Updated: Apr 11
I’m not sure if it’s because I started surfing as an adult, or if it’s because I am naturally a bit cautious (my dad’s voice in my head saying, “Heather, use your brain, slow down, and come home in one piece!”), but some days when I surf, no matter how many days I have under my wetsuit, or how many times I’ve popped up at the same spot, on relatively the same wave, I simply can’t catch a wave to save my ass. My instincts break down and the skill set that I thought was solid, like riding a bike, escapes me. The basics: paddle out, catch my breath (from 5 seconds to 5 minutes depending on how long it took me to get past the break), pick my wave, paddle, paddle, paddle, paddle and pop! Repeat, smile, enjoy.
Sometimes, (even knowing my brain subconsciously warns me beforehand) I just don’t have the good juju out there to have the session I want. It usually begins way before I’m even at the beach. On these rare (thank God) occasions when I’m deciding whether or not to go, my energy veers to the horrible dialogue that compares this surf day to going to the gym and mindlessly working out just to sweat. THAT is not how anyone should feel before surfing! I tell myself that I’m being a baby and that I’ll regret it in a few hours when I’m at work and didn’t get out. So, I push away the negative thoughts and continue. I get to the beach and maybe it’s a bit colder than I like to tolerate, or maybe I can’t get my wetsuit on because it’s still wet from the day before, or maybe the waves are messy and closed out, and trying to catch one will be futile. Whatever the myriad of clues there are, I ignore them because I’m there and I’m too stubborn to read the signs. It’s important to remember here that I am at best an intermediate surfer, and I have only spent a few years in the water, and not my lifetime. If I was more advanced, and had spent decades in the water, maybe all these signs would mean nothing and I would still paddle out for a great session. Unfortunately, my reality is that all these signs (once in a while) mean, “ Heather, you’re going to regret the next hour.”
Now, I would never want to scare anyone away from learning to surf, nor scare them away from the immense (yet enjoyable) learning curve it has over all other sports (at least the ones I do) with my opinion that “there are just some days that suck” because even those sucky days I feel thankful for. As kids we are told constantly that making mistakes is part of growing up and you’ll be wiser for it in the end. It’s true, there will be a lot of mistakes in life and you will learn from them. In surfing (at least for me) there will be a shit-ton of mistakes and I continually keep learning from them. Sometimes the lesson escapes me for a while, but it’s always there at the end of the rainbow to grow from. I’ve written about my two-wave hold down in Bali, and I briefly mentioned about my fin getting stuck inside my wetsuit and tearing my veins from my bones before, so I’ll spare you those tales. For this particular lesson I will dive into my “Shark Story”.
I learned early on not to be irrationally afraid of sharks in my Southern California niche. There are so many other things to think about out there when learning to get better. Even in the early morning when there’s barely light and I’m out, I think rationally… “What are the chances, stop staring into the dark water, just surf.” The thought of an actual shark comes and goes, and I move on. On this particular morning, I knew Sunset was going to be at high tide, and probably not great. I also knew that when it’s like that there is a good chance I’ll be out there alone. I had already pushed away those negatives and was heading down to the water. I was no pansy, I’ll just splash around a bit, see what I can see and be happy. As I walked down to the beach, I saw a fin. It’s still pretty dark, but I was pretty sure it was a dolphin, as Sunset has a lot of those beautiful babes swimming around. Although I did notice that this one was alone, which isn’t uncommon, but usually I see them in pairs, if not large pods. So, I watch it, and I also notice that its fin wasn’t coming out of the water as much as I usually see (which helps me confirm for sure it’s a dolphin). Anyway… I put my leash on, watch again, don’t see it anymore, and paddle out.
Happily, the waves weren’t that bad, and as the tide dropped a bit I was actually surprised no one was out. These weren’t end-all-be-all sets to die for, but they were catchable and fun. I had already caught a few waves, and was paddling back out when I saw my finned-friend again, farther out. I was comfortable now and didn’t think twice about my initial inability to confirm it was a dolphin. I figured, if it was a shark and it was interested in me, he would have already introduced himself. Again, I reminded myself that irrational fear can ruin a lot of things, and with surfing, irrational fear can end your career for good if it takes over. So, I turned toward shore to paddle, and as I’m doing so I heard a man shout from the Pacific Coast Highway, “Shark, shark, get out of the water, SHARK!” Well, let’s just say that I would have rather heard my first boyfriend yell “I’m breaking up with you, I think you’re ugly, and I’m in love with your sister!” rather than that. When I heard these words break through the quiet morning, my first thought was, “This guy is nuts and probably hasn’t ever seen a dolphin.” My second thought (two seconds after the first thought) was, “Yikes, I wasn’t 100% sure it was a dolphin before, and possibly this guy has a better vantage point than me.” My third thought (one second after my second thought) was, “Get the F out of the water!”. So, I paddled hard, caught the wave I was trying to get before the mayhem and went to shore. When I got there, there were a couple of stoned teenagers just waking up from a very un-sober night under the wood steps beneath the highway. I stumbled out, looked at them as if to say, “Hey, did you see anything, is that guy crazy? Are you going to hug me because I’m alive?” Of course, I got nothing- just blank stares as if they didn’t even know they were sitting in front of the ocean.
After my very somber welcome back to land, I turned back to the water, watched for a bit and then saw my finned-friend far, far away. This time, it was confirmed, I saw the smooth, curved fin of a dolphin and my heart slowed back to normal. I then looked up at the highway to the “Voice that Shook my Morning” and saw him get in his car and drive away. I got back into the water and enjoyed the rest of my session. Later when I told my husband, he couldn’t understand why I was so mad at the screamer from the road. He said, the guy was just trying to help you. I tried to explain to him, that the shock of those words, at that time, in that very solo situation was more unwelcoming than having to share a cup of coffee with a shark that morning. Because now, two months later, at dawn, at Sunset, I hear that guy in the back of my head, and I hesitate before getting in the water. I now have to re-teach myself about irrational fear. Like I said before- we learn from our mistakes, we learn from our experiences. Some days are better than others, and some days you just have to ignore guys who scream from highways. ☺