Catching a wave can be a massive rush, even when you’re doing it awkwardly.
The Humbling Truth About Being a Bad Surfer
Words— Kathryn Jezer-Morton
There’s no sport quite as cool—in the pure sense of the word, which is to say, effortless, aloof, casual, charismatic—than surfing. Surfing is very, very difficult, and can only occur at specific locations, which means very few people do it at all. Hence surfing’s elite quality—surfers are a rare breed, much more so than snowboarders or rock-climbers or golfers. To be a good surfer, you need to surf a lot, and good surfing conditions are unpredictable and short-lived. This requires committed surfers to organize their lives around the behaviour of the waves. Maybe this is where the ''laid back slacker'' dimension of the surf aesthetic comes from; many of the best surfers work hard at surfing at the expense of basically everything else.
Surfing is exhausting. It requires a strong back and shoulders for paddling, amazing balance, incredible reflexes and the ability to withstand the relentless pounding of waves crashing over your body. Good surfers are in great shape, and it’s the kind of shape that you can’t get in a gym. There’s no faking the kind of shape you get in from surfing. There’s also nothing quite like a couple of hours of surfing to make your body feel like a wrung-out rag in the best possible way.
Meanwhile, surfers compete for limited space where a wave breaks. This is where the reputation surfers have for being territorial comes from; there are only so many good waves in a given few-hour period, and when many people are taking turns catching them, tempers can get testy. Surfers have a rich lexicon of words to describe wannabe-surfers who get in the way, (Barneys, kooks, Jakes, the list has no end), and while nobody wants to be described this way, there’s no way around it, if you want to start surfing at all.
So, let’s take a tally of what we have so far: surfing is hard, exhausting, inherently exclusive, and engenders a certain locals-only attitude. Cool, cool. So, for me, a 36-year-old mom with the athletic ability of your average late-finishing jogger in small-town 5k walk n’ run, learning to surf wasn’t intimidating at all.
I suck at surfing, and I definitely always will
This past year, I spent a few months living in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, with my family. Puerto has some of Mexico’s best surfing, and it’s home to a small beginner’s beach that is perfect (in the winter months especially, when the waves are smallest) for learning. This was amazing for my confidence, and a great workout that made me stronger, but let me make something very clear: I suck at surfing, and I definitely always will.
It’s not a coincidence that surfers have a reputation for being relaxed. You have to stay loose and relaxed while catching a wave since you have to continuously adjust your balance on the board. Too tense, and you’ll fall right off. I found this part challenging—classic nervous city-person problem. ''It’s not complicated,'' my instructor Luis told me once after I’d fallen off my board yet again. ''The trees are green, the sky is blue, the ocean is big. You can’t change any of it. Just relax.”
Being a bad surfer is humbling. You’re so close to something so cool, you can almost touch it. In your mind, for brief moments, you do touch it. Catching a wave is a massive rush, even when you’re doing it awkwardly. At the risk of crossing the line into corniness, catching a wave feels like being in sync with nature in a way that is very hard to replicate in any other way. It feels transcendent.
But the truth is, beginners like me don’t look cool while we’re surfing. The way that we look has nothing to do with coolness, and this is fine. It’s not wrong to look uncool. It’s not wrong to make a fool of yourself. The coolness, after all, is just a byproduct of surfing, not the goal. It’s so much better to try something and commit to learning it than to stand back for fear of looking like a fool. We are all fools deep down, and it’s liberating to let go of the fear of looking like one.
In the meantime, like every other Barney out there, I proudly wear my surf brand t-shirts. I dare you to tell me I shouldn’t. When it comes to doing something hard, all that matters is the thing itself. Surfing requires that you spend hours of your life sitting on a board in the ocean. If you can manage that, you’re already ahead. For the rest of us normies stuck at our office jobs, heading to the ocean for a week a year, all psyched up to rent a longboard and make asses of ourselves, wearing the t-shirt is a consolation prize.