Surf Lessons - Life Lessons

The water is unbelievably warm. So warm that you haven’t even considered a wet suit or shirt for protection. You and your friends have the entire beach to yourselves on a perfect Southern California day.

The morning granted a huge breakthrough on your surfboard. You caught the wave, stood up quickly, stayed balanced as it carried you toward shore, and even managed to start steering left and right.

After a short rest you’re determined to not only ride the wave, but to “set a rail,” by angling down the face of the wave and ride it across, not just straight toward land. You paddle out again, fighting through each crash of ocean water until you find the perfect one. You turn around and paddle back toward shore. The wave catches up. You’ve timed it perfectly. It propels you toward shore and now’s your chance. You press your body up so you can hop your feet forward…

...and your board dives sharply underneath the surface while the wave catapults you face-first into the water.

After tumbling like a load of laundry amidst the white-wash you finally regain control near the shore, standing up and catching your breath. You pull in your board and paddle back out, making a few more stubborn attempts, but by now you’re exhausted and the ocean has become aggressive and hard to manage. Returning to the beach you see many of your group have had similar experiences and are tossing a frisbee instead. For today, the ocean is victorious.

And this experience is a great example of the greater learning process.

Surf to Snow - Photo by Larry Casas

Driving into the Bluffs Campground in San Onofre State Park greeted us with its usual warm sun and ocean breeze. Even better was to be greeted by fellow members and great friends of the Professional Ski Instructors of America and American Association of Snowboard Instructor’s Western Division. Tents, camping trailers, and custom sleeping shacks were quickly put together, and with good reason; the sun was on its way down, the evening sky was stunning, and we were all eager to go surfing.

The “Surf to Snow” event met for its 4th year in September of 2018, collecting skiers and snowboarders from all over California and Nevada for a day or two of sun, food, camaraderie, and surfing in order to reconnect members of our division before busy winter schedules set in. The camp itself has a very relaxed schedule; you won’t find a daily agenda broken down by the hour here, but as we reached the beach on our first evening it was easy to tell that this was still a gathering of educators. Small pods started forming, consisting of more experienced surfers excitedly sharing tricks and tips to those who rarely get to spend time on the waves. Some members threw on their wetsuits and ran straight for the water. Others unfolded beach chairs and enjoyed the sunset.

This served as reminder that just because the environment of a sport is different, the way people approach it doesn’t necessarily change. For some members of our camp the physical act of surfing was secondary to a weekend of unwinding next to the ocean with friends, just like skiers and riders that enjoy their time sitting around a fire pit at the base of the mountain with a warm beverage. The goal for these folks is leisure: no stress, no rush, and no pressure to perform.

On the flip side, other surfers in our camp joined to do just what the event says: surf. They were up early each morning while the rest of us slept in, hunting for waves while the beach was quiet. They were first in the water and last out, even as the ocean became more aggressive throughout the day. These are the people catching the first and last chairs every weekend at the mountain, earning their turns in even the worst conditions.

Regardless of a casual layout, education was present in our camp in the form of experienced and inexperienced surfers sharing information and improving their understanding of the sport; the cycle of learning was in full effect. Surfing shares this in common with snowsports, in that students flow through a process while learning a new skill: thinking about the required pieces and parts, watching its execution, then ultimately doing it themselves and feeling the sensations in action. Whether a student gravitates toward one step or another, they still move through the process as a whole.

How surfing and snowsports are coached, however, is very different.

A benefit of coaching skiing and snowboarding is the ability to provide a hands-on approach. While new skiers and riders experience the sensations of balancing on an edge, gliding on snow, and steering their equipment, the instructor can often stay alongside them to provide some control, safety, and comfort. This way the student can flow through the cycle of learning with little risk and advance when they’re ready.

That doesn’t exist when learning how to surf in the ocean.

There’s plenty of useful drills and movements to practice while your surfboard is on the beach, like your stance, positioning, and learning how to pop from your stomach to your feet when it’s time to catch the wave. You can practice all you want in the sand, but eventually you need to paddle out into the water, and with the ocean being a loud, powerful, and somewhat unpredictable force, having a coach nearby to hold your hand is almost impossible. That leaves just you, your surfboard, and the waves.

I had first tried surfing at the Surf to Snow event two summers prior, and like most brand new surfers I found myself getting pummeled by the ocean. With every paddle-out, however, I became more efficient, more comfortable, and eventually learned how to stand up on my board. Two years later, at the most recent camp, I picked up where I left off and found more success in no time, but the ocean reminded me pretty quickly that it, ultimately, is the boss. (See my story at the beginning of this article.) The water became a little too turbulent for most of us trying to improve on this trip to San Onofre, but that only makes sense with a sport like surfing. Even on a perfect day you spend the vast majority of your time working very, very hard for a very small amount of reward. That reward, however, is very, very sweet, and we shared those sweet (and sour) moments in the evening while laughing around a fire pit and enjoying each other’s company: our ultimate reward.  

To me, these sports have a lot in common with life in general, and what they can teach us about the subject. Skiing and snowboarding may not share the same work/reward ratio as surfing, but they share the same principles:

Put in the work, and you will be rewarded. That, and you can only rely on someone to hold your hand for so long, if at all.

Eventually you need to let go, and try to enjoy the ride.

Stay tuned in for updates on our next Surf to Snow Event...

Surf to Snow 2018