Facing Fears: Learning to Surf in Raglan

I grew up in Nebraska.  For those who are unfamiliar with the geography of the USA, Nebraska is center America, far from any coastline with sandy beaches.  When I was young, I tried my hand at swimming lessons but the outdoor public pool water was too cold for my runt-sized body and when my lips turned the color of a plum, the swim instructor lightly suggested I return to swim lessons when I could handle to cold water, which (spoiler alert) was never.

Except for that one time I jumped in Blue Spring with 11 degree water and immediately regretted it.

Except for that one time I jumped in Blue Spring with 11 degree water and immediately regretted it.

So no, I technically never learned a proper swim stroke but I’ve always managed to get by just fine in the water so long as I can always touch the bottom of whatever I’m swimming in and the water is warm enough to keep me a nice shade of pasty white, per usual.  

When deciding between Australia and New Zealand, which are two of the few countries that offer an easy visa, it was no contest.  To me, Australia painted a picture of an overly warm beach culture, littered with sandy blonde Aussies heading out to catch some waves.  No thanks.  I’ve never been interested in the beach life.  I’ll happily go to New Zealand and be among my mountain folk.

Mountains over ocean, every day.

Mountains over ocean, every day.

Turns out, New Zealand has a prominent surfing culture, which makes perfect sense given their plentiful access to the coastline.  A few weeks ago, after being asked again and again if I was going to give surfing a shot, I resolutely decided that I wouldn’t be bullied into doing something I had no interest in doing.  

I'm perfectly happy being the creeping photographer on the beach.

I'm perfectly happy being the creeping photographer on the beach.

Fast forward two weeks and somehow I find myself shimmying into a suffocating wetsuit and carrying a deceivingly heavy surfboard into the waves of New Zealand’s most famous surf town.  I can’t explain my change of heart other than perhaps a severe case of FOMO and caving under that peer pressure I was sure I was going to denounce.  

Our group consisted of 10-15 young eager surfers, mostly brand new to the sport with a few showoff exceptions.  We were being instructed by two guys who were so laid back they could hardly be bothered to open their eyelids all the way.  We received an hour of instruction on the land where we learned the four important steps to standing up on your board, all of which were promptly forgotten as soon as my toes touched the water. 

I could tell the instructors (one of which was named Zeno, btw) were in their natural habitat once we entered the water.  Only then did the instructors start to show a bit of personality and made the lessons fun, despite insisting on their initial practice of “getting me used to the water” which involved me lying on the board and them pushing me head first into a crashing wave.  I was honestly not a big fan of that but sure, it worked, I guess.  

The lesson went like this:  Zeno would ask me to get on the board and would then ask if I was ready.  I always responding with a resounding no, but he pretended not to hear.  When he decided it was time, he’d instruct me to paddle my arms which I answered with the most pitiful, useless paddle in the history of humankind.  A t-rex with baby arms would have been embarrassed by my effort.  He’d give my board a push and would hold it steady until I could stand up.  I’d stand up for about three seconds before face planting into the ocean and getting sea salt all up in my sinus cavities.  I’d like to say I got better by the end of the lesson but even though I got the hang of the whole balancing thing, the crashing waves crushed me 90% of the time.

What I lacked in grace New Zealand made up with it's stunning scenery.

What I lacked in grace New Zealand made up with it's stunning scenery.

The triumph of the day was standing up on my own in the tiniest baby wave in the ocean.  No one was watching, but it doesn’t matter because it absolutely happened and I’m officially calling myself a surfer and doing that weird “hang loose” hand sign so widely used in surf culture.  I feel like it’s warranted.  

Some people have asked me if I felt at one with mother nature out in the ocean to which I respond with no, of course not.  I felt completely at the mercy of a mean-spirited and unpredictable monster, but at the end of the long three hour lesson, I was annoyed to admit I actually did enjoy surfing.  I would give it another try but I’m not quite ready to adopt the bleached hair and half-closed eyelid look.  Yet.  

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