Surf’s Up: Part 1

I learned to surf on a whim.  My friend Ellen had a work trip in Hawaii (Oahu) and I tagged along, staying for free in her room.  During the day she worked her ass off in 12-plus-hours of standards meetings, and at night we drank Mai Tais together with her colleagues.  While she was stuffed in a conference room debating the merits of our company’s way to store map data on a CD versus our competitors, I roamed the island.

Sure, I felt a little guilty.  But, dwelling on the injustice wasn’t going to do either of us any good.  I’d wake up, go to the gym, hit the Japanese style breakfast, walk along the beach, shop, get a fruit shake and sushi for lunch, play in the waves, and shop in the craft markets.  By the time Ellen returned from each day’s meetings, I would be waiting with Mai Tais in hand on our balcony, full of energy to listen about her day’s frustrations under the fluorescent lights.

Mai Tais

That is probably how my week would have progressed—not a bad week!—if I hadn’t met Mike.  Mike with his big smile and muscled torso was standing at my fruit shake stand.  Like the neighborhood crack dealer, he offered me my first surf lesson for free.

And, as he somehow knew I would be, I was hooked.  It was only an hour, and it involved very little paddling and was not long enough for me to develop surf rash.  I had no idea the pain and effort surfing involved.  All I knew was that standing up on a surfboard was an incredible rush—a strange combination of zen and pride, peace and adrenaline.


For our second day’s lesson he drove us to the North Shore, our boards casually slung in the back of his pickup truck.

My eyes widened as I saw the waves. The huge waves. The waves that could wash away the entire pick up truck.

Mike looked at me, smiled his magnetic smile, and rubbed my shoulders in encouragement.  “You’ll love it.  You were a champ yesterday.  You’ll do great!”

Who was I to challenge this maestro of his sport.  If he said I’d be great, surely he knew best.

With forced bravado I carried my board into the water, and started paddling out behind Mike.

Within minutes the illusion cracked.

Surfing is hard.  Ridiculously hard.

As I lay on my belly and paddled my arms as hard as I could, I was barely inching forward.  Worse, every few seconds a giant wave would crash in front of me.  And I kept being slammed in the face with white water, occasionally being knocked from the board completely.

Whenever Mike looked back at me I managed to smile, and pretend that this weird waterboarding paddling treadmill wasn’t pure torture.  I refused to give up.  I kept paddling.

Pretty soon my knees, thighs and belly were covered with something I would learn is called surf rash.  Tiny red raw bumps caused by a reaction to surf wax, that were screeching in pain in the salt water and every time I slid them over the board.

Twenty minutes later, I finally made it “out.”  I was past the breaking waves, into the calm of the open water.  I paddled bravely over Mike, who was straddling is board, keeping an eye on me and the ocean.

“Ready for your first wave?” he asked, skipping the gushing praise I thought I deserved for getting out.  “After you catch the wave, paddle back to me.”

That’s when the illusion shattered into pieces.  Every time I rode a wave into shore I would have to paddle back through the white water.

Swallowing, I assumed the position, and paddled with all my might as the wave Mike indicated started to break right behind me.  “Pop up!” I heard him call out behind me, and my body obeyed.  I stood up, and was surfing.

I turned my head and Mike’s fists were in the air, celebrating my success.  I turned back to shore and rode the wave, my body electric with joy.  After jumping off the board, I began the long painful paddle back to Mike, and back to my next fix.

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