In an effort to prepare myself for an upcoming trip to surf Fijiís challenging array of reef breaks, I signed up last spring for a private lesson with Surf Sister in Tofino. Six months prior, I had made my surfing debut with the all-women surf school during one of their weekend beginner clinics. For my pre-Fiji lesson Jenny Stewart, Surf Sisterís owner, decided to take on my case.
Since learning to surf with Jenny's crew I have fallen in love with surfing. I now have my own surf board and paddle out whenever I can sneak away. Last winter I coaxed my husband (also a surfer) into a trip to Kauai and discovered the joy of surfing in warm water. Shortly after that we plunked down our hard-earned savings on a dream trip to Fiji. With our flight leaving in less than 3 weeks, I knew that in spite of being full of enthusiasm, I was definitely low on experience. I arrived in Tofino hoping for a little push in the right direction.
I met Jenny at the Surf Sister surf shack on a sunny Sunday afternoon in late May, just at the beginning edge of the summer rush. I was excited for the lesson but still a little unsure about what to expect; how much could I really learn in two hours? Jenny mentioned that sheíd also been to Fiji and instantly I knew I was about to receive a lifetime of learning. I told her my goal: to transition from the beginnerís "go straight" routine to the more advanced "down the line" skill. My husband calls it "riding the green" and Iíd done it twice so far, but probably by accident. In Fijiís steep surf if you attempt to go straight the wave will only pitch you over its top and besides, going straight isnít safe, after the wave pitches you itíll grind you across its razor-sharp reef. For my lesson, Jenny wanted "peeling, waist high and glassy" waves, so we scrambled out of the busy surf shack, boards strapped to the truck roof, to check the surf.
After scouring all of Jennyís favorite haunts, we ended up back at one of the Tofino beaches. Before getting into the water we talked for a minute on the beach. After inspecting my new boardís leash, Jenny pronounced it too short and probably too flimsy for Fiji. She also discovered that my center fin was quite loose. I wondered if I could blame the faulty fin for my most recent frustration: over the last 2 days of surfing I hadnít been able to stay standing for longer than a split second. My new board, an 8"0í tapered flip nose "fun gun" shape Jenny declared perfect for my Fiji trip and I beamed with happiness that at least I had managed to buy a decent board. As we made our way into the water, Jenny rattled off tips about Fijiís waves, making me wish I had a notepad. Two tidbits stuck and both proved invaluable in Fiji. "Remember to fall flat when you wipe out" Jenny confided with me once weíd made it to the lineup. "Falling flat" helps prevent you from hitting the reef that underlies 99% of Fijiís breaks. Also, she pointed out that with no wetsuit I wouldnít float to the surface as quickly. I may have to swim for it. As she said these things I tried not to get too scared (what do you mean, swim for the surface?) Jenny must have seen it in my face because she laughed lightheartedly, reassuring me with, "Youíll be fine!" and, "Youíre going to have so much fun!" I tried to absorb her confidence, but the thought of a wipe-out in heavy reef-break surf made my heart race.
I caught a few waves while Jenny watched; she wanted to get a feel for my current skill level. Fortunately, with the now-functioning fin, I managed to stay upright. I was also reminded of why I was going to Fiji, fearful or not: surfing is pure fun! Breathless, I returned to the lineup where Jenny suggested a few adjustments in my paddling stroke and showed me how to angle into the wave at the take-off. Giving it a try, I dropped into a wave but missed the section and ended up in the whitewash. Next Jenny demonstrated while I paid close attention to her body position. I noticed that she watched the waveís approach right up to the last second, and just before she sprang to her feet she stroked hard with her outside arm. After standing up, she easily sashayed down the green face. From my position outside I could see her head bobbing along as she surfed the section.
When it was my turn again I kept an over-the-shoulder eye glued to the incoming wave. Jenny reminded me that in order to know which way to angle I must accurately predict the waveís direction. It sounds like a no-brainer but itís easy to fumble it when youíre worrying about all the other things that go into catching a wave. I finally paddled into and angled enough on a wave to get a short ride down the line. I was ecstatic! Jenny and I used up the short time remaining in the lesson to just surf, and laugh, which was great! Surfing with Jenny just "for fun" and not having to think so hard left me profoundly loosened and ready to meet Fijiís challenges. I managed to repeat my successful "green face" ride a few more times and I could feel my confidence expanding. At the end of the lesson, Jenny went ashore to watch me surf a little longer, sneaking in some last words of wisdom before our time ended. Obviously I needed lots of practice, but Jenny smiled and told me "Youíre going to be just fine in Fiji!"
And I was. Although nothing I could have learned from Jenny would prepare me for the pummeling power of Fijiís waves. With Jennyís "fall flat!" advice constantly in my head I rallied the courage to catch a few of the bigger ones, although I spent most of my time in the lineup shuddering in terror. But without my session with Jenny I donít know if I would have had the courage to push myself as hard as I did. When I got really gripped I tried to remember her easy laugh and bubbling enthusiasm. It helped.
When I went to Fiji I was hardly experienced enough to surf at my local break, let alone steep, shallow reefs. But Fiji taught me something about recognizing and dealing with fear. I canít say that I learned to overcome it, but facing it day after day made me a better surfer. Iím more confident now, making it easier to try bigger waves or join a not-so-friendly lineup. As a result, I feel like now Iím actually ready for a trip to Fiji.
Which I guess means someday Iíll just have to go back.
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.
visit Amy at http://www.AmyWaeschle.com/
Learning to Surf with Surf Sister
by Amy Waeschle Jun/24/2003