Let’s go surfin’ now

Everybody’s learning how

Come on safari with me

-Beach Boys


 An ocean wave is a beautiful thing. Each travelling swell, born from wind energy, orbits quietly like a wheel in the water until it rolls into a reef or shoreline. Then it finds its voice and becomes either a loud surging and foaming cascade of rhythmic poundings or a more gentle series of “ssshhhhhs.”

Each wave becomes an ephemeral ocean summit. These fluid peaks break the monotony of a flat oceanic plain giving dance to the water that holds our gaze like a flickering campfire.

Waves are transformers. Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagen said, “You wonder what on Earth the waves might bring – and where the sea might deposit you – until one day you know you have lived between two places, the scene of arrival and the point of departure.”

Like a pulsing beast, waves can transform stones to pebbles to grains and grains to beach. They can carry tiny seeds and heavy seeds, like coconuts, hundreds, if not thousands of miles. And somewhere in the history of oceans, a human learned that there is joy in riding a wave.

Ever since I was a teen and heard the Beach Boys singing Surfin’ Safari and Surfin’ USA, I have fantasized about catching a wave and  the adoring gazes of scores of bikini-clad, tanned young women as I casually ride my board down into the tunnel of a massive, breaking wave.

Decades have put me beyond the bronzed, sun-bleached blonde hair and trimly muscled body idea. Nonetheless, I recently fulfilled part of that dream and finally had a surfing lesson. It seemed fitting that my wave riding session would be on the very day, at the very location of the 9th Annual International Women’s Surfing Cup on Siargao Island one of the 7,000 plus islands in the Philippines. There were lots of attractive young women on location.

The competitors would be carving 180°s and 360°s on a famous reef breaking set of waves called “Cloud 9.” These waves are ranked as the 7th best surfing waves in the world. I was feeling trepidation that my first-ever surf lesson would be within sight of the competitors, the spectators and the lenses of photo drones zipping over the water like scavenging gulls.

Confidently, I followed, Darwin, my young Filipino instructor as we headed to a strip of beach a quarter mile north of Cloud 9. As we walked I was tempted to speak like a surfer. After all I had picked up a ragged old surfing magazine at our accommodations and picked up some lingo. I could have said, “Hey Darwin, looks like the surf is going off today. Sure hope I can keep the grubbing down.” Translation: The surf is really good. I hope I don’t fall off my surf board too much. However, I suspect Darwin would have seen through the charade as I gingerly walked over the stones and old coral in trying to keep up with him. And it was likely that the smeared gobs of sun-screen clinging to parts of my face like misguided patches of toothpaste might have pointed at my rookie status.

I was feeling both nervous and amped to ride the “ankle busters”or lesser waves of a nearby set of waves.

Before we hit the water, Darwin set the board on the beach, digging a small hole in the sand to accommodate the single blade of the rudder. He had me lay on my belly on the grounded surf board and pseudo-paddle both arms, like a pair of windmills, as if catching a surging wave. Then I had to quickly scramble to my feet just as the wave begins to crest. I stood up, crouching, with my left foot, three-feet or so, in front of my right foot. I stretched one arm out in front of me with the other reaching out behind me for better balance. It was the classic surfing pose.  Darwin was pleased with my quick dryland progress and we took off for a walk through the coconut trees to the beach. I was wondering if I might be a surfing prodigy.

Wading out to the reef, where the curling waves pushed a few other surfing pupils, was a slow process with the coral punishing my bare feet. Darwin’s seasoned surfing feet moved steadily through the water.  Before long he signaled me to lie on the board and he towed me, like a parent pulling a child in a wagon, out to the waves.

Turning my board to face the shore, Darwin kept looking over his shoulder for the approach of a wave I could hitch a ride on.In his broken English, I heard him eagerly say, “Get ready!” A few seconds passed and he yelled, “Paddle! Paddle!”

I conjured my inner Michael Phelps butterfly stroke and paddled like hell. In barely a moment, Darwin was yelling, “Stand up! Stand up! Stand up!

This is where the fantasy of slicing down a wave fell apart. I had barely managed to get my feet under me, almost like a football lineman ready at the line of scrimmage, when I was tossed like a puny piece of pallid flotsam.

After my fourth attempt to cleanly stand up and breath in fresh ocean air rather than fresh and salty water, I thought of the advice I had read from world champion surfing champion, Kelly Slater. Known by many as the greatest surfer ever, having won the world championships eleven times, Slater said, “A wave isn’t like a skate ramp or mountain; everything’s moving around you and you have to time how to move along with it. That’s easier with a slow wave.”

Clearly, Darwin should have started me on slower waves and offered me a board with training wheels or outriggers.

Let’s just say that my outing did not resemble my surfing fantasy. For the next hour, I repeatedly paddled myself back out to Darwin while experiencing some spectacular and some not-so-spectacular wipe-outs. I grubbed repeatedly and did it well. Once I actually managed to sort of get to my feet, looking more like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. I cruised contortedly for perhaps twenty feet before I ate it into the salty washing machine. I was thankful I was shackled to the surf board by a leash that was velcroed to my ankle, keeping my board close at hand.

Finally the lesson was blessedly finished. I was spent. Slowly we walked to shore. Darwin, politely slowed down to walk at my side. Only then did he ask my age.

“I’ll be 66 this summer.”

Looking surprised, he said, I did very well for someone my age on their first lesson. I think he was mining a tip when he followed up with a confidence builder.

“You look like you are only 50. No way 65!”

Though my sinuses were filled, and my shoulders felt like pudding,  I felt a slight bolstering of my waterlogged ego and I managed a tired smile.

I was, after all, a surfer.

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