The Hidden Shame of Surfing

Surfing can create some embarrassing moments. It’s just the nature of the beast. Photo: Stephan Holzinger

The Inertia

Surfing gives us many things. Motivation to rise early. A workout to counteract the burrito we inhale afterwards. Memories of rides we relive all day when we should be working.

Surfing also gifts us with embarrassing stories ripped straight from the pages of Kooks Illustrated. Here are a few of mine.

Summer Heartbreak

It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I bought a real board. I’d always ridden hand-me-downs, but after saving up cash all summer and bugging local shop owner Bob with questions, I picked out a gleaming white thruster shaped by New Hampshire’s own Shane Smith. 

An hour later, I strutted down the beach like a card-carrying member of the Momentum Generation, sans the sponsorships or talent. After a few sunset rides, I ran back to my car, on cloud nine. My flip phone chirped. Sweet. In your 20s, finding out someone is having a party is akin to winning the lottery. I set my new stick down on the pavement, changed, got behind the wheel, cranked some Marley, and backed up.

A deafening CRUNCH…a few seconds of disbelief, then anger…the bewildered voice of the surfer next to me. “Oh, no, dude! How’d you do that?”

Keep in mind that this was the board I’d been dreaming of during sweltering months of mowing lawns and shoveling dirt. That when I heard the poly crack under my old Honda’s tires, my young heart cracked into a thousand pieces and sank to my sandy toes.

Back to the shop the next day to explain to a packed house what a moron I was. The humiliation! Good ol’ Bob, sensing my existential distress, offered to fix the board for free. All that was left was a stripe across the nose; something to remember the best…and worst day of my summer by.


“So, you want to try winter surfing…” 

It was more a threat than a question, fired by Bob as I browsed the wetsuits, intimidated. Despite his grey beard and calm demeanor, the guy made waves into art projects. I made waves into blooper reels. But I was hooked, and I figured surfing year-round would help turn me less kook, more Kelly. Plus, the suits were on sale.

It was an August afternoon and in the back of the shop, the air was rich with a beloved New England “Triple-H” – hazy, hot, and humid. Bob tossed a hooded 5/4 over and pointed to the “changing room”— a piece of plywood with a dented mirror in the back of the shop.

As I headed back, the door jingled. In walked a woman, about my age, who, shall we say, possessed all the superficial qualities that a superficial man in his 20s might value. 

“What’s going on?” said the surfer girl, flashing a shaka.

“This guy’s trying on some winter rubber,” Bob said, pointing. 

“I’m trying on some winter rubber,” I said cleverly.

“What’s the hold up?” Bob said.

Sweat slipped down my back. “You know, this suit looks perfect, man, I’ll just take it, OK?” I fumbled for my wallet. 

Bob narrowed his eyes. “You think I’m gonna let you buy one without trying it?”

I entered the torture chamber, stripped down, and corkscrewed my body into the thick rubber. Sweat raged like a river, I tripped and fell with the thump of a breaking wave. 

“He’s…a teacher in Boston,” I heard over my flurry of gasps and grunts. Wait, Bob’s trying to put in a good word?!

“Cool!” The girl said. “How’s it fit, man?”

I looked in the mirror. The hood strangled me. My long red hair stuck out at all angles, my face was the color of a Macintosh apple. 

“Get out here, Killer!” Bob said.

I sucked in my belly and shuffled out as sweat flushed from my wrists and ankles like Spider Man shooting webs. 

The silence that followed told me a few things: one, the suit would indeed keep me warm. Two, the suit was too tight, but it wasn’t the suit’s fault. And three, whatever faint interest Bob had drummed up for me had vaporized like my deodorant, as the smart female surfer ran for the exit amid the clouds of mist drifting off the black neoprene.

“I’ll take it,” I said.

Breakfast Buddy

A few mornings ago, I ended up chatting with a bear of a guy with a broad smile, a white beard and a long mop of gray hair hanging down his back. A distinct look: you could pick him out of any lineup – surf, police; it didn’t matter.

“Getting better!” He pointed to the incoming set. 

“Right when I get tired!” I said, laughing. 

“I’m starting to think about breakfast!” he announced, giving me thumbs up as I paddled for my last wave.

As I walked down the beach, my dude came riding in on his belly, whipping his long grey hair back, grinning broadly. I stopped, called out loudly, “HEY, man! Time for breakfast, right!?” We’d walk back together, maybe discuss the pros and cons of a classic eggs benny.

The guy stood up, squinted, and looked at me as though I had two heads. He didn’t smile. It suddenly struck me that this was not the dude from earlier. “I had an early breakfast this morning, actually,” the man said gravely, no doubt wondering why I was conducting ‘breakfast interviews’ at 8 a.m. on the beach. I nodded, waved, and fled the scene.

Surfing Switch

When a New Englander moves to a place where it’s possible to surf every day, it creates mental lapses. There I stood on the cool sand as clean, hollow waves detonated at a spot I’d never even seen before. There weren’t many surfers on it yet, and I trembled with excitement and adrenaline as I changed as fast as humanly possible under a bath towel.  

Next to me, another guy scoped the swells. “Headed out?” he said.

“Oh yeah,” I said coolly.  I wasn’t just headed out. I was on a shred mission. I was going to rip. I pulled off my towel with a flourish, grabbed my board.

Wait, where’s the chest zipper? Why have my knee pads disappeared? Weird. Oh, there they are…WAIT, why are they…back there?

As the guy looked on, dumbfounded, I began tearing my suit back off, pretty much flashing the busy 101 behind us in my haste. When I looked back up, he was getting into his truck, clearly afraid to paddle out anywhere near the kook from the East Coast.

The Key to a Strong Relationship

We bought a 2008 Jeep Wrangler when we got out to California, and it came with as many miles as mechanical deficiencies. One of those deficiencies is the sizable gap between the dashboard and the windshield.

As I pulled up to my local break, I grabbed my wetsuit and tossed my keys – the only Jeep key we own – on the dash. Only, they didn’t go on the dash. They rolled across the dashboard and, with a Christmassy jingle, disappeared. 

Because I confront problems head-on, I went surfing. Afterwards, shivering, I tried everything under the sun. I dangled a bungee cord, went in there up to my elbow, pulled the dashboard apart and even organized a random-surfers-think-tank that produced a plethora of insights like “Hmm, I don’t know, man…Woah, dude, that’s crazy, you did what?!”

My understanding-yet-beleaguered fiancé Ali biked down with some hangers. After hours of tinkering, no luck. We were calling a tow truck when a man and his wife approached us. The man, who spoke limited English and was visiting from abroad, understood what was going on. “No problem.” He quickly inserted the bungee cord in, moving it with enough finesse to hook the key like an expert angler. I offered the European hero money, beer, the Jeep; all to no avail. All he asked us for were tips on what beaches to explore next.

A few days later, I pulled up to a different break and, with another crisp jingle, tossed my keys directly back into the depths of the dashboard. 

No, seriously. 

Somehow, Ali has not chucked her engagement ring into the ocean – or the dashboard – yet. 


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