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2. Learning to Surf in LA: Year One

Santa Monica Beach, December 2016

In the summer of 2016, I moved back to Los Angeles after a brief departure to San Francisco. I was exuberant to be “home” to the sunshine. Phil and I moved into a one bedroom with a pool, one block from the ocean in Santa Monica. At this point Phil was still my boyfriend, not yet husband, and neither of us knew if we were moving in that marriage direction or the opposite way, towards some dissolution. We had both (separately) just gotten our scuba certifications, and spending time down beneath the surface of the ocean, in that entirely other World, only deepened my longing to be in and near the water. I wasn’t sure of much that summer, but the ocean right outside my window was calling loudly for me. I PROMISED myself that I’d finally, and truly learn to surf! That June, Phil and I did our preliminary research, bought boards, wetsuits, leashes, Sex Wax, and we took to the sea.

The Break was Guard tower 24 in Santa Monica. Easy parking in the never crowded 2 hour pay lot and a straight walk out across the sand. Santa Monica is a beach break. It has a nice sandy bottom to fall onto when the waves pound you down and plenty of room to spread out away from other surfers. The paddle out can be difficult, pushing through the steadily crashing waves. And the force of the wave breaking all at once onto the sand can be intimidating. My big board went flying away from me many times each session.

The waves at Guard Tower 24 are almost all closeouts, which means they don’t peel as they break, and instead crash down all at once in a horizontal line of frothy white. You can’t ride directionally on a close out, or do any of the cool things that surfers do when they achieve a nice long ride on the face of a wave. But, at this point, I didn’t need to. This first year of surfing it was exhilarating just to be out there, learning.

It was important, this first year, for us to find open spaces like Guard Tower 24. Big beach breaks where we could learn with freedom, and where we wouldn’t get in the way of the “real” surfers when our boards went flying through the air helplessly. We knew to stay away from crowded breaks, point breaks, and definitely not to go near the take-off point at a break until we had been surfing for a few years and felt we could handle the waves and hang onto our boards when big sets rolled through.

The Board, my very first board, was an 8 foot log, thick and voluminous throughout. I could have gotten a soft top to start, probably should have, as this board DID land on me, run into me, and beat me up on numerous occasions. But I did love that board! I could pop up and stand up easily because the board was so buoyant it was like a big floating dock. I could ride straight down a close-out and let the white water push me forward for as long as it may. For a time this was all that mattered. Taking a drop, standing up for one second, falling down. I had done it! I had learned to surf! (sort of…)

I Learned how to pick up a wave: the exact position that I needed to be in, not too far in front of the wave, not too far behind. The exact spot on my board where I needed to be in order to catch the wave, not too far forward, or too far backwards. The extra paddle or two I needed to take in order to make the wave catch the board. The way my chest needed to be lifted while paddling and then pushed down at the perfect moment to catch the wave.

I Learned how to pop up on my board while riding down a wave. Although, it would take me years more to do it even close to correctly. At this point I was usually either standing up too quickly, so that I would lose my balance and fall over, or standing up too slowly, so that I’d linger on my back knee for a second, and then ungracefully make it to my feet losing speed and control in the meantime. Once I did stand up, my stance was too small, my chest too low, my arms all wrong.

I Learned how to turtle roll my board when I got caught in a crashing wave, though it didn’t always work, I at least was trying. With this technique I could hold onto the nose of my board, push it down into the breaking wave, and roll over, the board on top and me beneath it, as the wave crashed down on us. This, instead of ditching my board so that it could fly into anyone around me, is integral to being able to surf at an actual crowded break.

I Learned what it felt like to catch and ride a wave (even if the ride only lasted one second, even if my pop up wasn’t perfect, even if I was scared the whole entire time) and it was the best feeling I’d had in many years.

During a usual two hour surf session in that first year, Phil and I would catch three waves each, if we were lucky. Like the first year of a relationship when all you want is more, this first year of surfing was tantalizing; brief glimpses of that feeling of catching and riding a wave. When the water takes you, when you lose control, when you look down and find that you are gliding down a pumping wall of water: the ultimate high.

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