When I was young, there was nothing I wanted more than to become a surfer. Everyday I’d beg my parents to buy me a surfboard and wetsuit, so I could finally paddle out into the ocean and catch my first wave - I thought maybe I’d even get barreled or something. But my parents wouldn’t budge, and denied my every cute-faced “Pleaasse,” with, “Save up your money, Matthew. The ocean is dangerous. I’m not paying for you to get eaten by a shark.”
The ocean was dangerous. I knew that. And my mother’s fear of sharks was actually valid, since I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and would be surfing within the Red Triangle. But I didn’t care. I had already watched too many clips of Andy Irons zipping through closing barrels, studied the form of Mark Richards as he carved up and down the face of the wave, and fell for the laid back culture of surfing in California. I was to become a surfer whether my parents liked it or not. It felt right.
(The Red Triangle region of Northern California has the highest population of Great White Sharks on the west coast)
My first surfboard wasn’t a longboard per recommended, but a six-foot thruster I’d bought from a woman on Craigslist. Looking back, I must have been one cocky sunovabitch, for I thought I’d have no trouble hopping on that potato chip of a board and shredding down the side of a wave. I took my new stick to Half Moon Bay, where there's a surf break called The Jetty about four miles south of Mavericks (yes... Mavericks - the biggest wave on the California coast). I walked down to the beach with my board in hand, strapped my leash to my ankle, and looked out onto a never-ending influx of nine foot waves. I’m not completely sure what the recommended wave height is for first time surfers, what I am sure of, though, is that it isn’t nine feet.
I remember that day vividly, and not because it was my first time surfing, but because I was pounded so badly I couldn’t see straight. I hadn’t learned how to duck dive, paddle properly, or catch a wave, yet I was swimming full steam into walls of raging white water, and worse, walls of waves, which threw me over the falls and pinned me to the sandy bottom like a rag doll. It must have taken me at least an hour to finally make it past the break, where I found myself in another situation - catching a wave. You can imagine how that went, but if you can’t, imagine it not going very well. It was on this day that surfing taught me a valuable lesson about the ocean, by revealing the immense amount of respect and understanding that is required before heading out into the wild sea. I was ignorant, and in this instance, ignorance was certainly not bliss.
After that treacherous day of surfing (read: drowning), I had a new understanding of the ocean. Before then, I had only waded along shorelines and swam near harmless breaks, never having experienced the extreme energy and power I felt at The Jetty. I learned of the ocean’s formidability the hard way, realizing that without a general respect and understanding for the ocean, it’s possible to get very, very hurt. Because of my experience in Half Moon Bay, though, I was able to learn about life the easy way, finally appreciating the immense amount of respect that must be given to nature en masse. One must know their surroundings, and respect them as entities that can both kill and give life, for when you blindly walk into a realm of elements much more powerful than yourself, you become a casualty of your own disrespect.
That traumatic day of surfing gave me an enlightened perspective on persistence. I would have had to have been rescued from the perils of that violent water if I wasn’t persistent in paddling past the breakers, and because of this relentlessness I was able to finally get some air. Of course, once I made it to safety, I was still unable to catch a wave on my potato chip sized board, but nonetheless persistent in dropping head first into the wave every time I tried. You’d be surprised how often life begins to feel like the painful paddle out at The Jetty, but by being persistent, you get past it.
The next time I went surfing, I made sure to change my game plan, and the surf spot, too. I was beaten, battered, and still plagued by mental images of toppling waves moments before they crushed me, but I was determined to make this surfing experience an enjoyable one, and wanted to make my nightmarish memories from The Jetty evanesce. This time, I headed to south Santa Cruz with my sights set on Pleasure Point - a right-breaking wave dominated by locals. The Jetty had picked my ego to pieces, and humbled me so thoroughly that I traded my six-foot potato chip in for a longer, eight foot board. I felt ready this time, and made sure to observe the water for five minutes before hand, just to be completely sure I understood what I was about to paddle in to. The waves were about four feet and about as glassy as, well, glass. I began to paddle.
Everything was going smoothly, and I was paddling headstrong over the white water and waves. I paddled up and over one wave, and then another, and then another, and before I knew it, I was past the break and in the Pleasure Point line up. I felt my ego beginning to grow at that point, and purposefully remembered that I’d still never caught a wave - I’d still never surfed.
Suddenly, a massive set of waves appeared in the distance. It seemed those four foot waves I’d paddled out through were only a brief calm before the storm. The ocean was undergoing a mood swing, and spitting aggressive eight foot waves straight toward my position. All the other surfers in the line up began to frantically paddle towards the watery mountains in the distance. Nobody wanted to be on the wrong end of the set’s rage, and I certainly wasn’t looking forward to being picked up and thrown onto the reef either. As the waves crept closer, I began to paddle toward them with all my strength, following the locals’ lead. I slanted to the left, my arms burning from paddling, and made it over five massive waves just moments before they exploded against the reef behind me. I had made it past the set, and now sat 300 yards from the beach in calm water, looking out on a flurry of orange and red in the sky as the sun slowly touched the sea. Everything was perfect.
Later that day, as the sun was setting, I caught my first wave. After all that I’d learned - over the past couple of days - about the ocean and about life, the wave was negligible, and I spent the rest of my time at Pleasure Point thinking about the unfixedness of the ocean, and the unfixedness of life, and all the parallels between the land and the sea. I had learned about respect, understanding, and persistence the first time I surfed, and about how to be adaptable and appreciate the astounding beauty of nature the second. I was changed from simply two attempts at surfing, and before I’d even caught my first wave.
There’s something transformative about subjecting yourself to the raw power of ocean, especially when you have a magical sled that allows you to harness that power - even if only for a moment.