SURF STORY PART I
1. OCEAN SURFING
The first experience I had that led me to take this new professional journey started in the Midwest in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, far from the beaches and salt water of the Pacific Ocean. Growing up, the first sport I played was soccer. I also played in college as an NCAA Division III athlete. In high school, I was one of the best players on my team, but in college, I wasn’t even the best guy in my dorm. Luckily, I had stayed engaged with boardsports such as skateboarding, snowboarding, and wakeboarding over the years and continued to participate in those sports as an adult. Boardsports were a hobby and something I could do 100 percent on my own. Unlike soccer, which is a heavy team sport, boardsports gave me an outlet to do something as an individual, and the time I have spent off the soccer pitch has been spent doing boardsports.
Because I spent so much time participating in boardsports over the years, I learned about the history and significance that each of them has to the sport of surfing. Surfing is the foundational sport for all other boardsports. It’s one of the most progressive action sports and has continued to stay relevant over the years when so many mainstream sports have seen their participation levels fade. Being from the Midwest, surfing was a dream. Since I hadn’t spent much time in or around the ocean, the sport seemed out of reach, something that only came with coastal living. I was always attracted to the sport because it was so different from anything I had done in sports before. I dreamed about what it would be like to be in the ocean among the waves. Given that I had participated in other boardsports for years, surfing seemed like something I might be able to do. I wanted to cross it off my boardsports bucket list.
As I began to think more and more about my surfing dream, I convinced myself that ocean surfing was something that I could do. I was driven to make this dream a reality, and I started to think more about how I could make it happen. I just needed to go to an ocean. While planning for this adventure, I would stumble across online ads for a surf trip to Costa Rica. Or I would see videos online of surfers riding massive waves in Hawaii, Australia, and South Africa. As I started to solidify my plans, I realized that a surfing trip would be as easy as jumping on a flight and heading to the west coast. I began to put my ideas to paper and started to map out my surf adventure. And without knowing it at the time, this simple decision would serve as the inspiration for a major career change and also the genesis for this series.
As I began to put together the plan that would launch my surf adventure, it became clear that my knowledge about the sport was very limited. I had spent some time wakesurfing behind a boat and was pretty good at riding waves. But that was in a freshwater lake that had little to no real risks other than the occasional boat or rogue jet skier. Up until I decided to try ocean surfing, my primary point of reference for the ocean was the movie Jaws. I was terrified of the ocean and even more terrified of sharks. I did realize that I would actually have a better chance of being struck by lightning, killed in a car accident, or dying from a fireworks accident. But as irrational as these thoughts were about the ocean, I was still terrified to go into the water and scared to death about what might be lurking below the surface.
Knowing that I would need to overcome my fear of sharks and brave the ocean, I created a map of all the surf spots in and around the greater Los Angeles area. I had been to LA before and knew the city, so I was comfortable going back and spending a few days surfing. The coast of California from the north to the south offers numerous spots, almost too many to choose from, and the list was not only impressive but incredibly intimidating. El Porto, Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, Venice Beach, and Surfrider Beach in Malibu were on a list of some of the best surf spots in the world. I decided that Surfrider Beach would be an ideal spot since it has a long and slow break that easily covers the length of three football fields and would be an ideal spot for someone trying ocean surfing for the first time. The break occupied the space between Malibu Lagoon and Malibu Pier. It was gorgeous. It was clean and accessible. And for someone from the Midwest, it looked liked paradise.
As I mapped out the plan, my confidence started to grow. I had planned every step I would take, from jumping on the plane in Minneapolis to planting my feet on the beach in Malibu. I picked a day during our trip that my girlfriend, Kate, and I would surf by looking at the surfline.com report. There is an HD camera at Malibu that allows you to see the current conditions, and from the live video feed, I saw that there were waves. For my plan, I also figured out the best route from the hotel to Malibu Beach and knew that the Malibu Surf Shack was 367 feet from Surfrider Beach. I could easily walk from the rental shop with my board, wetsuit, and boots. And based on my plan, I knew that if I went on a weekday, there would be fewer people and that I had a better chance of having the waves all to myself.
After four weeks of meticulously mapping out every step of this adventure, I had a dozen printed pages of planning materials in a Word document and had acquired more information about surfing than I could have ever possibly imagined. I had spent my free nights putting together what I thought was a rock-solid plan. In my professional life, I was known as a planner. I would build sales and marketing plans by analyzing data, developing tactics, and creating action plans. In my mind, this was going to be no different than anything I had done previously in my professional career. I had been successful for years working under the assumption that as long as I had a good plan, I was going to be successful. Even though this plan was for surfing and not for business, I thought I could fall back on my previous boardsports experience and use my planning skills to make this happen.
On paper, there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to surf. I had done my homework and put together a good plan. I had also spent over twenty years skateboarding, snowboarding, or wakeboarding. I knew that if it was a flat board with grip tape, bindings, or boots, there was a good chance I could ride it. I knew that with my plan, I had done what I needed to do in order to put myself in a position to surf. But I also wanted to talk to surfers who had done this before. After my plan was completed, I talked to other surfers to gain insight from those that had done this before and knew what to expect. I was able to ask questions, get some tips, and solidify my planning even more. My paper plan started to come to life with the input from actual surfers and, mentally, I felt like I was moving closer to making my dreams a reality.
IN MY MIND
As I continued to reach out to other surfers that had actually spent time in the water, I gathered additional information, garnered support, and received instructions on what I needed to do. I did receive new information during this process, but a lot of what I was told simply verified everything I had put together in my plan. People are naturally optimistic and want to help others succeed, so during my conversations, I was told that this would be “no big deal” and that with my experience in boardsports, surfing would be easy and just like snowboarding or wakeboarding. The more I talked to people who had surfed, the more confident I felt that this was going to happen. I was imagining the best possible outcome and had a new sense of confidence from my planning. I had done my homework and asked all the right questions. Now, all that was left was to jump on a plane and fly 1,900 miles across the country to the Pacific Ocean.
After Kate and I spent the first part of our trip taking in the sights and sounds of LA, I was ready to surf. I had enjoyed my time leading up to our Malibu adventure, but somehow, the first part of the trip felt like a distraction from the true intention of our visit to the west coast. So much work and effort had gone into the planning and preparation for the surfing that I basically sleepwalked through the days leading up to what was going to be the main event. The day of, Kate and I woke up to our alarm at 5:00 a.m., had breakfast, and hit the road before most of California had gotten out of bed that morning. We had the road to ourselves and would eventually have the beach to ourselves that day as well. In choosing a weekday, we knew that there would be no crowds and fewer surfers in the water. I wanted the waves to myself and didn’t want to compete for spots in a lineup. Going early made sense and was all part of the plan.
Malibu was only a thirty-minute drive from our hotel in Santa Monica up the Pacific Coast Highway, but the short trip seemed to take hours. As we got closer to Malibu, we hit a bit of traffic and a few stoplights along the way. Each stop increased the sense of anticipation and made us more and more anxious the closer we got to our destination. I was nervous about the surfing and all the unknowns awaiting me in the ocean. Kate did not know what to expect and had not been a part of my planning, so we exchanged nervous banter about the traffic, pointed out the beautiful houses along the way, and enthusiastically scanned the ocean through the car windows, looking for waves. My hands were locked in a “10 and 2” death grip on the steering wheel. I felt like I was already holding on for dear life. I pulled my hands off the wheel once in a while and held them in front of the air conditioning vents to cool them down before placing them back on the wheel. As we got closer to Malibu, we started to notice boards strapped to the roofs of cars, crammed into backseats, or sticking out of windows. We were getting close.
THE SURF SHACK
We arrived in Malibu and found a place to park for the day before starting our short walk to the Surf Shack. Kate and I continued with our nervous banter, talking each other into what we were about to do. We rented boards from two guys at the Malibu Surf Shack. They were the two most relaxed people I had ever met in my life, and they were very nonchalant about the whole experience. I rented a surfboard, a wetsuit, and a pair of boots. One of the guys who helped us (who had longer hair than Kate and no shirt on) helped me with my board. His response to my questions about the surf and a passing question about local shark activity was basically to scoff, and he all but dismissed them. His extreme confidence made me think my concerns were hysterics and that I would be fine. I reminded myself that I had put together a masterful plan and that he was right. I would be fine.
2. THE CONDITIONS
MOMENT OF ZEN
We made the short walk down to the beach, and what I saw was everything I could have hoped for and more. Crystal sand, bright blue water, clear skies, and waves breaking not too far from shore. I started to put on my wetsuit and boots. My mind was racing, and I started to feel a wave of adrenaline from the realization that I had finally reached my destination. Kate helped me gather my clothes and our valuables and also to formulate my plan to enter the water. When I was ready to go, I stood on the beach, looked out across the water, and thought, “Let’s do this.” The first part of my planning was accomplished. I put in the work. Made it to the beach. Now it was time to surf. As I started to walk down the beach toward the water, I swore I could hear the Beach Boys singing “Good Vibrations” in the background, with the Theremin calling out to me from the water. Feeling a final moment of zen, I took a deep breath and walked out into the water.
As I got deeper into the water, I noticed the rocks under my feet. They were slippery, round, and very large. As my feet slid off the rocks and got wedged into the cracks between them, I thought to myself, “Good thing I have these boots on or this would be brutal.” The further I got out into the water, the more difficult it was to walk. I was slipping on rocks, the water was getting deeper, and the waves started to push me back toward the shore. Deciding that my feet had taken enough abuse, I made an attempt to jump on my board and tried to paddle the rest of the way. But as waves crashed onto the shore and receded back into the water, it became pretty awkward, since I was only in about eighteen inches of water. I was literally lying on my board, pulling myself over large rocks. I also encountered large beds of kelp that had pooled and collected just off the shoreline. I paddled through the kelp, which was disgusting, and ended up having it caught in my ankle strap, dragging the kelp beds with me as I made my way away from shore.
As I got farther out into the water, I was able to shake the kelp loose, but then encountered small sets of waves that were now rolling in toward shore. The waves got increasingly larger the farther I went out, and it got to the point where they were starting to break. I knew that I would need to dive under these waves in order to move past them and find a calm place in the lineup just past the impact area. I began to “duck dive” under the waves, but kept being pushed back in the direction I was coming from, taking a mouthful of salt water each time and frantically paddling through each incoming wave. Having made it through a few sets of waves, I reached the lineup where I could stop and regroup. I was happy to have made it this far, but unfortunately, I was physically drained from having to paddle through an oceanic gauntlet of obstacles. Any energy I did have was gone. I had not surfed a single wave, and yet I was dead tired, having just experienced one of the most powerful forces in nature. The Pacific Ocean.
3. SKILL GAPS
After making it to the lineup about 100 yards offshore, I was instantly fatigued. I had paddled only a short distance, but I quickly realized that I had no upper body strength or arm or shoulder strength, and that all the weightlifting I had done over the years was absolutely useless in the ocean. New muscles, or muscles I didn’t know I had, were on fire, literally burning under my wetsuit. Even as I began to paddle myself into the lineup, I could tell that my arms weren’t going to last much longer and that I would need to take breaks in order to just attempt to paddle toward an incoming wave. Having planned this trip for weeks in advance, I can honestly say that I never even considered the physical aspects of surfing and just figured I would have the strength and ability once I got into the water. However, the longer I stayed in the water, the more my gaps started to appear and the more I could start seeing the first set of flaws in my planning.
AIR IS GOOD
In addition to my lack of physical strength, I started to notice my breathing was very heavy. Not only was I exerting a lot of physical effort and using large amounts of oxygen to paddle through the water, but I also had to hold my breath every few minutes to duck under an approaching wave. After a few minutes of this, I realized that not only was I a poor swimmer, but I couldn’t hold my breath for more than a few seconds without having to get to the surface for some air. With all the physical effort I was putting into paddling and holding my breath to avoid waves, I realized that I hadn’t really planned for this much swimming and never thought that my cardio would be taking such a toll. I was also a runner and had been training for races at the time. I was in decent shape, but this was far different from running and something I had never experienced before in all my years swimming in lakes and pools. It was one of the first times in my life when drowning became a real possibility.
SURF OR SURVIVE
As I started to settle myself on my board and was finally able to catch my breath, I started to think less about survival and more about surfing. My adrenaline started to kick in, and I said to myself, “You flew all the way out here, so it’s time to catch some waves.” As I paddled toward the lineup, I could see the water swell and rise just in front of me on the horizon. It was crazy to see the water pitch up and a wave build from what seemed like nowhere. As I saw waves break, I would have to turn on my board in the water, reposition myself to face the shore, and then start to paddle like a maniac in order to match the speed of the waves. With almost no energy left and no experience timing the breaking waves, I ended up being either too far back and behind where the waves were breaking or out in front of the wave and had it break or crash down on top of my head. After two or three failed attempts and a couple of close calls, it was back to survival mode.
SLAMMED ON THE BEACH
1. “GET BACK ON THE BEACH”
In between catching my breath and trying to avoid increasingly larger waves, I noticed the reactions of the other surfers around me. It was fairly obvious at that point to everyone in the water who the local surfers were and who the kook from out of town was. Knowing about localism and the unwritten rules about surf spots from watching Keanu Reeves in Point Break, I knew that these waves did not belong to me, and I was just a guest in the surfers’ water. I tried as much as possible to be accommodating and only took opportunities on waves that other surfers were not pursuing. Meaning, I basically got the scraps. I got what was left over and spent more time moving out of people’s way and less time actually surfing. But the longer I was out there, the more comfortable I became. I started to make small talk and even make some small allegiances with the surfers that were sympathetic to my cause. As I started to feel more confident, I relaxed and was able to regain some energy that I had lost during the first part of my session.
There was a brief lull in the number of waves coming in—until a surfer farther up shore yelled out “Outside!” to the group and then turned to paddle out into deeper water. Just over his shoulder, I could see the water start to pitch up just like before, but this time, the water started to rise up at a faster pace, and the horizon started to disappear completely. As the wave broke, I could see white water form on the top of the wave, and the sound of rushing water became louder and louder as it roared toward me. As the wave started to barrel, surfers were paddling ferociously either to catch the wave or to paddle out of the way. This massive wave rolled by me, and I did everything I could to avoid getting pummeled by it or run over by a surfer on it. Having survived for the moment, I looked back to see another wave that was bigger than the first coming right toward me. Everyone in the water at the time had either caught the wave or got out of its way. Unfortunately for me, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and got caught “inside” the impact zone.
A massive wave picked me up and slammed me down on the water like a WWE wrestler would body slam his opponent down onto a mat. I was pushed under the water upside down, and it was so dark that I couldn’t tell the surface of the water from the bottom of the ocean. My board was attached to my ankle by a leash, and it started doing something called “tombstoning,” where you are pulled so far down under the water that the leash pulls the board from the back end and makes the board stick out of the water like a tombstone in a cemetery. I reached up, grabbed the leash at my ankle, and literally started to pull myself up to the surface. Knowing that this was my only lifeline to safety. Reaching the surface, I started to gasp for air. For my sake, a local surfer grabbed me by the back of my wetsuit and gave me a very direct piece of advice. “Hey dude, you have no business being out here. Get your ass back on the shore.”
2. SLAMMED ON THE BEACH
BACK ON THE BEACH
After getting scolded by one of the local surfers and finally making it back onto my board, I did a combination of dog- paddling and bodysurfing back to shore. The water started to empty from my lungs, and my eyes, now burning from the salt water, started to readjust to the sunlight. I could now make out Kate standing on the shore, watching me. As I got closer to shore, I had to reverse navigate the gauntlet course of kelp beds, stumble over the slippery rocks, and then try to walk up the shore with what dignity I had left. I was exhausted, and every muscle in my body was aching. I dropped my board on the beach and stood in silence for a few minutes next to Kate. With water still dripping everywhere, and my legs shaking with fatigue, I started to pull off my wetsuit. I asked Kate, “So, how bad was that?”
Her response: “Well, the lifeguard got out of her chair and was standing on the shore watching you, so yeah. It was pretty bad.”
“Great,” I said. “That’s great. I’m happy to have given her something to do this morning.”
After one of the most harrowing experiences of my life, it was time to press pause, take a time-out, and regroup a bit. I parked my butt on the beach, grabbed a towel, and started to think about what just went down. In reflecting on what happened, I had a weird feeling of shock and disbelief. Considering how much time and effort I had put into the planning for this trip, it was hard to understand where it went wrong. But at the same time, I felt an honest recognition and acceptance of the fact that I was not as thought-out or prepared as I should have been. This was somehow a feeling of shock, and it also made perfect sense at the same time. Even though it was just a few minutes after this near disaster, I could again see the flaws in my planning. As I started to relive the challenges I encountered in my head, it was painfully obvious where this plan went wrong and where mistakes were made. I took a few more minutes to regroup physically, but also to reflect mentally a little bit more on what had just happened.
TIME TO REGROUP
Sitting on the beach at Malibu, thinking about what had happened, I walked back through the morning in an attempt to figure out how or where I went wrong. Coming into the trip, I had spent so much time and effort on the plan that I thought little about what it would actually take to surf and what I needed to expect once I got into the conditions. Planning the first part of the adventure had gone so smoothly that it just seemed natural that the success would continue during the actual surfing and that I would easily accomplish what I had set out to do. But having just experienced the raw power of Mother Nature and the challenges of the ocean firsthand, I realized I had to figure out what I had missed during my planning and why my plan didn’t translate into reality. The ocean conditions were something I had not experienced before, and I realized the assumptions I made were untested and that this was the first place I went astray in my planning.
3. “WHAT JUST HAPPENED?”
As Kate and I sat on the beach in Malibu, I thought long and hard about the reasons why I had failed. I thought about the reality of the actual surf conditions and how most of my plan was built around the logistics of the trip and how I would travel to the ocean. I gave little thought to what actual challenges I would face once I was in the water. Even though I had the right equipment, I didn’t anticipate the rocks, kelp beds, and the power of the waves. I had not anticipated aspects of the conditions, and the realities of the conditions were far more challenging than what I had planned for. It was not until I actually walked into the water and started to paddle out that I understood what those conditions were like. You could read about surfing in a book or online but still not fully understand or appreciate the conditions until you put yourself in them.
Physically, all I could feel was pain throughout my entire body. The bottoms of my feet were stinging from the rocks, every muscle was aching, and my lungs burned from the salt water and a temporary lack of oxygen. I had spent the weeks leading up to this trip doing my regular workout routine and staying in relatively good shape. I just assumed that one type of physical fitness would translate to another and that would be okay. I was sure my current physical strength would help me through the experience and that my history with boardsports would make this just another day on a board for me. I did not know how tough it would be, how poorly my body was conditioned for surfing, or that I didn’t have the right skills for the sport. The gap between where I was with my surfing skills and where I needed to be was a massive gap that now seemed almost impossible to close.
After thinking about the conditions and the skills I lacked for surfing, I also started to reflect on how much of a risk I just took. Again, this was something I didn’t even consider in my planning. The risk of drowning was something I had not planned for but was now a very real possibility. Without the assistance of one of my fellow surfers and under different circumstances, this could have been far worse. In all my weeks of planning leading up to this day, I didn’t even think about the possibility of injuries. I didn’t think about failure, and I didn’t plan for it. Thankfully, I had Kate there to remind me over lunch, then over dinner, and then again before bedtime, how I almost drowned in the ocean. The more we talked about it and laughed, the more we started to see some of the humor in it and how crazy it was for me to actually give surfing a shot. Unfortunately, this experience with planning and failure wouldn’t be my last, but instead something I would experience again in the near future.
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