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Learning to Surf on the North Shore of Oahu

I can remember exactly the first time I felt I had to surf….against all expectations, as I am uncomfortable in the ocean when my feet don’t touch a sandy bottom. Surf movies were projected onto the walls of the hip restaurant where we celebrated my daughter’s birthday.  Watching surf movies is like seeing poetry come to life.

The scene of a young woman on her board, freely gliding atop a wave 10 times her size seduced me, even though I knew that as with skiing, surfing is best learned when you’re young and flexible in body and mind.

The image of me on the surf board became another “must do” on my bucket list of adventures. I wondered if it was crazy to try to surf in my 50s.

Recently, when planning a family vacation to Hawaii, I saw a promotional photo of a girl on a surf board outside the Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu. That’s it, I thought. I’ll book the surf lessons for myself and my two college-age daughters. My husband was less enthusiastic, but I had to give it a shot, and with my daughters urging me on, maybe I’d have the courage to try. We grabbed our suitcases and good books and took off for Turtle Bay, a non-stop flight from San Francisco and then only an hour drive from the Honolulu Airport.

The north shore boasts big waves, large enough to drown you or throw you up on the rocks and crush you. It’s a Mecca for the world’s top surfers and competitions. All my life I’ve sat on the shore watching the surfers and finally said to myself, “I have to get out there and confront my fear of the ocean. I’ll never have better company than my athletic daughters and I may not have the opportunity to take lessons at a surf school as renowned as Hans Hedemann’s at the Turtle Bay Resort.” “Go for it,” I remember my mom telling me so many times.

Surf lessons with my daughters

We were given thin wet suits and long boards and instructions on the sand, and then into the breakers we paddled. Our buff teacher Tom floated at the crest of the waves near us and called me to paddle over and get ready. Bobbing up and down, he watched and waited for the perfect wave for me, then with a push, a spin and a yelp, I paddled out of the wave. On my belly, counting to three, following his instructions, I tried to stand up, wobbled and crashed.  “The wipe-outs are part of the fun,” I remember Tom saying.  Tumbling downward into the pit of the wave, I felt the whole power of the ocean above me. There was no time to be scared. Suddenly a force pulled me by my ankle up to the surface. There was no time to wonder if it was a supernatural power helping me out. With a snap, tug and a pull from the surfboard strap I was propelled upward.

Sputtering and dazed, I surfaced and looked out to the wave line where I saw my daughters smiling with thumbs up. “OK, time to try again,” I thought.

Then they took their turns and gracefully stood up, balanced and rode their waves. We were all whooping and yelling encouragement to each other.

I paddled back out to the instructor, feeling my strength and pumping up my courage. What did I do wrong? Tom said, “Let go of it. Don’t count or think, just feel the wave.” He pushed me off for the second try and started paddling into the rushing wave. I had the sensation I was dancing and that I’d been on that wave all my life. I stood up and rode it in. It was pure euphoria.  For the rest of the day I managed to ride every wave, something I never thought I would be allowed to do. The ocean touched me on the nose and said, “That was for you.”  For a few seconds I was one with the wave.

Learning to surf is one of the harder things I’ve done in my life, but it’s also immensely gratifying. It requires both great focus and tremendous effort to paddle out and get on the wave. You need to be highly observant to understand what’s happening around you, while simultaneously letting everything go and allowing your instincts to guide you. If you’re not 100-percent present, you might get unlucky and get hurt.

Out there bobbing in the waves of the North Shore of Oahu, I had to deal with the ocean, the fear, the survival and the challenge – all alone. You truly are on your own.

After the surf lessons I was sore for days and I stayed close to the pool, the Jacuzzi, and the sand beach at Turtle Bay Resort. But I knew something had changed in me—the way I feel about myself. I did it — I surfed –even at my age.