I’m lying in a cabana in northern Nicaragua, drifting on the edge of consciousness. I can hear the birds singing, the wind rustling the leaves of the coconut trees, and the waves crashing on the shore, but my mind is blank.
This brief siesta is coming at 9 a.m. on day three of a Surf With Amigas retreat at El Coco Loco Resort. Myself and 14 other “amigas” have already had a two-hour surf session and soon we’ll be eating our second breakfast. Now, I ought to be crystal clear about a couple things and the irony of this moment. First, I have never been a morning person. Second, I’ve never been described as “mellow.” That’s until I discovered surfing.
My eureka moment happened a couple of years ago. I was 29 and enjoying my first extended period of singlehood, which meant I was traveling by myself for the first time. Surfing turned out to be the perfect antidote to the fear of wandering aimlessly around a new country solo. I think of it like this: surfing while on vacation is a bit like taking a book to a restaurant, having dinner for one. It provides reliable companionship but doesn’t necessarily need to take the front seat.
The problem is, learning to surf is hard. Like, really hard. I’ve used a surfboard as an excuse to travel to Portugal, Spain, Hawaii, and Mexico several times in the past few years, but I want to level up. And that’s what’s brought me to Nicaragua — to get some serious professional help and get out in the water with a posse of ladies.
Three days earlier, as I boarded my flight, I found myself in one of those obsessive phone checking circuits. Email, Instagram, Facebook, text messages, WhatsApp. Repeat. Now, cut off from wi-fi in the 72-hours since, my only concern is the “daily schedule” rolled out on a white board each evening. It goes something like this: Wake up. Eat breakfast. Have a paddle class in the pool. Eat second breakfast. Go surfing. Eat lunch. Do yoga. Eat dinner.
I can handle this.
Out in the water, there’s an instructor for every three students – helping with everything from the paddle to the lineup to wave selection to how to do a cutback. Every session is videotaped, so you can sit down with a coach and analyze it later. Now, if you haven’t been bitten by the surf bug yet, you might ask yourself, why persevere with this virtually impossible hobby that results in salt water coming out of your nose during yoga? The answer is because surfing is a profoundly life-changing activity. “We’ve seen people quit their jobs, get divorces, and totally change their lifestyles,” says Holly Beck, former pro surfer and founder of Surf With Amigas. “You come down to a place like this and you see other single women and you realize that there are different ways to be.”
Most guests on these retreats are single professionals in their 30s and 40s, and the vast majority come solo. “We want to take girls who maybe have never really spent much time in the ocean and show them that they can do it,” Beck says. “And then they go back to their real lives feeling fired up.”
A mother-daughter duo from California are part of my cohort and I catch them chatting over lunch about why they go surfing together. “Everyone’s a better person in the water,” the mom says. It’s true. Surfing forces you to drop your ego along with any notion of control over your circumstances. I learn this firsthand on my trip once I learn how paramount the conditions are, from the wind to the changing tides to the size, direction, and period of the swell. In other words, the things that bring us waves and allow us to enjoy surfing are always completely out of our control.
So if surfing at high tide means getting up at 4:30 a.m., you do it. If the wind picks up after 7 a.m., there’s no arguing with it.
For most of the week, we’re paddling out in conditions I’d never surf by myself. The waves are bigger than I’m used to and a bit scary. Indeed, one of the blooper videos of the week is titled “Emma goes down a hole,” and is conveniently placed on everyone’s thumb drives for future amusement. But it’s not all about adrenaline. One morning, I find myself sitting out in glassy conditions, watching pelicans glide gracefully just above the surface of the water while a rancher herds his cows down the beach. This is when I realize, having been removed from wi-fi for the past few days, the reason I constantly turn over my phone: to fill the lulls. Standing in the grocery line. Lying on the couch. Walking down the street. But out in the water, I come to appreciate the lulls. I realize we need to allow ourselves those empty moments. Then, when life kicks up again and the sets roll in, you’re ready for it. There’s something immensely calming about planning your day around the rhythms of nature. About letting go of your ego and doing something that at times scares the shit out of you.
That’s why surfing is now the organizing principle of every trip I take. Where are there good waves? Not too many people? Plentiful carbs? I inevitably return home sun-kissed, sore, zen as fuck, and dreaming of the next time.