Carl and I crossed a milestone last week—our first surfari. I hope it’s the first of many, especially after hearing Carl say over and over, “This is the best vacation ever!” We went to Rincon, a small town on the west coast of Puerto Rico, a place that draws world class surfers with waves that can get fifteen to twenty feet high. Think about that. That means you’re standing on a surf board, riding a wave that is more than two or three times as tall as you are. Big.
Now, Carl and I are beginner surfers, and I’m not stupid, so before I booked our trip I made sure there were surf breaks with sandy bottoms and small waves. But as soon as we arrived we drove to the big wave breaks, Escaleras and Marias, neither of which looked terribly scary, though bigger than anything we see in New Jersey. We ate at a spot overlooking the ocean, watched some surfers in the water as the sun set, and I felt equal parts terrified of getting in the water and impatient to do so.
After a failed attempt to go out on our own, we secured the services of Melissa, a surf instructor. She met us at Marias, pulling up in a big black pickup truck with eight surfboards stacked in the back. She personified surfer chic, wearing a cool mismatched bikini and a crocheted black dress coverup with long blond hair, toasty tan skin, and yes, sea blue eyes. She took some time to watch the waves, looking dissatisfied. We peppered her with questions, which she patiently answered with her eyes mostly on the ocean.
“Normally, Maria’s is better for lessons because the rides are longer, and it’s not as crowded as Domes, but today...”
She placed a call, found out that Domes looked better and so we found ourselves at Domes, paddling out with her. Melissa watched the waves and when she saw a good one, she told us to get ready, when to start paddling, then pushed us into the right spot on the wave, shouting “You got it!” once it was time to stand up. The first few waves I stood up, but not for long. She was positive and encouraging, spotting mistakes and helping me to correct them. “You did great on that one,” she said as I got back outside after my first wave. “Next time, make sure you’re looking up. You always want to look in the direction you’re going.”
I wasn’t always able to follow her advice immediately, but I learned to feel what I was doing wrong, and little by little I put a few of her nuggets into practice. By the end of our hour lesson with her, I had the longest ride I’d ever had.
Stoked, we set up a lesson with her for early the next morning, meeting her back at Domes with more confidence and excitement than I’d had for surfing in a long time, maybe ever. We paddled out more quickly, and got into waves right away. I learned how to drop into a wave without my board nosediving, I caught some waves, stood up, had another few great rides, garnered some applause and “Go get it, girl” type encouragement from local surfers, all of which was great.
And then that afternoon I had the moment that made the whole trip worthwhile, the highlight of my surfing career, when all by myself I spotted a wave, turned around, paddled for it, caught it, dropped it, and rode it.
Flush with victory, I paddled for wave after wave, but found it hard to position myself correctly or get my timing right. My frustration and exhaustion grew. I saw Carl paddle out a distance away and watched him make a new friend and have some great rides. After resenting him from afar, I swallowed some pride, some more sea water and paddled over to where he was. His new friend was a sweet 22 year old, handsome like a Disney prince, who said, “Hey Julie, I’m Eric, why don’t you hang out with us?” Though we had some laughs, I didn’t catch any more waves that day, but I held on to my earlier breakthrough.
The next morning I woke up feeling lousy, but the town was buzzing about a swell arriving that day, and we had arranged to meet Melissa that morning, so I bikinied up, gave myself a pep talk and headed to the beach.
For Rincon, the surf was so-so; for me it was huge. The waves were 6-8 feet, so if you’re on your board, the wave is over your head. Just standing on shore I was scared. My discomfort increased when I found out Eric was taking us out that morning instead of Melissa. Sweet as he was, I had a feeling that he was a natural, and naturals often don’t understand the limitations of mere mortals. But I pushed my reservations aside and paddled out.
My fear/adrenaline exploded as I saw a giant wave hurtling toward us. “Paddle, Julie, paddle!” Eric said, easily speeding up his arms. I moved as quickly as I could, but when I saw I wouldn’t make it over the wave, I rolled over, holding my board above me, hoping it would wash over me, but unfortunately, the wave ripped the board out of my hands and I went tumbling after, my arms curled over my head to protect it from the board and the coral reefs. When I emerged, gasping for air I saw the next wave bearing down and dove underwater, my right leg yanked by the force of the water trying to drag my board to shore. I came up, tugged the board back to me, kicked and strained my way back on top, only to be knocked off by the third wave. I waited for the fourth one to pass before trying to get back up. I was beaten down, discouraged, disoriented.
Eric came back toward me, his arms effortlessly, playfully moving his board forward. “You okay?” he asked. I nodded. “Okay, we gotta get out before the next set, come on.” I paddled my little heart out, gasping for air, arms burning. “I’ll give you a little boost” Eric called before pushing me from behind, catching up to me, then pushing again. “Come on, you can do it!” I paddled paddled paddled, arm over arm. After all that, I had to at least get past the break. At least that. After what felt like forty minutes, but probably was only ten, I finally got outside, on the verge of physical and emotional collapse, but beyond the break.
Ten seconds later Eric said, “Hey Julie, here comes a good one, you want it?” I didn’t even have the breath to answer him, let alone catch the biggest wave of my life. Carl went for it, and got destroyed. The mountains of water were rising under me and falling away into thunderous foam, my dread and fear growing with each one.
Finally I decided I’d try to catch one wave. After one, I could go back to shore, but I had made it outside, so I owed it to myself to try. I told Eric and Carl my plan, turned around and steeled myself. Eric saw one coming, I started paddling, he pushed me and I immediately knew my timing was off. The water swallowed me up, tumbled me around, and spit me out. I was done.
I paddled back in fighting back tears. As I climbed over the reef out of the water, I tucked my feelings away, determined not to cry at the beach and plopped down on a surfboard next to Melissa. “I’m trying to not be mad that I’m the one who took up surfing and Carl is better and braver than me already,” I said. Melissa nodded. “My younger brother doesn’t teach surfing, and he’s a better surfer than me,” she said.
Commiserating helped soothe my wounded ego. So did a break from the beach, and speaking Spanish, something I do very well. Maybe best of all was returning that night to watch other surfers in the big waves. I don’t know where those people came from, but they surfed as well as the people we watch in movies. They dropped into the waves, jumped up and skimmed across the top, and popped 360 aerials. Sitting on the sand with the sun setting into the water I realized that those were waves for experts, not for people who had just started last summer.
I learned a lot on the surfari. I learned it’s good to admit when you need help, because you might get some. I learned that I am still a beginner, and I can’t expect myself to keep up with experts. I learned that even great surfers miss waves, misjudge, get caught inside, wipeout. I learned that though it’s good to try, it’s also good to admit when something is too much. Finally, I learned that as hard as surfing is for me, as much as it brings up, being in the water still beats being on the beach.