True confessions of a beginner surfer
I’ve always prided myself on learning physical activities quickly. I’m pretty agile, strong enough for most activities, light on my feet, and pretty in touch with my body. Ya sure, I’ve just officially become middle-aged (I can’t believe I’m middle-aged) but what difference does that make? Everything I’ve tried of a physical nature I’ve been at least decent at, and in some cases, rather good. I’m not quite as good with activities that require precision footwork, like soccer, but aside from that, I’ve never had any issues picking up pretty much any sport. I lack stamina, I’m more of a sprinter type, but again, that never stopped from being decent at stuff, it just kept me from being good at marathon type activities. And let’s face it, surfing ain’t no marathon. I mean, you sit on your board, wait for a wave, paddle a bit, then stand up and try to stay upright till the wave is tired and then you swim back. Pfftt. No problem.
The first time I ever tried to surf was in Puerto Escondido, at Playa Carrizalillo. Perfect place for someone who’s never tried it before. It’s in a small cove, not too crowded, and sports small but surfable waves. Often the time between sets can be a bit long, which isn’t ideal, but there are other factors that make that not necessarily a negative. V and I wanted to try, and this was something we both could do the first time, together. We chose Puerto Escondido specifically because on top of being a good place to eat and hang out at night, it was a surfer’s hotspot. This particular beach wasn’t particularly attractive to real surfers, but for beginning it was the right mix of easy, accessible and relatively uncrowded, which meant there was no dealing with irate and territorial semi-pro surfers. That sounded good to me. So we booked a class and made our way to the beach. We got the typical shore-side lessons where they put the board on the sand, ask you to la down on it, then tell you to pop-up as they watch you. Typical. It all went smoothly for both of us. So…time to get in the water. Not a problem. We’re a group of like 8 or so, all taking classes. So we need to take turns catching waves, but there are a couple instructors and enough waves to go around. We paddle out and within a few minutes it’s our turn. I get in position as the instructor holds the back of my board, and when the wave is close enough, he yells “paddle” and I paddle. I paddle, but the board is not moving an inch. This makes no sense. What the hell is going on? I turn to look at what could be causing me to be so absolutely ineffectual and I realize/remember that the instructor is holding me in place. Ah, so I’m not completely ineffectual, good to know. At just the right time, while I’m still paddling, the instructor pushes the board and I start moving forward just as the waves is about to pass below me. He yells “stand up” and I kick into a vertical position. I’m surfing!! Ya, I’m up and I’m headed towards the shore. I’m a surfer. I’m awesome. Another thing I totally rock at. Not a problem at all. What’s the big deal with surfing?
Anyway, no matter, this is fun. Just as I think that, I lose my balance and with a laugh fall into the water. But you know what, I went a good distance. Not bad for my first attempt. I turn the board and start paddling back to the starting point. Hmm. Paddling isn’t easy. In fact, it’s kinda hard. I have to take a break every 20 feet or so as my shoulders are burning. Didn’t expect that, but hey, nothing I can’t handle. As I’m paddling back I see that V is just about to try her first wave. Paddle! She paddles and like me doesn’t move an inch, then the push and she’s moving and the wave lifts her. She hears the words “stand up” and she pushes off and stands for a second before she ends up wet. A decent first attempt. Almost all the way up. See, surfing isn’t hard. We both continue like this for an hour or so. She stands a couple times and rides the board towards shore and so do I. But as time goes on, we’re not getting up or staying up as often. This is strange, could we be getting tired? Apparently, cause the paddles back after our attempts are getting, let’s say, slower. Ya, I can’t deny it, I’m getting tired. My shoulders in particular are just done. But I’m not giving up. We paid for 2 hours and I’m doing all 2 hours. I mean, come on, 2 hours, that’s nothing. Get over yourself, this is nothing.
So, a few little accomplishments. I stood on a few waves, rode a few almost to shore and better yet, I managed on my first day to catch my own wave without any help from the instructors. I’m a natural. I totally and utterly rock. Ya, so I’m a bit tired. So what? It’s my first time. It’s normal. So, the 2 hours are up and it’s time to pack up and get back home and celebrate with a beer. We do just that. We’re both quite happy. In the meantime, V has admitted she can’t do this again the next day, she’s just burnt. That’s fine. We’ll try the day after. And we do just that. We come back 2 days later and now, we’re given slightly smaller boards. Ok, cool, cause that first board I was on did seem ridiculously big. Well, let’s try with this board.
Hmm. Is it me or am I not rocking it as much as I did the other day? What’s up with that? Oh, you mean it gets harder on smaller boards? I see. And this board is still apparently considered a joke? Interesting. So, you’re telling me that being able to get on a big board is actually quite easy? So my accomplishments of the other day were really nothing to be proud of at all? Well, that sucks. You didn’t have to say that? Alright, well, I’ll get used to this board by the end of the lesson. I’m not worried. Well, I did get a bit better. I got up a few times, and rode towards shore, and I tried to turn a bit, but the board wanted nothing to do with my ambitions. But I was getting a feel. I was also getting something more than a feel, I was getting exhausted. Those pesky shoulders again. What’s up with that? In any case the 2 hours are up and it’s not quite the success of yesterday but we still had fun. V was really frustrated and not in a great mood, but she was still her awesome self and we left a bit disappointed in our performances but happy to have had another great day out on the sea and attempting something fun. That was the end of my first surf weekend.
The next time I would be on a board would be in Tamarindo, Costa Rica. You know what? Another lesson can’t hurt. Let’s do it. A couple hours of lessons and they leave me the board to continue on my own. That’s so cool. Thanks for the trust and the extra time at no charge. I do pretty well. The waves are pretty small but consistent. I’m not doing much on the board when I get up, but I’m getting up consistently, and, it’s an even smaller board. Ya, surfing ain’t that hard. The next day, I skip the lessons and just get my own board and head out. Well, without an instructor surf politics come into play and I don’t try for nearly as many waves as I did the day before cause I simply don’t know the rules, don’t want to steal anyone’s waves and don’t want to piss people off with my ignorance. But I try a couple and ride a couple-ish and I enjoy the peace of it all and the beauty of the sun setting at the edge of the earth and falling into the ocean. It even rains a bit as the sun sets, and it’s just sooo beautiful, serene and unique. Ya, surfing is amazing.
It’s time to take things up a notch. I need to get out of Costa Rica cause 1. I don’t particularly like it and 2. it’s just ridiculously expensive. I simply can’t afford to stay here. Even food is testing my financial limits. I’m so close to Nicaragua, and while I hadn’t planned on going, I can’t think of one reason why I shouldn’t. Besides, there’s decent surfing there. Ya, I’m going. I make my plans while talking to a French couple I meet at the hostel and they tell me they’re going to Popoyo just on the other side of the border. I’ll join them a couple days later. I do.
I’m in Popoyo. There’s NOTHING here. This is a small beach town. Not even a town really, it’s just a bunch of tiny hostels and hotels and a few restaurants on the beach. It caters solely to surfers. There aren’t many people here this time of year but even at it’s peak I can’t imagine it hosting more than 100 surfers. But I’m here, it’s beautiful, and I’m ready to surf. I rent a board and though everyone is saying that the waves are bad this time of year, I can’t really tell. They’re bigger than anything I’ve seen before, so that should be good. I get a 7’2. Smallest board I’ve ever ridden, and by a good amount. The last board, the one I didn’t do too well or too badly on in Tamarindo was almost 8 feet. I’m really moving up in the world. But there aren’t too many choices of boards anyway, so this’ll have to do. So, let’s do it. I get in the water and I start paddling out to get into position. I’m paddling. I’m paddling. I have to look back to check cause it doesn’t feel like I’m really moving. What’s going on? Ok, paddle harder. I do, and ya, I’m moving, but it’s harder with these small boards. I’m basically in the water not on top of it. No matter, push on. Well, I finally get to the first row of waves. They tower over me and I brace for impact.
WHAT THE HELL was that? It tore right through me, ripped the board out of my hands and pushed me back at least 20 feet. Ok, this is a completely different ballgame. But now I know what I’m dealing with. Let’s do that again. Same result. And again. Same result. I paddle for 2 hours and I can’t even pass the first 2 rows of waves. In the meantime, I watch as other surfers take run after run. Why do I suck? Ugh, I’m exhausted and I have nothing to show for it. Maybe surfing isn’t so easy after all. I’ll take a break and try again tomorrow.
Tomorrow comes, I’ve spoken to fellow surfers and they’ve told me I need to learn to duck-dive. The most important technique to surfing real waves is knowing how to duck-dive. Ok, so let’s practice that. Now that I know, this will totally change the game. But it doesn’t. It really doesn’t. The board keeps getting ripped from my hands, pulled to the edge of the line that connects me to it, and drags me back meters towards shore.. every time. I spend my day chasing the board, paddling endlessly and riding not a single day. I simply cannot get past the wall of waves. And these are waves. Bigger waves than I’ve ever seen. So, this is surfing. No, it’s not easy, it’s hard. It’s crazy hard. It’s so hard I yell in the direction of God, and at one point I cry for a couple seconds. I’m sooooo mad. I’m sooo frustrated. I don’t remember the last time I was so angry. Have I ever been this angry? I’m sure I have but I can’t remember. And I don’t know when the last time was that I sucked so badly at something. Wasn’t I just a superstar like a week ago? How did this happen? Ok, I need to accept that I’m not ready for Popoyo just yet. I’m exhausted, I’m bruised, I’m broken, I even have a couple cuts. Surfing is brutal.
I move on after 2 days of complete and utter failure. But I must be getting stronger and even if I don’t know it, I’m getting better. Some sort of neural connections are taking place and I’m learning something, right?. So, let’s apply that to the next destination, Las Penitas, Nicaragua, north of here, not far from Leon. I’ll get my chance there. Las Penitas has more to offer than Popoyo. Here you find not just surfers but anyone who wants to get away from the crippling heat and humidity of Leon and would rather be hot by the sea, than hot in a city. So while it’s not that much bigger than Popoyo, it has more hostels and restaurants and a larger variety of visitors. This will be a good place to spend a few days and improve my surfing. So, time to jump in.
Uh, ok. Same issue? Really? Is there a single beach that I can surf? Why can I not get anywhere? An entire day of being tossed, pummeled and sent packing by the waves. I can’t believe this. Can I please, just get one ride? Just one. I’m duck-diving, I’m doing all kinds of animal dives. I’m inventing new ways of making a fool of myself, but I can’t… catch… a break. Even the few times I break through, I’m so utterly exhausted that I can’t get into position before the next wave hits and I just get sent tumbling again. More bruises, more cuts, more damage to my pride and ego and I have to give up for the day. Then the dengue hits me and I’m bed-ridden for a few days. There goes my surf experience in Las Penitas. I recover from my fever but am too weak to surf. It’s already proven to be dangerous when I’m at full strength, I can’t take the chance of trying when my joints ache and I’m feeling weak. I give up. I’ll try again elsewhere and at another time.
That other time is a bit more than a week later just outside of San Juan del Sur, back in the south of Nicaragua. I’m heading back to Costa Rica soon, to learn to kitesurk in a few days, and then on my way to Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast, and then into Panama with the intention of making it to South America after that. In the meantime, SJDS is supposed to have some good surf. So let’s try that. I take a ride out to one of the beaches, Madera I believe, and rent a board and jump into the water. I get lucky. There’s this one place where the waves constructively interfere with each other and create a relatively easy passage out behind the breaks. When I say relatively easy, I just mean it’s possible. Sure it still takes 10 mins of constant paddling and requires fighting through a bunch of tumbles and the searing pain of tearing muscle fibers, but it’s possible. So, I make it out beyond the breaks, and I need to take a break. I’m exhausted but at least out here I can stay on my board and catch my breath. Then when I get my strength back I can move back towards shore into position for the next set of waves. So I do that. But truth be told, I’m already exhausted and while I manage to be in the right position, the combination of my shoulders being completely sapped, and the fact I’m now on a 6’2 board means, I rarely have enough speed to actually catch a wave and get up on my board. Great another day of complete failure. I’m irate. I’m losing my mind with this fucking sport. What the hell is its problem? I keep trying. I am getting tossed around by the biggest waves I have ever seen in my life, as though I were a feather on the wind. This is ridiculous. These waves are pushing me to my limits. But now it’s getting serious because I’m tired and I’m in over my head. And just as I’m contemplating taking a break, a set of the highest waves that have ever washed over the planet is approaching me. Of course, I can only see the first one, but this thing is monstrous. I can’t ride this. No way. I brace myself and as this thing approaches, I can’t believe its size. It’s easily 10 feet above me. It’s an aberration but I can’t go anywhere. It slams into me with so much power and ferocity that I have a moment of sheer panic. I have no idea how far under the surface I am, and I’m being churned so quickly and harshly that I don’t even know where up is. I’ve heard of this before and gotten little glimpses but this one is real, it’s scary and it’s intense. The wave has me under for hours. I cannot figure out how to catch a breath. This is the most scared I’ve ever been in the ocean and I don’t know if I’ll make it out. I’m fighting with every last molecule of oxygen left in my body and I still can’t reach the surface. Just as I’m sure I’m about to lose my life my face breaks the surface and I catch a breath. I’m still in whitewater and about to get sucked back down, but I caught a breath. Thank you little baby jesus. Thank you. I catch a second breath, and a third, the fear is subsiding as I turn around and see a second monster bare down on me. You have GOT to be kidding. I prepare myself and know what I’m getting into this time, but I’m scared. I won’t survive another one like the last one. I know it. But it hits me nonetheless and I get tossed and battered, but I’m closer to shore and in shallower water and I touch the ground at some point and manage to push off the sand towards the surface just in time to get another breath. I survive the second wave, and… I’m officially done. I pack it in. Fuck surfing, it’s a stupid sport for dumb blonds anyway. Ya, so I can get on a massive board on baby waves, but no, I’m no surfer. 3 days of satisfaction at the beginning were followed by a week’s worth of absolutely no progress and essentially no pleasure, and culminated in a near-death experience. I think not.
You know what the problem is, I think I mentioned this before. I don’t like accepting limits. So, ya, I failed the last few times, but I’m not done yet. Ya, it’s been a couple months now since I’ve tried surfing, but I’m going again soon. It’s the hardest physical activity I’ve ever tried repeatedly. I can’t believe, to this day, how insanely difficult contending with the ocean is. It’s impressive, scary, frustrating and overwhelming, but it’s not impossible. I will try again, and I’ll do better, but I know it won’t be easy and I’m ok with that. I hope you have better luck.