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Learning to Surf

And I’m up! Not just on my knees and I'm not immediately falling off the side of my board but I"m actually standing, riding a wave, balancing my weight, keeping my board straight and gracefully stepping off into shallow water. The waves are big enough to ride but mercifully not too intense. The water is warm. There are surfers out but it’s not too crowded. I am also just beginning to see how addictive this sport can be. I'm starting to understand why people build their lives around the break. How they spend all the time they can in the water. Waiting.

Waiting.

Then paddling like hell.

I had never surfed before. The closest I ever got was when I was 18 in Costa Rica and I sat on a surfboard while a curly blonde haired man from North Carolina pushed me around the pool. The beach there was rocky. The waves were fierce. It wasn't a place for beginners. I didn’t grow up near the ocean and never considered myself a strong swimmer, two seeming prerequisite for the sport.

I’ve watched the surfers with equal parts awe and intrigue at the break at Point Dume, Malibu, at the break in Santa Barbara, CA and at the man-made waves in Munich, Germany. The opportunity to learn never presented itself. And I didn’t go out of my way to make it happen.

Spending a few days in Cherating, Malaysia over Lao New Year I didn’t know whether surfing would be an option given the season ended in March and it was mid April. We scoped out a few rental places and were told that there had been waves that morning and they would return at Low tide around 4. After lunch, a nap and a smoothie it was time to rent boards and try my luck.

 My surfboard

My surfboard

I got a blue 8-foot foam-top board, the perfect tool for looking like a newbie and staying stable for the first time out. I learned how to attach my leash to my ankle and my board. I also learned that soft top boards don’t require wax and watched as my more experienced companion waxed his fiberglass long board, hoping for enough waves to keep him up.

I carried my board on top of my head since it was too wide and my arms too short to carry it under my arm a la The Endless Summer. The ocean was shallow for a long way out in the low tide. The more experienced surfers were closer to the rocks from where the point break was emanating. I stayed back and learned to paddle, keeping my weight toward the back of the board. I learned to keep the board to one side or behind me in case a wave crashed into the board and crashed the board into me. On the occasions I forgot and subsequently got bowled over by my own board, I decided this was sound advice and vowed to follow it, until the next time I forgot, got pushed around and vowed again.

I learned to sit far back on my board and turn it around with the nose in the air. I learned to keep my leash pointing towards the back so I’d be less likely to step on it. I learned how to drag my board through shallow water nose down and to never drag it on the sand.

 The beach at Cherating. The trees in the distance are where the point break and the surfing is.  

The beach at Cherating. The trees in the distance are where the point break and the surfing is.  

I learned how to jump over the waves or cover my head with my board and let the waves pass over me. I also failed to do either countless times and got water up my nose, in my eyes and my ears. Coughing and sputtering, one step forward, two steps back. More paddling. I’m more tired than I think I should be. The Malay guys whose home break I’m invading are super nice and encouraging. Something, I’m told, that is unusual among surfers who tend to be macho, suffering from Napoleonic complexes and swollen egos.

One of the guys is clearly superior to the pack. He’s wearing a tee shirt and board shorts (as many of them are. I’m in my one piece, which keeps sagging at the bum, filled with sea water and exposing a plumber’s crack. He has golden skin and curly dark hair and he’s standing on his forearms, then he's turning his board this way and that, now he's dancing in circles. He’s a joy to watch. I’m envious and intrigued as I clumsily and shakily stand on the small waves.

One piece of surf etiquette posted in the shop states “don’t drop in.” Dropping in is basically the surfing equivalent of cutting in line. It means someone is already on a wave when you get on it too, which can be dangerous as well as annoying.

I get in the way and didn’t know how to move fast enough. Sometimes I stay where I am and hope the more experienced surfers will see me. Sometimes I try to predict where the waves would take the surfers and me. I often predicted wrong.

It takes some skills of observation to read the waves and tell when a good one is coming. To know when to start paddling. To feel it start to push you. To have enough momentum to pop up and plant your feet and balance. To watch where you're going and not where you've been.

My ribs are sore from where they rested on the board while I paddled. My knees are scraped up, like rug burn from being dragged along the top of the board. The same goes for my elbows. Despite the physical ailments I want to go again. I wake up at dawn, drag myself out of the covers and we go down to the beach for surf patrol. The tide is low and the ocean is still. There won't be any waves today. Yesterday was a fluke. I got lucky but I won't get lucky again. 

I'm already feeling itchy. I want ride more waves. I want to stay up longer. I want to read the ocean. I want to feel her under my board and stand up, walk on water and surf again. 

Cherating, Malaysia

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