Written in March 2020 – a time that will go down in history as the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Beaches are closing around the world. A Costa Rican pro was arrested for surfing and breaking local lockdown laws. Fights are erupting across the internet about whether it is OK to surf. Some are still surfing, and other jealous, more rule-abiding surfers / conscientious self-quarantiners are judging them while squirming in unbearable FOMO.
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Shots fired! Costa Rican police fire "warning shots" at board-wielding man for breaking nationwide no-surf laws. Earlier that day, at the very same beach, a Costa Rican pro @noemar_ (see photo 2) was also arrested for catching a few tasty waves. And guess who inadvertently came to Noe's defense, albeit with a questionable epidemiological argument? @kellyslater! Link to full story in bio
All surfers struggle when forced to resist the call of the ocean. Empty lineups on surf cams and surfporn-filled Instagram feeds just remind us that we are cut off from our favorite fix. My heart, however, goes out most to the new surf addicts, the ones who have just caught their first unbroken waves and are filled to their turtle-rolling gills with froth.
We all remember it. This introduction into a sport that looks like a secret society, into which acceptance is only granted to those who put in the hours, the embarrassment, the wipeouts. The faux pas of putting your fins on backwards. Or finally catching a wave, only to realize you just dropped in on the local bigwig (shit!). Tripping over your leash. Thinking you are paddling to the perfect spot to take off when in fact you are paddling to the perfect spot to get annihilated (and earn a starring role on kookslams). It’s that time when regardless of how crappy or nonexistent the waves are, you don’t leave the beach without getting wet, even if all you accomplished is getting tumbled in whitewater and dinging your board. That time of learning everything the hard way.
It’s a gloriously exciting episode in a surfing life, but – at least for me – it was also filled with deep insecurity. My chest tightens even thinking about it now. Intense imposter syndrome and fears of failure and judgment. Which only drove me to get better, faster. As fast as possible.
As impatient as I was to improve, I was utterly terrified of losing the strides I had already made if I spent any extended time out of the surf. I imagine a lot of relatively new initiates are feeling this right now.
I hope to provide some comfort: you will never really have to start from scratch again.
In the years since my first unbroken wave, that fear of regressing or backsliding has subsided. I think this is standard: while some surfers may never lose their early levels of froth, most do shed the worst of that initial insecurity. Not that they never feel scared, insecure, in over their heads, or mad at themselves for surfing poorly. Nor does the desire to improve ever really dampen. But the soul-crushing imposter syndrome does fade.
I believe the imposter syndrome calms down as certain undeniable realities emerge:
- Being a surfer becomes part of your identity that nobody can take away from you. You’re in the club by virtue of having put in the time, dedication, money, humiliation, and scar tissue – not by what anybody else says.
- You realize there are limits to how good you will ever be. So, your goals shift from becoming Steph Gilmore or Kassia Meador to becoming as good as you can be.
- Becoming a halfway-not-embarrassing surfer takes real time, of which aging is an unfortunate but inescapable byproduct. The only good part about a process that makes your butt saggy and hair gray is that you give a lot fewer fucks about what other people think, including whether they think you’re a kook.
- You grasp a crucial lesson: you don’t unlearn or lose skills even after time off.
Surfing is a fickle and inconsiderate master, one that rarely conforms to the dictates and schedules of adulting. Beyond coronavirus, you may get injured, or suffer through months-long flat spells, or you’re landlocked taking care of a sick family member, or you get knocked up, or you are drowning in work, or your stoke just fizzles temporarily.
(I love that Gerry Lopez once said: “The first twenty years of surfing was just a test to see if I was really interested.” In some ways, surfing is my second husband, and just like marriage… it’s not going to be hot and heavy or even harmonious all the time. As with any lifelong partner, moments of resentment and needing some time apart are part of the deal).
When you do get back in the water, it’s easier than you thought it would be. And it all comes back faster than you expected. Yes, there’s rust and cobwebs to shake off. Creaky shoulders. Sore ribs. Hard breathing. The first surf is usually a real downer (pro tip: keep expectations low for that one). After a week or so, your body will start moving better, muscle memory kicks in, you and your board will feel like best friends again. Tiny waves stop looking like Pea’hi, you’ll remember how your body feels when it all clicks. Before you realize what’s happening, you’ve read the waves and are sprinting over to the next bomb. There will be frustrations, but I promise they will be tempered – overshadowed, even – by sheer, unadulterated bliss. “OH! This is why I love surfing! It’s the best thing ever!”
A break can even be good for your surfing. If you’ve been perseverating on something (like tightening your top turn for a whole year), the angst of trying so hard can actually get in the way just doing the damn thing. Much less making it look good. Often, after a break, your brain and body have worked it out on their own, safe from any self-flagellation, and suddenly you’re throwing spray…
Studies and experts back this up. But I’m too lazy to enumerate them here for you, and you don’t need them. I bet you can think of examples when you’ve found/rediscovered a skill you thought you’d lost. Perhaps not immediately or as polished as you’d hoped, but even the re-polishing process didn’t take as long as you’d feared. Maybe you learned Chinese in college, didn’t use it for ten years, and then found that you could hold a conversation after a few days in Shanghai. Maybe you spent 10,000 hours on the violin in your youth, then put it aside -- mad, understandably, that your parents made you do that instead of surf (you’d be on the friggin’ CT by now). But you can still pick the instrument up and muddle through some impressive-sounding pieces by memory. The point is, you know I’m right because you’ve experienced it yourself before, probably many times.
Coronavirus will pass. Your injury will pass. This dry spell or your crazy work project will pass. And there will be waves, and we will ride them. Maybe not as well as we did before, but we’ll get our mojo back quickly enough. And honestly, in that moment we won’t even care. Reunions with the ocean are some of life's most joyful, glorious, rapturous moments. I can’t wait.
There are ways that you can mitigate the inevitable rustiness that creeps in after spending too much time away from the ocean. We'll put together an article soon with our favorites.
And if you are one of the lucky ones who can safely and legally surf in a secluded spot, with no chance of getting sick or arrested or eviscerated on the internet… WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING HERE, READING THIS?? For the love of God and Rob Machado, and with the weight of all our collective FOMO on your backs… GO SURF!