Catching That First Wave

Catching That First Wave

Nothing I can conjure better describes the feeling of being a learner surfer than “a fish out of water”.

The combined feelings of uselessness and exhaustion that come from flapping around on a surfboard in frigid Atlantic seas are only compounded by nearby surfers.

To think, they’re stylishly surfing the younger, far more powerful versions of the same waves you’re struggling to manage, waves which have shrunk to a fraction of the size and turned to mushy white water by the time you’re tackling them. Still, you carry on, paddling hopelessly, using muscles you didn’t even know you had and taking so many dredges of frothing white water in the face that your vision turns a blurry red.

A Green Wave

One summer at uni I convinced myself to spend a summer working in Woolacombe. If I was going to get surfing I had to commit to it. One of those summer days I found myself in a state familiar to new surfers; eyes red and a belly full of saltwater. I’d spent plenty of time turning to jump into broken waves, riding straight in to the beach, which gave me valuable time to practice my pop up and balance best I could, but it wasn’t enough. Something told me it was time to step it up. I was ready for my first green wave.

Woolacombe Beach

Woolacombe beach… the proving ground

I struggled for what felt like an hour, jumping off my board and shoving it ahead of me when the sets came in too big, paddling hard when they softened up. Eventually I punched through the line of breaking waves to get out the back.

I’d sat in open water before; on boats, kayaks, even surfboards on flat days, but never like this. The contrast of the disorienting, knackering battle to get out against the serenity of sitting out beyond the breaking waves was like nothing I could put into words. I took stock. Out there my breathing was the loudest sound and I had time to drink in the ocean side view. A warm glow filled me up.

After a quiet spell, lying prone on “Flower” – so named because of the sticker placed on her deck by a previous owner – I paddled back inside, blood pumping. Over my shoulder I saw a wave approaching. Paddling for all I was worth, I felt the wave take control with a powerful surge. I did everything I could to stand up in a controlled manner, drawing on my countless white water pop ups, pieces of advice from surf pals and hours of Youtube tutorials.

That's Flower in the midde; the Mini Mal that gave me my "first taste of stoke"

That’s Flower in the midde; the Mini Mal that gave me my “first taste of stoke”

Hands on the deck, thumbs facing in towards the bottom of my ribs. Push hard. Swing my left leg to drag my foot up through my arms so the right foot follows. Stand.

Shortly after hands on the deck I lost my balance and hit the water. To bring a long story short I had many failed attempts, but on what could have been anywhere between my 15th and 50th, I got to my feet.

The rolling wave ushered me down the line, breaking to my left. Crouched low and angling my board along the wave, I tucked in front of the crystal clear lump and cruised. Flower chattered along the water. My stomach leapt. My brain fizzed. Pumping on adrenaline and sheer excitement (wait a minute, was I feeling “stoke”?!), I stared at the scattering sunlight playing on my wave and for the next 10 or 15 seconds there was nothing else in the world.

Woolacombe Sunset

Summertime sunsets in Woolacombe never disappoint…

In the moment it felt like a powerful wave. If I’m completely honest I’d guess the wave to be little more than 2ft, if that, but it was a rush like I’d never felt.

I used to be in love with the idea of surfing. It was this wave that turned me around. And now I’m in. NOW I’m in love with surfing itself. There’s still a massive place in my heart for the romance of the surfing lifestyle, but nothing comes close to the physical act.

First Taste Of Stoke

Do you remember that feeling of driving without an instructor for the first time? Or riding a bike, landing a job, your first kiss, getting a good grade? First catching a green wave gives you that profound sensation of achieving something new, but it’s amplified by a million things. For a start…

The fish out of water evolves! The transition alone feels incredible. From the useless, flailing ragdoll struggling to even move in the water moments before, you turn into a super hero, metamorphosed, driving along the line of a wave with all the ease in the world.

Kelly Slater himself mentions in “Surfwise” – a documentary I highly recommend about the Paskowitz’s, one of  most famous families in surfing – that he sees the same look on the faces of brand new surfers catching their first wave as he does on the faces of his pro surf buddies pulling in to overhead barrels or stomping massive aerials.

It’s nothing else but you and mother nature, just for that one moment in time. A lot of surf commentary talks about the magic and spirituality of surfing, which is hard to swallow until you’ve reached out and touched it for yourself, but it’s true. It gives you a feeling of being grounded, feeling alive, being “present”. Big or small, that wave will never come again. However you want to try and understand it, the fact remains that surfing allows you to very easily detach from every day life. A feeling which is becoming more and more rare in our modern age of “always on” technology.

There’s a lot more to it than that and it’s going to take a lot more than one blog post to do it justice, but hopefully it gives you a sense of the raw enjoyment even the first level of success in surfing can be.

Lessons Learned:

  • Those guys shredding out the back? They’ve all been here! Surfers are nothing if not determined and the first battle starts in the shallows. Don’t let other surfers in the water affect your confidence. Enjoy the moment, you’ll earn your stripes in time.
  • Popping up? It’s a million moving parts, but you don’t have time to think about all that. Practice practice practice until it’s muscle memory. There are many things you can’t account for in the changeable environment of surfing, so you have to make sure the things you CAN control are finely honed. In the moment, you won’t have time to think about the pop up. Mindset and focus are key. The deciding factor in finally getting to my feet on an open faced wave was keeping my focus in the madness of it all, acting quickly enough to stand before the power of the wave had passed.