Like most skills, surfing is something you learn by doing. Lessons help, but the only you’ll ever reliably stand up and ride waves over and over and over again is if you get in the water as much as possible.
Even on what I consider my “bad” days in the water, when all I’ve done is crash every time I’ve tried to stand up or paddle uselessly because the waves were too hard or too messy for me to catch, I feel like I’ve learned something. In a sport like surfing — where there are an infinite number of things to learn — any time logged on a surfboard in an ocean is time well spent. No bad day is ever pointless, especially for a beginner.
Even though I’ll mark today in the “bad” column of days surfed to date, I can’t malign it as far as experience goes because I learned probably the most useful lesson of all: how to get myself out of a potentially life-threatening situation.
It probably wasn’t the best idea to surf while jetlagged and sleep-deprived, but I was determined to get in the water today. Though David didn’t call me at the time we scheduled yesterday, he did respond almost immediately to my text about an hour later asking where and when to meet him for a surfboard.
At his request, I drove to the neighboring town of Odeceixe to see him and Joaquim, his friend with whom I’m also acquainted. David and I had coffee and caught up for a bit, and then he gave me a board shorter than I’m used to — about 7 feet or so versus 8-feet-plus boards I’ve ridden in New York and the last time I was here. He advised me to try it and if I didn’t like it, I could switch it for a longer board later.
I spent some time in the water at Praia de Odeceixe first, but it was frustrating — I was feeling a little woozy from jetlag and there is a rip current at that break that pulls toward a cluster of rocks at the end of the beach. I’ve had a couple of bad experiences with that current, and it added to the disorientation I already was feeling.
I also wasn’t having a lot of luck getting up and riding on the unfamiliar and shorter board, but I figured I would have to learn to surf on any board eventually, so I couldn’t blame a board for my poor performance. I stayed in the water for only about 40 minutes, then sunned on the beach most of the afternoon.
David was supposed to meet up with me on Praia de Odeceixe 20 minutes after I arrived there, but as is typical with my elusive friend, he didn’t show up. (I wasn’t surprised, and I have long stopped holding his erratic scheduling against him.) I decided to hit Praia da Arrifana — the beach where I spent most of my time in April. Arrifana can get quite big in its own right, but there isn’t usually a rip current, and I’m more familiar with its various breaks from my experience last time.
I was feeling stronger and a little more confident by the time I got to Arrifana, so after cutting my teeth on the whitewater for awhile, I managed to paddle out to one of several breaks the more serious locals and visiting surfers were riding. It was there that I got into a little bit of trouble.
One of the biggest sets of the day started rolling in, and I tried to drop in too late on a wave that a surfer behind me had missed — a rookie mistake. I didn’t quite get it and it knocked me off my board, which is usually not a big deal because, in much of my novice surfing experience riding waves that have already broken, I’ve usually been in water where I could touch bottom.
Naturally, when I got knocked off my board, my feet reached for the sand beneath me. Unfortunately, this time it wasn’t there. To most surfers, this isn’t a big deal; they know to just get back on their board, hold onto it until the rest of the set rolls through or paddle back out into it.
I’m not most surfers, however — I’m a beginner and a bit of a nervous Nelly besides. Up until today I’ve been too cautious to be out in deep water in such strong waves — especially alone — and my situation sent a flash of panic through me.
To calm myself, I spoke aloud and told myself to hold on to my board; when you’re surfing, your board is pretty much your lifeline (you’re leashed to it for a reason). I managed to grab it and scramble nearly back on just before the second wave of the set — over my head and even bigger than the first — hit me, knocking me off again.
Again my feet instinctively reached for the bottom that wasn’t there as I kicked to reach my wayward board again and choked in seawater. I was also seriously fatigued, and wondering if I even had the strength to paddle back to shallow water once the set rolled through.
I made it back onto my board again, this time more securely, and told myself to take a breather and try to catch a ride in on my belly with the next wave. My breather was short-lived, as the next wave hit me only seconds later. Fortunately, however, my plan worked; the wave — another big and fast one — sped me all the way in as I panted and held onto my board for dear life.
I probably could have gone back in the water for another go, but the experience scared me enough to call it a day. In a way, though, I felt proud as I made what seemed like an endless trudge down the beach and up the steep and winding path to where my car was parked.
I felt like getting caught in that set today was some sort of surfer initiation, and I had passed. Wiping out in deep water is par for the course for a real surfer, and learning to handle the successive waves that roll in after the one you’ve wiped out on is a skill that surfers use over and over again.
While I panicked initially, my common-sense survival instinct kicked in soon after. This is important, because when you’re surfing — even with other people, which I rarely am these days — there’s really nothing anyone can do for someone who’s caught after a wipeout in a big set. (That is, unless you’re a big-wave rider and they send someone in with a jet ski. But I’m pretty sure that will never happen to me.)
Today was also significant for a personal reason. I have suffered from anxiety disorder for nearly half of my life; it started with serious panic attacks when I was 21 and has waxed and waned over the years.
On and off for about three years, I was medicated for anxiety and the depression that is often paired with it; but for more than two years now, I have used a combination of exercise, yoga and meditation to control my disorder. I’m not always successful, but I like to think I keep my affliction fairly under control.
So today was not just a milestone for me as a novice surfer, but also as a human being. I’m proud that I not only remembered what to do when I was in a hairy situation, but also that reason trumped panic and got me out of it.
There have been times in my life in which that might have not been the case, and my own panic would have been more dangerous than any wave breaking over me. Today I’m glad things turned out the way they did, and that I will surf another day, a little wiser from my frightening experience but none the worse for wear.