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Embracing failure in endless surf.

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I love to drive down the California coast from Half Moon Bay to Huntington Beach, watching the black wetsuit clad figures as they ebb and flow with the swells.

It is a balletic performance the way their bodies sway up and down, the rhythmic motion of their paddling hands, and the ease with which they pop up onto their plastic boards. I have always been fascinated with the art of surfing.

I often look up the weather forecast for far away places like Jeffrey’s Bay and the Mentawai Islands to find out the height of the breaks. I imagine myself upon those waves in the company of those adventurous daredevils. Drawn in by the wild call of the ocean, I picture my body effortlessly becoming a part of the rolling motion.

I have never surfed, but it’s been an ever present thought at the back of my mind: what if I could ride the waves?  

Zen Masters.

To me, surfers are humans with a touch of infallibility, people who rise above a natural force, walkers of water. The ocean fascinates me, in all its changeable forms, but I also fear its power.

I want to vanquish my fear, to see the looming waves as friends and master their energy. The smooth turning and tilting as white foam barrels down behind the wave rider has captured my attention and imagination, and I can no longer resist its powerful call.

Luckily, I live in a time when almost anything can be learned at any age, if you have the resources. So when I traveled to Oahu, Hawaii, I swore I would learn to surf at the sport’s Graceland: Waikiki Beach.

The moment I arrive in Oahu, though, I panic. I want to cancel my surf lesson and spend my hard earned holiday on safer pursuits like lying on the beach, or chasing my dog on the sand.

Waikiki Beach is the tamer sister of Oahu’s famous and dangerous North Shore. Here, regular calm breakers gently greet people of all ages. Warmly baked sand borders an endless repetition of cerulean waves that softly froth upon the golden shore. Even tiny tots seems to be managing the low surf, but I am still afraid.

Not of the water, but of failure. What if I am unable to learn surfing even here? What if these placid ripples get the better of me?

On the Beach.

Although I have convinced myself not to take lessons, I skulk around one of the beachside surf shacks. Would-be enthusiasts step up to the colorful, straw roofed hut eager to rent boards and learn to ride. The prices seem reasonable, the staff are friendly, but I cannot take on the challenge. I look out across the water hoping to change my mind or gain some courage. One of the attendants from the rental shed catches my eye as he walks by and engages me out of my quiet quandary.

“Good day for surfin’,” he exclaims with the certitude of an experienced surfer.

“Yeah,” I respond, shrugging nonchalantly.

“First time?” he asks mildly. Then without waiting for an answer, “we offer surf lessons with some great teachers,” he continues with a jockeying tone.  

“Awesome,” I answer, trying not to show my anxiety, “good to know.”

Sensing my trepidation, he parts with encouraging words, “When you’re ready, let me know.”

I nod my thanks, then wander off towards the silent silhouette of Diamond Head. I am not ready.

On the mile and a half hike towards the sharp cliff’s edge, I spy a robust yet weather-seared man with long locks of silver hair speaking to three kids. His hearty assurance and his easy smile draw me nearer.

I watch as he takes his class through the surf motions on the sand. He includes me in his amiable glance as he says to his students, “Remember when you’re out there to have fun!”

His last word jars me out of my vacillation. Fun is exactly what the man’s spirit embodies and his students look like they can’t wait to get into the water and enjoy themselves.

I decide this is the core of what surfing is all about and return to the surf shack. Before my self-doubts can stop me, I have paid for the two-hour tutorial and anxiously wait for class to begin with a thick, long, white foam surfboard under my armpit.

Happily, my tutor is the same sun-kissed, steel haired guru who persuaded me to take a chance on the lesson. He smiles and asks our small group how many of us have ever tried to surf before. No one raises their hands. He slaps his thigh gleefully, states that his name is Old Sam, and motions us towards the edge of the beach.

Old Sam and the Sea.

Old Sam’s first words of wisdom are that we should strive to become one with the waves. To begin, he has us going through the motions of lying, paddling, and popping up from our boards on dry land. It all seems quite doable to me at this point, but as I catch the glimmer of sunlight reflecting off the foamy breaks, serious doubts return about translating sand practice into wet surf.

Too early for my comfort, Old Sam has us heading into the water far out, to where the swells are building.

Awkwardly, I manage to get onto my gigantic foam board and paddle towards the distant rally point away from the safety of the beach. As my arms burn from the unfamiliar exercise, I quake at the enormous height of the waves from my vantage point and the booming echo they produce as they crash behind me.

The breakers wash over me and I topple from my board countless times. The scenery around me is a blinding mess of foam, salt, and tepid water. Old Sam is right there beside me, calling out rollers enthusiastically, unfailing in his motivation.

Each time I fall over, I can hear him encouraging me to come back out and try again. He reminds me to stop fighting the water and enjoy myself.

I stop and take a deep breath. I rest on my board and let the undulating motion of the water relax me. At a gesture from Old Sam, I head towards land, paddling strongly.

Now focused on the water’s movements, I feel the gradual lift of the surge as it pushes underneath my surfboard. Instinctively, I pop up on my feet and bend my knees. My arms flail and my feet shuffle to gain balance as I sense the breaker barreling towards the beach. This is it: I am riding my first wave! Fear of falling, thoughts of danger, anxiety about the unknown have left me completely. I am at one with the ocean.

Reaching Harmony.

After my first successful attempt, I found more waves I could ride all the way in. Even though my body ached from the exercise, I went out every day of my Hawaiian trip to surf. Sometimes I caught several waves with perfect timing, sometimes they all slipped beyond my grasp, but I kept returning, excited to ride the ocean again.

It’s true what surfers say: once you try it, the addiction never quite leaves you. Now, I too know what this experience is like. The next time I am by the seashore and the water beckons, I won’t be afraid. Board in hand, I will race out to greet it. I will let its unceasing motion carry me triumphantly on top. I have entered the surfer’s world and left fear of failure at the shore.

*****

{Leave your fear behind and ride the waves}

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