Thriving (not just Surviving) on a Surfboard
Women’s Adventure Magazine, October 12, 2012
Here’s how I learned to surf: My husband Brent … and I flew to Panama with two shortboards and a friend named Heather. We disembarked in Panama City, rented a jeep, and headed for the coast, where Heather and I flailed around for a week in what seemed like monstrous, insurmountable swells. At night, I dreamed of tsunami-sized waves bearing down on me, although I’m told they were only a couple of feet high.
Brent had surfed since he was a kid and, while he was patient and kind while guiding Heather and me into the whitewater and shouting encouraging phrases—like “Go!” — he was not terribly clear in his explanations. For Brent, the idea of steering a fiberglass board through oncoming whitewater, and then turning it around and standing up and making turns on that fluid force, was second nature. He didn’t have a verbal explanation to break it down for someone who had never done it before. And what’s more, he was a guy—the kind of laidback guy that doesn’t do a lot of explaining.
Here’s how a typical session went:
“When you’re standing up on the wave, do you jump up with your front or back foot first?”
“Just paddle into the wave and get up.”
A few minutes, a few poundings later, I’d try again. “Hey Brent?”
“Do you paddle with your hands deep in the water, or shallow?”
“I don’t know. Just catch the wave.”
And then he’d do just that, and I’d wallow around in the whitewater, waiting for some saltwater wisdom to magically soak through my pores so I could learn to surf.
It didn’t get any better from there. Brent simply didn’t have the words. In fact, our worst fight—ever—involved me getting frustrated with surfing, and Brent not adequately feeling my pain, and then me threatening to go find a man who would teach me how to surf, and then neither of us speaking for a couple of days. We made up and eventually got married, but I had to come to terms—as I hear many women who marry surfers do—with the fact that Brent wasn’t going to be my surfing sage. I would just have to get out there, like he said, and catch the waves—or try to—and learn through hard and frustrating trial and error.
So that’s what I did, and with time I improved. I could paddle out and survive, if not thrive, in fairly large and treacherous conditions. I could recognize when I did and didn’t want to be out in the water, and I could ride down the face on a shortish board and turn a bit. But I still missed four or five or ten waves for every one I caught, and, when I was finally riding down the line, I didn’t really carve—it was more like wiggling my butt and flapping my hands and pretending to turn. And I still sometimes couldn’t resist asking Brent technical questions, and I still couldn’t help but be disappointed when he told me, for the millionth time, just to “catch the wave.”
So I finally took action and learned to surf better: Last fall, after I heard that Alison Gannett—pro skier, women’s-camp guru, organic farmer, and climate activist—would be hosting a surf camp in El Salvador, I decided that a new teacher might do me some good.
There are lots of surf camps, many of them designed for women—who seem to need more explaining and coaxing in the water than their male counterparts. Alison’s appealed to me because I knew she was an athlete and liked to help other athletes take their games up a notch. I’ve twice attended her Rippin’ Chix Steep Camps in challenging destinations like Crested Butte and Silverton, Colorado. Her camps don’t cater to mushy intermediates who want to ski a bump-run here or there; all the women in my group were great skiers who wanted to be even better—they were climbing guides and former racers and all-around rippers. We worked on catching bigger air and skiing steep, technical chutes without falling back on bad habits, and I came away with a number of technical pointers that I’ve carried with me in terrain easy and difficult—a wrist-tweak here, a hip-tilt there—all explained in a way that we detail-oriented women like to learn. If tips like that could improve my skiing, I figured, imagine what I could learn on a surfboard!
So I went. Last December, we set up camp in the Casa De Mar hotel, where each spacious room had a magnificent view of the right-hand point break just a couple hundred yards in front of us, and where there was a burly, benevolent gatekeeper to take our surfboards when we came in from the beach and wrap us in a warm-towel bear hug. When we weren’t in the water we could sit in the shaded, breezy outdoor restaurant next to the pool, sip licuados, watch people ride the waves, and discuss surfing technique, form, and etiquette.
Out in the water, Alison focused first on the beginners and never-evers, breaking down the process of catching waves in the same methodical way she explains the nuances of skiing. Mexico-based photographer, pro surfer, and veteran surf instructor Kemi Vernon and Mary Osborne, longboard champion and Patagonia surf ambassador, worked with more advanced surfers. Each student received group lessons each day, along with one private session.
My lesson started on the beach, where Kemi—a trim, fearless and aggressive surfer who has traveled all over the world riding waves—schooled me in the basics. Then we headed out to the break.
Here’s how it went:
“So Kemi, why wasn’t I able to ride that wave through?”
“Because you’re picking shitty waves. That was just a little hump. You need to look down the wave and see a shoulder holding up all the way across”
“Oh.” And, on my next wave, I rode it down the line for 30 seconds.
It went on like that. Remarkably, fantastically, Kemi had words—lots of them—to explain all the important little things that were folded into Brent’s Zen-like maxim of “catching the wave.” Words to describe how to pick a good wave; how to paddle aggressively to the right place and in the right direction to catch it; why not to dangle my feet in the water when I paddled; how to plane my board and decide which direction to go after standing up; and how to drive with my hips and shoulders and turn with my feet and knees to move the board from edge to edge.
It was a lot to absorb, but after a decade of vague pointers, I was parched for guidance of the specific variety. Within a day, I was carving real turns and cutbacks on the wave. In that same day, I learned more than I did in years of asking my well-intentioned but beleaguered husband detailed questions and hearing the same infuriatingly vague answer time and again. Finally, I could catch the damn wave.