Allan goes Surfing

So I ended up in Malibu for a long weekend type of vacation with some friends. They wanted to see California, they liked the beach. We were in Orange county, but I said to myself, there's no such thing as a Newport Barbie or a Laguna Barbie.

Baking in the sun was a bit crazy. You smear on this lotion that has an SPF of 36. Then you stay out in the sun long enough to achieve 36 suntans. Errors in application quickly reach the attention of the applicant. Um, like six hours, not quickly enough to react.

As you might expect, there were surfers with their surfboards. Something you never see on Lake Ontario, where I grew up. And I thought to myself, I've been looking for new and interesting things to do, even if they're totally silly. I've never surfed. Ever. I've never considered surfing. Ever. None of my friends have ever surfed, or considered it. Ever. (as far as i knew at the time at least...) What an absurd thing to try. No way, dude!

So, on the ride home, I noticed this surfer-dude store near where I live. It is right across from the infamous rug shop. I never went there, never noticed it before, even though I've been driving by it for four years.

So I went in. New surfboards are $300 or $400. Used ones start at half that price and go up.

Wandering through the aisles, I kept on having this strange feeling like I didn't belong, like they were going to eject me from the store because I was a computer nerd with a peeling sunburn. But I kept on assuring myself that, hey dude, it's like they're a store and why would they want to throw out a customer? Besides, my sunburn was under my shirt.

So I ask them behind the counter, "Hey, do you guys give surfing lessons?"


"Do you know of anybody giving lessons?"


A surfing store. No courses. Well, maybe it's like, real easy, dude.

"You mean I can just rent a surfboard and go out there?"


"You rent surfboards?"


I had to take these issues one at a time. "And wet suits?"


I thought maybe a magazine would help. I bought the "Surfer" magazine 35 year anniversary issue. As I was leaving the store, I saw a poster on the wall. "Surfing lessons" and a phone number. This was right across from the counter where the surfer dude clerks were standing. I scribbled down the phone number before any of them noticed. It struck me that this was probably not an intellectual sport.

The magazine had precious few tips on surfing. Put your left foot forward. Then all this other stuff that I couldn't relate to, and stuff that just didn't seem relevant. Some pictures of famous surfers over the past 35 years. 60's nostalgia, the anti war movement. Women in bathing suits.

One day I went running. There's this place in the marin headlands where you park by a beach and there's trails along the coastal cliffs, you basically run along hills that overlook the pacific ocean from a few hundred feet up, quite spectacular. When I got back there were people surfing at the beach, and I decided to ask them some questions.

"Yeah. If you're a beginner, you can just get yourself a long board. Eight feet. Then you plunk it down in the water and stand on it." I looked at these guys' surfboards in the back seat of their convertible. The boards were fiberglass with a hard shiny surface, and a sharp point on the leading edge, like a big arrowhead. "You ever get hit in the head with that thing?"

"It doesn't happen that much. It's not a big deal." Perhaps that depends upon the assets at risk, I thought to myself.

So the next day I rented a surfboard and wetsuit. I know from scuba diving that the tight fit of a wetsuit is essential. People sometimes have wetsuits custom-tailored to their bodies. "How tall are you? How much you weigh?" I told him. "Well, I guess that's a Large, or maybe Extra Large". These guys were straight out of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

"Does this thing need to be waxed?" He gave me this shrinkwrapped disk of wax from behind the counter. Just gave it to me. Must have been a slow mover. It had some sexist product name, something about hooters, where the "oo" was incorporated into a drawing as you might guess. It's a somewhat provincial industry, I would imagine.

So I drove out to Muir Beach, straight out highway 1. I ride my bike to the place all the time, but I don't think I've ever gone swimming there. Stretched on the wetsuit by the car, and started walking to the beach in my bare feet, surfboard balanced on my head.

About ten feet from the car, I stepped on a sharp rock the wrong way. It HURT. I figured maybe I should wear my shoes. I went back to get them, in the process noting that there was a little blood drawn. No point in using a bandage, no bandage will endure soaking for hours. Soon, it'll be cleansed in sterile salt water.

The thought of giving up because of a foot injury never occurred to me. (Keep in mind that this is merely the start of my midlife crisis, I'm still in my late 30's.)

So now, with shoes, I tread off to the beachfront. On the way, some dopey little kid pointed at me and said that that's what he wants. His mom didn't seem pleased. I tried to convince him that he had to grow up bigger before he got one. He had to grow up to be as big as the surfboard. Seeing that my surfboard was bigger than me, I probably wasn't too convincing.

"You see, I had to eat lots of vegetables to get to be this big. I've got lots of friends, they didn't eat their vegetables when they were your age, and so they just didn't grow very tall. They can't go surfing like me." Yeah, right.

The next obstacle was totally unexpected. There's a stream that you have to cross by stepping on stones. Just two weeks before I was doing the same with a backpack on my back in Wyoming, each time fearing immersion. Now I was doing it with a surfboard in California.

There were a lot more people than I expected on a weekday. Beach Boys music was playing in my head. I started feeling a bit self conscious, being pretty noticable with this big board. Like I'm going to paddle out there and catch some impossibly huge wave and ride it in like a macho surfer dude. Especially since there was nobody else with a surfboard anywhere in sight. And my board had this flourescent red stripe down the bottom. Fortunately, I could courageously bite my lip and march forward, reminding myself that probably I would never see any of these people ever again.

And why was there no other surfers? Because there was no surf. The waves were all these wimpy Lake Ontario waves. I talked to some guys and they said it was because it was a short beach in a cove. Go to Stinson beach, where there's better waves, they assured me.

Over the river and back to the car, with the surfboard. Don't worry, I will never see any of these people ever again.

Stinson beach is further up the coast. It's a beautiful but tedious drive, snaking along these cliffs above the ocean, with no guard rail, or even bushes, to keep you from sailing over the edge. If you were going to commit suicide, this would be the place. You might as well take your car with you. But why do that when you can just surf?

So I got to the beach and I met this guy, Dave, who showed me how. He's actually a smart guy, a struggling film student, with a light british accent. He said he stahted surfing off the coast of Cornwall. While there was still snow on the ground. No, really, he is smart and articulate. That's how hooked he got on it. He assured me that once you get hooked, you just want to keep on doing it.

Surfing is one of those activities that you can't learn from a book. It relies on the intuition you get from experience, as with many sports. By the end of the day I had ridden a half dozen waves into the beach, mostly lying on my belly. In one case I got up to a kneeling position.

The hard part is "catching" the wave. As it's going by, you have to paddle like crazy to match its speed. Once you're on it, it just carries you in to shore, until the board itself runs aground. More often, though, the wave just passes you by, or else you're too far forward and it overwhelms you and you end up tumbling in this foam with your board.

Not once was I hit by the board, and, besides, it was made of plastic foam, so it's pretty safe. Since then, I formulated a theory about that. Since both you and the board are about the same size and density, both of you will follow the same path through the foam, neither speeding up or slowing down. Or, parallel paths. So it never hits you.

But you'll never catch me with one of those arrowhead surfboards. ouch! just looking at one.

Northern California waves get up to 3 feet high, pretty docile. In Hawaii, out in the middle of the ocean, is where you get the 20 foot waves you see in the movies.

So I got the impression that it's about as hard as learning to cross country ski. The first several times you devote a day to it, it is more work than enjoyment. I'll probably never get good at it, but I think it would be fun if I got to a minimal level of competence.

Now I can relate to the magazine better. Now I can perfectly understand the phrase, "catching the perfect wave". My foot is doing well, having benefitted from a good cleaning in the ocean, plus some iodine.

No, I'm NOT buying any Beach Boys cd's.

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