It all started when my husband and I planned a dream vacation to Fiji. I
wasn't a surfer then, but I had aspirations of becoming one. Originally we
planned to mix our trip with a combination of surf destinations and
relax-and-read-on-the-beach destinations. That all changed once I learned
to surf and began surfing on a regular basis. Now our trip is planned
around our desire to surf every day in as many locations as we can afford.
I signed up with Surf Sister in Tofino, Canada for their beginner weekend
clinic, hoping to get off to a good start. I left with the skills and
knowledge to safely surf at my local break in Washington, with only a twinge
of the fear that I had when I started that first day. I also left
completely addicted to surfing.
I arrived in Tofino at the tail end of the storm season in late January.
The town was quiet but welcoming. People were friendly. The waves, true to
their reputation, were big: "extreme" proclaimed the warning sign on the
highway. The morning of my lesson I got up early to shake the butterflies
from my limbs. I took my morning coffee and mittens down to the beach to
have a peek at what the ocean had in store for me. Indeed, the waves were
huge! I began to second guess myself- what was I thinking? Learn to surf
in Canada? In winter? When I spoke with Louise on the phone she assured me
that despite the frigid winter temperatures I would be comfortable and
perfectly safe. Still feeling apprehensive, I checked out my gear from Live
To Surf and waited on the steps of Surf Sister's hut. When I met Karen, my
instructor, her cheery smile and relaxed nature eased my fears. After she
explained the plan for my first day (a chat on the beach, some practice on
shore, and then some fun wave riding on the "inside") my nervousness was
replaced by my growing sense of excitement.
Once on the beach, Karen shared some tips about the gear that every beginner
should know: how to the care for my wetsuit, the reason why boards have
different shapes, and how to wipe out safely. The lesson became hands-on
when Karen demonstrated then had me try a "pop-up" (how to stand on your
board). We practiced a few times on an imaginary surfboard we each drew in
the sand. Karen told me that once the wave had me I should paddle three
more times to make sure I had the speed to stay with it. She coached me
while I lay in the sand, paddling my imaginary board. Karen stood behind me
and enthusiastically shouted, "Here comes the wave, it's a 10-footer! OK,
you've got it, now paddle three more times! " and up I would lurch, landing
sideways (hopefully), with legs crouched and arms reaching into space for
balance. After a few of these drills I felt like I was getting pretty good
at it. Then we got in the water.
Karen held my board for me and eyed the incoming waves as I lay waiting,
ready to paddle when commanded. The waves seemed scary at first, but after
trying and falling a few times without harm, I relaxed. Karen gave me a
slight push as I paddled away from her with my three more times. Much to
my surprise, it worked! I was standing up! Most times I fell after
springing to my feet, but I stood up and stayed up with increasing frequency
over that first session. After I'd gotten the feel for timing my paddling
with popping up, Karen went in to the beach to watch me try it on my own.
Catching waves without her help was harder: I had to watch the incoming
waves and evaluate them while at the same time get on the board and paddle
in time to catch them. At the close of that first lesson my arms felt like
lead and my left foot like a block of wood - numb from a leaky boot. But I
had my first taste of surf stoke, completely driven to learn as much as I
could about surfing by the end of the next lesson.
The next day as I sipped my coffee and checked the surf under gray skies a
pit of apprehension took root in my gut. Today we'd be paddling out to the
lineup. I sat in the mist with my blood pressure peaked just thinking about
making it through the heavy, breaking waves. The sets looked a little
smaller but I was still nervous.
The second lesson began with a discussion about understanding surf
conditions by using tide tables, buoy data, and wind direction. I learned
that I would need to become well-versed in oceanography and make keen
weather observations every time I went to the beach. Only after a few
seasons would the information I gathered form a sensible pattern that I
could use to predict surf conditions from home. After spending a few
minutes reviewing yesterday's pop-ups we discussed a new skill: the turtle
roll. Making it out to the lineup can be nerve-racking: you must paddle as
hard and with as much speed as possible towards the incoming waves so that
you can make it over them. "Turtling" allows an escape if you can't paddle
over the crest in time before the wave pitches you backwards, thrashing you
in its turbulence. The trick to turtling is to grip the board's rails, suck
your body onto the board and roll upside-down just before the wave curls
over you, then roll back up and resume paddling. This turtle roll has
served as an important safety tool for me, always providing an "out" if I
can't make it over the wave's folding peak.
The adrenaline pumped through my fingertips as we paddled out, Karen first,
into the crashing waves. My arms felt heavy from yesterday's efforts but I
pulled myself through the water, breathing hard but slowly making ground.
Approaching waves threatened to rip me from my board but I kept paddling,
trying my first real turtle roll and thankfully making it back onto my
board. After paddling hard for what seemed like an eternity, I reached
Karen and sat up on my board, copying her position. We watched the waves
roll in from our safe spot on the outside for a few minutes, Karen sharing
some tips on wave selection. Sitting on my board, with the windless sky
above and the glassy horizon below, I could feel the joy of the experience
seep into my soul. My smile, this morning shy and unsure, began to grow as
the tension in my limbs released. Karen picked out a good wave, telling
me with enough notice so that I could spin my board around, lay down and
paddle in time with its arrival. As the peak came towards me I paddled to
the rhythm of Karen's, "Go, go, go!" and felt the wave pick me up. I dug
in my "three more times" but it wasn't enough and I could feel the wave
continue on without me. Missing it, I turned my board around and paddled
back out. Karen's rosy cheeks met my grin, "Good try! Its tough.Here comes
another one, get ready!" I tried a few more waves but each frantic start
ended with the same result: the wave leaving me behind, exhausted. Sadly,
it was time to return to the beach and eventually, home. I wanted to try
one more wave before I left. We moved in towards shore just a little. A
wave traveled towards me and I spun around to get into position. I paddled
with reckless abandon, knowing that it would take every ounce of energy I
had left in order to catch it. I could hear Karen's encouragement as I felt
the wave's push so I gave it 3 more, and noticed that I was still moving
forward with the wave, I had it! I stood up, legs crouched, arms stretched
out. The thrill of the ride flooded my being as I came down the wave's
face, holding my balance as steady as I could muster.
After that session, I was hooked. The joy of pure speed and simple grace of
gliding on clean ocean power has stolen my heart. Since my lesson I have
surfed confidently in a range of conditions: from Westport's 2-4 footers to
steeper, faster Hawaiian beach breaks. I'm no pro, but I feel safe and know
my limits. From my lesson in Canada, I learned enough about etiquette and
awareness to enter a lineup of strangers. If I get a bad vibe, I move down
the line. More often, people meet my smile with friendliness. I still wipe
out, I still miss waves, but each time I paddle out I feel my skills
improving. Surf Sister helped shape me into the surfer I am becoming. As
Karen advised, I'm surfing as much as I can, making the point of each
session the purest of all goals: to have fun and enjoy the beauty of our
ocean's gifts. So far, I have yet to miss those goals.
visit Amy at http://www.AmyWaeschle.com/
Amy Waeschle is a writer, photographer and teacher.
||Amy lives in Mt. Vernon
with Kurt, her husband and wanderlust partner, and their two dogs. When not
working, Amy is outside kayaking, surfing, hiking or adventuring.
Who’s Afraid of a Little Fiji?
Readying for Fiji’s reefs by Amy Waeschle Jan/03/2004