I suppose anyone that loves snowboarding and then moves to Southern California eventually has to start surfing. I mean, the snow is far, far away and only seasonal. The ocean, on the other hand, always has waves to show for (except for right now, which gives me the time to write this post).
I got into surfing obliquely. UCSD Recreation offers super-cheap courses taught by really great professionals. I decided I wanted to try at the end of last summer, so I took the mini-course (4 weeks) and I loved it. It wasn’t as cold as I thought it would be, it wasn’t as hard as I feared it might, and it wasn’t as easy as I believed.
The classes were not too much fun, I will admit. The first one was a general indoors introduction (safety, nomenclature, introductions). Snooze. The second one was at the beach, but we spent most of the time on the sand, boards under us, sweating in our wetsuits under the intense sun. You try pretending to paddle in a neoprene suit while the sweat is pooling under your belly, giving you the warm sensation of… oh well.
When we got into the water, things were better. The foam boards we used were unsinkable and it was quite easy to stand – every one of us managed at least once. We even managed to get out to the real waves on the last days, a miracle due both to small surf and reckless stubbornness on my part.
After that, I wanted to surf but had no way to get a surfboard to the beach. After much deliberation, I decided the only way to make it was to get a car, so my surfing suddenly stopped until I got a car. I was back towards the end of the year, trying to make progress but without the slightest advance to show.
I would get into the car and drive to the beach. I would look at the waves and declare them too small, big, jumbled, curly, wet, whatever. When I made it in, I would paddle out without the faintest idea of what I was doing, and after 20 minutes of mad, furious paddling I would just take the first big wave as a sign from Neptune that I was due back.
Things started improving after a long while. I found a surfing buddy that is much better than I (and getting better than me by the day!) who had patience and explained stuff. I spent time and time on the board. Instead of the initial 20 minutes, I was soon able to sit in the water for an hour, then two hours.
It took a long while until I figured out the mechanics. There was no “A-ha!” moment, as other surfers experience. Instead, every time I go there is something new I learn that I wasn’t able to do before. I remember the first time I caught a wave; the first time I paddled out without feeling tired; the first time I sat through a whole hour without falling off the board; the first time I stood on the board; the first time I saw footprints on the wax; the first time I managed to turn on the board (OK, that was a big one); the first time I made a maneuver. It’s all small improvements, but they all point in the same direction: after six months on the board, I am making progress and understanding better how the whole thing works.
And it’s fun. It looks terribly boring from the beach – a bunch of guys in black wetsuits sitting on their boards, bored. But when you actually do it, you realize that the waiting is not in vain: you connect with the ocean, see other people perform their stunts, enjoy the company and shoot the breeze, and fall in love with the creatures that surround you. If you are lucky, a seal or sea lion will hunt for prey right by you, close enough to touch (don’t!). Frequently, you will see dolphins jumping and playing. They seem to like human company, although I am not sure what they think the black-thing- on-white might be.
I learned to like things that I previously eyed with wariness. If a storm comes through town, it used to spoil my weekends. Now it just says surf is going to be great! If the marine layer is really bad, it used to mean I wouldn’t be able to go to the beach. Now it spells easy parking at the lot, and not as much of a crowd in the water.
There are a few things about surfing that could be better. I would like to be better, of course, so that’s one. The single greatest annoyance in surfing, though, are other surfers.
Not all surfers. Most surfers are fine people that are just out there to have fun. Some of us, though, really need an attitude adjustment. Let me number who:
- There is the beginner that doesn’t know the rules of the game and gets in everybody’s way (that would be me!); this can be passively (by just being somewhere I shouldn’t be) or actively (by taking a wave that is someone else’s)
- There is the kid, somewhere between 4 and 24, who has the energy of the energizer bunny and chases after every single wave in the ocean, no matter how good or bad, and constantly gets in your way; I bless them for their luck to grow up here, and generally just register where they are so that I don’t slice them up with my fins
- There is the douche. The douche is awful, an experienced surfer, mostly shortboarder, that thinks the ocean belongs to him (it’s always a him) because he’s better. Not the best, but just better than whoever is around him. He will take any wave, no matter how obviously it’s someone else’s, and yell at you because you got in his way. When you complain about the fact it was his fault that you almost collided, he hisses something that indicates he is right, you are wrong, and he wishes he had the ocean to himself.
- There is the longboard retiree. I like longboard retirees, they are really nice and good conversation. Once in a while, though, they suffer from a slight problem: they don’t realize there are tons of people behind them. They’ve been doing it for decades, when it still was a novelty sport, and back then everybody did it the same way. Now the beach is crowded and most boarders (regular and shortboards) sit behind them. The problem is that the longboarders don’t look. They don’t realize there is someone behind them and, most dangerously, some of them assume it’s your responsibility as a surfer to get out of their way.
What about the other things that look bad about surfing? How about the wetsuit? Isn’t that uncomfortable? (No, it’s actually quite comfortable.) Isn’t the water too cold? (It gets chilly in the winter, but then the water is warmer than the air, so it’s better wet than dry!) Isn’t it too hard? (It is hard. The reward is that you learn tons of things about your body.) Isn’t it dangerous? (Well, there are few sharks in La Jolla. Stingrays are more of a problem, and then of course the most dangerous of things: the board itself.)
But, seriously, give it a try. Commit to a month (lessons work best, then do 8 of them) and see if you like it. Go out into the water and experience the thousand different faces of the ocean. It’s absolutely thrilling and calming at the same time.