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« The Evo-Bio of Impressionism, Part I | Main | Hidden Capacities »

June 23, 2003

Surfin' Ignominy

Friedrich --

After my four-hour group surfing lesson yesterday, I can guarantee that no Blowhard will ever again be welcome on a surfing beach. I'll pass quickly over my complete lack of talent for the sport and cut directly to the excuses. The main reason I won't be going back again is that there's a lot more physical daredeviltry involved in surfing than I expected. And even though it's a point of pride with me that I'm not the world's least-athletic arts geek, I've got nothing -- zero -- of the physical daredevil in me. Surfing reminded me of rockclimbing, another sport I gave my all to for a total of a couple of hours. "I'm supposed to find being in actual physical danger thrilling? You've got to be kidding" -- such was my overwhelming response to both these sports.

There were seven of us tyros (I was, ahem, the oldest), there was an instructor, there were slightly-bigger-than-ideal waves; there was some instruction on the beach and then an enthusiastic plunge into the ocean. You wrestle yourself and your board through the 50-feet-or-so stretch where the waves are actually breaking, then paddle out even farther, sit up on your board, and inspect the horizon for likely wave candidates. So far, so good. Like everyone else, I wound up in the drink a few times when I first tried to pivot the board around so it faced the beach, but I soon mastered the move. The ocean seemed a surging but friendly beast, full of promises for fun.

And then ... "In surfing, you just gotta accept that you're going to take your knocks," shouted the instructor, and never were truer words etc. OK! It's a good one coming at us! Now now now now! Paddle paddle paddle paddle! Dig dig dig dig! And ... kaboom! Flipflipflip; tumbletumbletumble; sea water up the nose; sand and pebbles everywhere. Whee! What fun! Let's do it again!

Trouble was that three factors immediately started to ruin my fun. One was my meager arm and shoulder resources, which started to run out after 15 minutes. Surfing demands tons of pushup/pullup-style strength, and evidently the 10-pushups-in-the-morning routine I adhere to is far from sufficient preparation. In no time, my arms had become mere jointed weights dangling from shoulder sockets. Without your arms to pull you along, you're completely (as opposed to semi-completely) at the mercy of the ocean. Now and then, little surges of energy did return to my upper body, but only enough to get me back into trouble.

Factor #2? A little something to do with my inability to actually see the waves. You're meant to sit out there on your board (hips loose, like you're riding a horse) looking around for something to ride; when you spot a good one, you do your best to take off and surf that baby. Now, crank that ideal sequence back a step or two. I had a hard time with the basic skill of looking over my shoulder and spotting a likely wave. What's a wave? It all looked like a slowly heaving gray mass to me. At least, right until the moment the breaker rose above me like a scary Disney witch. And then it was the whole kaboom/flipflipflip/stonewashing routine again.

Factor #3 was even more basic. It was my limited -- very limited -- tolerance for getting roughed up and knocked around. One time, sure; two times, why not? But after the fourth or fifth Dolby-and-Sensurround pummeling -- and it's surprisingly loud out there -- I felt like the joke had been told often enough. Two images came to mind: I was a sock thrown into a very full washing machine that someone had switched to the "Ultravigor" setting. Either that, or God for some reason had decided that he wanted to spend a day dropping pickup trucks on me.

The thrill of actually catching a wave or two seemed like a paltry payoff. And by "catching a wave," what I mean isn't anything like what you might be imagining -- standing up and having a long, satisfying ride, or doing that rocket-in-a-barrel number that surfing movies have made so familiar. (Although -- credit where credit's due -- a couple of 25ish Latino men in the class managed to get vertical for a microsecond or two, posing manfully for their hot-muchacha girlfriends on the beach before pitching headlong into the churn.) I mean lying on the board, clutching to its sides for dear life, hoping against hope that the nose doesn't dip too low (if it does, it catches, dives downward, and flips you like a flapjack feet over head), and hoping too that one of the board's side edges doesn't catch, in which case you roll sideways in a big hurry, as though the great Ocean Mother has decided to make use of you as a minor ingredient in some cosmic taco.

A couple of pleasant surfing surprises: hey, wet suits keep you pretty warm. They're a wrestle to get into and take off, but they do keep a chilly ocean from turning you blue. And current-day surfboards aren't the hard, wooden-machete-like things you fear they'll be. Instead, they're made of a spongey, styrofoam-like substance, with a thin laminate on the underside. So you don't live in quite as much fear of being cracked on the head and lost for good in the briney depths as you might expect to -- although, as I discovered, even a softer, more gentle board can still do some disconcerting damage when tossed by an angry wave edgeways at the bridge of your nose.

So that's it for me with surfing. Finito: I'm throwing in the wetsuit for good. (And you can scratch my previously-scheduled guest-starring appearance in that "Point Break" sequel.) My advice to a not-waiting world? If you're 16 or younger, learning to surf can probably be a lot of fun; I did get the sense that surfing might enable you to merge now and then with the awe-inspiring powers of the Ocean Gods. But if you're older than 16? Well, as my mother-in-law said, what's wrong with knee-deep waters and inflatable mattresses? The waves will push you around entertainingly enough, and (even better) the chances of serious damage are nil.

Today, the day after my adventure, my shoulders feel permanently dislocated, and my nose still feels less well anchored to my face than I'd really like it to. And the only form of exercise I'm feeling up to involves a corkscrew and a wine bottle.

Best, if temporarily in traction,


posted by Michael at June 23, 2003


Well I grew up in that ocean you are complaining about - and I got lots of salt water up my nose too, but life could be worse! First thing to do is practise in tame waves - at a beach which isn't too full of lots of surfers who are interested in 6 footers (and are interested in being jerks). Last time I practised I was in Hanalei, Kauai in March where the waves were little happy 2-3 feet wonders and I was wobbling on my friend's board... surfing is similar to skiing, and it does get harder as you get older. But you would learn how to ski if you didn't know how, right?

Zooming down a wave is magical - and if you don't like dealing with the hardware, go body surfing. You just make yourself into a rocket and go with the wave, dude.

Perhaps you might want to do some swimming over the summer, build up those arms muscles and go back out and give it another try. If you land up in the hospital, then blame it all on me (you have good insurance, right?).

Posted by: turbokitty on June 23, 2003 10:20 PM

Stud-ly adventure, dude. One of my employees is in his mid-50s and has been a religious surfer since his teenage days. He works out very religiously to maintain the upper body strength you mention. But I have a feeling that at this point he does a little surfing and mostly enjoys the beach, the sun, the sky, the short, the experience involves a lot more aesthetic contemplation that it did for him at 15. Athletic experiences evolve after 40.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 23, 2003 10:49 PM

Well blowhards, life is harsh... Living in Rio I've always had lots of sea fun, but never managed to surf...On the other hand bodysurfing it's an enjoyable experience. As turbokitty says, go with the wave dude...

Posted by: Z on June 24, 2003 12:26 AM

Golly, Moondoggie, what a bummmer!!

Posted by: annette on June 24, 2003 01:55 AM

Your detailed (hilarious) description of what my well past 16-year old self surely faces has in no way dampened my enthusiasm.

Posted by: j.c. on June 24, 2003 02:21 PM

Boogie-boarding horizontally is a lot easier than surfing vertically.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on June 24, 2003 03:55 PM

Come to Wisconsin--you can learn to polka and publically humiliate yourself without actually endangering any body parts!

Posted by: Deb on June 24, 2003 04:57 PM

Very very funny! I'll recommend this to all my surfing friends (all one and a half of them).

Posted by: Alice Bachini on June 24, 2003 07:41 PM

Alice, what happened to the other half of your friend? Please say it wasnt a surfing accident!

Posted by: Deb on June 25, 2003 01:02 PM

TurboK -- You make surfing sound great, and I'm sure it can be, even though I'll never have the experience. Let me know the next time you're going surfing. I'll bring along my sunblock, The Wife, my inflatable mattress, and my new DV videocam and make surfing movies of you.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 26, 2003 04:03 AM

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