Long Slow Surf: Drowning

Ten minutes late for my first swimming lesson. How’s that for kicking off my big surf adventure?! Could be kind of concerning, I guess? As I already know how to swim I’m not particularly worried about it though. I’m just not a “strong” swimmer. I’m a “gettin by” swimmer. <—And, that is in a pool.



It occurred to me sometime early this summer that I had to learn how to surf. Blame it on the books I was reading. Desire, books and a whole lot of inaction sums up my “summer of learning how to surf.” In my defense, I spent the early weeks of summer with a boot on my left ankle and/or in physical therapy working to regain a full range of motion after a “small” tear. (Quick FYI on tears: big or small, when the attending medical staff offer condolences that your ankle isn’t broken they mean it. <–Months. M-O-N-T-H-S.)

After the boot came off and the PT began…June…I started asking my therapist at every session, can I run? No. Dojo? No. Run? No. Really? No.


A couple weeks in I was informed I should be swimming. Specifically, a kick board was mentioned and laps. Boring. Can I run? No.

So, I swam. No kick board, some laps. Whatev. Then, in mid July, at a session I asked, can I run? No. Dojo? No. Run? No. Surf? Yeah, we’ll tape your ankle like a gymnast. Uh….really? Yeah, tape it up.


Suddenly moving along my ‘learn to surf’ obsession, from the theoretical to the real, was hinged entirely to my ACTUALLY learning how to surf! Conveniently, I got the ok to surf just days before the US Open of Surfing came to Huntington Beach. There was exactly no chance I was going to try to get near a wave while that circus was in town. I was, however, going to go to the circus.

The US Open of Surfing



In the days between my PT therapist green lighting surfing and the start of the Surf Open all my concerns regarding surfing had an opportunity to ferment in my psyche. First and foremost, drowning. No, kids, not sharks. D-R-O-W-N-I-N-G.

It is with pure awe that I stare out over my local beaches, on any given day, and see dozens to hundreds of people of all ages and shapes charging out into the Pacific like it ain’t no thing. It seemed to me that everyone everywhere that could swim had somehow been blessed with the ability to take that skill into open water. That is not how my swimming skills developed!

I have been in the water since I was a kid, lakes, pools, rivers, okay. None of the aforementioned experience has led me to believe that I could charge out into the ocean and handle my shit with complete competence. If there was a class on that, I missed it. And, it must just be me, right? There are toddlers with boards, grannies, too, not to mention, athletes and seriously out of shape folks. Further proof that the whole world can swim came by virtue of the fact that nobody ever talks about swimming relative to surfing. I had gone through a half dozen books, read a couple back issues of Surfer, lived in beach communities for years at this point…swimming or, more specifically, not being an open water swimmer is not a subject that had come up.


How does one explain to a surf instructor that they were not gifted with an innate ability to swim in open water? Sure, sure, that three year old appears comfortable but this 30+ year old has some concerns…

Enter the pros. My intention with the US Open of Surfing was to simply stop by mid-week, have a look around, see a heat or two and bounce. Accordingly, I grabbed a coffee and headed down to the pier in the early hours of the morning. Sitting in the bleachers with half-a-dozen others, coffee in their hands, calling into the office, etc. it seemed like an interesting enough way to spend an hour. Then the characters from those books I had been reading came to life on the waves before me, names I had never heard of and ones that I had. My first heat was Rob Machado’s only heat. Awesome! I saw my first heat, second, third…two and half-hours later I had a new plan. Be back first thing in the morning, dressed appropriately with everything I could possibly need for the day and not move again.

And so it was.

Sitting on the beach the next afternoon surrounded by thousands of people the event announcer made mention of a life guard charging into the rip tide, what he said was (and this is a paraphrase) ‘nothing ruins a life guard’s day like a board from Cost Co and a kid that can’t swim.’ Holy. Shit. ←Right. There. That is when it hit me, half those people may not even know how to swim! They are just hauling their dumb asses out into the ocean on some kind of ‘what could go wrong’ faith! Awesome!

Just so we’re clear, had I just charged out into the ocean and gotten caught in that rip tide I would be that fool out there flailing trying to swim back in while being sucked out. What do I know about swimming parallel to the beach?!

In the interest of driving home the ‘start with your swimming skills’ lesson, the Universe, saw fit that night to move Laird Hamilton’s book, “Force of Nature: Mind, Body, Soul (And, of course, Surfing)” to the top of my reading pile. The book had been in the pile for some time but it is not as if I only have one book pile, people. Thus, it was not until THAT night that I cracked THAT book. Rather than a ‘chapter’ book it is more of a ‘section’ book, there is no need to read it from beginning to end so I didn’t. I skipped around pen-ultimately getting to “fear” and “training to surf.”

On “fear,” Hamilton writes:

“You can spend your whole life fence-sitting because you’re frightened of something bad that might happen—or you can launch yourself into it with all of your conviction and all of your intelligence. Here’s my advice: Meet up with your fears. If you’re afraid of sharks, go learn all about sharks. Get into the water with one. If you respect fear, face it straight on and act anyway.” (P.8)

On “training for surfing:”

“SWIM: Get yourself a pair of fins, and hit the water.” (P.198)


I’m afraid of drowning. Swimming is a part of training for surfing. Got it. Facing that fear, for me, isn’t as simple as grabbing some fins. Unless, of course, fins come with an explanation of rip tides and any other inherent risk of open water swimming I would need to know about? Assuming that they don’t, for me, surfing begins with swimming lessons.

Swimming lessons have begun…give or take 10 minutes.

2 Responses

  1. […] surf sculptures and so on I’m not dismissing those by any means I’m just taking this adventure very slow. Drew […]

  2. […] I started writing about this adventure I mentioned my physical therapist’s ‘suggestion’ that I get a kick board to use during laps. He didn’t elaborate on the value of using a kick board and I didn’t […]

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