by Garrett McAuliffe on May 22, 2012
Unlike the author's "friend," the good people at Santa Cruz Surf School won't make you learn on a shortboard. (Chip Scheuer)
My two most vivid memories of the ocean: being bashed in the surf at 7, an intimate introduction as sand scraped half the flesh from my left shoulder. Six years later an undertow dragged me out. Kicking and screaming for my life, I eventually dragged myself back in.
I’d long since decided I preferred my water fresh and placid rather than tubular. Surfing seemed like such a self-enclosed culture anyway. I had visions of sun-bleached stoners spouting spaced-out mantras, turf wars and chiller-than-thou vibes.
From the shore, surfing didn’t seem particularly freeing or playful either. It was a discipline and dedication, a siren inciting absolute devotion. I would see them as I drove the cliffs, black dots sprinkled in the ocean, bobbing just past the break. In a way I did not pretend to understand, these people had access to the sea, and maybe more. I’ve lived in Surf City nearly a year now. It’s about time I gave surfing a try.
It began as a giddy ride on a sobering, gray day. Most had suggested I learn on a longboard. But in my friend’s mind, longboarding did not amount to surfing. So, with his five-foot board tucked under my arm, I stepped out at Pleasure Point’s 26th Avenue. A few dozen beachgoers frolicked in the sand. Parents sat bundled in blankets. Children in bright swimsuits bumped into each other.
As I zipped up my wetsuit, I watched a 4-year-old running along the shore, tiny plastic shovel in hand. The boy was silhouetted against the sea—what looked a monstrous, slow-tumbling crush ready to swallow him whole.
“She’s Coouuntry” came bucking up out of a boombox behind me, meekly disputing the ocean’s rumblings. Footballs and Frisbees flew by. There was talk of recent weddings and upcoming playoff games. People chatted, laughed at bad jokes.
But the ocean was right there, adversarial and intoxicating. My friend taught me the run-in. You have to propel yourself into the sea, break like a wave. It’s a necessary transition, a conscious resolve. Abandoning the security of solid ground, you must quit your foundation and lose some sense of yourself. Beyond that, he simply told me, “Paddle like hell, then try to stand up in one fluid motion.”
Suddenly I’m swaddled in seaweed. Disconnected from the land—that happy-go-lucky, bash-free zone off in the distance. The sun is a dirty dumpling behind thick clouds. The ocean is black and green, and on the brink of frothing. I paddle ferociously, then meekly. All of it seeming futile as the wave draws back, then … bang. Not fluid enough. The tip goes under. My world collapses, then disintegrates in a million tiny, pummeling bubbles.
No one said it would be easy. But a taste for the sublime is a greed like any other. I paddle back out.
The wind is cool, moist and scented with salt. I float in the cold, looking for pearls and shipwrecks. I see the fat point of my board bobbing, pointing at that wide arc of horizon.
These are moments at ease and awed. But soon it is time to try another wave. Oh bother. Actual surfing feels like a chore. I am deeply satisfied to stay adrift. I feel like maybe I haven’t gotten the point. But here we go. A seagull screams. And then my breath. There’s a sensation in which the outer part of my being rushes inward for protection. Like a kaleidoscope turned very slowly.
We eventually head for home, exhausted, waterlogged, saturated with salt and elation. My arms are shaking. A primal force sloshes around in my cells. I never truly caught a wave. Maybe I never will. But I did catch a glimpse of the cultish allure, maybe not riding high but tucked in below, where the ocean folds.
Club Ed, 831.464.0177; www.club-ed.com. $85 intro lesson.
Cowell’s Surf Shop, 831.427.2355; www.cowellssurfshop.com. $80 intro lesson.
Richard Schmidt Surf School, 831.423.0928; http://www.richardschmidt.com. $80 intro lesson.
Santa Cruz Surf School, 831.426.7072; www.santacruzsurfschool.com. $80 intro lesson.