Surf, Swell & Self – What I Learned From Being a Terrible Surfer

I am a terrible surfer.

Actually, I’m no surfer at all. But I like to pretend that one day, I’ll be able to get the hang of the entire thing, successfully surf a few waves and live to talk about it.

It’s not for lack of trying. I have attended classes on beaches in the two hemispheres. In fact, I already have a “pattern”: I do well during the fake surfing part on the beach – that’s when you learn some basic moves and get your positioning adjusted by the surfing instructor. Then I get into the water… and paddle like a rabbit that has just been tasered; limbs twitching in every direction with little to no progress made. And then it just gets worse.

Here’s the irritating part: my brain understands the idea behind surfing, especially the point when you need to decide whether or not you’re going to catch the wave. But understanding is one thing; getting my back, hands, feet and knees to work together swiftly is another story. Usually, after a few unsuccessful attempts (and by a “few” I mean four, or five if I’m feeling lucky that day), I abandon the endeavour, curse a bit and spit out heaps of salty water, then ask for a bodyboard – I’ll be damned if I miss out on the big waves just because I can’t stand up to them.


Last week, I found myself explaining an idea using one of the surfing analogies I learned. To be honest, I haven’t given surfing much thought since my last attempt. But, despite my being absolute crap at the sport, it seems that I’ve actually managed to recall and apply the little surf lessons I learned along the way.

Let go and embrace the chaos

The most common piece of advice I received during different classes is this: surf for the sake of surfing. It means trusting your instincts, making quick decisions, and handing over a decent amount of control to the water.

When you decide to catch a wave, you’re also choosing to accept the pushes and pulls that come with the swell. If you plan on being in charge the whole time after making that choice, you’re missing one of the most fun parts of surfing. Committing is a good option: seeing the wave through, and coming out safely using the momentum you gain along the way. If things aren’t working out as planned, and you’re getting the s#%t battered out of you, you can choose to bail – or wipe out.  Either way, your options are not dictated by how much or how little control you have over the situation. It’s determined by a large number of variables outside of your control, which – I suspect – is the allure of surfing for me. Chaos has options, and can be very liberating.

Wait, watch and see

One instructor made us paddle out and sit on our boards for a while. And I don’t mean five minutes until everyone was comfortable – I mean at least twenty minutes. We just sat there, watching the swell. He explained the practice of spotting and helping your surf crew when you’re out on the water, and making sure that you don’t “drop in” on anyone’s wave. This lesson was geared towards the more experienced students who realistically had a decent chance of catching a few waves. For us novice riffraff, the lesson was about spotting potential “winners,” or waves that could be fun.

The instructor’s message to us was about patience: how can you enjoy a good wave if you don’t know how to spot it? Does an opportunity always come announced as one, or do you need to develop that “sixth sense” to see it? I remember being extremely impatient, unsure of the answer, and falling over a few times while thinking about the usefulness of this exercise.

But  I got it, a while later. This type of sixth sense is not a gift you’re born with, there is an art and a skill to mixing observation with intuition when you’re examining your options. I don’t have the sixth sense of surfing now anymore than I did when I first started, but I feel more confident when I decide to chase a wave, even if the outcome isn’t always a success.

Not every wave is for you

One of the more abstract lessons we received was: “not every wave is for you”. This struck me as counterintuitive at first, because catching every wave would mean more practice and is likely the best way to get the hang of surfing. The instructor clarified that while surfing tends to be a group-oriented outing, the idea here was not about sharing the waves with your fellow surfers (which you should).

His point here was targeted at us as individual students of surf; we didn’t need to conquer every wave that comes our way. It’s about the opportunity cost: with the restricted amount of time and variety of uncontrollable factors, there can only be a handful of waves to be surfed during an outing. Sometimes saying “no” and passing on a chance is exactly what you need to do in order to catch the next – possibly much better – opportunity.

Right place, right time, right conditions

This is essentially the motto of surfing. Surfing doesn’t just mean being in the right place at the right time; you have to be sure you want to paddle out into the ocean, wait for the perfect opportunity and jump when the time comes. The right conditions have to be right for you.

Sometimes we cursed flat waves that derailed our plans. Other times, we skipped waves that seemed simultaneously fantastic and utterly terrifying. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve decided against going into the water after seeing waves several meters high crashing against the coast. I sat on the beach sketching instead.

Those waves did not create the right surfing experience for me. Waiting for the right place, the right time and the right conditions means coming to terms with your limitations, and drawing on your strengths, at particular times and places.

Find your feet

The first time I heard this was from an instructor doing his lesson on a rocky beach in Maui, and I think the idea is more of a Hawai’i thing than a surf thing. The beach we went to was the kind that’s formed by massive amounts of lava flowing through rocks, creating a wall of hollow and sharp points in hidden places. The instructor was taking us to a “sweet spot” with a stretch of sand, but it required a short trek through this frightful terrain. He told us to move slowly, look ahead and, most importantly, “find your feet.”

He explained that the volcanic terrain of northern Maui makes it difficult to walk smoothly, since it changes from a hard rocky surface to mushy tropical soil unexpectedly. Balance is essential, and the best way to find it is to rest your weight on your feet from heel to toe. This helps you ground yourself so you can absorb the terrain and manage the instability that comes with its unpredictable and variable nature. You need to think about where you step and plant each foot firmly into the ground, with confidence, before you take the next step.

The instructor also explained that “finding your feet” is an integral part of surfing because once you’re up on the board, you need to position your feet properly in order to balance and ride.

Now that I think about it, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told myself (and others) to “find your feet”.

The really big picture

The unpredictability of surf conditions meant that sometimes we paddled out for no reason. We had to turn around, get back to the beach and make new plans. It’s a very disappointing feeling, especially for those of us visiting from faraway places- our return was not guaranteed. And this sentiment is not lost on the instructors, because most of my classes began and ended with “look around you, how lucky are we?”

When things didn’t work out as planned, and our excursions were cut short, we were still the luckiest group of people at that place and time. The waves crashing before us and sweeping sand from under our feet were not a screensaver or background of a motivational poster. We were right there, witnesses to an amazing, humbling, frightening, stunning and liberating force of nature. There is no pause long enough to truly appreciate the beauty of an ocean.

I don’t know when I’ll be getting on a surfboard next, but I know this: the next time I do it, I won’t chide myself for being a terrible and uncoordinated surfer. I’ve been really lucky; I’ve learned a lot from falling (and failing) in the ocean at settings that can only be described as fantastical. And when I feel lost, I know exactly how to look for and find my feet.

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