Surfing on the West Coast
“Yo did you hear the news? Danny just texted me saying they cleared everyone out of the water because a surfer was bumped by a Great White this morning,” as Nate peddles to catch up as we walk, barefoot, looking like human seals in our wetsuits with surfboards in hand (so California, I know.) “You know how Danny is always driving listening to the news… yeah it’s like a big deal bro. He was all, ‘Is Aaron still taking that girl from New York out surfing today?!'”
It’s week 3 of writing to you from my sunny California patio and everyday that passes this place feels more and more like home. I’ll ride this wave until I can no longer tolerate life without snow in my backyard, family around, New York pizza or if I just get eaten by a shark. Hopefully, that won’t be today because I really want to stand up on a wave in the Pacific Ocean.
The truth is, I’ve dabbled with surfing on the East Coast before. It was Wellfleet, Cape Cod, Massachusetts where I got my first taste of it. My family would rent the same New England beach house that was tucked away between the sacred peninsula sand dunes and forest. If you messed with those sand dunes, you’d be in some serious shit.
It was the kind of quaint town where people would sell firewood bunches on the side of the road and trust that buyers would leave $5 for them. The country store thrived off tourists from more hectic places in the North East, like us, from New York. The two weeks of relaxation consisted of finishing summer reading, playing rummie games around a picnic table and eating too much lobster.
The houses weren’t stacked on top of each other like here in Huntington Beach, but they were all raised up on 9-foot stilts. This makes me wonder, is Southern California such a dreamland that their structures are invincible to natural disasters? I.e. tsunami’s? I don’t need convincing…
Friends and family would stagger in for a few days at a time to the six-bedroom house on Pine Point Road, enjoy the BBQ’s and beach bonfires with the neighbors we’d met over the years. 2005 was the August my cousin, Shannon, and I rented 12-foot foam boards that we could barely carry and decided to take on the Atlantic. “How hard could it be? I snowboard, it’s got to be similar,” I thought. As a side note, Shannon’s not blood-related, but it’s one of those big Italian family mentalities that you consider close family friends, family. She too left the confinement of New York and is now living in North Carolina with a surf board and the humidity. She’d love California…
So, My first time surfing really should be called tumbling with the white water and flailing around trying to remember tips from Kate Bosworth in Blue Crush.
Anyway, now it’s prime time-don’t-surf time in Huntington Beach, California. Between the shark sighting and the wailing winds, the chopped up water is occupied only by wind surfers. They’re doing it right. “So, we’re just going to focus on paddling today,” Aaron says as he draws an outline of a surfboard in the sand. My body relaxes, “Whew, thank god he agrees we shouldn’t go into the water,” I think to myself as the helicopters pace parallel to the beach above us.
I’ll just kick back, practice a few pop-ups on the beach and take careful notes on how not to look like a “kook”. Which, might I add, is harder than you think. You’d agree more if you saw my sad attempt at gracefully putting on a full body wet suit. We went over other fundamentals like putting on the leash, something you definitely want wear surfing compared to snowboarding. You’d be considered a “kook” of the winter world if you did, at least on the East Coast. As I reach to unstrap the leash from my right foot, Aarons is already heading for the water. I guess there’s no escaping this now.
Why am I doing this to myself? I’m petrified of the waves, the current and now the thought of Great White Sharks lurking the unknown below my board. We’re paddling out toward the break, the most unsettling feeling because I never understood how to carry my body along with my board to the other side of the crash. With every inch further away from the shore, I loose the safety net of the ocean floor, and I feel nature's force pulling my body in opposing directions. I’m starting to think all I have to show for my short time on the Marlins Swim Team in Middle School are a few 3rd place ribbons and bad memories of swim cap hair. You try fitting this hair into one of those things!
As I paddle, a familiar wave of nerves consumes me thinking about the below freezing nights spent at Mountain Creek, New Jersey, hiking the park trying to learn new tricks or just face rails that I’d been too afraid to try.
Snowboarding was our after school activity as long as we could bum a ride to the mountain. It was our Friday and Saturday night party before spending all of our time and money at bars was cool. We’dset up rails in backyards with a 30 rack of PBR, a stereo and a game of beer pong going. If there was good snow, (rare in New Jersey) we’d ride the Mountain, along with every Joey from New York who would come out after a snow storm rocking jeans and a North Face Fleece. If no one had their board stolen and none of our windshields were smashed in, we’d call it a good night.
“You just have to go for it. The more you overthink this rail, the more time you’re giving yourself to f** up,” said Larry, long time best friend, killer drummer and my number one snowboard motivator. Snowboarding, (and surfing, I’m currently learning) is a sport of internal mind battles.
Hesitation will destroy you long before confidence will.
That is one thing I learned from hiking that same feature until sunrise trying to perfect a frontside 180 on. Legs quivered, layers shed, and every step up the frozen slope my breath instantly turned into a thick cloud in the cold, dry air. After hours of attempts, falls, washouts, bruised butt cheeks, and exhaustion, I landed it. A smooth, half rotation, landing totally switch on the plexiglass box. It’s a happiness you couldn’t ever buy.
Everything you want is on the other side of (fear) the breaking point, right? As we paddle in the calmer waters and watch the sets come through, Aaron sets me up for a wave he sees coming in the distance. With a little push and a lot of paddling, I feel the pull of the wave under me, and I push myself up. I’m standing! You can see the pure and utter joy in the GoPro shot above. Again, a feeling that can’t be bought, given, or that comes easy.
For the 5 seconds of riding something I was so petrified of moments before, my mind is free of the fear, hesitation, and doubt. In surfing, snowboarding and life, these things will destroy us all if we let them. It’s when you’re so scared you can’t
Did I mention it was Shark Week? Thank you, Aaron, for the surf lesson!