Tough Lessons In Surfing

Some people are good at riding waves. Others... not so much.

[Keywords: surf board, Hawaii, beginner, learner, haole, funny, professional, coral, beach, waves, near-drowning]

Length: Medium, 1806 words

There are those who grew up on the water and make surfing look easy. You know, watermen. They’re completely at home in the pounding waves and swirling seafoam. It’s like saltwater flows through their veins. The constant motion of the swells comforts them like a mother rocking her baby to sleep. The sea is their playground. 

And then there’s everybody else. Land-lubbers. Like me, for instance. The taste of saltwater stings my tongue. The smell of seaweed makes me cringe. Sand irritates my every crevice. I get nervous if a fish touches me underwater. I like the beach, but honestly, can’t the waves quiet down a bit so I can take a nap in peace? I grew up swimming laps in the safety of chlorinated pools, so although I’m a strong swimmer, navigating the ever-rolling sea is another cup of tea altogether.

And yet, as long as I can remember, the ocean has fascinated me. It’s like a whole new universe - watermen are the adventurous space explorers conquering anything they paddle into. In any bookstore, I’m drawn to surfing magazines like a moth to the flame. When snorkeling, I’m like a kid in a candy shop as I explore every inch of reef I can find, that is, until I get seasick from rolling in the waves for too long. The awe and wonder of the ocean aren’t lost on me, but unlike all those sea-faring people worldwide, it didn’t come naturally. 

In fact, it nearly killed me.

I studied abroad in Hawaii for a semester. I mean, why would I suffer through another miserably cold winter back home when I could go to school in paradise? Learning to surf was always on my bucket list - alongside skydiving and playing the banjo - and I figured it should be an easy one to knock off. I mean, I could swim and snowboard reasonably well, so surfing should be a walk in the park, right? As you can tell, I wasn’t the brightest crayon in the box. Nonetheless, I found a used longboard in the back corner of a Hawaiin surf shop, and it was love at first sight. Eight-and-a-half feet of perfectly shaped fiberglass and foam. Hello beautiful. It might’ve cost me my grocery money that month, but hey, you only live once.

Should I take some lessons first? Naw, they’re boring - all that talk about safety and respecting the ocean. Besides, I’d watched Point Break - if Keanu could surf, I could too. 

Boy, did I have a lot to learn. 

Tough Lesson #1: Just sitting on a board is hard. Hitting the beach with the new love of my life, I immediately paddled into the surf - easy enough, thanks to all those years in swim club. However, upon joining the locals out past the break, I pushed myself into a sitting position and promptly fell off my board. Dang it! So embarrassing. Hopping back on, I sat up again and had a heck of a time just staying upright. I was jerking so much it looked like I was having a seizure. The locals were avoiding eye contact. You know when you get embarrassed for someone? To them I was just another haole from the mainland. 

Before long the waves came in. The seasoned veterans started paddling as they approached, then effortlessly popped up onto their feet. No problem, I thought, let’s give this a try

Tough Lesson #2: Balance is everything. It didn’t take long to get the hang of when it was time to pop up - you know, the feel of when the wave picks up the back of your board and you start accelerating down the front of the swell. However, beyond that point, I had some serious difficulty with balance. For a snowboarder who’s used to having my feet strapped into a board, finding my footing was darned near impossible. I crashed… a lot. No sooner did I stand up than my board shot out from under me and I was head over heels into water. No amount of friendly advice from the locals could help (God bless you for trying), I just didn’t have the “feel” for it.

After a whole day of drinking seawater, I trudged back to shore exhausted. My skin was sunburned on one side and rubbed raw on the other. What a bummer. This was gonna be harder than I thought. 

Tough Lesson #3: Rash guards are important. My chest was on fire. Nipples were basically bleeding. I’d wanted to look cool, so I opted to go shirtless. Who’d have thought wax would get embedded with sand? It was like getting flogged with sandpaper for five hours straight. 

The next time out, after my ravaged skin had sufficiently healed, I approached the ocean with a little more respect. I slathered sunscreen everywhere and found an old T-shirt to buffer my chest from further abrasion. By this point, I was getting the hang of sitting upright - not quite so epileptic waiting for the sets to come in. However, my success rate for actually riding a wave was still zero. I could get up on hands and knees, holding on for dear life as the wave shot me across the water, but as soon as I tried to stand, I was sent straight into the drink. It must be these waves, I thought. They’re too small. I’ve gotta find something bigger. Laugh all you want, but this was the thought process of my deluded young brain. So, off I paddled to where the surf was the biggest. The waves at that beach were only about ten feet tall, but to a sheltered land-lubber, they were like mountains of death. 

Gulp. Here it goes. 

I saw it coming a hundred yards away, a perfectly massive swell in an otherwise calm sea. I aimed my nose toward shore and started paddling. Feeling my back end lift up, I took one final look over my shoulder and I instantly realized I was in serious trouble. 

Tough Lesson #4: Don’t look back when you should be popping up. Surfing is all about “feel”. As you all know, the moment you look over your shoulder, you lose your momentum, and your body is no longer ready to jump up. This Goliath wave took one look at me and licked its lips - the sea was about to feast on stupid white boy for lunch. 

It all happened so fast: the back of my board was picked up near vertical as a wall of water slammed down on my head. WHAM! The wave pounded the snot out of me. I was a dirty old teddy in the spin cycle of a washing machine. My leash yanked hard one way, back the other, then wrapped around my body and spun me out like a yo-yo. All surfers know the feeling: tumbling wildly in the whitewash, so disoriented you don’t know which way’s up. Already out of breath from paddling, the one thing I really wanted - air - was the one thing nowhere to be found. I panicked. My lungs were burning. My thoughts at the time: I wonder how long before someone finds my lifeless corpse and pulls me out of the water. I’d never been so close to drowning, then or since. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I burst through the surface and gasped for breath. The sea around me was all foam and bubbles, evidence of the blender that’d just turned me into a human smoothie.

That’s it. I was done. I was shaken to the core as I washed up on shore, trying to hold back tears. Stupid bucket list, stupid surfing! I threw my board down on the sand. What had been my most prized possession was now just a big waste of money. Then I did what any young man in the prime of life does when his plans don’t work out: I pouted.

Meanwhile, the sun continued to shine and the rhythmic waves continued to break. The experienced surfers were still out there catching wave after wave. I wished it was me. Then, having sufficiently calmed down, a little voice spoke in my head: Come on, are you really gonna let this beat you? 

Sigh. I hate learning the hard way.

Tough Lesson #5: The big waves are for big-boy surfers. You can’t run before you learn to walk. Even snowboarders have to learn their edges on the bunny hill. Okay, let’s try it again. No big waves. Let’s just try to stand up… and stay up. If it was going to kill me, well, at least I’d die chasing a dream. 

With courage plucked up, I pushed off. Out past the break, I sat on my board like I’d been doing it my whole life. A fresh set of waves rolled in. Nosing to shore, I pulled hard, felt the tail lift, jumped to my feet, and…. 


With feet firmly planted in the middle of my board, I skimmed along the surface of the water, the coral on the bottom a blur beneath me. THIS IS AMAZING! The thrill of catching a wave was even more exhilarating than I’d imagined. All you surfers know exactly what I’m talking about - the elegant balance between danger and fun, between harnessing the ocean's immense power and going with the flow. I cruised all the way back to shore, ecstatic at my newfound success. 

I caught my first wave! And then I caught another! Finally, after trying so hard (and screwing up so badly), I managed to check one more item off my bucket list.

By the time I left Hawaii I wasn’t an accomplished surfer by any means, but I could catch nearly any modest wave. I finally had the “feel”. I went on to surf the Pacific coast of Oregon and Vancouver Island without any more near-drownings. 

Funny how we never feel more alive than when we’re so near to death. I wouldn’t recommend learning to surf the way I did, but then again, sometimes you just gotta go for it. That experience was the thrill (and the scare) of a lifetime.

So, to all you sea-folk who grew up on the water, thanks for your patience as us wannabes try to emulate your mastery of the waves. As much as we annoy you (or embarrass you just by trying to sit upright on a surfboard), you’re basically our heroes. Your little tips mean the world to us. And it’s reassuring to know that if we ran into real trouble, you wouldn’t hesitate to fish us out. It’s watermen like you who keep our coasts safe from idiots like me who think they know everything. 

I salute you. Thanks for tolerating me as I knocked an item off my bucket list. 

Now, about you skydivers…

© D. B. Ryen Incorporated, June 2023.