I want to be a surfer. I know the sport seems much cooler than I am. Plus, I’m a woman, and a mom, and not terribly athletic. Still, I want to be a surfer.
Once the waves from Hurricane Bill subsided last weekend, I finally decided to paddle out on the 8’2″ epoxy surfboard I bought last year. To my frustration, I spent most of the time getting knocked around in the water. It’s funny how the waves always seem so small from the shore and so huge from my surfboard. So I decided to come back the next day and take a lesson with one of the instructors from Island Surf whose fully-stocked truck parks all summer at Second Beach in Middletown, RI.
My friend Tarek (who surfed once before last year) and I had both signed up for a joint lesson. When we pulled in and saw the wild, high waves (instead of the clean, calm 1-2 foot crests more typical of Second Beach), I hesitated. But not Tarek. “Confidence,” he advised. Joe, another 40-something surfer, taking his board off the car next to us agreed.
“How long have you been surfing?” I asked Joe.
“A year,” he said. How is it that a 40-something-year-old guy who’s been surfing a year has more confidence than I do? My first surf lesson was in 2005 — does that mean I’ve been surfing four years? If so, I think I’ll keep that to myself.
“Just go out there and laugh a lot,” said Joe.
Before we headed out, I got a quick lesson on ‘turtling’ which is how you handle a longboard in larger waves like these. As the wave comes toward you, you grip your board on its sides and roll sideways underwater so the board is on top of you. Then when the wave passes, you roll back, supposedly no harm done. It sounds simple, but terrifying. I’m not sure I can do it.
I’ve been swimming in the ocean all my life. I never hesitate to go for a swim even in ‘overhead’ waves. But with a surfboard, everything changes. Utter panic rushes through me as I see a 6-foot wave heading to break on me. Our instructor kept us in the whitewater (the foamy water rushing in after the wave breaks). Here, you are pretty much guaranteed to catch a wave, which we both did. And as I slide along that wave, I tingle with an electric exhilaration that keeps me coming back.
Still every time I faced the ocean to head back out, I felt terror. My instructor had called the conditions a “washing machine” and I certainly agreed as I felt myself drawn in, tossed about and spitted out by a wave.
“Hey great turtle!” my instructor beamed at Tarek. I looked over and spotted him taking his second perfect turtle and thought, what is wrong with me? This is his second day surfing, and here I am hogging the instructor, letting my board fly all over the waves and panicking instead of turtling. Confidence. So I turtle. It works, so I turtle again. The only problem is that I seem to be swallowing a lot of water in each turtle — I’m thinking so hard that I keep forgetting to hold my breath. After a few more minutes battling with the water, I surrender, exhausted, and head back to shore.
The next day, I go back out and play in the whitewater without an instructor but I feel like I’m cheating — I should be surfing real waves.
The next day I went out was the Saturday on Labor Day weekend. I thought I’d beat the crowds to the water, but by 9 am I found at least a dozen surfers out in 3-4 feet waves — both which intimidated me. I worked up my courage and went back later, simply trying to avoid injuring myself and anyone else. At one point, I started to catch a wave and my board nosedived and spiraled so that I got crushed under the water for a seeming eternity. Winded and frightened, I called it a day.
Sunday, I arrived even earlier at 8 am. What I’m lacking in confidence, I’m sure I can make up in determination. A group of people performed tai chi on the sand, and another small group socialized in the parking lot. But not a soul in the water: perfect. The waves were smaller about 1-2 foot: even more perfect. So I gathered my board, and set it on the sand as I started to put on my wetsuit. That’s when fellow surfer Ron approached and asked me if I was heading out.
“Yeah they look about small enough for me today,” I answered.
He laughed and said everyone’s been hanging around trying to decide if it’s worth going out and then they saw me suiting up. So apparently here I am, leading the way. Ron says he’ll get his board and come out too. He’s been surfing six years, so I ask him if he knows why my board nosedived the day before. He says you need to find that groove where the nose of your board is a few inches out of the water as you’re paddling out. You’ll notice it, he says, because you’ll be able to paddle faster.
I catch my very first wave but I lose my balance as soon as I pop up, and fall off. Ron meets me out in the water and congratulates me for catching a wave. While we’re out there, a third surfer comes out: Bill. When I ask Bill how long he’s been surfing, he says “Since 1963.” Not surprisingly, he masters the water brilliantly, catching small shallow waves and larger waves with ease. He seems to know instinctively where to line up to catch the. He makes it look easy. I take some comfort in knowing that in another 40 years I might be able to do that too. And actually we do have a few laughs. I miss a lot of waves, but no tossing about — the waves come easy today even if the rides don’t. Still, I make a deal with myself to stay out until I catch one good ride. And I do.
Island Surf & Sports
86 Aquidneck Avenue
Middletown, RI 02842
Second Beach Surf Report
Invented by surfer Ron, the Wax Buddy helps you remove old wax from your board.