I will note that my usual type A determination served a purpose in Costa Rica. Something I have learned over the years is the value of real practice – at public speaking, or budgeting, at pull-ups or handstands, and now at surfing while at a Costa Rica surf camp.
Doing something over and over again requires discipline and patience – two qualities I am often without. But I have learned that sometimes the body picks up on things that the mind isn’t even conscious of – and the only way to teach it is to relentlessly practice until one day, you are doing something you thought you could never do.
I have the most insane personal mantra when I am trying to learn something new. I think about that famous Allen Iverson press conference from so many years ago when he was asked about missing the Sixers’ practices and he looks at the reporter and said, “We talking about practice, man?” I guess I should thank Mr. Iverson because every time I fell off that damn board I would quietly mumble “we talking about practice, man” and head back out into the ocean.
It was with only three days left to go in the surf trip that Helen, our surf instructor, sat the group down and noted it was time for some of us to graduate to “the outside” if we wanted.
The outside is what surfers call the green, unbroken waves past the whitewater. This is where the real surfing happens, where you take all the principles and surf lessons learned in the whitewater – the art of the pop-up, the knees in squat stance on the board, the practice of turning your upper body in the direction you want the surfboard to go – and apply it to the bright green mounds that roll by with relentless tenacity.
I knew I had to give it a try and before I could think much about it, I told Helen I was interested.
And then the terror started to set in.
To be clear, the waves we were talking about riding were not Pipeline in December. During the time that I was there, I doubt heights reached much above a few feet. I had boogey boarded in bigger and more powerful waves.
Frankly, being scared was absurd.
That night I got very little sleep, listening to the waves crash on the shore. What had been a lovely choir lulling me to dreamland just the night before was now an ominous portent of the next day.
“What if I am not ready?” was one of my more rational thoughts that night.
“What if I get caught in a wave and knock myself out on an underground reef like in that movie ‘Blue Crush‘?” was one of my less rational thoughts (particularly because we were surfing a sand bottom beach and again, this wasn’t Pipeline in December. Also, I am not Kate Bosworth, no matter how much I wish I were.
Fear is such an irrational thing; it distorts all it touches, colors everything, preys on your deepest insecurities and holds them up to the harsh light of day without mercy or compassion. It makes you someone you are not.
By the next morning, I was practically queasy. Helen and Annie loaded the outsiders into the camp van for a short trip down the beach and I sat staring out the window, hoping that drive would take longer, dreading the moment I had to get in the water.
After arriving at our destination, unloading the boards and applying a fresh layer of zinc, geisha-style, Helen sat the newbies down for a long discussion of safety in the outside waves. I hardly heard any of it – I was transfixed by the ocean, wondering how big those waves I could see really were, wondering if I should back out and return to the relative safety of the whitewater, chiding myself for being chicken enough to think about going back.
Finally, the inevitable arrived. We were attaching our leash guards and charging into the ocean en masse.
Most people who have never surfed before think that the hard part is the actual wave riding. I found that the real struggle comes with paddling out – the exercise of getting yourself beyond the whitewater to the sweet spot where the waves break.
On a nice day, you wait for a lull in the waves so that you can paddle out without having to turtle roll under your board to avoid a wipeout.
A turtle roll is a maneuver where you slide off your board, turn it upside down and duck down perpendicular to the surface of the water while holding on BEFORE an approaching wave crashes on top of you. If you do it right, you avoid being swept away by the wave. If you don’t do it right, you and your board end up flung around like two socks in a washing machine.
My experience at paddling school had taught me that paddling and turtle rolling took an enormous amount of stamina and strength and considering that my practice at it the other day had, at one melodramatic point, convinced me I might die floating in a calm, protected bay…well you can imagine my apprehension.
Helen and Annie waited for the ocean to offer up one of its lulls and then turned swiftly to us with a “get on your board and paddle” before heading out themselves.
I paddled like my life depended on it (because in my mind it did) and while I made it to the outside without having to turtle roll once, I was spent.
My efforts on the board resembled that of an epileptic pelican – flapping my arms in a chaotic manner that yielded movement only because every few seconds I would get lucky and contact that water in a way that actually propelled the board forward.
Nevertheless, I pulled up to the calm, undulating valley beyond the breaking waves with a sense of triumph. I was here…on the outside…and, dammit, I could sit on my board and not fall off if I tried really hard.
I rode that sense of accomplishment for a few minutes until it dawned on me that the time had finally come to actually attempt to ride a wave.
It dawned on our instructors much sooner.
Annie spent the better part of a quarter hour after we paddled out trying to convince me it was time to join forces with one of these strange crashing mountains.
Every few minutes I would hear this coming from the ocean in front of me:
“Want to give it a go, Anne?”
“How about we get you in a wave, Anne?”
“You ready to try, Anne?”
Anne was not ready to try. Anne was transfixed by the horizon, silently reciting Pinterest-style motivational quotes (“The toughest opponent of all is the one inside your head,” said Pinterest me – “Bullshit! The toughest opponent is a freaking huge ass wave that comes up by surprise and kills you and then you will have no head at all,” replied actual me). The struggle was real.
Finally, finally, after a profanity laden internal pep talk that was equal parts Bill Pullman “Independence Day” and Ann Richards “1988 Keystone Address to the Democratic National Convention” (you have your pump up speeches…I have mine), I egg beatered my board around from the horizon and paddled over to Annie.
And then we waited.