How Learning To Surf Taught Me to Love Myself
Passing judgment on yourself is not going to make you a better surfer—leaving your insecurities on the shore is.
Let me begin by saying that I don’t look good in a bathing suit. I know we live in a #bodypositive world, and, trust me, I’m learning to love my curves and swerves—but let’s face it, if someone had to choose between looking at me in a bathing suit or looking at Chris Hemsworth in a bathing suit, let’s just say they wouldn’t choose the built-for-comfort-not-for-speed travel writer from Boston. Even as an adult, the idea of stripping down to nearly nothing in public strikes fear into the heart of my soft, squishy chest.
My other deep-rooted phobia is of appearing unskilled, clumsy, or gauche, which in my line of work has proven problematic. In the last year alone, work assignments have compelled me try a variety of new and physically challenging things, including but not limited to heli-skiing, walking with wolves, biking across the Scottish Highlands, falconry, and ice-climbing. Part of me understands the lunacy of expecting élan and elegance for a first-timer with any of these activities, but part of me also wants to be that guy, the Renaissance man who can hook a sockeye salmon on first cast and then score a hole-in-one without even trying. Who wants to be the noob at anything?
Needless to say, both of these fears were tested on a recent jaunt through Central America when I found myself as a guest of the W Costa Rica. After checking in, the hotel’s resident “Insider” (a fancy W Hotels term for “young, local, attractive concierge”—her name was Gina), asked me what I would like to do during my stay.
There was but a single answer: “Surfing!”
Gina showed immense restraint as she politely gauged my experience level. “Well… have you surfed before?”
Of course not! I grew up in the Boston area. Surfing isn’t really part of the mainstream culture up there.
But having done my research, I found that the W Costa Rica was a short drive north of Tamarindo, a sleepy Pacific town famous for having one of the best beaches in the world for first-time surfers, second only to Waikiki in Hawaii. A quick Google search for “surf lessons Tamarindo” revealed dozens and dozens of instructors, and picking just one proved to be overwhelming. That’s where having Gina came in handy—not only would she organize my transfers to and from the beach, as well as pack waters and towels and snacks for me, but she would arrange a surfboard rental and lesson. She selected a guy named Matos, a Uruguayan expat who owns a surf shop across the street from the beach. “Usually he handles only the more advanced, top-top surfers, but I convinced him to take you out,” Gina told me.
“Great,” I thought. “So he’ll be extra bored with me.”
The morning of my first lesson, we drove down to the beach at 6:30 a.m., a time when the tide was supposed to be good, the temperatures moderate and the crowds sparse. We parked at the beach, stepped onto the sand and as I pulled my rash guard over my head (already nervous at the thought of wearing a spandex top in public), Matos—a petite, salty, barefoot man—approached and shook my hand.
“Hola Todd! Have you ever surfed before?”
“Well then we won’t expect much today.”
Expect much from the waves? From the weather? From me? It struck me as an odd thing to say, so I just assumed it was a language barrier thing.
Our lesson began on the sand. Matos walked me through the motions of paddling the board, spoke in the vaguest terms about “timing” and how to “catch a wave,” and then demonstrated the “hop up,” when a surfer goes from paddling on their belly to standing on the board. It all seemed so clear, so straightforward that it was hard not to feel confident. When Matos saw my pantomime paddling on the sand, he would nod in approval and say, “Bueno, bueno, bueno.” I got it!
When we went out on the water, however, hilarity ensued.
First, the paddling. Pulling your hands through the water is extremely hard work, and can tire untrained shoulders in a matter of seconds. This was complicated by the fact that I was dragging my feet in the water behind my board, so while Matos’ board glided over the waves with the greatest of ease, I had already broken a sweat, huffing and puffing behind him. To make matters worse, I have a number of shoulder dislocations under my belt, and at one point in the water while paddling, I extended my right arm just a bit too far at a bit too odd of an angle, and felt it tweak awkwardly. The shock caused me to freeze up, lose my balance, and slide face-first off the board and into the water. I imagined how dismayed Matos must have been to look back at his new pupil who on the quietest, gentlest tide of the day, managed to fall off the board already.
The padding did not bode well for what was to come. There were many false starts—as any surfer will tell you, “catching a wave” is more art than science, delicately weighing the distance, height and strength of a wave before deciding to pursue it or not. “Get ready, ready, ready!” Matos would shout at me, hurriedly, and by the time I paddled my board around to face the beach and get into position, the moment would be gone and he would say, “Ahhhh, never mind.”
“Was it me?” I would think. Maybe I wasn’t paddling fast enough, or I’m too big for this board and it’s throwing off the balance, or something?
And, of course, there is the ultimate challenge: standing up on the board. Do it too quickly and the wave will barrel over you over like a rag doll. Do it too slowly and you won’t have enough force, and the wave will pass by you entirely. On most of my attempts, I would paddle successfully to “catch” the wave, but then as I tried to stand up (too slowly, apparently), I could see the wave coming in from both sides of my periphery, before coming over my head and, voila, I was again off the board and floating in the undertow.
For some more context imagine this. You’re paddling and paddling, trying to keep your balance, trying to build enough speed so the waves catches you, and just by the time you realize that the wave’s momentum has picked you up and begins shooting you towards the shoreline, you need to go from Baby Cobra to Warrior 2 pose. Alas, it’s not as easy as just popping up on the board. By pushing down on the board to lift your body, you are simultaneously submerging the board beneath the wake. So, in sum: stand up on this slippery piece of fiberglass as water pours in on all sides of you, and maintain your balance as this totally unpredictable force of nature ejects you forward.
Needless to say, I soon learned that my favorite part of the experience was sitting in the lineup of surfers waiting to catch waves. If nothing else came from that lesson with Matos, I learned how to properly sit up on my longboard in the water. Of course there were a few flips and falls, times when I would accidentally gyrate my way off the board and fall into the water with legs akimbo, but the most gratifying part of the day was socializing with the other surfers and learning their stories. There was a retired fashion executive from New York who moved to the area so he could surf every day. There was a recent college grad road tripping through Costa Rica. And there was also a gaggle of girls whose failed efforts at surfing made me look like a complete natural, relatively speaking.
“Maybe I’m not so bad,” I thought.
And then towards the end of my lesson, as if out of my dreams, a total hunk paddled by—the quintessential surfer dude, with tousled hair and washboard abs. Without even so much as saying hello, he gave me some advice.
“Dude, I’ve been watching you. Everything you’re thinking, you gotta leave it on the shore,” he said. “It’s all mental, it’s all in your head.”
He kept paddling down the beach and disappeared as quickly as he came.
I considered the mystery surfer’s words—tried not to focus on the fact he just admitted he’d been watching me—and considered how I shouldn’t care about what I look like in a rash guard or be ashamed that I’m a novice. And I kid you not, as if it were the ending to a Disney Channel movie, that last attempt of the day was when I was finally able to stand up on the board.
I still do not know much about surfing, but this I know for sure: it can’t be told, it must be felt. The confidence and balance it takes to surf is not a one-two-three-step instruction, but comes from within. It’s about learning to feel the waves and to find your center on the board. Passing judgment on yourself is not going to make you a better surfer—leaving your insecurities on the shore is.
When I got back from Costa Rica and excitedly texted a travel writer friend who surfs that I recently “learned how to surf,” she corrected me.
“Todd, you are still learning. A true surfer knows he never has fully learned.”