Being a beginning surfer in a place with a strong local presence, strong currents, and rocky shore isn’t always a walk in the park. On the contrary, it often feels like more of a swim in a very big, very rough ocean.
I had been surfing for two months when the first really big swell I experienced came into southern Costa Rica. There was an undeniable buzz in the air in the days leading up to it, an excited energy that got people moving. I had heard the locals talking about how the swell would totally transform the waves, the beach, and the people who came to surf it. And this was about to be the first time I’d see all that happen with my own eyes.
On the first day of the swell, I decided it was worth it for me to go out into bigger waves. I donned my suit, grabbed my board, and walked to the beach. The lineup was packed with at least three times the regular number of people and I definitely didn’t recognize most of them. It was strange. Although I wasn’t necessarily a local, I had been surfing the same wave with the same people four times a week for the last two months. With so many tourists in the water, it was easy to see that the general surf experience would be quite different today.
Sure enough, I noticed more yelling, assertiveness, and aggression than ever before. It was such a stark contrast to the supportive community I knew. Research on surf psychology shows that newcomers in an area are disembedded from the surf culture of a specific location, and therefore their arrival in a new location brings in competition and individual-oriented thinking (Daskalos, 2007). Instead of working to make sure everybody in the water could take advantage of the waves as a family, every person was out there for themselves.
Staying mostly out of the way, I got myself situated in the line-up, wondering how long it would take for me to reach the point and actually catch a wave. I saw my friend catch one, cruising down and cheering as he did. He made it look effortless and I was stoked to hear his enthusiasm as he paddled back into the lineup.
“Liz! Liz! LIZ!!!!!! THIS IS YOUR WAVE!!!”
I faced the ocean, and there it was, the biggest wave I had ever attempted to catch in my life. I could hear my friend’s voice urging me forward and cheering me on.
I didn’t quite realize the height or strength of the wave until I had dropped in and was flying across a wave face faster than I’d ever experienced before. I reveled in it all for as long as I could, elegantly dismounting over the dying wave. As I paddled back into the lineup I met one of the locals who had been watching me progress over those last two months. He gave me a high-five and an affirmation, “You’re turning into a pretty badass surfer.”
I felt the potential for a week of awesome surf ahead. I also didn’t know just how in over my head I would be.
By mid-swell I was feeling pretty confident in my ever-mounting surf-skills. I had befriended a bunch of people in the days before, all of who were pushing each other to go out as much as possible and catch as many waves as possible. I had told one of these new friends about a secret spot to paddle out that was clear of rocks and had the perfect little rip that would get you around the impact zone and into the lineup. We went there and began to paddle out but the current was too strong. By the time I had paddled to the lineup I was exhausted. I was fighting the current as if I was on a treadmill, with wave after wave coming in at incredibly short intervals. When one came in that I was in a questionable position to catch, I went for it, not noticing my friend to the right of me doing the same. I paddled hard, caught the wave, and there he was, dropping in on my wave.
I abandoned my board and took my beating. The force of the wave pushed me down for what felt like an eternity before I resurfaced, pulling the leash to get my board back so I could paddle out of the impact zone. I was stuck. Every wave in the set crashed on me, the current pulling me further…and further…for a full kilometer. My only option of getting out of the water was on top of some very large, volcanic reef rocks. So with every ounce of patience I could muster, I waded my way through the rocks and towards the shore, eventually getting there, sitting down and looking out at the tremendous trouble I had just escaped.
That was the first time I had been in a position while surfing where I truly felt out of control. There were moments I couldn’t breathe, stuck under the water not knowing which direction was which or how long it would be until I could breathe again.
The next day, though I still felt a bit defeated, I knew I needed to get back into the water and keep fear from getting the better of me. I made it out to the lineup that day with relative ease, and with my confidence increasing, I paddled a bit closer to the peak this time.
All of a sudden I heard a yell.
I looked behind me, and in my negligence, I had not noticed a particularly large wave being ridden out the back. Moreover, I knew I was going to get caught inside of it. When the wave did make its way toward me I found myself tumbling through the water again. The board and I were rolling together. I was able to take a breath of air for just a second before BOOM! Another wave came crashing on top of me.
That was the start of an entire clean up set worth of waves thrashing me around, with one even driving my board into my leg, punctuated with a loud crack. I didn’t see any blood in the water but the pain in my bone told me that I had done something serious. Attempting not to hyperventilate and panic, I slowly made my way back to the shore. I made my way out of the water, one hand on my leg, I put my board down, and sat on the beach. One of the fins had been snapped off of the board, and on my leg was the evidence of the impact that broke it. The bruise from that alone lasted for an entire month.
I limped back home, put away my board, and decided I would be taking a little break from surfing.
My adventure through that swell had taught me several valuable lessons. As always, I try to stay as grateful as possible to surfing for the infinite wisdom that it helps to impart upon surfers. I’d started the week feeling connected to the locals in the community, feeling confident and comfortable in the water and in my abilities. I’d become overconfident, though, and found myself in an overwhelming situation. Then, I became complacent and got injured in a situation I normally would have been able to handle.
That week I learned that in life, we are often presented with situations where it is difficult to stay afloat. External forces may come crashing down on you, you may lose control of your support systems, and you may get injured. In this sense, surfing the swell taught me that when forces are beyond your control, you learn to deal with them or risk losing everything.
Though I finished the week injured and terrified, my experiences had taught me about the wave I had been spending so much time with those past two months. The people who had lived there their whole lives had experienced similar things, and me being able to speak about the water with more knowledge brought us closer together. Anybody can show up someplace and had a bad day in the water. Anybody can show up someplace and have a good day in the water. The people who see both sides of the wave and both sides of the experience are the ones who become part of the family.