Aging Citizen Hits the Surf

By Anne Dalton

Aging Citizen Hits the Surf

On September 1, at the tender age of 59, I found myself in Venice Beach, California, taking a surfing lesson. Lauren Wells, a 20-year-old surfer, promised she could get me up on a board in one day. I really wanted to surf before I turned 60. The lesson began at 8 am sharp. We stood by our bicycles, surfboards tucked under our arms, prepared to ride a mile to the chosen beach spot. There was a good breeze that morning, and I had a vision of my tall form becoming the axis around which the weathervane of a surfboard might decide to spin.

I convinced Lauren that I really didn’t mind walking the mile to our destination. When we arrived, we lay on our boards in the sand, pretending we were in the water in search of the first wave. At the right moment, just as I felt the fictional wave begin to push my board, I paddled hard three times. After hoisting myself up with my arms, palms flat on the board, I commanded my legs to jump up and prepared to place them at perpendicular angles to and near the back of the board.

There was a definite pause. Then my legs gave a half-hearted push, resulting in my hands holding me up on the board and my legs at half-mast. The next thing that was supposed to happen was that I would let go of the board and spring up into a relaxed, well-balanced stance and ride the wave in.

Instead, we did a little yoga to loosen up. I did the pigeon, back twist, cobra, sun salutation and a few down dogs just for good measure. I felt I was ready, and we headed for the water. Lauren suggested we start with the white water which I learned is the large pool of foamy stuff that happens after the wave actually crashes upon the shore.

Many people aren’t aware that, even at this point, a follow-up wave comes to beat down anyone who is still on their board in case they haven’t fallen off yet. It’s Mother Nature’s way of reminding us who is really in charge.

Just before entering the water, Lauren gave me a quick lesson on surfers’ etiquette. “You generally give locals and more experienced surfers the right of way.” I squinted out at ten people on their surfboards and tried to identify the locals. It was easier to identify the experienced surfers. They were those not riding the waves with their knees at half-mast gripping their surfboards. “Generally, if you don’t do this, you can get beaten up pretty badly,” Lauren continued. “But they’re nicer to women,” she added reassuringly. This was just the confidence boost I needed.

“Also, you need to do the stingray shuffle.” Lauren explained that there are often schools of stingrays lying in the sandy bottom of the ocean between you and the wave. If you shuffle your feet in the sand while moving out toward the waves, they feel the vibrations and most likely scurry away. The mention of sting rays reminded me of the recent news story where the Australian wild animal enthusiast with his own TV show was skewered to death by a sting ray.

We approached our first wave.

While doing a great stingray shuffle, I found that the undertow was making its own vibration. I fixed my sights on the wave line and fought my way towards it with the determination of a salmon swimming upstream in mating season.

After I was dragged back to shore several times, my teacher suggested we hop on the boards (lying down, of course) and paddle out. The thought occurred to me that perhaps I would be satisfied with learning to do just this, thereby avoiding hostile local surfers who I could easily see coming toward me. If they were considering assault, I reasoned, the wave would carry them past me to shore, giving me time to escape.

After much struggle, we arrived just past the wave line and got ready for our first wave. I lay outstretched on my board. I felt a definite wave nudge at my board and paddled hard three times. Sure enough, the wave gave me a great ride to the shore in my horizontal position.

How exhilarating! “Let’s do that again,” I cheered.

I was determined. Stingray shuffle. Paddle out. Jump the waves. Turn toward shore. The nudge from the wave. Paddle, paddle, paddle. Up! To my astonishment, I found myself on my knees grasping the sides of the board and promptly fell over into the stew of foam. As an added insult, my board bonked me on the head when I tried to stand up.

“Gee,” I said, after my coughing spasm subsided,”I guess I just made that mistake you were telling me a lot of beginners make – gripping the sides of the board.”

Lauren agreed that I had.

Out we went again. This time, with great presence of mind, I jumped to my knees with my hands planted firmly and flatly on the board and rode the wave in effortlessly. The next time out, I let go of the board and stood firmly on my knees all the way in. Time for a rest.

Did I ever stand all the way up and do a pipeline? I didn’t.

I was sure I could succeed the next day after a good night’s rest, a carb-loaded breakfast, three yoga classes and two shopping sprees, which we did. Unfortunately, after all this took place, the sun had set, and I had to head back to Tucson the next morning.

What can be learned from this experience?

First of all, you can teach an old dog new tricks, but the dog has to be able to stand on a wobbling object going 20 mph.

Second, beware of 20-somethings in bikinis.

Last, but not least, don’t try to fool Mother Nature. She knows you’re 59 even if you are in denial.

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