Learning to let go: discovering the zen of surfing

A few life lessons discovered while on (and falling off) a surfboard in Indonesia.

Managing to stay upAs an 11-year-old swimming the lonely waters between Robben Island and the mainland, I came to know and love the transcendent power of the ocean — its ability to save, soothe and heal. And so, 17 years later, in a bit of an emotional and mental mess, I knew I needed surfing.

I wasn’t expecting it to be the panacea, the antidote, the cure-all. But what I did hope it might become is a tool I could use, frequently, to soften life’s blows and make it easier to accept and navigate its uncertainties.

In Indonesia, I was told that Muizenberg beach in Cape Town is considered by many surfers to be the best place in the world to learn how to surf. So what was I doing here, many thousands of rands, time zones and kilometres later when I could be doing this at home?

I suppose being far away appealed to me. I’d lived near the sea for most of my life but had never rode its waves save for just a handful of lessons. I’d loved those lessons — but in spite of my enjoyment, they were scattershot and therefore ineffectual.

To make meaningful progress with something as tricky as standing on a board with the slippery surface of the sea beneath, I knew I needed to commit to a concentrated period of learning, where I could build layers of skill and muscle memory. And doing this far away suited me; abandoning routine and familiarity would heighten the experience.

Sometimes to move forward in life, it’s essential to step back. I needed a reset. Indonesia is a great place to do that. When it’s not being savaged by earthquakes, volcanoes or terror attacks, it’s paradise — just ask Elizabeth Gilbert. She found love here; I wanted to find a basic competency in surfing.

Our first fortnight is in Canggu, a town filled with cranes and hammering as new surf shops and surf schools and surf hostels are built. Blonde-haired hipsters ride scooters on sandy streets, boards strapped to the side of their vehicles, girlfriends clutching their golden waists.

A warung — a humble restaurant on the shore. Day one. The South African surf guide has taken us here for lunch. I’m wolfing down my first nasi goreng — rice flecked with egg and chicken. I’m sipping on my first crisp Bintang beer. He’s asking us what we hope from the four-week trip we’ve booked through Ticket to Ride, a British surf travel outfit.

“I love the ocean — just being in the water is enough. Everything else is a bonus,” I say breezily. Those words will come back to haunt me.

Progress initially is good and quick. I jettison the foam board absolute beginners use, and move on to a fibreglass longboard. Photos appear on Instagram of me wobbly-kneed but standing in mushy white-water.

I love being on a wave — it’s like flying. Once I take one from the backline all the way in. It is everything that matters — or perhaps it’s that nothing else matters; in those dizzying seconds, it all falls away. You glide unencumbered as freedom, happiness, elation surges. It’s a drug. As soon as it’s over, and you’re turning around to face the long paddle back out, you want more.

In Canggu
With fellow surfer Rebeca.

Here’s a thing about learning to surf: whatever milestone you reach, you most likely won’t stay satisfied for long. I head out into blue water — to bigger waves. A friend of the coaches is impressed — not at my ability, but at my near-suicidal willingness to take on big waves that I haven’t yet got the aptitude for. I take them, but I hesitate, and in that nervous pause I’m on the lower slope of the wave, not near its crest — resulting in wipe-out after walloping wipe-out. I even manage to break a board.

One day we go to Kedungu, a 45-minute drive away. We pass rice paddies and interminable sprawl. I sip on two little cups of sweet, muddy coffee. It’s quiet out. There’s just a handful of other surfers. A volcano, shrouded in mist, looms over the horizon. The sea is much bigger, rougher, messier than yesterday. Compounding this is the fact that we went out to a bunch of bars last night. Surfing might be good for a hangover, but a hangover is certainly not good for surfing. Scary waves are even scarier; your precarious balance is even more precarious. Terrified, I don’t catch a single wave. Worse, I don’t even try to.

Just before a wipe out
Moments from a wipe-out.

I’m reminded that like much of the universe, the ocean is monumentally indifferent to you. I feel humbled, fragile and insignificant. But on the plus side, the relentless churn of worrying that often accompanies me has begun to feel insignificant too.

From Bali, we travel by ferry to the neighbouring island of Lombok. Here there are mosques instead of Hindu temples, and the beer is more expensive. We stay in a locally-owned homestay. Before the sun has come up, we board a wooden boat with a sputtering engine. It takes us to Inside Right, a reef break far from the shore that will soon become inundated with impassive Japanese.

We wait in water that is as clear and still as glass. A wave forms suddenly; the water is still glassy, but is forming a powerful curve now, eerie and spectacular, a clean, slow, surging sweep. We’ve got to surf that.

I’m the fittest, the fastest, the strongest in the group, but I’m the one not staying on any waves. I catch them, but a second or two later I topple off. That’s because no matter how many times I get it right when I practise on land, the way I do my pop-up — the jump on to the board — is wrong when I’m in the water.

I leap up like Usain Bolt starting a race, when my feet should actually be facing the sides of the board; they shouldn’t be parallel to them. It didn’t matter when I was on a board the size of an aircraft carrier. Now that I’m on a shorter one, though, it’s easier to become imbalanced. And being imbalanced means falling off.Falling off againThere’s a ponytailed drama student in our group on a board far shorter than mine who, time after time, gets up and rides for a good 50m at least. It is infuriating. I want to be the best!

I’ve come face to face with the staggering vastness of my incompetence and it’s left me furious and disappointed.

“Good session, mate,” the trip leader says, and I want to argue — I want to yell at him that I’ve not ridden a single wave. But I don’t. Instead I nod. I remember what I said at the beginning. The ocean is enough. Just look around. At the volcanic curves of the mountains, the golden clouds reflecting on the sea. The contented, bountiful joy of just being here, in this warm water, on this exquisite day is seeping in. I realise I’ve got to appreciate where I am, not be disgruntled about how far away I am from where I’d like to be.

The afternoon session is different. I still fall over plenty of times, but I manage to stay on a few waves too. Now that I’ve let go — now that I don’t care so desperately about improving — I’m actually improving.

About to go surfing
My happy place.

In the days that follow, I have some decent sessions; others are disastrous. But I still feel more present, more positive. I’m almost moved to tears, not by frustration this time, but by the ever-changing beauty and power of the waves.

I’m enjoying myself. I take solace in the belief that if I keep on practising then, one day, I’ll master the correct way to pop up on the board. One day, there’ll be more rides than falls. I’ve realised I can’t hurry this process: I can only keep trying; I can only do my best.

On the edge of the much smaller island of Nusa Lembongan, a wave dumps me, dragging me along sharp coral. My back is bleeding, crisscrossed with burning welts that in the weeks following will become scars. I laugh it off when I’m back on land, but my confidence is shattered.

The next day, I force myself to go back out. We attempt another reef break, ominously called Lacerations. I’m cautious, timid. I can see the coral below; I can almost touch it. The following session is better. I catch and ride wave after wave. We take a boat back to shore. I’m ecstatic, exhausted. This is only the beginning.

This article first appeared in Business Day‘s 12 December 2018 edition under the headline “Learning to surf is getting to know myself“.

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