[From Us] Surf’s Up

We have a bucket list. I don’t mean like a loose-idea-in-the-back-of-your-mind-list-of-things-you’d-like-to-do-before-you-die type of list. We have a real list that we actively work on and update. We got the idea from a friend who made a list of 30 activities, goals, and challenges that she wanted to accomplish before she turned 30. We loved that concept, but we were about a month from 30 when we heard about her list. So ours has taken a slightly different form. We started with about 30 activities, goals, and challenges that we wanted to accomplish over the oncoming year. Some of them are fun places to visit (like the Redwoods), some of them are activities we want to try (like white water rafting), and some of them are reaching personal goals (like certain career or household accomplishments) or trying things that intentionally take us to the edge of our comfort zones (like confronting a fear of heights). This constantly evolving list keeps us on track and keeps us always trying new things and pushing the envelope. It keeps us learning, growing, and having fun. One thing we soon realized was that a one-year timeline for getting everything done just wasn’t possible. There’s no way we could check off all sorts of city visits and activities that span the country in just one year with our limited vacation time and budget. This list had to become more of a framework that we consider when we plan vacations, when we plan weekend activities at home, and something we consult when the “everyday stuff” gets to be too “everyday”.

Our lists aren’t identical, we’re two separate people with different likes and goals. But we do have a lot of intersections of our lists that appeal to us both. Then there are things that might be on only one of our lists, but the other one of us feels like they have to rise up and meet the challenge too. Which brings us to the purpose of this post - we were able to check surfing off our bucket lists yesterday.

Our lists include many outdoor adventure activities, things like white water rafting, mountain biking, and mountain climbing. We love the outdoors and we love that these activities push your boundaries both physically and mentally. Naturally, surfing has always been on our lists. When we started planning our vacation to northern California, tackling surfing wasn’t even on our radar. We always figured someday we’d take a trip to Hawaii and learn in the clear, warm, blue water there. When I stumbled across surfing lessons as an activity offered when we were to visit Mendocino my brain clicked on and I instantly thought we needed to try this. When I mentioned it to Matt his immediate answer was absolutely not. Dark, cold, deep water that’s ridden with sharks. He told me that I was crazy. That response just so happened to push me into doing what I do when we disagree - I start surrounding my argument with loads of facts, data, and statistics. I had stats on how many shark attacks there were in the US, how many fatal, where they occurred, and what activities the people were doing when they were bitten. I had data proving how SMALL of a risk we were talking about when it came to sharks. Explained that I was willing to risk it for the adventure.

After I made my case, I let it drop, and figured we’d re-visit once we got to California and he got that usual fever to experience life like the locals do. However, when my birthday arrived at the start of September Matt gave me a gift of us taking surfing lessons. He printed out website information from 3 or 4 surf schools in regions we were visiting, but told me if we were going to do this, he wanted to take the lessons in Santa Cruz from the Richard Schmidt Surf School. He really liked speaking with them, he just felt they were kind and gracious about answering any questions and just seemed like all-around awesome people. This side trip south to Santa Cruz meant that I had to re-think our road trip destinations. I hadn’t planned to go south of San Francisco, but figured if we do dip south, we can drive the CA-1 highway down to Monterey and Big Sur, which I wanted to do but worried about fitting in the time. It meant sacrificing some time in the northern forests, but I’d take the swap if it meant Matt would take surfing lessons with me.

In the weeks leading up to our trip, something interesting started to happen. It seemed like every time I heard the news there was talk about sharks and shark attacks. The first fatal shark attack in over 80 years occurred in Cape Cod. Non-fatal shark attacks were up all over the east and west coasts. Shark sitings, in general, were up. I had a number of conflicting thoughts. The environmental scientist in me was pumped to hear that sharks are thriving, the person wanting to swim in the ocean sure was not. I was secretly hoping Matt wouldn’t hear any of this news, and then seriously wondering if we should reconsider this. The week before we left for California I dug back into the research again. More reading on sharks comforted me - an attack is really really rare. Like super slim. Most ocean fatalities are from drowning. Phew! We’re good swimmers, so I thought crisis averted. For the first time, though, I thought about the water. I never realized how cold the water off of Santa Cruz was. While September and October are the warmest (Yay!), peak temperatures hardly get over 60 degrees. This began a whole new cycle of thoughts. What the f$&@ are we doing? Does this even sound fun? Getting up early to be in the water by 8. Freezing our asses off. Fear of sharks. We’ll probably be terrible at this. Is it worth it? Why am I dreading something that’s a part of our vacation?! Vacation is for relaxing and enjoyment, not stress! This all lead me back to the internet, but this time to look at the good stuff - people enjoying their surfing lessons, all of the positive reviews and descriptions of the experience. I was calmed, for the time being.

The morning we woke up for our lessons we were both quiet. Partly because we were a little sour about the early alarm waking us up on vacation and partly because we were both nervous. We had each dreamed about deep, dark, scary oceans. Dreamed about sharks. There was a little stress going on. We drove to the coast, to a popular surfing spot called the Hook, which offered the best location for learning surfing for the first time because of calm, steady, slow rolling waves. We looked out over the cliff, down about 300 feet to the water to see about 50 people paddling out to surf in the early dawn light. Seeing the excitement of the locals, feeling their energy made this feel like the right choice. We watched for about 20 minutes while we awaited the arrival of our instructor.

Our instructor, Zoltan, was the exact definition of California surfing teacher. Just had this laid-back chill to him not unlike Paul Rudd’s character in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”. My instant thought was “oh yeah, he’s going to be a good time”. Zoltan handed us our wetsuits and provided some instruction for how to slip into them. There was absolutely no “slipping” into them. It was more like squeeze, and suck in, and tuck, and yank, and wiggle until everything seemed sort of in its proper place. It was then that it hit me - we’re dressed like seals! We’re putting on synthetic seal skin to keep warm in the cold water. We’re dressed like f$&@ing shark bait. What are we doing?! Not backing out of course. At this point we’re committed and the hell if I’m going to be a wimp.

We walked back over to Zoltan’s van to grab our surf boards and then made the trek down the steep, wet stairs that lead down the cliffside. Carrying a surf board over your head while walking barefoot down a slippery staircase is no joke. That, in itself, had us snapping to attention. When we got to the bottom, Zoltan explained that we were going to head south a few hundred yards to a calmer location and out of the way of the big surfing crowd. We had to carefully climb over rocks, following a path that was so old, footprints were eroded into the mudstone, timing out our steps with the waves crashing, avoiding the extra slippery algae forming on the tops of some of them. We finally got to a little cove where we tucked inside for some on-land instructions. He explained surfing etiquette, how to read waves, how to safely maneuver over or under one while paddling out, how to balance on your surf board, where to tuck your feet, and how to paddle so you don’t zap all of your energy. He then had us practice how to push up when it was time to ride the wave and how to go from belly to knees to standing. After that quick instruction it was go time. We strapped on our surf board leashes to our back feet and started to walk out into the surf.

If we weren’t on high alert before, we definitely were sharp and sober the second that cold water crashed into us. However, instantly our thoughts of sharks, cold water, dangers, everything disappeared. We were all smiles and wide eyes as we took it all in. Once we got waist deep it was time to climb onto the boards and start paddling out. I quickly realized just how hard it is to paddle against the current using only your upper back, chest, and shoulder muscles. We got out a hundred yards or so and Zoltan yells to me “You’re up!”. He quickly grabs my board, points me towards shore, gives me a push and tells me to start paddling. It took me a second to realize that we’re getting right into this immediately. I figured he would maybe demonstrate a few things in the water for us first, start out small, but nope, we weren’t wasting a second of our time out here. I began to paddle and the wave caught my board and I moved with it as though I was glued to it. It was the coolest feeling to be attached to Mother Nature like that. I pushed up, like we were taught and climbed onto my knees. I rode the wave just like that, my balance teetering, until it fizzled out. Laughing, I tipped off the board and scrambled around until I could begin the long paddle back out.

As I turned away from the shore and headed back out, I caught sight of Matt just in time to see him stand up on his surf board. I yelled out a cheer completely amazed that he got up and was surfing on the very first wave he attempted, like he was channeling Johnny Tsunami. I was so damn proud of him in that moment. Here we were hoping to maybe balance a little bit, maybe kneel, maybe if we were really lucky get up quickly by the end of our lesson and we both practically nailed it immediately.

For the next hour or so Matt and I both repeated what we had already done. He was able to get up a few more times and even got to a point where he could turn and aim once he was up. For me, I became really good at balancing on my knees and riding the waves like that. On one attempt I even got one foot up in sort of a tripod position. Zoltan said that classic “don’t think, just do” line, which surely rang true. I was definitely overthinking my balance, foot position, hand position, all of it. Surfing is one of those things where you just need to turn off your brain and go with the flow (pun absolutely intended!).

As our time was winding down I became really committed to the plan that I WAS going to get all the way up on that surf board. Zoltan and I paddled out and began picking out my wave. We saw one out in the distance, but quickly agreed that it looked too big for me to attempt. As it neared closer we prepared to hop over the top and wait for the next wave of appropriate size. And then the wave just abruptly shifted and crashed down on our heads. We had no time to prepare. I was launched under the water spinning and thrashing all around. I tried to swim up to the surface but couldn’t find what direction was up. All the time I was worried about sharks seemed hysterical at that point. I didn’t consider for a second that I would be drowning during this adventure and here I was certain that I’d never breathe again. My leash had tangled around Zoltan and we were both wadded up under the water. After what was probably only 10 seconds, but felt like 10 minutes, I popped to the surface because I was attached to the floating surf board. I took a quick breath and ducked under again to try and avoid the second wave of that set. When I resurfaced gasping and coughing, Zoltan gave me a look that showed he had felt that was an ”Oh Shit!” moment there too. He quickly laughed and called me the real champ of this lesson - he said 75% of surfing is made up of wipe outs so if you can master that recovery you’re all set. I looked at him like he was an absolute maniac.

I caught my breath for the next few minutes and just watched Matt own another wave, wondering if he had any idea what had even just happened. I looked around to all of the 50 other people in that cove who are constantly wiping out hard and getting right back on their boards to try again, like it was the simplest thing ever. The surfing cliches from the movies that say things like “don’t think, just do” ring incredibly true. Surfing is where your brain shuts off the thinking. You stop considering the crazy, the risks, the mechanics, and you just do. Then you get up and you do again. I’ve never felt anything like it in my whole life. I’ve never been so connected to nature, just going along with her every whim. It was outrageously freeing.

Even given all of the stressful anticipation and the very real fear, we would definitely do it again. We would have loved to go another few hours if our muscles didn’t feel like complete jello from the exertion. I don’t know the last time either one of us has ever felt so alive and present in the moment. It’s now no wonder that we were surrounded by surf bums living out of their cars, traveling around to catch the best swells, and even business men catching a few waves before changing into their suits before heading into work. There were kids who probably should have been in school for the day, and retirees who couldn’t imagine a better day than the one they were starting. There’s certainly something to be said for the surfer’s philosophy on life.