Day 1: Funny how time works. Just the other day, I was sitting in the “Bitte Ruhe” room at the University of Zurich, proof-reading my thesis one final time in air-conditioned climate control. Now, I’m here – surf school in Baleal, Portugal. Ocean wind, the smell of seaweed and the sound of crashing waves. We’re gathered in a circle and our instructor P is drawing diagrams in the sand. We enter the water here, go behind P, surf to here, and get out here. We take a circle route so we don’t get in anyone’s way. Surf etiquette is key. (No one wants to share the ocean with a kook).
I have that familiar feeling of anxiousness and excitement, my stomach churning relentlessly. I haven’t set foot in the ocean in what, 15 years? We warm up, jumping into the Atlantic. We splash water on our faces and necks. We dive into oncoming froth. The shock of the cold doesn’t last long. We pay attention to the intervals between waves. We drift with the currents back to shore. We introduce ourselves to the ocean.
Back on the sand, our instructors teach us the basics of surfing. Hands beside your chest, tucked in like chicken wings. Pop-ups, positioning and balance. Reading the ocean currents. We practice on big mounds of sand to learn how the board tips when we shift our weight.
It’s go time and we carry the board out. We move towards P. One by one, he tells us to turn the board so the tail faces the oncoming wave (easier said than done), get on said surfboard (again, easier said than done), then he pushes us forward with the white wave, yelling “Paddle! Paddle! … Up! Up! Up!” We float towards shore – popping up – successfully or not. We look like little dolls, black wetsuits against the blue horizon, standing up then falling down, again and again and again. This is Day 1.
Day 2: Our instructors do not have a single ounce of body fat. They’re tanned and ripped, their long golden hair blowing freely in the Atlantic ocean wind. The top of their wetsuit hangs freely off their body as they teach, but they tug it on last minute before getting in the water. Tuggity-tug-tug, and its on. What the f***? How did they do that? This morning I spent a full 10 minutes painstakingly tugging on one leg. Later, when both legs were finally on, I noticed the crotch and knees were in horribly wrong positions. Putting on that damn wetsuit is my first challenge of the day.
Day 3: My pop-ups are better today. I can stay on for a few seconds. I can also control the board a bit easier, the movements becoming more intuitive. But only in the morning. By the afternoon, it all goes to hell. My legs and arms turn sluggish. They drag and stick on the board when I pop up, taking away precious milliseconds from my time actually surfing. The ankle leash trips me often, as I swing my foot to the front of the board. The waves are rough now and my muscles are exhausted. It takes energy to even stand still in the water, without every wave forcing me back a few steps towards shore. I sit out the rest of the afternoon lesson. Everything about surfing is hard.
Day 4: Best day ever. I’m fresh and recovered. For a few magnificent moments, I manage to catch a few baby waves of my own. As I paddle out, salt water stinging my eyes, I grin and think to myself, “hey, this is fun”.
Day 5: Last day of surf lessons. Instead of walking out to meet the waves, the instructors tell us to paddle out. This uses more energy. Instead of surfing the white foamy waves (which are easier because they’ve already broken and are horizontal), we go deeper to the green waves (which are more vertical). Immediately, the green waves reveal that my position is off. I fall, over and over. It’s amazing how much of this sport involves falling. And amazing how so little of it involves actually balancing on the board. For me, at least.
Surf school is over. I’ve always wanted to try surfing and now I have. I’m in awe at how intricate and demanding this sport is – to balance and turn on moving water, to understand the different waves, swells and currents in this majestic and mysterious ocean. I go back to the hostel and watch a few videos of professional surfers competing in the Super Turbos beach in Peniche, just one town away. This sport is nuts.
As I leave Baleal, Portugal – I have but one thought – surfers of the world – I bow down to you. You have my deepest and utmost respect. Surf’s up, dudes!