My Awkward, Uphill Battle Learning to Surf - Part 1

I've touched on the topic of Surfing and how I have a bit of trouble writing about it.  Anything that I put down into words never seems to do it justice in the way my favorite surf writers seem to be able to convey.  Much like the activity itself, I feel writing about surfing requires lyrical skill and grace that I don't necessarily consider myself to have just yet.  What makes it even more difficult is that I am speaking to an audience of mostly non-surfers who would get lost in the lingo and have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about.  Luckily, sailors can grasp some of the concepts and excitement in terms of the amazing feeling that nature induced motion can provide.  But much like this whole project, I think it is time for me to just do it and stop thinking about it.  What better place for me to start than at the beginning?  How did I discover the magnetic force that has caused me to completely derail my comfortable existence in hopes of living on a small sailboat in remote areas of the globe?  This bit of background will lay the groundwork for the pieces I plan on writing about in the future. ________________________________________________________________

"Nothing beats those first few years of surfing.  Each session offers some new revelation.  The best wave of your life is always one wave away.  Twenty-five years in, it's a different story.  Surfing becomes a nostalgic act instead of an exploration.  One is left chasing a feeling that got left behind somewhere in youth.  The best wave of your life is a world away - perhaps lost somewhere in the past, perhaps across the globe on some foreign shore, awaiting the lucky confluence of countless variables - swell, wind, tide, financial solvency, family responsibilities." -Borrowed Boards

The path I blazed down the surf-learning trail was an uphill and clumsy one.  Mine is a story of a boy who discovered wave riding at an early age, but had to wait decades to pursue it at a satisfying rate.  I never had anyone introduce me to the sport or teach me its ways (leading to awful decisions delaying my progress); I never lived close to the beach (relatively speaking),  and on the few days I was able to get to a beach I faced the unfortunate lack of waves that the East cost offers.  All of these factors combined to drag out the learning process for years longer than most people have to contend with, and they also worked to instill a deep yearning for real waves, the types I've only seen in magazines and movies.  That yearning inspired the tremendous effort I am going through right now to fulfill the surf-related wanderlust with this sailboat project.  

As mentioned already, we never lived at the beach.   To add to my misery and jealousy of ocean dwelling people, my parents moved ocean-side in St. Augustine immediately after I left the house for college.   After being born in Raleigh, NC and a brief stint in Atlanta, GA; my parents moved to Florida where I have been ever since.  We lived in Jacksonville, Bradenton, Tampa and Orange Park before I moved to Orlando for college. While some of those places look pretty close to a beach on a map, we  lived at least a 45 minute drive to the beach my whole life, and at times further to get to a coast that actually had potential waves.  Cry me a river, right?  I'm sure people in Arkansas don't care about my woe-is-me beach proximity, but when the love of your life is far away, it hurts.

Regardless of all that, I can't complain as my parents gave me every great opportunity a person could ask for in life.  Though unfortunately for me, I fell deeply in love with the opportunities they revealed to me during short summer vacations  and random weekend trips we took to St. Augustine, Cocoa Beach and Ocean Isle, NC.  Even though I finally live at the beach now, the smell of the salt air still brings me back to those younger years and the vacations we took.

Early on in beach life I was building sandcastles, fishing from the shore, and splashing around in the shorebreak.  But as my mind and body grew, my tendency to get bored grew as well and I began to search for something more exciting than rummaging around in the sand.

I am not exactly sure where I first saw surfing, it may have been in person or in a movie; but once I saw it I knew I had to be a part of it.  This was the beginning of my tendency to dive deep into hobbies and activities I want to peruse, regardless of the barriers to success.  Spending 3+ years rebuilding an old boat is just the latest example.

I vaguely remember always looking at Surfer and Surfing magazines in the racks at Publix when we vacationed at the beach, and I believe those had a major part in me wanting to learn surfing.  Kelly Slater, the Florida wonderkid of surfing was bursting onto the scene at the time, and I remember considering him the absolute pinnacle of "cool".

My dad always had boogie boards around, and my first wave riding memories are on top of one.  Somewhere around 8-10 years old I started trying to stand up on the boogie board, and of course began to beg my dad to let me try surfing.  Once I proved to him I could get up and not wipe out immediately on the boogie board, I convinced him to sign me up for surf lessons the next time we went up to Ocean Isle, NC.

When the surf lessons rolled around;  I made the mistake that many kids in the 90's did by trying to ride the shortest, thinnest, coolest looking board available out of the dinged up heap of used foam and fiberglass.  It was the type of board I saw the pros using, and my over-confident and simple brain didn't know that they are pros for a reason and ride equipment commensurate with their experience level.  What now makes me mad is that the instructor never said anything against it, never revealing the fact that I would have a much better time learning on a bigger board.  The lessons just consisted of about 30 minutes of instruction on the beach and a couple of hours of supervised board rental.  Not that much help.  I don't remember getting up on a wave for more than a few seconds at a time in those first days, but just being out in the water and being around surfing was a blast to me.

After that one day of "lessons", my Dad set my obsession in motion by buying me a used board from the surf shop up in Ocean Isle.  I remember it was somewhere around a 6'2" standard 80's/early 90's shortboard.  The brand was "Power Tool" surfboards, and I've never seen another one since.  I might have a picture of it buried deep in the vaults of our attic, but I haven't found one in my searches.  While this board was purchased with good intentions and a lot of begging on my part, it was absolutely the wrong board for me to learn to surf on.  But I wanted it, it was short enough to fit in our car for the long ride back to Florida, and it was probably pretty cheap compared to the long boards.

Let me reiterate for anyone looking to learn or want their kids to try out surfing.   For a novice to surf on a short board, particularly when you have a total of roughly 3-5 days a year with rideable waves to learn on is extremely difficult.  Surfing is already one of the most difficult things to get the basics of, and I severely handicapped myself by trying to learn on short boards.  Long boards paddle easier, catch waves easier, can catch and actually ride small waves (basically all I had to ride), and will accelerate the learning process.  I was too worried about looking cool and surfing like my idols to care about bothering with a big and ugly board.

Even though I now had my own board, I still faced some obstacles to learning the basics.  At this time we lived in Tampa, so proximity and access to the ocean was still a real problem.  We were about an hour's drive to a beach but lets get the obvious out of the way...the Gulf doesn't have waves, unless a hurricane swell is arriving.  However, I was able to try to surf on those rare weekends we would visit grandparents in Cocoa Beach, or wait until the next year or two when we vacationed at the beach for a week again.  Making matter worse, if you picked a random day on the East coast to go to the beach, there is about a 50% chance of the waves not even being rideable; especially in the summer when we would go to the beach the most.  Of those 50% rideable days, less than 5% of them were waves of decent quality.  Please keep in mind, 99% of statistics are made up...but these are good approximations.

It all eventually came together though, and I remember THE wave that changed my life.  It was the wave that permanently secured my fate as a life long surfer, and has me still chasing that one feeling ever since.   I was 11-12 years old, and my old Boy Scout troop from Tampa was camping at Anastasia State Park in St. Augustine for the weekend.  I was able to bring my surfboard and fortunately there were some decent waves.  By then I was able to get up on the board just fine, but I had never really ridden an open face on a wave (i.e. had a proper ride).  Having no one to teach me, and not having access to watch better surfers get into took me a LOOOONG time to get the gist of riding down the line on a wave.

After many beach trips of desperately trying to get the concept down of riding the face of a wave, I resorted to attempting to paddle my board in a wave and trying to shoot down the line on my belly without standing up.  Once I found that I was able to succeed, I tried the same, but stood up after finally getting it.



I vividly remember the feeling of quick acceleration flying down the line of a chest high wave, on my back-side nonetheless, and I have been chasing that same amazing sensation ever since.  I can still replay that ride in my head, probably more clearly than any other ride I've had since.  Successfully flying down that wave was the first step to figuring out how to really do this thing, and made me yearn for more and more.

So about 3 years after first trying, I finally got the simple concept of riding a wave correctly.  Anyone with adequate proximity to ridable waves and adequate help could learn this in less than a month, but the deck was stacked against me.  Fortunately for me, it wasn't long after that memorable ride that my family moved to within an hour's drive to St. Augustine, and my mom was more than happy to go to the beach as often as we could.

To be  continued...

Bonus, another perspective on what surfing is from someone used to talking about it: