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Mylène Dressler | Longreads | April 11, 2023 | 19 minutes (5,461 words)
Surfing shouldn’t be done alone. Like diving, spelunking, rock climbing, or cutting a watermelon, too much can go sideways. Conditions are unpredictable, equipment or experience can fail — and injury is always the biggest worry. Come off a surfboard the wrong way in three feet of water, and you can hurt yourself, sometimes badly. Come off the wrong way, at the wrong moment, in the wrong place on a large wave and go tumbling into its powerful impact zone, and you might end up floating to the surface (or not) unconscious, or be unable to move some crucial part of your body you’d been counting on to steer you back to light, air, life, and joy.
And that’s the thing about surfing: risks and all, it’s an incredibly joyful activity. It is, in fact, the single most joyful thing I have ever done in my five decades on this beautiful, wave-driven, water-circled planet. And it’s an incredibly joyful life. Surfers plan their days around when they can plunge into the gorgeousness of an ocean, and then spend hours trying to attune their bodies to something as old as time, to the very water that our bodies are made of, and that feels, when you finally manage all that weight, like standing up on the lip of a laughing, moving heaven . . . while at the same time it hurtles you, almost ferocious, across a strangely solid-seeming surface, on the ride of your hey-look-at-me-I’m-flying life.
There is nothing quite like it. Surfing is, for many who hit the waves, more than “fun,” “cool,” or “good exercise.” It is a way of being connected to a deeper deep, an older old. Perhaps even to feel, to learn something that is eluding you on land.
But there are those sticky risks, and all surfers know them, or should. Nonsurfers always ask me first: What about sharks? (Actually shark attacks are quite rare, although they do happen, and then not being alone on the water might save you — it’s how famous, now one-armed short-boarder Bethany Hamilton survived and still surfs.) What about protection from what can hurt you? Some surfers wear life vests, even helmets. Most surfers’ best protection is self-knowledge; they only go out when the size of the wave matches their skill level, and no higher. And all surfers know the admonition about going out with a buddy, or at least when there are others in the water. Just in case. It is common sense. It is wisdom.
And yet, some days, I go out alone.
Most surfers, when pressed, will tell you that surfing alone isn’t really an issue — because these days, and especially at the best surf spots on the planet, surfing solo is becoming damn near impossible. This is because there has been, in the last decade or so, an absolute explosion in the sport (what elite surfers do) and the addictive hobby (what everybody else does). Fueled at first by the development of safer, beginner-friendly boards (large, puffy, and buoyant, these “foamies” are easier to stand up on and less likely to slice you with a hard rail or razor-like fin), and then by an accompanying rise in the number of surf camps, clubs, instructors, and videos, the explosion turned even hotter and brighter in the dark season of the pandemic. Hungry and desperate for “safe,” liberating, virus-thwarting outdoor activity, thousands of novices (or “kooks”) headed to surf shops for boards, leashes, rash guards and wetsuits, and beaches filled with new, giddy converts. Many of these were women, who, after a half-century of being active and yet still barely visible in the water, now account for perhaps 20 percent of surfers worldwide.
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I was one of them. I had tried surfing for the first time about 10 years earlier, on the beaches at Wilmington, North Carolina, and then for a second time at surf hot spot Nosara, Costa Rica. Both times I fell in love with the feel of the waves and the deeper deep, and was in awe of the beautiful, expert surfers (both women and men) all around me, riding with such grace and focus. Still, it was hard to imagine myself, really, as one of them. I adored and could manage the surging, pushing “whitewash” — the “inside” of a surf break that is close to shore and consists of smaller, already broken waves, ideal for beginners — but it was hard to see myself ever surfing “outside,” where the full-throated, heavier swells were. And after I turned in my rented board and flew home again, distance did the work of doubt. If you don’t live close to the water, surfing requires even more gas, a greater effort of will and imagination. Ah, well, I thought. Who was I to pretend I could move in the way that Bethany Hamilton did?
Then the pandemic hit. As it happened, months before the virus shut down everything in between two oceans, I had already decided to relocate to Oregon to be closer to my elderly parents. They had moved to a tiny town, an unofficial but de facto retirement community perched high on a cliff above a beautiful Pacific cove. Strangely, we had had the sense that something, some surge was coming, something that would be better endured if we were all together (I’d thought, vaguely, it might have to do with climate change). We didn’t know what it was, but whatever it was, it would be better not to be alone.
The little town where we settled was low-key, serene, somewhat remote. (I am not going to name it, in the time-honored and somewhat selfish tradition of a surfer trying to protect a special, quiet spot). It seemed like a good hideout. And there were, intriguingly, what looked, down below, like rideable waves.
In those early weeks when I studied the cove, there would indeed be a surfer, sometimes alone, and now and then buddied up, a pair of bodies floating tarred and thickened in heavy black wetsuits. Usually, though, the water was completely empty of humans. There were more whales and seals than any flipperless mammals. Even the small beach had few people combing it, and when I walked there I found almost all of them were older, some walking with balancing sticks.
I kept looking at the waves. Clearly they could be surfed. And the water was right here. But could I, barely a “kook,” handle it?
To find out, I drove 45 minutes and two towns away to the nearest surf shop. There an affable young man with dreadlocks told me that better breaks for beginners were farther north, and that the small cove’s waves weren’t really all that attractive, “mushy,” closing out fast, often criss-crossing as the tide went in or out. But people did surf there, sure. Not often. Not many. A few.
On his advice I bought a hooded black wetsuit recommended for 50-degree water, and a pair of black wet boots. I bought my first board: a blue and white beginner board, a foamie, eight-and-a-half feet long. I was so excited I had to call my friend back in North Carolina, the woman who had first encouraged me to go into the water. I was really going to do this, I told her. I was going to try to be a surfer.
The very first day that the gray, choppy waves below looked less cross-stitched and hairy, I lugged my board down. There was no one in the water, but there were a few people wandering around on the beach, and I decided that that would have to be safe enough, that at least I could be seen from shore. (The looks I got as I passed with my big, fat board were surprised, wrinkled, smiling.) Besides, I decided, if I was waiting for a buddy in a place where no one really surfed, I might be waiting for a long time.
I waded into the water, alert — but not afraid, I noticed, or at least no more so than I had been the few times I had surfed before. When the water was waist deep I hopped onto the deck of my new prize. The board was reassuring. A boat, of sorts. I floated for a moment. And then it happened. The lessons I had taken before all at once came back to me. Within a few minutes, I was surfing “inside,” standing up briefly and falling joyfully. Even in this cold, out-of-the-way, fairly inhospitable little bay, all the feelings I remembered from my earlier “sessions” came back to me. Of riding on the tongue of something magical, long, wild, wide and laughing. Of sinking into something huge and real and roiling that made it impossible to think or worry or wonder about anything else. Of being connected to something that was bigger than me, but included me, of being part of some unspoken history. (I am mixed race, part Pacific Islander. Had some current in me, I wondered, traveled this ocean before?)
What I hadn’t expected was how magical it was to be alone in the water. Always, when I had surfed before, there had been a crowd with me in the waves. Here, instead, flocks of gulls circled overhead, and an occasional pelican. I saw a seal’s head and neck at a bobbing distance, checking out my own black-hooded costume. The people on the beach were mere specks. Everything else that was human seemed to have melted away. In all that beautiful solitude I wanted to cry and laugh at the same time. I hadn’t known how much I needed this aloneness, after years of crowded work at a university, after months of eldercare, the phobias of the pandemic, and the stresses of a crowded, socially mediated, 21st-century life. And too, after five decades of being told, as a woman, I should try to avoid being alone in a risky place, whether it was a parking garage or at the base of a cresting swell.
My friend, Maia, the one I’d called from the surf shop, the first person to encourage me to try surfing, likes to say that water is the universal solvent. It breaks things down. Put anything in it for long enough, and it will dissolve it. It can erase distinctions. It can blur the rigid. Water, the ocean, scrubs, refines, releases. It defies expectation.
Under my wet boots I could feel the cove’s shifting sandbars rising and falling. When I came back a few days later, they were in another place. No place where you put your foot, in a sea, is ever the same. No wave, curling from the intensity of finding fresh bottom, is ever the same. Each moment in a surf session is unique. And in that endless originality, I quickly discovered, is a kind of salvation. A freedom. Because you can’t force an ocean to bend to your will. You can’t meet an ocean rigidly or with any idea of ultimate control. You are not in charge, and you can’t learn to surf if you think you are or ever will be. But neither are you nothing, disengaged. You are water meeting water.
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Week after week, month after month, session after session, I tried and failed and sometimes succeeded in riding, for longer periods, the smaller waves, while sowing all my stresses into the gray, punchy, churning Pacific. On the days that were too big for me to surf, I still stared at the waves and tried to read them, understand them. And understand myself beside them. It seemed to me I was learning to let go of many things, with their help: rabid control, the idea of being the perfect daughter, the perfect caretaker of aging parents, perfectionism in general, even (at least as it pertained to surfing), ambition. I was never going to be great at all of this, I decided. It didn’t matter. I would do my best. Each time I went alone into the waves, I couldn’t stop smiling. With no one to see the smile, and no one the smile was for. When I came out of the water, my cheeks actually hurt from so much joy. The water had been balm, the wetsuit had warmed it, and the ocean had circled me, and me alone.
For about a year I surfed solo in the cove. Now and then, on a big day, unsafe for me to do anything but watch from the sand, an experienced surfer might arrive and — ignoring my gaze — paddle to the outside, usually all by himself, and ride the fat waves there. Then come out, perhaps nod, and drive away. And then the cove was empty again.
Sometimes, when the cove looked sketchy and internet surf forecasts suggested better waves to the north, I ventured to the more crowded, “beginner” beaches. But I never noticed that I did any better there, and was always glad to come back to the imperfect and familiar. By now I and my blue and white board had become such a fixture on the beach I was called by the locals the “Surf Lady.” I admit, I reveled in this status. (They didn’t know I was at best a mediocre surfer, and it didn’t matter to me that I was.) I was a surf lady. My whole world, my life, had been transformed by my relationship with the water. My days were guided by 1) whatever it was my family might need that day, and 2) the rhythm of the waves and the tides. I learned to read the surf forecasts as though they were runes. I studied swell direction, wave energy, wave height. I watched for offshore winds (better for surfing), but went out in crosswinds or when they were onshore, too. Finally, I felt I had outgrown my beginner board and bought my second board: shorter, sleeker, thinner, pale cream with a brown stripe. It was amazing. Like switching from riding a mattress to riding a motorcycle.
One day, as I was coming out of the water with this new board and walking toward the cliffs and past the small, scattered line of elderly beachcombers, a man approached me and introduced himself. He had just moved to town, he said, he lived right there (he pointed close to the water), he had taken a surf lesson and loved it, and he wanted to surf more. His wife, however, wouldn’t let him surf alone; she held firmly to the buddy rule. So he was wondering: Could he surf with me?
I stared at him. He was lean, with a shaved head, and looked like a spry elf that had materialized from nowhere. I hesitated. I like to surf alone.
Then I remembered, when I had first started surfing, how kind Maia, and others, how welcoming they had all been to me. And no one owns the ocean.
We talked a bit, maintaining our pandemic-dictated distance. We were surprised to learn we were born in the same year, that we were both defectors from university life. And that we both wanted to surf, here, in this unlikely place, this tiny town, in this little cove. What were the odds? But then everyone wants to surf now, we agreed.
His name was Charlie, and he explained his wife had seen him in too many accidents — skiing, biking, kayaking. She basically didn’t trust him alone anymore. He didn’t look accident-prone to me. He looked lithe and athletic, especially with that shaved, sleek head. But I understood his wife’s concern. And even though it was never said, the implication, of course, was that going out with a buddy would be safer for me, too. And so it would be.
So I said, yes, why not, we could make surf dates.
At home, peeling my wetsuit off, getting in the shower, toweling dry, I suddenly felt, like a bruise, my error. I saw it in the mirror. Along with the red welt on my forehead from my suit’s tight black hood.
The water. The beautiful solitude. The water. It was never mine. It was better to have a buddy. It was wisdom.
But that didn’t mean I had just been wise.
When there isn’t solitude there is company. And unfortunately, for women surfers all over the world, at well-known breaks or on obscure little beaches, that company can sometimes be less than companionable.
The ocean is the opposite of a parking garage; the more people on it, the more risk there is, for some. Ask any woman waverider, go on any women’s surf group on social media, and you’ll find startling (or worse) stories of harassment (or worse): of women’s boards as they sail past a man’s being dangerously pushed down at the tail by a disapproving or mocking hand; of men “dropping in on” (ostentatiously and sometimes dangerously cutting in front of) the woman already riding a wave; of demeaning talk or its condescendingly “helpful” cousin, unsolicited advice (to impress upon the woman she doesn’t know what she’s doing, and perhaps has no business being out so far). Eighty percent of surfers worldwide are men; yet on any given day, in the experience of many women surfers, and depending on where you are, the actual differential can be much starker, a woman’s body more exposed. (Water dissolves, but it doesn’t necessarily dissolve gender, or at least it hasn’t just yet. Or culture. Or race, for that matter. Surfing is still an overwhelmingly white enterprise.)
Yet much of the surfing world is also generous, kind, capacious, always trying to do better. Water has a way of reminding: You all breathe the same stuff, correct? And Charlie seemed nice enough. The kind of guy who listened to his wife, anyway. And it seemed unlikely he would want to alienate the person his wife was going to allow him to surf with.
So that, I thought, isn’t really why you are anxious about a session with him.
I looked into the mirror, and knew.
You don’t want him to be better than you.
Water can dissolve. It can also, it seems, disguise.
In the water all alone, I had imagined I wasn’t competitive. That along with undercutting my perfectionism and some of my more unhelpful ambitions, it had melted my tendency toward measurement against another. But. But.
I am the Surfer Lady!
In the cove alone, I was the best surfer there.
Oh my god, surely, I thought, in all this expansive ocean I wasn’t so small as that?
To be certain, I texted Charlie as soon as I could. As soon as the sun was shining, the wind calm, the waves reasonable. Looks good, I say we go.
He waved as we met on the sand, his sleek, bright yellow, professional-looking board making my own look suddenly chunky and a little wan.
“Here we go!” he shouted, obviously excited. We quickly agreed we would not hover too close, but would keep an eye on each other, and signal if we got into any trouble. Since he was what surfers term “regular footed” (left foot forward on the board) and I was “goofy footed” (right foot forward), we would tend, usefully, to go different directions on a wave anyway, right versus left.
We paddled out on our boards. I was the first to take a small wave, smoothly, and ride toward shore. I was startled to hear a cheer and whoop go up behind me. When I turned, Charlie was grinning and fist-pumping at me.
I had never had anyone cheer me on a wave. It was like not knowing you needed a kite, and then finding one.
I watched him take his first wave, and saw he was a true beginner, not as far along as I was, using his knee to get to his feet, wiping out quickly, but then popping out of the water and grinning from ear to ear. So nothing to worry about. I whooped and cheered, too.
It was the first of our many sessions together, that summer and winter. We grew more comfortable with each other over time. I met Shelly, his wife, who had no interest in surfing and was happy to stay at home. Charlie and I surfed alone. Sometimes, on the water, we wouldn’t surf at all, simply marveling at the pelicans swooping low, diving for fish, or we’d stare at a shimmering sundog overhead, a rainbow with an eye.
Sometimes, on certain days, I still went out alone, either neglecting to tell Charlie I was going, or because he and his wife had gone out of town. On those days the full solitude was again delicious, relaxing, with no responsibility, in the water or elsewhere, for anyone’s safety but my own; smiling again with no one, and for no one. It always seemed to me I was a better surfer solo, too, connecting with the water more cleanly, more intimately. Yet it was also strange without Charlie. Like missing an optional but useful accessory, an extra arm out on the current.
One day Charlie and I both went out but I finished the session first, tired from ferrying my parents to distant doctors’ appointments earlier in the day. I sat on the beach, and Charlie came out and asked if he could try my board. He was having such trouble catching bigger, “green” waves. We both were, in fact. The timing needed for a larger wave is tricky, and Charlie and I both tended to be too late, not catching it until it was already broken and whitewater. He thought my more buoyant, shorter board might help. It didn’t seem likely to me. Longer boards are easier to surf than shorter boards, and taller people need longer boards. Charlie was taller than me.
“Sure, go ahead,” I said.
I was there. I saw it happen. The moment Charlie went from beginner to better. From “kook” to “intermediate” surfer. I watched him catch a nice overhead wave and ride it perfectly. He was so shocked afterward he turned to look at me from the foam, speechless. Then he hooted and fist-pumped and paddled out and did it again. And again and again and again.
I was cheering him on. Yet there was such a pain in my chest. There he was: Passing me up. On my own board. Right in front of me. As somehow I knew he was always bound to do. Leaving me behind. He was a skier, a kayaker, a road cyclist. (He was even, it turned out and as if that weren’t enough, a golfer.) He was an all-around athlete. I was a writer who happened to live by the sea.
Charlie was so high, so joyful when he came out of the water, he was trembling. I hoped he was oblivious to the slight hiccups, the tiniest of silences between my sentences of praise. He thanked me for the use of my board — wow, it had really helped! Yes. How happy, I thought, my board must have been, so responsive to, so relieved to find all that jumpy testosterone on its deck, and Charlie’s greater muscle mass.
We said goodbye — he and Shelly were going out of town again for a while — but assured each other we would surf together again when he got back.
In the weeks that followed, I went out nearly every day. But no matter what I tried, I could not do what he had done on my own board. I pushed myself. Hard. For hours. I cursed, I swore on the water (something I’d never done before). I tried changing my timing, my feet, the position of my arms. The waves went on passing underneath me, leaving me behind. Maybe I’ve reached my limit, I thought. Maybe I ought to be okay with that. But clearly I wasn’t. My surfing deteriorated. I kept falling off the board, impatient, unhappy, where before whenever I’d fallen I laughed with joy — because what is more wonderful than falling into white, frothy water, what could be more like play, more like an acrobat tumbling, when standing was merely what you did all day every day?
As with many things, there is no predictable arc of growth, of progress, of discovery, in surfing. Surfers describe “hitting walls,” or losing their “stoke” — the magical drive, the essence of their connection to the water and the wave that keeps them coming, entranced, back to the swells. Taking or being forced to take a season off, surfers will describe losing their takeoff or their timing. Middle-aged surfers will describe, with shock, how they can no longer leap to their feet or “carve” or “cut” their boards sharply back toward the top of a wave, as they used to do. Surfers will change boards, buy new ones, looking for fresh or lost magic.
The longer the board, the easier it is to ride. Watch children learning to surf on a longboard. It’s astonishing how easily they manage it, the way they take to it, the same way they take, perhaps, to new languages. I once asked an instructor why this was. Was it some innate, childish balance? Was it fearlessness? Intuition? A lack of acculturation? Not knowing any better? Not knowing that they couldn’t?
“Nope,” the instructor said. “They’re just so light, the board doesn’t even know they’re there.”
For days I felt nothing but my own weight. And deep frustration. With myself, my board, and the unaccommodating, slashing Oregon waves. I left town for a while, too, with my parents. The pandemic was beginning to lift its fog. I was tired, we were all tired. We needed a vacation. We decided to go inland. The ocean is beautiful but if you see it all day, every day, and what you see in it is a constant measurement of your own insufficiency, your own smallness, you’ll want to run from it and its wrinkled mirror.
Charlie texted he was back and hoping to surf; I texted we were just leaving and his best bet would be to go to one of the busier beaches. I wondered if he could read the subtext. Don’t depend on me. Stop depending on me. I was that small.
A set is a group of waves in a swell, created either by wind or current. There are generally between three and 10 waves in a set, followed by a period of relatively waveless quiet, a lull. Surfers will use the lull between sets to get “out the back,” behind the breaking waves. A lull isn’t always necessary to get past the break, but it can be helpful; it’s less of a beating, less of a fight, to get to where you’re trying to go.
Away from the water, my heart, I found, still yearned, still turned toward the waves. I found myself lying on the floor of a distant, white-carpeted room, practicing my paddling, my leap to my feet, my stance, my balance, thinking about what I knew was required for a bigger wave yet couldn’t bring myself to do. One of the many fascinating things about surfing is that it is both simple and complex problem-solving. The simple part is understanding the obvious mechanics of what it is you are trying to accomplish: Position yourself as you paddle on a moving floatation device so that it will neither nose-dive or stall back from the arc you are trying to catch, and then stand up on it at the precise moment when you can harness the energy of that arc and be launched down and forward by the force of gravity. The complex part is everything else, put together. You. Your brain. Your body. Unique to you. The wave. Unique. The surroundings. Sand or rock. Beach or reef. The shape of the land. Peninsula. Oceanfront. Bay. Cove. Island. Pier. The culture you are swimming in. History. Habits. Bad or good. Weather. Wind. Board. Tide.
The longer I stayed away, the more I missed surfing. But I was afraid to return to it, too. What if I returned, and I discovered that I had taken something so pleasurable, no, more than that, positively ecstatic, and lost it, because I had carried into it too much that was hard and brittle and me?
When we came back, Charlie and his wife had gone away again; he had decided to teach another class at his university. I stared out, uncertain, at the water. There was no one there. I told myself: Go out with no expectations. Try to let go. It’s hard. But try. Try not to think. Just go with the water. Just that.
I took my board in hand. Entering at low tide, I repeated the words of a little ritual I had initiated when I’d first started surfing in earnest. Hello Maia, to honor the woman who had gotten me into the waves. Hello Ocean, thank you, to honor the water, and maybe in a bid for it not to kill me.
I was all alone again. Here came a small wave. I turned and paddled for it. I didn’t think. I didn’t try to do anything new, ask myself to be better than I was. I leapt up.
And there it was. To surf is to ask a wave to let you join it, and get no response but the wave itself. It is not your partner, your friend, your compatriot, your competitor, your doppelganger, a mirror, or your enemy. It is physics touched by human imagination.
One day, not long after this, following a solo session that was quite wonderful but I can’t remember why (an odd thing about surfing, as many surfers will tell you, is that after you have ridden a particularly beautiful wave or had a particularly beautiful session, you sometimes can’t recall a thing about it, it all happens so fast, is so unthinking, so unlike any other part of recorded life), a woman approached me as I was crossing the cove. She introduced herself. Her name was Lori. We were about the same age, she a bit older. Small world; we found we both, through friends, knew Maia. We seemed to have so much in common.
And then we didn’t. Lori told me she had survived three separate bouts of cancer. Each had nearly killed her. That she had first tried surfing 10 years ago, in Mexico, but had to stop. That she was about to have more tests. That she desperately wanted to get back in the water, but was afraid to, alone.
She didn’t ask. I spoke. “I have a foamie. You get a wetsuit. I’ll take you out.”
A week later, Lori plunged in. I saw the fear in her eyes, at first. Everything is such a risk. Then the slow settling. The familiarity. Here is the water. I have been here before. We have been here before. This is where we come from. There is where we are going, dissolving.
She slipped and fell, slipped and fell, stood for a moment. She was overjoyed. “It’s coming back!” she said. “It’s coming back!”
The tide will do that.
Charlie returned. Introductions all around. Nowadays, we are often three on the water. Other surfers, more experienced, occasionally come and go from the cove. They prefer better waves. We stay. We have become a sight, a trio, on the beach. The other day a woman, a mother with a teenage daughter, just moved into town, said her girl wants to join us. Likewise a teenage son from another, new family. The cove is getting younger. If this keeps up, Charlie and Lori and I joke, things are going to get crowded. And the youngsters can’t go out alone. It’s not safe.
I still go out alone, from time to time. Not to be foolhardy. I study the forecasts to be safe. Not to “escape,” or at least not entirely to escape other surfers, or my responsibilities on land, my family, my work, or the fragile, half-inoculated world around me, or pretend I am free of things I am not free of. I go for a certain kind of peace, an assertion of body, and of choice; I go because there is surprise in solitude, as there is wonder in togetherness, in unity; I go because I can, and because, waving back to the older, caned beachcombers who smile and shake their heads at me, I don’t know for how long I can will be true.
I go to melt what I am able to, in cold, cold water, and make friends with how a wave passes.
Mylène Dressler is a novelist and essayist whose recent books include The Last To See Me and Our Eyes at Night. You can learn more about her work at mdressler.com.
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