Mike was enough of a seasoned surfer to skip my weekend beginner’s trip, so I was left alone with our two instructors and a bevy of other young hopefuls.
Practice Makes Perfect
We did everything that real surfers never appear to be doing. We drew surfboards in the sand with our fingers, and pretended to paddle them out to sea. We practiced “popping up” with our feet planted on our “surfboards” and our hands out for balance.
By the time the first sunset touched the horizon, we had yet to take our first dip in the water.
The next morning my fellow classmates and I stood on the edge of the surf, eager to hit the waves. Our only problem…there weren’t any waves. We’d hit a swell that rolled in as if recovering from an all night bender, the tips barely cresting above my waist.
Still, I was able to paddle out until the waves gripped my board and suddenly I was standing, the water shooting past my toes. The speed, even for a little wave, was what surprised me most of all.
I deftly angled myself between my hapless counterparts, their mouths agape as they watched my physical prowess. Either that or they were just waiting for me eat sand. And eat sand is what I did.
Following The Coast
Two months later I found myself on Philip Island, at the tip of Southern Australia. Mike and I had hopped an Oz Experience bus tour down the coast from Sydney, and on this fine day we’d rented surf boards and wet suits to match.
The waves were much larger than I’d experienced before, but spurred on by Mike’s expertise (and my own foolhardy ego), we paddled out. I stayed inland, content to try my luck on the modest swells that made it past the reefs.
Mike went to hang with the other pros bobbing further out, waiting for “just the right wave” to roll in.
Mike once told me, “For me, surfing has no reward beyond the feeling of absolute freedom you get when riding a wave. I need surfing in order to do well at school and in all other aspects of my life. It gives me peace of mind.”
It was ancient and eternal. I imagined there’s little to think about when it’s just you and your surfboard and the sky overhead.
He and the other pros certainly seemed peaceful, sitting out there in the sun. They didn’t appear rushed or eager to mount an incoming wave, as if they knew whether they caught the wave or not, the ocean was not going to disappear.
It was ancient and eternal. I imagined there’s little to think about when it’s just you and your surfboard and the sky overhead. In fact I imagined it so clearly, I failed to noticed I’d drifted out substantially away from the shore.
I felt the power of the water beneath my dangling feet – more than a little intimidating. I was parallel with the other surfers now, though far enough that I assumed they couldn’t hear me calling for help (or screaming like a little girl).
No, this situation was mine to tackle.
Confronting The Wave
I swung the tip of my surfboard toward the beach, letting the tide pull at my arms. I drifted now towards the cresting of the waves, their foamy crowns rolling over and over.
I wondered if Mike and the other pros were wondering what exactly a rookie like me was doing that far out. I continued to wonder as a wave reared up behind me, tugging at my board while simultaneously thrusting me forward.
I paddled like a man possessed. A second later I hopped up, planted my feet, and spread my arms for balance. The theme to Hawaii Five-0 inexplicably ran through my head.
The wave had me, but I was up. I was…surfing. It was indescribable, the feeling of the air on my skin and the reflection of the ocean as I danced across it’s surface.
Though the next few moments were a rush of sea water, sand, and pain, let it be known — I loved every minute of it.
Ian MacKenzie is editor of Brave New Traveler, and co-founder of the blogging community TravelBlogger. Aside from writing, he spends his time exploring the fundamental nature of existence and wishing he did more backpacking.