Learning to surf has been on my bucket list even before I had an official bucket list. I remember growing up and seeing my uncle’s surfboards standing up against the wall in my grandma’s house. I watched the surfers whenever we went to the beach, and felt the still-fresh exhilaration when they’d come in for a break. It seemed that they enjoyed the ocean in a way I could not by only swimming near the beach.
I’d always assumed that eventually, I’d learn to surf from family members teaching me on one of our family visits to Hawaii, but as time went on, I realized that those who knew how were getting older and putting away their boards, and it looked less likely to happen. I knew that I’d have to learn from someone else, but as with many bucket list adventures, cost and location were barriers and this sat dormant for many years.
Then my friend C. and I started planning our road trip. This was going to be the perfect chance to get something off both our bucket lists and experience another part of the “California vacation” dream fed to us by Hollywood and the Beach Boys.
When I asked my friends living in California if they knew how to surf, the answer was a regretful “no,” so it looked like we’d have to find someone on Meetup or Couchsurfing, or resign ourselves to paying to learn from an instructor.
I’d almost given up on this goal happening during the road trip, when my friend who went with me on the trip got a text from her friend who lived in Los Angeles, who knew another friend who had an agreement with a surf rental shop on Muscle Beach. He could get us board rentals and teach us how to surf – for free!
The boards are very large, longer and wider than I remember them being in my childhood memories, and are made of a dense foam, not wood or fiberglass. The first thing I notice is that the board is way too big for me to carry. My arm can’t go around the width of it to carry next to my side like everyone else (and until just now, as I write this, it didn’t occur to me to carry it on my head with hands on either side of the board like I remember the smaller surfers from my childhood doing).
No one else in my group is having trouble with this, but they’re also all taller than me with longer arms. I quickly fall behind, struggling to hold the board horizontally across the front of my body, which causes a lot of wind resistance. I fumble with it, the gentle ocean breeze feeling like a full storm as it pushes and pulls the edges of the board away from me. Finally, as everyone else is already setting down their boards on the sand (about 30 seconds from where I’m standing), I give up, put one end down in the sand and drag the board and my already tired self over to where they are.
[It would have been really helpful to watch this video first – How to Surf for Girls : How to Carry a Surfboard. I highly recommend it if you’re shorter or smaller and going surfing for the first time.]
Everyone is nice enough not to mention my struggle or tardiness, but they’re also eager to get going, so there’s no chance to rest before S., our instructor/new friend, is leading us through a warm up: running in the sand while waving/flapping our arms around and jumping up and down – all in front of random beach goers sitting around staring at the water. We all feel ridiculous, but it turns out that this is a common occurrence so people barely seem to notice.
Maybe I should make this into some kind of parable about being yourself and not caring so much about what other people think – but that would be cliche, so let’s not go there… 😉
After our warm up, we return to where we left the boards lined up in the sand, and S. tells us to stand at the back end of the board looking straight ahead. Then he comes behind us and gives us each a quick shove! Of course, we take a step forward to keep from falling over, and that’s how he determines the foot that should go in the front for the most stability.
I recommend this method if you’re not sure which foot to put forward when skateboarding, snowboarding, or surfing. It takes only a few seconds to figure it out this way.
We lie down on the boards, and from there we practice jumping to stand up. I feel a little slow, and I’m very unsure if I’ll be able to do this while balancing on a board floating on the water as a wave is coming, but before I can think about it, S. is already shouting: “Let’s go!”
We tread water next to our boards, and despite a brief thought that the board might flip over when I try to get on, it somehow doesn’t, and I manage to get on the board correctly and consistently.
It’s about the only thing I can do correctly for the first few tries, but I’ve wanted this for as long as I can remember so I just keep trying.
I know how to paddle with my arms because I’ve watched so many people do it and it’s basically just swimming with a surfboard. It’s not hard to move the board, but it is hard to move it exactly where you want it to go. And fighting a current headed toward a pile of rocks is hard (and dangerous), and S. keeps telling us to move over, but we don’t have good control over our boards so we continue to drift.
He makes us leave the water, walk on the beach and reenter the ocean farther away from the rocks, but since the current’s still strong and we’re not drastically improving, we have to do this SO MANY TIMES. It’s already tiring to be getting on the board, paddling, and trying to stand up (read: falling off). It’s taking a lot of energy to move the board around and I’m worried I’ll be exhausted or injured before I actually learn how to surf.
One time, because I’m tired, I don’t even get all the way out of the ocean to move the board, I just float it along and push it over to the new spot – that’s the plan anyway. A wave comes, and the board is shoved right into my rib cage, leaving a big bruise. Most of the time after this, S. takes my board and carries it for me – super nice!
Another time, I fall off the board and then the wave comes on top of me, which makes the board hit me in the head as I tumble in the water. I’m fine, but I’m definitely grateful that the board’s made of foam instead of something harder.
The more we practice (again, read: fall off) the more confident we’re getting, and we’re just a little bit faster at standing up when the waves come. S. yells at us at the right time in the wave to stand up, but so far I’ve been too slow to stand up all the way, only getting to one foot and one knee before falling off or running out of water and onto the beach.
It seems like no time has passed when he lets us know our hour-long rental is almost over, and we have time to try one more wave. This is it! I think, and he echoes that thought aloud, shouting encouragements and then his usual: “Stand-up-stand-up-stand-up!”
I try, but only get to the halfway point I’ve been stuck in so many times before.
But this time, I realize – I’m not all the way to the beach yet! I still have ocean left!
So I push up one more time from my halfway position and…
I STAND UP! I’M SURFING!!!!
And it is just as exciting as I thought it would feel. The board glides over the water, I don’t feel wobbly or afraid, and there’s even a couple of people watching from the beach as I float all the way to the sand in a perfect moment.
I’m elated and tired (but thankfully I have help carrying my board to the showers and then back to the rental shop). We lie on the beach after returning the boards, hanging out and accidentally sunburning the backs of our legs. I don’t care, though. I can’t stop smiling. This was truly one of the best moments of the trip and one of my all-time favorite list items. I can’t wait to do it again!