As I noted last time, I tend to be a “jump in and learn on my own” kind of person. But since Shaun Wolden, co-founder of BigFoot Surf School down in Westport, WA had been so helpful, encouraging and supportive when my son Connor took lessons from him back in March, I overcame my historic leaning toward learning on my own and let Shaun guide me. I’m so glad I did.
Shaun got me all set up with wetsuit, hood and booties (these are definitely not Hawaii-temperature waters), marched me down to the beach…and then back up to the top of the overlooking bluff. You always start, he said, by spending time understanding the water. Seeing where the waves are breaking. Identifying likely rip tides. Examining who else is out there and what they are doing.
After that, we spent time on the beach learning surf safety. It wasn’t quite like watching “Red Asphalt” in driver’s ed class. But I will say that I have a much healthier respect for how the fins of a surfboard and the brute ramming force of the board itself can deconstruct or at least maim your body parts if you’re not paying attention.
I then learned how to carry the board. How to appreciate the craftsmanship of the board. How to enter the water with the board. Dive under oncoming waves with the board as you make your way out. How to get on the board. Position yourself on the board. Even…eventually…stand on the board.
Oh, yeah, and surf.
Could I have learned to do what I did on my own? Sure. But in a lot more time and likely not as well. Plus, I would have missed out on the insights that took it from a day of fun to a truly meaningful experience.
Some of Shaun’s advice:
- When you emerge from ducking under a wave, your immediate reaction will be to wipe your eyes. Don’t. Your head is built to deflect water. Let it do its work. If you stop to wipe your eyes right then, you’ll miss the next wave or next surfer flying right at you. Look first. Then wipe. Delayed gratification can save your life.
- Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Make each movement count. Take it slow in getting everything aligned and do so smoothly. When you do it smoothly, like standing on the board, fast follows. All will be well.
- Look all around you. As a beginner, your natural tendency will be to focus on the board and what’s right in front of you. Don’t. Maintain a 360 degree awareness of everything: the beach before you, the surfers to your left and right, the incoming waves behind you. Don’t let your natural focus take away from a broader awareness. Great advice for surfing…and for travel.
- Follow the hand. OK, this one starts getting a bit surf-Zen-like. As you stand on the board, hold your left hand at eye level, palm toward the beach in the direction you want to go. Then follow the hand. (Note my left hand in the photo above at the end of the wave).
Sounds a bit out there, right? But eventually I tried it. All the wobbly balance issues I’d had faded away. Fast and smooth suddenly were mine.
I would never have figured out the hand trick on my own. So back on the beach later, I asked what the psychological or physiological rationale was for it.
“It just works,” he said in a good-natured avoidance of my question. But he was right. Not everything requires a logical rationale. And not everything can be learned on your own. More often than we may realize, we need others to show us the way in order to get the most out of a new experience.
Still, later on, I pressed again for the reason the hand trick works and got this similar answer.
“I can’t explain it to you in any way that your analytical mind would understand. It’s like magic. Sometimes you just have to believe.”
And now I do.
You can read Part 1 here if you haven’t already.