Surf’s Up

The day ended when my sister was planted face-first in the sand.

The first time I tried on a wetsuit, I put it on backward. “Um, Dan, shouldn’t your knee pads be on the front of your knees?”

Since then, I’ve become only marginally more hip. I still usually forget to take off my sunglasses until I’m up to my knees in water, I still break a sweat just peeling my wetsuit on and off, and I still–God help me–ride a body board, not a surfboard.

The thing is, though, I’m full-up on things to be hard-core about. I don’t have the time or energy to add another, so I’m never going to be a gnarly surfer dude. And even if I wanted to, the only time I’ve ever been blond was when I was on the high school swim team and the chlorine bleached me a peroxide-white, and I’m not keen on reliving that experience.

For a long time, I thought that since I wasn’t willing to commit myself to real surfing, I should just avoid the ocean altogether. I assumed that all surf-related activities were for fanatics only, with training requirements as high as, say, knife juggling.

I developed this impression very early on in life, despite the fact that the little northern Indiana town where I grew up was a good thousand miles from anything even remotely resembling surf. In both a geographic and a cultural sense, it was about as noncoastal as you can get. But sober cartographic reality did nothing to hold back the tsunami of “surf” clothes that inundated my little rural school. Everyone who was anyone drove the 45 minutes to the nearest mall and stocked up on Panama Jack shorts, Surf’s Up T-shirts, and, for the rebellious, Dr. Zog’s Sex Wax car window decals. Surfing was cool, even for people who, in all statistical likelihood, would live and die without ever dipping a toe in a body of saltwater.

I was far more comfortable making snide comments about trying to surf in a field of soybeans than I was donning an electric-orange Ron Jon Surf Shop shirt. But after moving out to sunny California and living here for a while, my more adventurous girlfriend decided that we should try body boarding. I had my reservations, but she prevailed, and one weekend we rented wetsuits and body boards and headed for Stinson Beach.

After I got the wetsuit on the right way forward, I couldn’t tell whether I felt more like a wannabe X-Man or a toddler in a neoprene snowsuit. My dislike of the wetsuit disappeared instantly, however, when I walked into the ocean. The only part that got cold was my feet. For anyone who’s ever dreaded that long, slow walk into freezing water, during which one warm part of your body after another is subjected to the ocean’s icy embrace, a wetsuit is a gift from the gods.When you think of Stinson Beach, you probably don’t think surf–and there’s a reason for that. But for novices wanting nothing more than plenty of space to familiarize ourselves with the strange chunk of foam–the alleged “body board” that everyone swore would somehow let us ride the waves –it was perfect. We didn’t catch many waves that day–there weren’t many to catch, for one, and we didn’t know what we were doing, for another. But we had a great time floating up to our necks in ocean water that didn’t make us cold. The occasional zippy ride to shore was just a neat bonus. I didn’t try anything fancy, I just focused on the basics, like keeping my mouth closed when taking a wave in the face.

There was nothing hair-raising about our first body-boarding experience. And that in itself was the revelation: there is much non-gnarly fun to be had in the surf. Catch a wave occasionally, but for the rest of the time, just float around and throw seaweed at your friends. It’s a lot like sitting on the sand and chatting, but there’s more to distract you (important for short-attention-span people like me). And even though it’s more difficult to have a picnic while body boarding than while sitting on the beach, at least you don’t have to worry about sand in your grapes.The next weekend we set our course for Santa Cruz and picked up my sister and her boyfriend for a day at a different beach. Now, in surf lore, Stinson Beach is to Santa Cruz what Houston is to Aspen in terms of skiing. As we made our way to the beach, we passed beneath a tall bronze statue of a handsome surfer staring nobly out to sea. Surfers–real ones–were everywhere. We ended up at a little beach a few coves up from the Santa Cruz boardwalk. The water was full of neoprene-clad preteens on body boards. Most of them were floating on the swells just in front of a jagged rock face–it looked for all the world as if the next big wave that came in would smash them to cutlets. When the wave did come, however, the children somehow managed to race along the rock face instead of into it, all the while cutting back and forth across the wave with deft turns of their boards.

While the kids raced through the water like so many sea otters, we waded out into the less deadly breakers running straight up to the beach. Still, the rollers were coming in harder and faster than we had experienced before, and getting through the no-man’s-land where the water was too shallow to swim under the waves and too deep to ignore proved difficult. The waves were keen to remind us of the power of large-scale fluid dynamics, and so we were all tumbled head-over-heels more than once. There was, of course, an upside to the difficult going: the stronger waves made for faster rides, especially at the point where the waves running along the rocks joined the waves coming straight into shore and formed a V of water that could shoot you toward the beach with gratifying speed.

The day ended when my sister was picked up by a particularly temperamental breaker and planted face-first, at high velocity, in the sand. So all four of us straggled in to shore and went to nurse our–well, her–wounds over fries and espresso milkshakes at the local Pontiac Diner.

Despite the beating my sister took from the waves, we were all hooked on body boarding. We made several more expeditions before the winter cold settled in. In all our trips to the beach, we never met any of the stereotypical aqua-jocks who hate novices; everyone we talked to on the beach and in the water was mellow and friendly. That’s not really a surprise–waves good enough to entertain hard-core surfers would batter us recreational body boarders unconscious in a matter of minutes, so we weren’t really getting in anyone’s way.

Now, in the interest of accuracy, I should point out that body boarding isn’t all waves and milkshakes–there are difficulties. First is the wetsuit itself. You will probably try on your first wetsuit in a cramped changing room, most likely papered with magazine pictures of fit blondes who look beautiful while defying basic laws of physics. Take heart, those people had to squirm and grunt to pour themselves into their wetsuits, just like you do–and yes, they had their hair done too. Getting in and out of a wetsuit is a lot like trying to climb in and out of a cowhide straitjacket, and if it’s not, you’re probably not wearing the right size.

After you move to the water, you’re back to the hair issue–that is, if your hair is long enough to get in your face. In my experience, it doesn’t matter how many hair ties you use to secure your braid: after an hour or so of surf-pounding, all restraint devices are consumed by the cruel sea, and you’ll end up with a face full of salty hair every time you get clobbered by a wave. If you find a solution to that one, let me know.

There are still more humiliations in store for you if you decide to wear flippers. Flippers are great for zooming around once you’re out in the deep water, and they’re awfully handy for catching waves that might otherwise get away from you. But when you’re trying to wade out to deep water, flippers make you feel like a walrus trying to go jogging. When waves hit you in shallow water, your flippers act like giant sails, quintupling the power of the wave and more often than not dumping you ignominiously into the surf, much to the amusement of your flipper-less companions who barely felt the wave at all.

Finally, everyone (flippers or no) must contend with the drive home. You will be wet and salty, and undoubtedly hungry and thirsty as well. You will face the great dilemma: should I stop at a restaurant while looking and smelling like a walking kelp statue? Or should I hold off until I’ve had a chance to head home and autoclave myself?

But don’t let me get you down on body boarding. All sports have their downsides–skeet-shooting has all those friendly-fire incidents, curling is dogged by the ever-present danger of frostbite, and weight lifting involves those unsightly bulges…. When you think of it that way, a little kelp in the teeth isn’t bad.

Last week, we introduced my mother to body boarding. She’s a major aquaphile, but she lives in ocean-less Wisconsin–so we figured a good couple of hours floating in saltwater would be just the thing. We headed for the beach again, this time with her in tow. We decided to try Manresa Beach, a short drive south of Santa Cruz. The waves were mellow that day, and we did more floating than boarding. But we weren’t out there long before we realized we were not alone–a pair of harbor seals was swimming with us. I watched a dark shape cruise by me just a few feet away; he surfaced, then floated around for a while on his back, stretching his flippers and twitching his whiskers at me. The seals hung around for five minutes or so until losing interest and heading on. My mother got her saltwater fix, my sister managed to keep her face out of the sand, and nobody strung any barbed wire in the water like in that one episode of Baywatch.

I know there are serious surfers who scoff at us recreational body boarders. But that’s fine, let them scoff away. For the cognoscenti to scoff at the uninitiated is as natural as for gerbils to eat their young. I’m content to be an amateur, and float on my back under the beneficent gaze of the statue of the immortal surfer.

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