It’s easy to malign surfing. A seemingly whimsical endeavor evoking images of far-off sandy beaches, warm sunshine in tropical destinations, seas teeming with leaping dolphins, and an enviable apparent disregard for what’s going on in the “real world.” An irresponsible undertaking. Polar opposite of a structured, land-based existence — the only one that truly matters. An exercise in frivolity. What’s the point?
I’m glad you asked.
I consider myself a surfer, though my skills in the water are meager. I believe the skills part may actually be of secondary importance. And the perceived whimsy has, more or less, nothing to do with it. Rather, I reckon it’s a classroom out there. And I’d like to think that introducing my own sons to surfing has delivered up a host of genuinely important, substantive, life lessons. Vital, timeless stuff to be handed down from one generation to the next.
First, there is the commitment and suffering part. You must shoulder (or armpit, or head-balance) your own board for the schlep from the car to the beach. Sure, it’s heavy, and your arms ache, and it’s not easy to sprint past the breakwall when a wave at high tide is about to slap you and your board against it. But that ache with a touch of suffering marks your investment in this. Anything lastingly worthwhile requires some tolerance for suffering. Embrace it.
Second, slow down, breath, and take it all in. No matter where you actually are, this is the place to be. How lucky are we to be striding out into this water? Straddling a board in the flat of a channel. Feeling the sea undulate beneath you. Smelling the mix of saltwater, seaweed, organic decay from the receding tide, surf wax and neoprene. Absorb what your eyes see — the divebombing pelicans, curious seals, and the landscape sliding by as the tide and current have their way with you. Inhale. Listen to the waves’ roll and delivery to the land. Hear the seagulls squabbling for the darting sardines. Inhale. Exhale. Slow down. And take it all in.
Third, face your fears. Feel the tickle of anxiety and nervousness and uncertainty as a wave rolls up behind you, suddenly much more menacing than it appeared from shore. Know that you are not even close to being in charge out here. Face that fear. Welcome it, even. It means that you are alive. Alive in a way where the deluge of Instagram updates, goofy Snapchat lenses, and group text threads fades into the background. Alive in a way where the only moment that matters is this moment. Fear is your friend here.
Fourth, be humble. Observe the conditions, and the actions of other surfers out there, as you stand on the shore, so as to keep your own role low-profile and studied. Take pleasure in the earlier-arriving surfers’ pleasure. Understand that you are about to slide into territory that doesn’t really belong to you. Be humble, whether you bob in endless lulls, get spun and pounded under a wave, or manage to stand up and glide for what seems like an eternity. It’s not about you out here, and that is a good thing.
Fifth, don’t be greedy. Leave something in the reserve tank to fuel your post-surf obligations. If you can’t muster the strength to reach up and around your shoulders to unzip your wetsuit back on the beach, well, you probably stayed out too long. I’ve been there. Maybe you unwisely ignored the unfavorable current, in the throes of your gluttony for more waves, and spent your reserves fighting back across the channel. Know when it’s time to go. There will always be more down the road and on the horizon (at least I hope so). And on this note, don’t forget you’ll need to wrap your leash tightly around the fins and cart your own gear back to the car once again. This time with tired shoulders, cramping hands, ear canals stuffed with sand, and saltwater in your belly. The session’s not done ’til we’re back in the car, locked and loaded. And remember it’s your job today to hose down the wetsuits at home in the backyard. So pace yourself out there, and save a little extra for after.
Finally, experience real fulfillment and gratitude. All of the above ingredients, mixed properly, will produce an overwhelming sense of well-being and satisfaction. A new collection of memories, just forged, swims in the head. A well-earned, deep physical fatigue sets in. The bloodstream seemingly spiked a bit from the saltwater immersion. Give in to the exhaustion. Go ahead, son, fall asleep suddenly in the backseat. Mid-conversation. The hint of a satisfied smile playing across your face. I’ll grip the wheel for the winding ride home along the coast, grateful for this singular experience. Marking the occasion in my mind. Hoping you’ll pass these same lessons along to your own children. After all, this is important stuff.
On that note, it’s just about time to strap some boards on the roof rack, fill up some old milk jugs with warm water, and saddle up. Class is in session.
Thanks for reading.