Mono Loco Surf School in Bocas del Toro.
I went surfing for the first time six years ago with a fellow named Guy Needham. He’s good friends with my ex-wife’s family and volunteered to take me out to Pacifica Beach to make an attempt at riding waves. I spent the next two hours thrashing around in the whitewater, desperately trying to stand up and completely failing. Even though I’d been a SCUBA diver for about fifteen years, and even though I did nothing right for those two hours, I’d never had nearly as much fun in the water as I did in that completely failed session of surfing.
One thing led to another, and I ended up moving to New Orleans, which pretty much killed any hopes of a surfing career. There’s no decent surf even close to the city, so it wasn’t until this past summer that I had a chance to take another crack at it. One of the boat captains I sailed with up in Maine was a longtime surfer named Ian Glass. Ian offered to take me out to Higgins Beach, just outside of Portland, for my long-awaited second attempt at surfing. I rented an extremely thick wetsuit, spent another two hours thrashing around like an idiot, and again had an absolute ball.
Higgins Beach Surf Crew. Me kneeling, Ian second from right.
The second session also had the effect of making me finally put my money where my mouth is. If I was going to learn to surf, as I kept saying I was, I needed to take classes. I shelled out for three days of lessons in Panama, at the Mono Loco Surf School. On the first day, I did a lot of falling. I got to my feet for about half a second twice, but couldn’t maintain my balance and ended up eating a lot of whitewater.
On the second day, I finally stood up. I stood up and rode the wave all the way in. Twice.
Some of you have surfed, so you know what that first ride feels like. For those of you who haven’t, try to reach back to the first time you rode a bike without training wheels. You’d fallen so many times, scraped your knees, got raspberries on your hands, thought you’d never get it. Then suddenly you were riding. You pedaled and the bike went forward and you were a little unsteady but you didn’t lose your balance. You can probably remember that ride.
I do. I remember pedaling along, certain that my dad was right behind me holding the seat. Then he called my name and I looked back and he was about fifty yards behind me, waving and I shouted and crashed because that’s the kind of awkward kid I was, but so be it. I’d ridden solo. I knew it could be done.
If I really reach back I can still feel the excitement of that first bike ride. It’s one of the clearest memories of my childhood. And I don’t think I ever felt that same exhilaration of suddenly being able to do something after failing again and again until I rode that first wave today. Everything that had gone wrong before went right this time. I maintained my balance without sinking to my knees. I didn’t hold onto the board for dear life. My feet found the right spot when I popped up, and then I was standing without the board sliding out from under me. A few seconds later I was still standing and I knew for the first time that I had it. So I did what seemed like the most natural thing to do when doing something that cool. I struck an Elvis pose. Whipped the arm around and saluted the fans and even said “Thankyouverymuch” before the wave died out and I started paddling back into the channel.
Ten minutes later I caught a second, even longer ride. When I hit my feet Juan was shouting “Crouching tiger! Get low! Weight on the front foot!” I did what he said and the board instantly picked up speed, which allowed me to do an even better Elvis pose. The ride might have lasted about ten seconds, but when you’re up there it feels like five minutes. You have complete control over an element that is not yours. It’s totally exhilarating, and like a lot of very exhilarating things, a description of it gets more and more distant the more you try to talk about it.
Me with Juan. If you fall, Juan gets bummed out. Do not fall. Do not bum out Juan.
So let me say it like this. The Great Central American Adventure has now become, among other things, a major surf excursion. Places I was only sort of considering visiting (Cahuita, Costa Rica; San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua) have now jumped to the top of the list. Some people plan their entire lives around nothing but catching waves. I have not had such a Road to Damascus experience as shifting my life in that direction. Shifting more of the trip that way, however, seems very reasonable.
Tomorrow will be the third and final day of my surfing lessons, and I can’t wait. I’m worried I won’t be able to sleep tonight because I’m so anxious to get back in the water. It’s the best I’ve felt on the trip so far, and it feels very much like a beginning of something big.