I spend my winters in the mountains, working at a ski area. Whenever I meet someone new, whether on the chairlift or in the bar, they eventually ask the same question: so what do you do in the summer? My answer is usually vague. I write, I travel; I let my feet breathe in flip-flops and wear thin cotton t-shirts. I go outside and soak up the sun, hoping to bank some of its warmth as if my bones were a savings account.
Last month my husband and I signed up for a surf camp in Costa Rica. One of my ten commandments of life is to push myself. As a ski patroller, it’s easy to get complacent with expertise. I’ve been skiing since I was three, and unless I really try, I the slopes don’t often push me. That’s not to say I shouldn’t get scared sometimes, but after twenty-one years on the patrol, the gritty edge of danger wears down a bit.
Getting to Peaks and Swells Surf Camp isn’t easy. And the moment I stepped off the plane after two days of travel, I knew I’d made a mistake. I hadn’t booked a long enough stay. Eight days just wasn’t long enough for two ski industry professionals, fresh off the slopes, to spread our toes into the warm sand and learn to drink coconut water straight from the nut, while tapping into the laid-back buzz humming all around us.
Our third day in the water, we went to Cedro’s, a reef break near the town of Montezuma. As I waited for the next set, balancing on my surfboard in the slick water, my gratitude swelled with the ocean. These relentless waves come in with each tide, whether I’m here or not, I thought to myself. The trick was to be ready for them.
The set strengthened, and I positioned myself in the lineup. A swell approached and the local surfers turned their boards away, letting me take this one. I spun and paddled my arms, four long strokes and four quick ones—just like my instructor, Chris, taught me. My board climbed with the wave and pitched forward. I took one last stroke and popped up.
With surfing, just like in life, there’s an edge. Embracing the sport means finding that threshold and riding it. It’s challenging to push yourself right up to your limit and stay there. You might even push just a little further, moving that boundary out a bit.
When I stood up on the wave, I was “in the pocket”, that green water just in front of the curl full of speed and promise. My board floated along the fast water, breaking loose from the surface tension, free to carve and turn. I was really surfing.
We shouldn’t even have been there. Three years earlier, John had a liver transplant due to an autoimmune disease. He also had bile duct cancer, which normally carries a nine-month life expectancy. Luckily, the crackerjack surgeons had saved him, and our lives had pitched forward into a pocket of thrilling speed as we sought after lost chances.
If surfing were easy, everyone would do it. The breaks would be crowded with tourists trying it out, maybe getting barreled, perhaps towing into a big wave off Maui’s North Shore, then quickly moving on to something more challenging, like golf or shuffleboard. But it’s hard. Of all the sports I’ve tried, including whitewater kayaking, rock climbing and slacklining, surfing has the biggest barrier to entry.
The trick is to have an instructor—someone to push you into your first few waves, teach you the language of the lineup, point out hazardous currents and buried coral heads. Most importantly, an instructor can get you up on your first wave before your shoulders sag and your arms feel so heavy your chin chafes against the board. If first, before exhaustion sets in, you can ride one wave, just one beautiful breaking mass of green gloss and white foam, you will be hooked for life. It happens when the water hardens beneath your board, and you pick up speed with your feet rooted to the foam. It’s just you and the wave, breaking free from gravity and tension. You are surfing. In a flash of Zen satori and Christian rapture, you and Mother Nature are connected for that brief moment when she lets you climb on her back and ride it all the way to shore.