I was 10 years old when we moved 1 500km cross country from the landlocked city of Pretoria to the coastal village of Betty’s Bay.
The move happened during a balmy December, which made it feel like we were embarking on a never-ending holiday rather than a life-changing trek. In celebration of our new seaside life, my grandparents gave my older brother a copy of ZigZag magazine – his first ever – for Christmas and jokingly suggested that he try whatever it was the guys in those glossy pages were up to. Which turned out to be surfing.
As fate would have it, he soon met a friend who had received a surfboard (a bright pink one, which I thought was hilarious) for Christmas for similar reasons to which my brother had received the magazine. In no time the two were in the water, sharing the pink short board, wobbling to their feet, learning to surf.
It was only about a year (or more) later that I realised girls could surf too. Maybe I saw a photo somewhere or perhaps I caught a glimpse of footage in a surf shop. I don’t know what it was, but I suddenly found myself OBSESSED with the idea of becoming a surfer girl.
We had a dinged up, but very sturdy yellow single fin lying around at home, which I thought was absolutely hideous. Nonetheless I recognised the fact that it was probably my best shot at navigating the waters and roped a friend into joining me in the shallows one weekend, you know, to halve the embarrassment and double the fun.
I went first. Lay on the board, waited for the foamy to push me forward and then… nothing. Turns out standing was really hard. After another dismal wave or two, it was my friend’s turn and I expected the same poor performance from her.
Instead, the foamy pushed her forward and… she got to her knees. Within a wave or two she was up on her feet, the epitome of a true surfer girl. I was equal parts elated and devastated.
We joined our school’s surf club, wrapping a towel around the single fin, as we walked onto the beach, so the boys wouldn’t laugh. They did.
She got better.
I hardly progressed.
She got her own board.
I stuck to the ugly one.
She caught waves with ever increasing ease.
I lagged behind.
And then one day, I managed to get to my feet… standing up for a glorious second or two… and then wiped out royally. Finally, I knew what stoke tasted like!
Sadly, by this time my friend and I had drifted apart. Not over surfing, or anything in particular, just over changing tides, new seasons and growing up.
Despite the best efforts of my brother and the other local boys to cheer me on, I soon lost interest in surfing.
I set my board aside, propping it up in a far corner of our wooden shed and settled for collecting pictures and posters of surfers instead, living vicariously through Saltwater Girl.
I thought that was that. But evidently not.
In August this year, I took to the water once more – flanked by two of my best friends: Marli, the bold and Tamara, the brave (who also happens to be my sister-in-law). We enrolled for lessons at Surf Emporium in Muizenberg, Cape Town, helping each other carry 9- and 10-foot boards across the busy parking lot and onto the beach on a consecutive series of wintry Saturday mornings.
On instruction of Evan, our teacher, I hopped on the pretty rented board, lined myself up for the first foamy and expected it to be exactly like that first one way back on the ugly single fin. But somehow it was different. Evan gave me a little push and off I went! I got to my knees first and then bailed off. A few waves down the line I had managed to wobble to my feet.
I was actually standing! 15, 16, 17 years down the line and I was finally riding waves, albeit the smallest foamies in Muizenberg.
In the process I have learned a few additional things about life:
- It’s never too late to learn something new… or try again. I tend to give up easily, but I’m learning that riding it out is much more rewarding.
- Do it together. I’ve always enjoyed my own company and really don’t mind doing things alone. But sometimes, having company is a lot more fun, encouraging and sustainable. If it wasn’t for these girls, I may not have returned to the waves after my first month of lessons. But, hey, we’re still at it!
- The scary things help us grow. At some point I guess I’m going to have to hit the backline. It’s a terrifying thought. But also an exhilarating one – taking off and slipping along an actual face, feeling the ocean’s power pushing me along further and faster than ever before. I need to feel it.
- Saltwater really does cure a multitude of ills. Karen Blixen once said “I know of a cure for everything: salt water… in one way or the other. Sweat, or tears, or the salt sea.” And it’s true. My Saturday morning surf sessions have helped cure a good deal of little hurts, from an annoying wine headache to misplaced insecurity about the way my thighs look in a wetsuit. I always leave the ocean feeling happier, healthier, prettier and invigorated.
- Wetsuit photos aren’t particularly flattering. But, hey, I don’t care!!
- Having the right equipment helps a lot. In the case of surfing, it’s obvious – trying to stand up on a somewhat unstable single-fin will only cause frustration and tears when you aren’t naturally athletic. Whereas having a substantial 9-foot board with three fins and nice grippy rails to hold on to and push up from makes catching even the most powerless little waves a dream. The same goes for most other things in life: being properly equipped (physically, emotionally, spiritually) makes it that much easier to achieve your goals.
- Don’t forget to have fun. While I blamed the board and the scariness of Betty’s Bay’s waves and my chubbiness and a lack of athletic prowess for my failure at surfing as a teen, the truth is that everything could have been very different if I just hadn’t forgotten that it was meant to be fun.
It’s a hard lesson that I suspect life will keep serving up, until one day I get it right: you always have a choice about how you feel. You can either allow your emotions to ruin the good times, or you can allow the good times to lift your mood. You can either let a silly comment, an unkind word, a painful experience, a failed attempt make you miserable or you can rise above it and embrace all that is good instead.
I recently came across a verse that is said to come from the Jewish book of the law, known as the Talmud, that states: ‘A person will be called to account on Judgment Day for every permissible thing he might have enjoyed but did not.’ Imagine looking back at your life one day and realising you could have had so much fun, but instead let the challenges overshadow the joys. Not worth it!
So, here’s to paddling out a bit deeper, riding a bit longer, falling a bit harder and enjoying every moment while at it.
Onward and upward. Always.—Nadia