When I started getting really into skiing late in college, I became comfortable on difficult terrain quite quickly. I picked my runs to help isolate and develop skills – perhaps the most rudimentary of which is how to stop or bail when shit got too real. I worked on short, tight turns in bumps and trees; broad, sweeping carves on smooth terrain; pole planting and forward lean; and how to react to the feedback my ski edges were giving me. I fell instantly in love with the sensation of releasing myself from fear and simply being in that moment completely in tune with myself and the snow underneath me.
And so when my brother moved to Southern California, surfing seemed like something I had to try. For those unfamiliar with how it works, here’s a basic rundown on how to catch a wave: you’ve got a board that’s attached to one leg by a leash. When you see a wave coming that you want to catch, you turn to face the beach and lie on your belly, head-first on the board. As the wave comes close to you, you start paddling toward the beach, trying to pick up speed in the direction the wave is moving. As the wave begins to roll underneath you, it picks up the rear end of your board first. If the face of the wave is steep enough, and you’ve paddled hard enough, you and your board will begin skim on top of the water. This works exactly the same way sliding on snow works. You’re on an incline, and gravity is pulling you down. When you feel the wave begin to carry you, you can stand up on the board and begin maneuvering.
Where and when you start learning to surf, and what equipment you’ve got, has a big impact on your experience. High buoyancy boards like longboards and fun boards are the best to learn on because they are easier to paddle and don’t require big, steeply-pitching waves in order to work. My brother, not knowing much at all about surfing at the time, took me for my first time to Mission Beach in San Diego during ~6’ winter storm swells. I had a 7’6” fun board. The guy at the rental shop had said this was a good beginner board. He was right, but it’s more complicated than that. Because long boards like this are so buoyant, you can’t dive underneath the crashing waves on the way out past the break. That’s another reason it helps to start at a beach with more gentle, rolling waves. Not only are they easier to catch, they’re easier to paddle over when you’re trying to get to deeper water. It makes so much sense thinking about it now, but I literally had no concept of this at the time. So after about an hour of getting the absolute shit kicked out of me by crashing waves, drinking about a gallon of salt water, never making past the break, and freezing my ass off in a baggy rental wetsuit, I left, as thoroughly defeated as I could have been short of drowning.
What makes surfing so much harder to pick up, in my opinion, than skiing or snowboarding, is that the waves in the ocean are coming at you at a constant speed. You can’t stop for a moment and collect yourself, build up courage to continue. You need to put together a number of skills all at once to be able to ride the wave at all, let alone maneuver. I nearly drowned myself several times before my older second cousin – more like an uncle – took me to an easier beach and put me on a 9’ board, and I finally figured out how to stand up and ride the foam into shore. After that I went to Costco and bought myself a Wavestorm 8’ soft top board, and actually started learning how to ride the face of the unbroken wave.
I have a healthy amount of skepticism of the idea that the more work you put into something the better the payoff in the end. But in this case it was absolutely true. The moment I dropped into my first wave and turned to see the green, unbroken face stretching out in front of me, time seemed to dilate, while at the same time gently impressing upon me the moment’s most urgent callings. For that moment everything behind me did not exist. I relished in each juncture as I came to it but never dwelled in indecision or regret. There was only my awareness of how to trim and lean to stay on top of the wave as it carried me along the break and in toward shore. And over time, as these reactive movements became more deeply engrained, I could feel in real time my awareness and calm and agency expanding in the face of what once felt like uncontrollable chaos.
When I look back on the early stages of my learning to ski or mountain bike – both sports I became heavily involved in as an adult – I can mostly picture and rationalize the progression of my skill. Sure I brought with me my experience doing those things as a kid, as well as any general balance and proprioception I might have had. But for each noticeable gain in ability, I had a pretty well-formed internal sense of what the actualization of the next level of my potential would look and feel like. Learning to surf just wasn’t the same. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I didn’t so much as touch a surfboard until I was 24, while I had skied and mountain biked a bit as a little kid. Maybe it’s because ski slopes and single track trails don’t form and transform underneath you in a matter of seconds like waves do. Whatever it was that clicked for me and allowed me to drop into and ride the waves at Mission Beach, instead of tomahawking inside them as I had become accustomed to, it sprang from deeper inside me, and more spontaneously, than anything else I can remember. Something doesn’t come from nothing, so whatever that thing was that allowed me to create reality from potential had been there, dormant, all along, but it had been a much more elusive little bastard than I had previously known.
To be clear, I’m still no expert surfer, and I don’t know if I ever will be. The waves don’t need to be all that big for me to think better of getting in the ocean at all. But I did learn how to ride a much smaller more aggressive board, a 5’11” hybrid fish. It’s more maneuverable and better suited to bigger, more steeply pitching waves. I’ve also learned how to read the incoming waves a lot better, and for the most part how to not get absolutely pummeled by them… for the most part. Most importantly, I still see a path forward. But it’s very important to me to remember the tiny glimpse I have had into the unfathomable power of the ocean. For the breadth life it gives, it has as much power to take away. To put a point on the end of each of the unlimited branching paths of who I might but never will become, as well as the one, perhaps neither glorious nor glamorous, that is and will become me.