My 15th weekly challenge (yeesh where has the time gone) involved spending some time flailing around in the pacific ocean waves at Santa Teresa, Costa Rica, trying to learn how to surf. The reasons I chose surfing as a Weekly Challenge are obvious – it’s cool and exhilarating with a dash of danger, pretty much the perfect flux cocktail, I thought. But this challenge was to stretch me in ways I hadn’t expected, it also taught me exactly how NOT to learn to surf.

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Surfing, Tico style
Surfing on the Costa Rican pacific coast is a way of life. In towns like Santa Teresa every second person is a surfer. You know when a big swell has come in because you see topless guys covered in war paint (sorry, I mean sunblock), clutching surfboards whilst navigating push bikes, motorbikes, and quad bike ATVs down the pot holed dirt track to the beach. It’s quite a sight at 6 in the morning, let me tell you.

I’d tried surfing once or twice before in the UK and France but had never gotten on particularly well. I’m not a super strong swimmer and I maintain a healthy respect for the ocean. Both of these facets are weaknesses when it comes to surfing, and both played their part in one almost-disastrous incident this week.

Look, I'm sort of surfing!

Teach yourself to surf? Forget about it!
Having had a couple of starter lessons in the last five years I hired a long beginner board (only around $10 a day in these parts) and made for the surf, confident I could watch and learn from other surfers and refresh my own tiny surfing memory. I couldn’t. Getting past the first line of breakers was almost impossible and the second line were even stronger. It took me nigh on 30 minutes to paddle out to a good spot, and my weak non-swimmer arms were fit to burst. Then I got decked by a wave and drank lots of sea water. Then I tried again. Then I got tired. The raw food diet wasn’t helping with my energy. I went out a few more times in the next couple of days, but only got to my wobbly feet on a couple of occasions, and even then I found myself riding disappointingly slow, shallow white water. Self-teaching on these strong breaks was not the answer, so I booked a surf lesson.

The day of my lesson dawned, I went to inspect the surf. It was monstrous and choppy. I gulped and hoped that, by the afternoon, it would have calmed down. It didn’t. My teacher was a friendly young Sicilian-Italian (seriously, this place is a magnet for surfers across the world) called Roberto who frowned at the surf and said we’d have to stay close in, but it’d be fine for learning. I admired his optimism! The lesson began, we went through some stuff on the beach I thought I already knew. In fact I didn’t know any of it, and wasn’t listening properly. How disappointing that, despite spending three months learning something new every week, I was such a poor student!

Then the big waves arrived.

Learning in a strong swell
We hit the shallow surf, Roberto held the board for me while I mounted, then pushed me off into the waves a few times. I was awful! I’d learned so many bad habits during my short time self-teaching, luckily Roberto was on hand and calmly helped me remove them. And then we went further out. Nearby, a friend I’d made that week at our hostel was swimming and body surfing, keeping an eye on my progress and nodding encouragement on the occasions I managed to stand. We went further out, so he went further out too.

And then, quite suddenly, we were in a rip current. I looked for my friend, who had been sucked out twenty yards further than me. Between crashing waves I could see him stare at me, rigid with fear, flapping his limbs to no effect. ‘Help!’ he shouted. I wasn’t sure I could, but I was going to give it a damn good try. I took a deep breath and, like so many other times since beginning My Year In Flux, I stepped outside my comfort zone.

First, I shouted for Roberto and he swam in our direction, then I swam toward my friend and handed him the board, unstrapping my leash so he could ride back in on the surf. Suddenly a huge wave arrived, sweeping the board off to the shore. I went under. When I came up a moment later, my friend was paddling towards safety, instructed by Roberto, and the board was washing up on the shore. Where was I? I was where my friend had been a minute before, I was in the rip current, and now I had no board and my arms were stinging from an hour of surf lesson. I swam, it got me nowhere, the shore looked more distant and quite suddenly I realised I was in trouble. For a few moments, I thought I was going to drown. I waited for a wave, I swam, I floated, I made progress. Within two minutes I could touch the bottom again and I had survived.

The whole incident was over almost before it had started. Roberto fetched the board, telling me off for letting it go, my friend and I looked at each other as we stood on the shore, heaving in great lungfulls of air, both knowing what we had encountered, both too shocked to discuss it.

A chastened man

Lesson over, lessons learned
I took the (I think brave) decision to continue with the lesson, to get back on the proverbial horse, and I’m glad I did. In the following half hour Roberto drummed home key points about balance, poise and timing and I mechanically followed his instructions, the know-it-all student of an hour ago was gone, adrenaline coursed through my veins, and with it came the calmness I needed to just let go of my fears and do what I was told.

Finally, it was exhilarating. I began to do what I had been taught, to keep my legs on the board, weight back, chest up, then pop up to a balanced crouch. I began to catch some real speed on the waves and stand for extended periods.

The Weekly Challenges I’ve undertaken this year have been full of surprises. I began this particular week with a straightforward ambition to learn how to surf because it had always been something that I really wanted to be able to do, in other words, surfing week was supposed to be a guilty pleasure, an ‘easy’ week. Instead, I learned how ‘not’ to learn to surf!

I also finished this week a chastened man. I’d had a healthy dose of fear, a good lesson in learning (drop the act and LISTEN to the teacher!) and came away from Santa Teresa knowing I’d definitely be back in the water on a calmer day with an even healthier fear of the ocean…perhaps that isn’t a weakness after all.