The Transformative Magic Of That Very First Paddle Out
I sat on a
bench, which itself was placed several feet up on a wooden platform next to the
ocean. The bench was a piecemeal of pallets and pillows, allowing me plenty of
room to lean back and cross my legs in front of me, my sun-beaten head and
chest propped up on elbows bent far behind me. I watched the three people at
the ocean’s edge, just to the right of my center, out from behind a pair of
sunglasses — the sunglasses would have to come off when I eventually got into
the water myself, but in the early morning sunrise, I appreciate their aegis
far too much. The small group, clustered at the edge of the world, with their
waxed boarded tucked under the arms and braced hard against their hips, took
their first steps into the shoreline waves. I sighed and cut my attention
towards the instructor who strode up to the platform with me.
started in an accent that was distinctly Germanic. He had two boards, one under
each long arm and gazed momentarily out at the group that was now waist-deep in
the waters, floating their boards — then back to me. “What do you remember?”
I pursed my
lips together, turning inward for a moment. This was the part I was good at —
the ‘learning information’ part, the formal education part. I was great when
dealing with theory, but practice was what always threw me. I didn’t know if it
was the dedication required to actually implement facts or what, but whatever
it was, it had kept me from surfing for a long time. My whole life, really.
Surfing took too much work. It surely wasn’t worth the time one needed to put
in, and the propensity for getting hurt, to me, was far too high. Plus, I
already dedicated all my extra time to learning and teaching yoga, a passion which
didn’t leave room for much else.
Still, that didn’t stop me from fingering through surfing catalogues and watching surf videos whenever they appeared on my timeline. It certainly was appealing, that I never had trouble admitting. I massively admired those who went for it and surfed.
I liked the
picturesque idea of surfing and, having grown up in Florida, I knew that I
liked the people who surfed. I liked how it looked, and I already loved the
ocean. I knew that with my interest in yoga, my balance and fitness would lend
itself well to the sport — so when a friend introduced me to the concept of
surf retreats, I resisted her only for her first few persuasive attempts. It
really didn’t take much before I went jettisoning off to my very first SwellWomen surf adventure, in the Osa
Peninsula of Costa Rica.
“Well, it’s important to try and pop up in one fluid motion,” I began listing off “and the wave will carry you faster if your weight is in your back foot.” The instructor, Eddy, lifted his eyebrows in intrigue. “If a wave is coming at you, dive underneath it — and never ditch your board if another person is around you.” Besides the actual mechanics of the wave, that’s about all there was to it. Eddy nodded his head and motioned me to the grass behind the bench.
He put one of
the boards on the ground — it lacked any fins that might be broken from
beachside practice — and told me to place myself on top. I obeyed, shimmying
onto my belly and shivering as I felt cold wax against my skin for the first
After my first five minutes in the water, I would eventually learn the magic of surfing that, at this point, willfully evaded me. This beautiful, albeit uncomfortable, magic of surfing is simply having the opportunity to face your weaknesses. It’s a gift, and a privilege. Many times the weaknesses we face on the water are ones that we didn’t even know we had. After all, take a person who is mostly land-bound and place them in the water, and they will be all sorts facing unknown challenges — the likes of which they had not yet even imagined. Things from sitting up straight and standing would become far more difficult when in the water, and people who played happily in the shoreline suddenly might become petrified when schooning over water 20 or 30 feet deep. These aren’t things that can be left ignored either, if one wished to truly transcend into a person who surfed.
I had come to
this surf lesson inspired by all the beautiful photos I had seen, of women with
flowing hair hanging-ten in a most poetic manner. The beauty of it was what
attracted me, but I wasn’t yet aware that the most beautiful part of surfing
happened on the inside, through such work that could not be considered
glamorous. If you had asked me if I was mentally prepared to surf in that
moment, I would have responded with a resounding yes. If you asked me now, I
would say I always will have something new to learn, and new challenge to
overcome — but you can’t use these things as an excuse, otherwise, you’ll never
reap the rewards. You just have to face them.
me, an eagle and his prey, looking for sign of potential weakness. It wasn’t
long before he found something.
“See how your
feet are hanging off?” He tapped the soles of my feet with his own, and I
instinctively scuttled forward a few inches. “Yeah, right there,” he amended
and continued surveying my form. However, laying upon a board on dry land is
easy work — there wasn’t much else for him to correct.
He sighed, bent
down and placed an extended forefinger near the middle of the board, right
beneath my nose. Cross-eyed, I looked at what he motioned towards. “See how
your chin just hits the sticker on this board? Find a similar marker on the
board you’ll take in the ocean, so you always know where to be. You won’t have
to think about it much.” I nodded like a good student should, internalizing his
words and committing them to memory right then and there.
Eddy stood back
to his full height, leaving only his bare feet in my view.
through your back and paddle,” he instructed, almost surely with his chin
nestled between his forefinger and thumb. I did so, feeling each muscle along
my thoracic spine light up, pulling my chest up and away from the board. The
yoga teacher in me smiled — cobra pose? Easy stuff! Even though I was finally
able to look around, I kept my eyes trained on a spot just ahead of the board —
wherever I wanted the board to go, as Eddy had stated about a half hour prior —
and I began to move my arms in an awkward, dog-like paddle. I pulled my elbows
up and back, then trust my cupped hands forward and brushed it against the
ground as I pulled each one back and forth, pedaling as if this were a
All was fine
and surprisingly easy; until I paddled for about 30 cumulative seconds, and my
entire upper body became heavy and leadened. My breath came a little faster; a
little more often. Surely this would get easier in the water (it wouldn’t) and
I would get used to the repetitive action quickly (I wouldn’t) — eventually I
lifted my chin to pass Eddy a look, who had grown suspiciously silent. His
silent assessment was still underway, and in lieu of instruction, I heard the
cry of a scarlet macaw emanate from somewhere nearby.
seem to have much to say (or perhaps he didn’t want to frighten me away from
the realities of paddling out for the first time), and I was quickly tiring, so
he moved on.
“Now, when you
pop-up, try to get both feet over the stringer. Do it in one try — you just
have to do it.”
I had known
this part was coming. Eddy had explained the mechanics of the infamous ‘pop-up’
to me several times, and I knew that I was supposed to swing my feet underneath
and place them perpendicular to the board… but I also knew that actually doing
so would likely not be the picture-perfect move that I had on repeat in my
I stopped my
paddling and made mental notes about which body parts I would move and in which
order (first hands on the board, then flip the feet, draw the legs forward with
the hip flexors, and then abs/back to stand), took a breath, and proceeded to
execute the clunkiest group of movements my body had ever done. I added an
entirely new body part, the knees, quite unintentionally — a move that would
have surely throw me off my board had I been on a real wave, Eddy pointed out.
My feet were totally wonky and when I finally lifted to stand, my hips and
chest were about as far from stacked as they could possibly be.
It was like I
was doing the hula, rather than riding a wave. Still quintessentially Hawaiian,
but certainly not the intention.
I grimaced at
Eddy and he grimaced right back, rolling me through several more rounds of
pop-ups. However, no amount of drills can replace real practice on the ocean’s
waves, so after my fifth earthbound knee-ride, he whistled and called me over
to where the surfboards were laid out on racks. These boards looked far nicer
than the one I had just been practicing on, which had been cracked and re-bound
and scratched and tiger striped all to hell. I found myself mesmerized at the
colors and the different sizes; it was like each board had a personality, and
one surely had the right mix of features to be my perfect partner in this new
How on earth
would I ever choose, I wondered, but ultimately the decision was not up to me.
Eddy picked one out (one that was a little plainer looking than I would have
preferred, but the secrets and wonders that it held for me were still untold.
The tall instructor watched me as I tucked the board up against my hip, as I
had seen my cohorts far off in the ocean do before, and struggled to reach my
short arm across the width of the board.
go,” he shouted over his shoulder as he strode across the yard, to the small
set of stairs on the dock that led to the beach.
How had I
gotten here, to this very moment in time? I wasn’t a surfer. I mean, I wasn’t
long or lean like the women I saw in the magazines. I didn’t work out every
day, or live near an ocean where I could hone my craft every morning. I was a
fraud; a phony — a person who would watch the surf competitions with envy, but
wouldn’t dare take that step for herself. I wasn’t a surfer, I was just a girl
who was following a random dude in Costa Rica into the ocean, who was fairly
certain that she was going to be pounded into submission by these waves. The
waves didn’t look friendly, and I wasn’t dumb enough to believe that they were
my friend: their only mission, it suddenly dawned on me, was to throw me from
And you know,
at that moment, I didn’t particularly feel like being thrown from my board. I
didn’t want to, and I didn’t have to, and that (honestly) was that. I would
watch from the shoreline, from my safe and secure place on the bench, and i’d
be happy that I wasn’t out there making a fool out of myself.
I was small,
and I was afraid, and I was making excuses.
You want to
know what makes a surfer? Practice, of course, but practice is nothing without
a sense of fearfulness. Yes, that’s fearfulness — not fearlessness! To be
fearless is to not be human, and such a thing would strip surfing of all those
elements that actually make it worthwhile. If surfing was easy, everyone would
do it — and that fact is that everyone doesn’t do it. Very few people
actually do! It’s a massive majority of people who sit on the shore and simply
wish they could glide upon the waves like a watery ballet dancer, but they let
their inhibitions dictate their reality.
Being a surfer,
I would come to learn, is not about the lack of fear. It is about the
management of fear, the utilization of fear, and the realization that fear does
not have the power to hold us back. Once you’re out on the water, you simply
don’t have a choice! Conquer your impulses, or your impulses — and the mother
ocean — will conquer you.
sudden trepidation, my unwillingness to disappoint Eddy registered far louder.
I tottered him, to the beach, as if I was in a haze. There were two dreadlocked
strangers on the wooden platform now, out to take advantage of the emptiness of
dawn patrol, and they both read the situation loud and clear: a young woman,
almost shaking, following her instructor into the water for the first time.
They wished me luck, but I barely heard them in passing. I could only offer
them a weak smile in exchange for their well wishes.
Eddy stood at
the water’s edge and I mimicked the way he wrapped the leash’s velcro around
his ankle. I stood, focused on the morning’s glinting waters of dancing yellows
and blues, as we waited for (what I now know as) the lull between sets. I
pretended to look, unable to choke up any words, unable to see anything but the
crashing of waves ahead.
remember what I said about the channel?” he asked. I nodded — there was an
apparent channel created by two sandbars far off shore, where waves didn’t
break. All you had to do was make it through the shoreline, paddle hard to the
left, and it was all smooth sailing from there until you reached the line-up.
Of course, this was all only theory to me, but I nodded all the same.
I wasn’t sure
if that had registered with Eddy, because he rapidly called out “Okay, this is
it. Follow me,” and strode into the water. I bit my tongue, took a breath, and
I was directly
behind him until the waters were waist-deep, at which point we began floating
our boards and moved to walk beside each other. It was only seconds or so
before a wave, which had initially broken far out from us and at this point was
only a strong trickle, came towards us. I waited for Eddy to say something, to
give me instruction, but I was met with silence — so I gasped out “What do I
do?!” in awe at the small wall of water that rushed at us.
I had suddenly
forgot everything he had ever said to me about the initial paddle out — and I
was still in a place where my feet could still touch the ground.
With a calm air
about him, Eddy showed me how to use a strong hang to tip the front of the
board underneath the water’s surface so that the wave would roll right over it.
The wave tumbled on towards me, then right on past me. At first, I was amazed
that the wave hadn’t taken the board right out of my hands, dragging me
(kicking and screaming) with it; but then I looked at the shape of the board
with a new realization. I could see how smartly designed it was, to both work
with and be pushed by the forces of the ocean.
Though my board
was a dull khaki color and barely covered with of those amazing stickers, I
regarded her with profound respect. Suddenly, my attention was drawn back to
Eddy as he hauled his frame atop his own.
“You can do
that when a bigger wave comes at you too, while you’re paddling. Push the nose
down like this,” he straightened his arms to demonstrate how to handle an
oncoming wave. He glanced over his shoulder at me, just to gaze out at the
horizon again after a moment. “And always be alert. It’s when you’re not
looking that you get surprises thrown at you. Now get on.”
I did as he
bade me, lifting myself up on wobbly arms and scooting my body into place
across the stringer, not unlike a seal trying to escape from circling killer
whales below. I noticed how Eddy visibly lifted his shoulders and began
paddling, perhaps only to prompt me to really focus on lifting my shoulders,
and I followed suit as best I could.
hard-wired and focused, surely — but I wasn’t focused on the ocean or reading
the pattern of the waves, as Eddy had instructed me. I was focused internally,
on my mind that was chattering far too fast and far too often about how deep
the ocean was becoming, or how the muscles of my arms and chest and shoulders
screamed with the effort, or how water kept slamming against the bottom of my
board, sending a fine mist into my eyes. I had a mantra repeating in my mind’s
eye that I didn’t want to do this, and I didn’t want to be there, and I was
dumb for thinking that I ever could do this.
The yogi in me
shivers at the memory of such personal vexation, but the surfer wants to laugh
and hug me, for it was only a matter of time before I proved myself wrong.
I remembered to
pay attention to the ocean, just in time for a far larger wave to rush at me, a
mere foot or so ahead of my board. It met me with great force, thrusting salt
water in my eyes and mouth as it rolled me easily off my board and carried me,
by my ankle, back ten feet or so. I was submerged for only a second before I
bobbed to the top of the water, sputtering and blinking against the sting of
the salt, trying to clear my gaze in case another wave was rolling in right
frustratingly far from me now, seeing as I was almost halfway to shore. My
heart beat wildly, entirely doused and awakened in the cold ocean waters for
the first time that day. “W-what do I do?!” I shouted to no one, once again
unable to recall even the most simple of instructions and unable to follow
logical process. I had just been pushed off my board for the first time and
swallowed a mouthful of seawater, and I needed my instructor to hold my hand —
but he wasn’t there beside me. In fact, no one was.
Whether or not
Eddy heard my cry for help, he offered a few words of yelled encouragement.
“Get back on!” he called back through cupped hands, and yeah — I suppose that
I didn’t want
to get back on, but I had to. It was get back on or quit, and who was I to quit
after one small (though it didn’t feel small) faux-pas? I fished for the leash
that drifted somewhere below me and pulled the board back to where I was, a
little panicked and jerky in my movements as I made haste to avoid the next
With a new
spirit and deep desire not to be hit sidelong by any waves, I moved quickly to
the left and coasted through the channel with relative ease. Eddy sat with the
lineup of three people, the others on my retreat who were not so new to the
sport as I was. As I approached the cluster of men and women bobbing up and
down, they all broke out into applause. It made me happier than I let on — with
the salt in my eyes and the heaving in my chest, all I could do was lay my
cheek down on the board and recover my energy. I hadn’t realized it until that
moment, but I was shaking.
It wasn’t from
patiently for me to recover. I rested easily knowing that he was there to warn
me of any oncoming danger — plus we were waiting in the channel anyways, and
there was little danger here.
knew I did pick my head up. I think Eddy expected me to comment about my
tumble, or the mere exertion involved with paddling oneself out to the wave
break. Instead, I turned to him, voice suddenly as stone-cold as the many rocks
that jostled about in the shore’s waves.
“Are there any
sharks here?” I asked without a whisper of hesitation.
as if he had heard this very question a thousand times before. “It’s the
Pacific Ocean,” he chuckled, but with an air of seriousness. “You already know
thickly, because that response did nothing to soothe my nerves — but why should
it? I was out there, far from land, amongst an element that was calm now but
could crush me with little force. All sense of comfort had been take from me in
the process of simply paddling out here, but I noticed something interesting as
I looked out and surveyed my surfing companions: some of them had barely more
experience than I did, but they didn’t regard the ocean with fear.
No, the way
they interacted with these forces of nature was something between submission,
equanimity and scientific understanding. I bobbed in the channel for nearly
half and hour as I watched these surfers work with the power of a wave in order
to catch it, then once they popped up on their board, it was as if their ego
took a backseat and they allowed the hand of the ocean to work through them. By
giving into the wave, it powered and propelled them forward — and if they fell,
they found a new way to stow their ego and went limp, resurfacing unharmed and
refreshed, ready to paddle back out and try again.
Why was I
there, sitting out in a foreign ocean with a board beneath me, distinctly
uncomfortable and uncertain in myself? At that time, I still didn’t quite know
— but now, I look back on that shivering, fearful being and knew that
was exactly why. Humans do not grow from the things we already know and
inherently trust. The biggest growth, and the fastest and most efficient
growth, comes from venturing into unknown territory. We expand to fit this new
space almost automatically, to fill to vacuum that we created for ourselves.
fascinating how we can assume any role with ease, once we’re able to quiet the
voice in our head that tells us we can’t. Now, it’s easy for me to see that I
was thirsty for that push into something big, but I didn’t know where to look.
So, I looked
towards the ocean.
The rest of our
morning on the water would prove to be trial after trial after trial. I was
thrown off my board and found myself churning in the fated washing machine
several times. I took oncoming waves at the side and swallowed so much seawater
that I was worried I would be poisoned by the salinity. I may have faced death
— or faced god — several times that day, and it took the support of my surfing
brothers and sisters (or perhaps a deep and abiding desire not to be
embarrassed by quitting) to keep me coming paddling back out to the line-up. In
fact, I did not stand up this day, or the next day. However, the third morning
I took an intentional knee-ride all the way to the show, and almost
instantaneously, I was hooked on that feeling. From that point on, dedication
Now there are
few things I can conceive of facing with such trepidation, from family to
business and all those nooks and crannies in between. I no longer entertain
fear, because I surfed.
— and if I can surf, I can truly do anything.
Article by Rachel ‘Rosie’ Young
Rachel ‘Rosie’ Young is a writer and yoga teacher who explores the globe as a digital nomad. A former public relations executive for several Fortune 500 Companies, she now shares her philanthropic messages and yogic teaching via online journalism and directly to remote communities across Central and South America. She encourages her readers and students to blast through personal limitations and live life to their fullest. Rosie’s can be found on www.swellwomen.com for everything wellness/travel and www.therachellaurenyoung.com for her prose and articles. Follow Rosie’s adventures on Instagram.