For one month I immersed myself in surfing and the surfing lifestyle. I stayed in a small surf town, right in front of the surf, and surfed every day until I could no more. And then, I surfed some more. These are my stories and experiences from my month as a surfer.
I was never interested in surfing. I didn’t grow up at the beach nor did I know anyone who surfed. Surfing only existed in expensive magazines and in a world parallel to mine, where women wore coconut shells as tops.
In the summer of 2012, however, when Mr. G and I started working from Bali, the surfing life no longer escaped me. Surfing was everywhere, and although I was fine pretending to be a surfer (wavy beach hair and a Billabong dress will get you there), Mr. G wanted to get in the water for real.
I wasn’t convinced, but I didn’t want to be left out. I also figured I could use an antidote to the nasi goreng (fried rice) I had gotten hooked on and so we booked our first surf lesson.
When the first waves smashed over me, I already knew that learning to surf wasn’t going to be fun. But it wasn’t until I tried to surf on my own that I realized just how challenging and frustrating it could be.
Yours truly holding on for dear life back in 2012.
Without having someone to tell me when to go into the water, or to help me catch a wave by pushing my board, I was completely lost. I was also scared.
I grew up playing in the calm waters of the Adriatic Sea. The worst that could happen to me there was a sunburn. I didn’t know waves. I had never felt the strength of an ocean. The first time I wiped out, I thought I was having a near-death experience.
By the time we left Bali, the waves had held me under a few too many times. Not only was I still unable to catch a wave, but I was also now terrified even to try. And yet, when I would write my spin-off list a few months later, I knew surfing had to be on it. I wanted to be a surfer because I refused to let fear tell me what I could and couldn’t do.
What It Was Like to Be a Surfer Every Day for a Month
The first third of the month was tough. Every beginner’s phase is difficult, but learning to surf especially made me feel like a dork. Everything I did, from carrying my board to the water to trying to pass the breaking waves on my way to the outside, felt like a clumsy effort.
Learning to surf was also physically very demanding. For the first few days, I couldn’t do much more than surf for a couple of hours and then try to recover in time for the next session. And despite having followed an intensive 15-week fitness program before this spin-off, I still woke up every morning feeling like I had slept under a 500-pound rock.
During the second third of my spin-off, the surfing life was looking much better. I had moved away from being a complete beginner and was now catching waves and enjoying daily victories.
I was also less exhausted by surfing and thus had more energy to start delving into the surf culture through books, magazines, videos and movies. The surfing bug caught up with me, and it wasn’t before long that I began dreaming of a surfing life.
Unfortunately, the surf conditions started changing for the worse around day 19 and didn’t get better until I left the island. Bad conditions meant strong winds, choppy water, and unpredictable waves. It became difficult to catch waves, and my fear of waves and wipe-outs was put to the test again.
Much of this last period was marked by frustration. For days I felt like I was going three steps back and one forward. It wasn’t until my last day when I found myself surfing in crazy stormy weather that I would realize just how far I had come.
The Insights That I Took Away from This Month
Prince Wen Hui’s cook
Was cutting up an ox.
Out went a hand,
Down went a shoulder,
He planted a foot,
He pressed with a knee,
The ox fell apart
With a whisper,
The bright cleaver murmured
Like a gentle wind.
Like a sacred dance,
Like “The Mulberry Grove,”
Like ancient harmonies!
“Good work!” the Prince exclaimed,
“Your method is faultless!”
“Method?” said the cook
Laying aside his cleaver,
“What I follow is Tao
Beyond all methods!
“When I first began
To cut up oxen
I would see before me
The whole ox
All in one mass.
After three years
I no longer saw this mass.
I saw the distinctions.
“But now I see nothing
With the eye. My whole being
My senses are idle. The spirit
Free to work without plan
Follows its own instinct
Guided by natural line,
By the secret opening, the hidden space,
My cleaver finds its own way.
I cut through no joint, chop no bone.
“There are spaces in the joints;
The blade is thin and keen:
When this thinness
Finds that space
There is all the room you need!
It goes like a breeze!
Hence I have this cleaver nineteen years
As if newly sharpened!
“True, there are sometimes
Tough joints. I feel them coming,
I slow down, I watch closely,
Hold back, barely move the blade,
And whump! the part falls away
Landing like a clod of earth.
“Then I withdraw the blade,
I stand still
And let the joy of the work
I clean the blade
And put it away.”
Prince Wen Hui said, “This is it!
My cook has shown me How I ought to live
My own life!”
–Chuang Tzu via Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
When you’re trying to enter the water, you have to be patient. You need to wait for a lull in the sets before you can paddle out. If you don’t, and instead, force your way through the breaking waves, you’ll just end up back where you started, but more tired.
Surfing taught me that just as you can’t push your way through the water, you also can’t push your way through life.
My best waves almost took no effort. It was those waves for which I barely had to paddle to catch them. It was as if I would just happen to be at the right place, at the right time. My pop-up would do itself and so would the ride. All I needed to do was to stand still and let myself be rocked from side to side.
Surfing reminded me that whenever I’m met with a lot of resistance, I need to ask myself if I’m trying to force things to happen. If I am, perhaps then, I can stop pushing and instead start looking for the hidden spaces that will allow me to move more easily in the direction of my goals.
If I Could Do This Spin-Off Over, This Is What I Would Do Differently
Where most beginners focus their energies on trying to stand up in broken waves, known as whitewater, I was hung up on wanting to ride a real wave; however, when this didn’t happen overnight, I became increasingly demanding with myself. And I wish I hadn’t.
I wish, instead, that I had trusted my progress to take care of its own while I celebrated my achievements more. I also wish I had reminded myself that although every beginner’s path is challenging; it’s also a path that you don’t get to walk twice, and that for this very reason, it needs to be cherished. Because it’s not often that we get the chance to watch ourselves as we “learn to walk.”
If I Would Want to Be a Surfer
A couple of weeks into my spin-off, I couldn’t imagine a better life than a surfing life. All I wanted was to go around the world and surf. I would still like to do that for a few months. But I wouldn’t mind mixing it up with some kiteboarding and snowboarding either.
I’m also still very much in love with writing and The Spin-Off Project. I like trying different lifestyles and doing 30-day challenges. I’m not ready to give that up for a full-time surfers career just yet, but I will keep surfing.
What I like Best about Surfing
I love how surfing gives you this sense of space in which you can escape and just be. And I love that you only need to grab a board and run to the sea to experience this. There’s so much freedom at that moment, and in all those that follow, when you’re out there, bobbing about.
The Resources That I Used
When I wasn’t out in the water, it was the following resources that stoked my love for surfing. Without them, I don’t think the bug would’ve found me.
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life – William Finnegan
A beautiful memoir about a life lived chasing the swell. This book made me want to be a surfer and a writer. I highly recommend it.
Surfing Illustrated: A Visual Guide to Wave Riding – John Robison
The only guide you’ll need for learning to surf. It’s genius and funny and easy to follow and simply fantastic.
- The Endless Summer
This movie is bound to make you smile. But be warned, it’s also likely to induce severe wanderlust of the “I’m-quitting-my-job” kinda type.
- Liquid Salt
An online surfing magazine that features not only pro surfers but also the shapers, shop owners, writers, artists, filmmakers and photographers of the surfing world. It’s especially inspiring to see that you can build a life around a passion for surfing without necessarily becoming a pro surfer.
- Encyclopedia of Surfing by Matt Warshaw
Charmingly written entries (with pictures, videos, and links) about the events, books, movies and people in the history of surfing. Also handy if you want to know what surf terms like “lip” or “over the falls” mean.
- Instagram accounts of Matt Cuddihy, Brooke Dombroski, Sarah Glover, Tara Michie and Chasing The Sun
The Surf Spot That I Won’t Be Telling You About
Before doing this spin-off, I didn’t understand why surfers were so secretive about the locations of surf breaks. I thought it was egoistic and unfair of them not to share the love. I also found it frustrating because it made the search for a good spot for my spin-off difficult. And yet, I’m now about to not tell you where I spent my month.
It’s not that I don’t want to share the location with you, and at the same time, it’s exactly that. I’m being selfish because I would hate for this place to get spoiled. One day, I would like to go back to it and not have to battle 50 other surfers for the same couple of waves. By keeping my end of the secret, I hope the locals won’t have to, and that once you find it, you won’t have to either.
P.S. About That Fear
If you’re wondering what ever happened to my fear of waves, it got pretty much cured after my first surf session. This surfing spot is very beginners friendly and produces, in contrast to the “dumping waves” (waves that close out all at once) that I found in Bali, gently peeling waves–and these, aren’t so scary.
Tell me what you think. Connect with me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram (links match comment pages for this post) and let me know: What are your experiences with surfing? What’s you favorite surf story? And what about your favorite surfing spot?
During my spin-off, I took notes of all my surfing sessions. I turned a few of those journals into surf stories about the frustrations of learning to surf, the importance of persistence, and the bug that follows.