I was transfixed. Nothing had ever held my full attention like this, not even things related to my lifelong equine obsession. I was sitting on the edge of my couch, chin cupped in my hands and eyes glued to the film on my TV screen.
It was an idea that my girlfriends and I had always held onto as a ‘someday’. We promised each other that one day we would bail on the real world for a year, go find an empty beach and do nothing but surf until we ran out of money. It felt a little bit dangerous, exciting and definitely cool. But those discussions and daydreams were always inevitably concluded with ‘someday’.
Sitting on my couch, TV flickering, that far off maybe was suddenly an overwhelming need. I didn’t just want to surf, I had to.
The film was Riding Giants and it was May 2005.
Riding Giants is a documentary about the history of big wave surfing. Its origins, its progression, portraits of the people who helped shape what surfing is today. It hooked me, not because surfing is trendy (we all know it is), but because I suddenly got to see part of what makes up the soul of surfing, and why people change their entire lives just to catch the next wave.
I started buying surf magazines, reading as much as I could and eating up all the information I could get my hands on. I stumbled on to message boards where the women were few and the guys guarded their digital haven as diligently as a secret surf spot. I put up with the heckling, and between the jibes I found people willing to help me learn. For eight months I kept my head down, paid attention and all of a sudden I had an invitation to southern California and a plane ticket.
I suppose there should have been some kind of hesitation about going on such a whim, but there wasn’t.
I arrived in San Diego to warm weather and palm trees. Drivng down from LAX, I caught a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean and lost my breath. I couldn’t wait to get in the water. I knew I’d get to go the next day after settling in, but all I wanted to do was stop at the first beach I saw. The first time I paddled out on my blue, 9-foot-2 longboard, I quickly realised all the theory in the world wasn’t going help. The first rush of cold water hit me, spraying my face, chest and stomach and making me gasp. I tried to manoeuvre my board through the waves and cursed, knowing I was going to have a lot of white water crashing on my head as I tried to get out past the break.
To say that surfing is not athletic, or a sport, would be ridiculous. Not only does paddling out to where you can actually catch a wave require a great deal of upper body strength and balance, but you have to take into account the knowledge of swells, tides and currents involved. On top of that, there’s the timing and agility needed to catch the wave without pearling (sinking the nose of the board under the water and getting pitched headfirst), or just plain losing your balance and getting tumbled in a swirling mass of wave.
Many people fear the ocean. They don’t like not knowing what’s under them, or that the horizon goes into the unknown. For a surfer though, the ocean is like a second skin. It just feels natural. Part of the mystique surrounding surfing, I think, has a lot to do with being at home in the water. There are far more people in the world who are landlocked than there are living on the coast, and, by default, the amount of people willing to venture out into the big blue is very few.
Dangers do exist of course. I had the unsettling experience of looking down into the water below me and seeing an eight-foot, shark-like shape circling directly under my board. Needless to say, I paddled in. Great white sharks, fondly referred to as Fluffy by some, do live off the coast of California – although if you’re going to get eaten, you probably won’t see it coming. A surfer recognizes this… and surfs anyway. Most people might not. Not only being comfortable in the ocean, but actually preferring it most of the time, is what sets surfers apart from everyone else.
I’ve always been athletic, and I’ve always been good at what I do, so trying to surf was humbling. I won’t sugar coat. It’s hard. Really hard. You sit on your board, bobbing around like a cork, or lunch for Fluffy, waiting for waves. When a set does appear you have other people to contend with and if you manage to catch the wave, you’ve only got a few seconds to try to ride it. The learning curve is steep and I ate it more often than not. I guess I’m a sucker for punishment.
The first day I tried to surf was difficult, frustrating and completely amazing. I got battered by waves that, from the beach, had looked tiny. Even a one-foot wave is over your head when you’re neck deep in water and can definitely give you a good clobbering. I was repeatedly pushed backwards, under and upside down by cold, heavy, pounding whitewater before I even attempted to get on my board. I came home with tired and bruised everything and iced my banged up knees. I hurt all over, but I was grinning like an idiot.
Grinning because I had gotten past the break, clambered onto my board, paddled into a wave and rode it on my stomach all the way to the beach. I had paddled hard and felt the wave catch, lift me and propel me down the face. I had laughed out loud and I think a “weeeee!” may have been uttered. That feeling alone was enough to make me forget the water jammed in my sinuses and my bruised and battered body.
There was no going back now. I was in love. There were days of total frustration as wave after wave slid by under my board, refusing to take hold of me. I swear each one laughed in passing as I muttered profanity and turned around to look for the next one. But even those days were a gift. Every wave is unique, existing for a short period of time before it dies on the sand. It will never exist again, so every wave I got to ride was special. Sitting on my board, staring at the horizon, I’d watch the sunset and clear my head. If I’d had a bad day, I’d go surf it off. If I was stressed out, I’d go surf it off. Surfing somehow makes everything else better, and I don’t know how I ever lived without it. I understand now why surfers will arrange their whole life around finding and riding good waves. Once it’s in you, it never lets go. It keeps me sane like nothing else ever has.