I have seen the films obsessively: “Endless Summer,” “Chasing Mavericks,” and “The Ultimate Wave.”
I have driven down the California coast from Half Moon Bay to Huntington Beach, watching the black wetsuit clad figures as they ebb and flow with the swells. I have looked up the weather forecast for far away places like Jeffreys Bay and the Mentawai Islands to find out how high the breaks would be. I have never surfed, but it’s been an ever present nagging thought at the very back of my mind: what if I could ride the waves? Luckily, I live in a time where almost anything can be learned at any age, if you have the resources. So when I got the chance to plan a trip to Oahu, Hawaii, I let go of fear and booked myself a day lesson on surf’s Graceland: Waikiki Beach.
To me surfers are adventurous daredevils. Over the centuries they have acquired reputations as Zen masters, nomadic dirtbags, and world-class athletes, but I see them as humans with a touch of infallibility, people who rise above a natural force, walkers of water. The ocean fascinates me, in all its changeable forms, but I also respect its power. When I stare at it, observing its rhythmic motion, its massive potential, I do not think to myself, “Yes, I could easily stand up on a narrow piece of plastic in that.” Yet, this is precisely what I am finally going to attempt because I have been drawn in by the call of surfing. The smooth turning and tilting as white foam barrels down behind the wave rider has captured my attention and imagination, and I can resist its powerful hold on me no longer.
The moment I arrive at Waikiki Beach, though, I panic. I want to cancel my surf lesson and spend my hard earned holiday on easier pursuits, like lying on the beach, or chasing my dog on the sand. Hawaii is famous for two things: its natural beauty and the ability of the ocean to produce spectacular waves. The North Shore of Oahu is famous for its ground breaking swells, attracting top notch surfers to test its waters. Waikiki Beach, on the other hand is the tamer sister with regular and calm breakers especially suited for the trepidatious uninitiated. Warmly baked sand borders an endless repetition of cerulean waves that gently froth as they reach the golden shore. The majestic profile of Diamond Head mountain frames the elongated stretch of beach. Hundreds of surfers clamor among the crests and peaks, all of them seemingly adept at catching waves. Perhaps this is not my scene.
On The Beach
Although I have convinced myself not to take surf lessons after all, I cannot prevent myself from skulking around one of the beachside surf shacks. Would-be surfers of all ages step up to the colorful, straw roofed hut eager to rent boards and learn to surf. The prices do seem reasonable, and from the smiles and hand waves it appears the staff are friendly. Pretending for a moment not to take any notice of them, I look out again across the water as I contemplate the opportunity. However, one of the attendants from the rental shed catches my eye as he walks by and engages me out of my quiet quandary.
“Good day for surfin’,” he exclaims with the certitude of an experienced surfer.
“Yeah,” I respond, shrugging nonchalantly.
“First time?” he asks mildly. Then without waiting for an answer, “we offer surf lessons with some great teachers,” he continues with a jockeying tone.
“Awesome,” I answer, “good to know.”
Sensing my hesitation, he parts with encouraging words, “When you’re ready, let me know.”
I nod my thanks, then wander off towards the silent silhouette of Diamond Head. I am not ready…yet.
The mile and a half hike towards the sharp cliff edge of Diamond Head finally convinces me to take up the surf lesson. I cannot resist the allure of the hundreds of surfers enjoying themselves upon the waves of Waikiki and the seductive call of the turquoise waters that tempts me out of my trepidation. Before my self-doubts can stop me, I have paid for the two hour tutorial and anxiously wait for the lesson to begin, thick, long, white foam surfboard under my armpit. With me, grinning self consciously are two teenage girls, an excitable boy of ten, and his mother. Fortunately for me, I am too flush from the intense sun beaming down to be red with embarrassment at being the only adult male in the group. Regardless, it’s too late now to back out and so my discomfort is refocused into my determination. A wrinkled and seared man with long locks of silver hair approaches the group. He smiles and surveys how many of us have ever tried to surf before. No one raises their hands. He slaps his thigh gleefully, states that his name is Old Sam, and motions us towards the edge of the beach.
Old Sam and the Sea
Old Sam’s first words of wisdom are that we should strive to become one with the waves. He has us going through the motions of lying, paddling, and popping up from our boards on dry land. It all seems quite doable to me at this point, but as I catch the glimmer of sunlight reflecting off the foamy breaks, serious doubts return about translating sand practice into wet surf. Far too early for my comfort, Old Sam has us wading into the water and paddling out to where the waves are building. Awkwardly, I manage to get onto my gigantic foam board and paddle towards the distant rally point away from the safety of the beach head. Almost there, my imagination fires up and though my arms burn from the unfamiliar exercise, I begin to visualize myself as a surfer in harmony with rhythms of the ocean.
As the waves wash over me and I topple from my board multiple times, a curious thing happens. I forget my fear of the waves and fall in love with them instead. While I may not become the next Kelly Slater, I am committed to standing up at least once and riding a swell to shore. Old Sam is right there beside me, calling out rollers enthusiastically, never a break in his motivation. Each time I fall over, I can hear Old Sam encouraging me to paddle back out and try again. As I paddle back into the deep, I can feel myself relaxing into the rhythm of the water. At a gesture from Old Sam, I turn my board towards the land and paddle strongly. Suddenly, I feel the gradual lift of the surge as it pushes underneath my surfboard unlike my previous failed attempts. Instinctively, I pop up on my feet and bend my knees as I gain my balance riding my perfect wave back to the beach. I have entered the surfer’s world.
It’s true what surfers say: there is no other feeling quite like catching the perfect wave. Now, I too know what this experience is like. Old Sam, my youthful companions, and Waikiki Beach will always be remembered as part of my first time surfing. I haven’t yet planned a trip around the world searching for the perfect ripple to ride, but the next time I head to a destination with stellar swells I promise to rent another surf board. Surfing is an ethereal experience and I can’t wait for my next opportunity to get back to the water.
BESPOKE TRAVELER TIP #3
“The purpose of a souvenir is to take with you a bit of the feeling and flavor of a destination.”
For more advice, check out Into the Blue.