Zebra of the Waves

by david

I went surfing. It was, unsurprisingly, an awesome, very satisfying disaster.

My surfing resume, in brief

I have never surfed. In fact, I have hardly ever been in the ocean. I am not a confident swimmer. I don’t know the first thing about waves and currents and undertow. I am neither physically coordinated or naturally athletic. I am sort of a wimp.

So when offered the opportunity to take a lesson at my company’s sales meeting, of course I said yes. I very much want to get into a wetsuit and display my ineptitude for my colleagues.

A wetsuit and an omen

There were 11 of us. 3 instructors. We met at a van by the beach, where the instructors unloaded surfboards and wetsuits. As the wetsuits were being distributed, I stood to the side, watching the pile get smaller and smaller and wondering if I’d be left with something ill-fitting or covered in the skin flakes of some previous psoriatic would-be surfer. Instead, pleasantly, as the last one without a suit, I was handed one with the comment, “This one may feel a little tight, but it’s definitely the warmest one.” Win.

The wetsuit, like everybody else’s, covered the whole body, legs down to the ankles, and arms to the wrists. Mine had some extra lining. I fought my way into it and asked a co-worker to zip the back up. The zipper was stuck. The lead instructor said, “Yeah that one sticks. I’ll get it.” He gave it a tug. The entire zipper separated from the wetsuit. The wetsuit was dead. He helped me peel it off and said, “I’ve got one more, but… I don’t think you’re going to like what comes next.” The remaining wetsuit had short sleeves and legs.

It also had zebra-patterned trim around the thighs.

Zebras, of course, are celebrated swimmers, pioneers of surf, graceful among the waves. This seemed a natural pairing. I was told I looked like Fred Flintstone.

Everything I know about surfing, I learned on solid land

We carried our boards to the beach. We were taught where to lay on the board to keep balance. We were instructed on how to stand up: 1. Do a pushup. 2. Bring one leg forward and plant it beneath your chest. 3. Stand. That was the lesson. We were, according to our instructors, ready for the water.

At this point, we were divided into three groups. I was to join Kenny. Kenny is easily 15 years my senior, but has a physique and a tan that indicate a commitment to a lifestyle that contains much less pastry and blog-reading. He was sitting on the beach, putting on skintight foot coverings, an extension of his wetsuit. He looked up at me, at the short legs of my wetsuit. He opened his mouth as if to say the obvious (“you’re gonna freeze your nuts off”), but then just nodded. I knew I was going to suffer.

My fellow students were Bill and Joe. We tethered our boards to our ankles using velcro straps (in retrospect I can’t believe this fact was news to me, but my initial reaction was a jolt of terror). Bill and Joe and I followed Kenny into the water. We lay on our boards and began paddling out to sea.

Testing my innate surfing abilities

The other two groups stayed near the shore. Kenny insisted that they’d learn nothing that way, that we needed to get to the white water if we wanted waves we could do anything with. It was exhausting. I couldn’t imagine that I’d have any energy left once we actually got to Thailand or wherever he wanted us to start. I resolved then that before my next surfing attempt, I would do a solid 6 months of upper body weightlifting.

I paddled awkwardly and painfully and breathlessly and with no small amount of nausea through increasingly strong waves, sliding occasionally off the board and clambering back into place, until I looked back towards shore and discovered we were arrayed approximately like this:

I desperately wanted to be with that group. I wanted to be on the bunny slope.

At this point, Kenny revealed his teaching technique. His technique was to shout simple-sounding instructions from the distance. “OK! Try to catch this next one!” My blank stare must have suggested to him that more instruction was necessary. “Turn around!” he yelled. I didn’t know how to turn around. “Just sit upright, and then turn your body and the board in the direction you want to go!” He demonstrated. Very quickly. My body could not interpret what my eyes gave it. It was as if I were watching a bird and attempting to fly based on what I’d seen. Clearly Kenny and I have entirely dissimilar anatomy.

I doggypaddled a 180 and got back on my board. I was exhausted. I felt like I might throw up. But I was facing the right direction. I looked over my shoulder. The wave was approaching. Was I supposed to wait for it? Bring my leg forward to be ready to stand up? When was I supposed to stand up? Wait a minute: how was the board not just going to flipped over by the wave? And when do I make the decision to fall, if the decision isn’t made for me? I was suddenly very aware of the limits of my knowledge.

My lost time incident

As the wave crashed down over me, and I made some squirming motion that gestured towards standing, a series of physical events began. I cannot describe them. I cannot describe them because I cannot clearly remember them. I did not witness them. I was underwater. I thrashed about wildly underwater, dragged by my leash as the water carried the board to somewhere, and I desperately tried to right myself. The whole ocean was my neti pot. I flung my arms around my head, afraid of my board, of other boards.

This seemed to happen very fast. Seconds. Less than 10. I don’t know. But when I came above the water and clutched my board, I was the only one in the ocean. It was like a moment from Lost: the island had vanished. In the far distance, the pier, but none of my co-workers. And then I looked in the one direction it made no sense to look for them. And there they were:

HOW? How fast was I moving? How long was I under? How did nobody else get decapitated by my flailing?

I crawled closer to shore. I stood up in the shallow water. I examined the velcro burn on my ankle. Pushed lightly on my soon-to-be-bruised ribs. Noticed an odd sensation in my foot. Figured I was pretty numb. Best to stay in the water, not change temperature too much. I worked my way upshore and began to paddle back out.

Joyful futility

I rejoined Joe and Bill and Kenny. Joe and Bill weren’t having any more luck than I was, but Bill was doing his damnedest to stand. None of the rest of us, in any of the groups, were really trying to stand at this point. We were focused on basic things like balance while laying down, and staying alive. I had a couple less-ferocious wipeouts. At one point, Kenny was pretty far out and the three of us were near each other. Bill was lining himself up to try again. Joe said, “Bill, I think you need to paddle as the wave approaches.”

Deadpan, Bill said, “I don’t think it’s going to make any difference.” We all knew how the story would end. Bill would pull a leg forward and pitch off the side of his board. This is what we learned how to do.

Other things occurred. I inhaled some water and then noticed strange brownish red streaks in the foam all around me. I nearly ran Bill over in my one moment of true confidence on the board. I might have dropped a surfboard on my toe. Might.

The mighty sea zebra wounds his hoof

After an hour or so in the water, we were sore. I couldn’t really lift my arms anymore. Our feet were numb. Asses were broken. A couple people had managed, for moments, to stand up.

We felt great. It was awesome. Good feeling  carried through the evening, and I mostly ignored the sharp pain I was feeling in my foot. Sure, I bitched about it some. After all, I’m a wimp.

This morning, I got out of bed at 5:30, and my first step in the dark of the hotel room was excruciating. I limped to the bathroom and turned on the light. A large part of my foot was a deep brown-red bruise. I won’t go into all the details, but several people advised me to see a doctor, since I’m flying on Sunday. I caught a cab to a nearby clinic (one that does not take my insurance, making this a much more expensive surfing lesson than I’d planned), and the doctor took one look at the foot and said, “Let’s X-ray that and see what’s going on in there.”

My surfing souvenir.

When the x-rays came back, he was shocked not to find a break. He was ready to make his diagnosis. I have a case of “hellacious bruising.” No running for the foreseeable future. Which is a shame because they also weighed me at that office: I feel the urge to run off some of the number I saw on that scale. It was positively zebra-like.