Some of you are joining my journey mid-way. In summary, this post is a taster of the things I have learned through surfing in Barbados. Those of you who have been with me on my journey will recognize these musings.
When I moved to Barbados, I knew one person on the island, and he was a surfer. The surf culture intrigued me. I had a vision, based on Jack Johnson’s songs, of beach living and a laid-back vibe. This is a misrepresentation of a sport that can be narcistic, competitive and unkind. It is thrilling and it creates #surfaddicts. Yet, I do experience the beautiful meditation of sitting on my surfboard looking out to the aqua blues of the ocean and can say without a doubt that it has changed my life here.
Where I lack skill, I make up for it in courage. I am fearless when it comes to big waves, which is not necessarily a good thing for my body, but it does allow me to give surfing an honest attempt. However, I have learned the sport later in life and will never perfect it. This is freeing, as a recovering perfectionist. For years, I did not play sports that I was not good at or had frustrations learning (read: golf). To embrace surfing, I had to let go of the notion that I had to do it well or not at all. It has been humbling and many life lessons have been reinforced along the way.
I have figured out why surfing is so addictive – intermittent reinforcement – a reward is coming but you do not know when you are going to get it and you do not know how good it is going to be. It is like cell phones or slot machines. Sometimes there are no waves, or they are rough and difficult to catch, and this is discouraging. Other times, the waves are on, and you surf wave after wave to the beach, and this is exhilarating like few things I have experienced. You never really know which it will be when you show up at the surf break.
There are many of us sitting up, straddling our surf boards looking out to the ocean. We are waiting for a set to come in. Sometimes the waves are constant, and you have many opportunities. Other times, we sit and wait and watch.
Surfing is an exercise in patience, which is a virtue that I do not have in abundance. One must wait and pick the wave wisely. A good wave has a certain velocity and shape. Some seem to show such promise in the distance but when they arrive, they are nothing more than a ripple in the ocean. These ones will not lift you on the board, but if you paddle for them, they will push you forward and you could miss the set coming behind. Then you must fight your way back out to the break, while the good waves crash over you. To me, this feels reminiscent of how I used to live my life, rushing the good stuff, and then getting beat up trying to get back on course.
In the beginning, I could not see the pattern in the ocean, so I relied on those that knew these things. An energy, that is palpable, runs through the crowd when the waves are coming in. The surfers turn their boards and lay down and start to look over their right shoulder to see the swell. Then people start paddling like mad! If you can get up enough steam when that things hits, you can get on top of it, and if you can pop up at the right time, you can ride it.
And yes, occasionally I fall off and bang my foot on the coral or add another bruise to my body. Isn’t that what we did as a kid? We just went for it, and if we fell off the monkey bars or out of the tree, we might have run into the house crying but then we went back out to play. Because we did not want to miss out on what was coming and how good it might be.
Falling off the surfboard has taught me the art of letting go. It is only when you paddle in front of a wave and it chases you down that you either have the thrill of riding it into the beach, or the exhilaration of getting pummeled. It is usually the wave that decides. At one point when I was in bigger waves and was thrown off, I decided to hold onto my board. I pulled something in my ribs, and it caused me to take a few days out for the first time in months since I began to surf. My surf instructor explained that if you hold on tight to the board, especially in the waves, it can be ripped away and hurt you. The board is your lifeline, but you need to let the leash that is tied around your ankle go tight and snap back. The board will then come back to you…always. But first, you need to let it go.
Surfing is much more complicated than it looks. First you must pick a wave, then you need the strength to paddle so that you can catch it, followed by the pop up onto the board, and then the grace to ride your board along the wave, just ahead of it. Layered on top of this is surf etiquette.
The COVID pandemic caused Barbados to undergo an aggressive lockdown for weeks with beaches only open from 6-9am. This meant that the Gods and the beginners had to surf together. A crash course in surf etiquette. The best surfers take their place at the front of the line, because you must always yield to that side of the break. In other words, if a surfer is on a wave and is coming through, you must drop. Sometimes, at a popular surf spot, it can take years to move your way to the front of the line. Not because you need to live there for years, but because that is what it takes to develop the skill set to assume that position. I have heard people grumble that they feel this is unjustified, that they are entitled to a place in the line by nature of this great outdoors being free to everyone. I believe this lacks an appreciation of the way of any sport, and often life; you must pay your dues to earn your place. One must work hard; there are no shortcuts to the front of the line.
Some say that the rules are meant for the safety of all, but there is a hierarchy, and the rules are there to support it. A more experienced surfer explained to me that when a big wave is coming, and I am already in the white water, I should grab my leash at the base and hold on tight so that my board does not fling into someone’s path. I believe that she had our safety in mind. I have also been yelled at for this same issue. I believe that person was putting me in my place so that he felt better about his status. Which communication do you think was more effective? (Hint: I get caught off my board a lot and when the white water comes crashing in, I hold onto my leash at its base for dear life). A little kindness and coaching go a long way to someone that is learning. Confidence is fostered by building someone up, not tearing them down.
During the lockdowns in Barbados, surfing became my entire social life. Familiarity breads friendship. You do not stop someone on the street the first time you see someone and ask them to hang out. Instead, you may nod the first time you see them, say hello the second time and ask them how their day is. It is not until you get signals that they might be interested in having a conversation that you strike one up. It is hard to have a conversation on a surfboard with one eye on the person, and the other on the ocean behind you. But the familiarity on the water breeds the conditions to talk off the water and a friendship may then form. I have developed beautiful friendships with other surfers, only because each of us have fostered this relationship off the water. True friendship is a wonderful gift that can begin with a mutual interest, such as surfing, but must be fostered to form a deeper connection.
>I can see how surfing becomes like a religion to some. For me, it has become a spiritual practice, like meditation. I feel a sense of calm when I sit on my board. On a surfboard, if you face into even the bigger waves, you are lifted, and the wave passes under you. If you swim in big waves, you must swim under them so that it does not knock you over. I do not want to dive under anymore; I want to be lifted. Surfing has lifted my body, my soul, and my spirit and taken me closer to the peaceful state that I crave. #Gratitude.