Was I always this scared? I remember roller skating down a massive hill in my home town and dodging cars when I was a kid. I remember falling off a high speed sleigh with my cousin, being dragged a few meters down from the impact and then laughing at each other with our noses filled with dirt and snow. When did I become so comfortable, that I found being safe is better than being alive? I’m not talking about putting yourself into dangerous situations, but about getting out of your comfort zone, pushing at your own boundaries a little at a time.
I’ve wanted to try surfing since watching Stoked on Cartoon Network as a kid. The Black Sea in Romania was always a great escape as a child, but it didn’t have surfing. Also, we could only afford to spend two weeks per year in its presence. After moving to England even swimming in the ocean became a challenge, since the water was so cold. I remember a freezing and tiring surf class in Bournemouth a few years back. It did, however, plant a seed of joy that I wanted to return to one day. This summer, that seed finally came out of the ground. I decided to change my strategy and go to a warmer climate to properly try out this seemingly unattainable sport.
I chose Sagres in the wild Algarve region of Portugal, at the recommendation of a friend (thanks Ingrid!). I went alone, not knowing what to expect except a lot of paddling, falling in the waves and hopefully standing on the board. The surf camp I went to was Wavesensations, with chief surf dude Nelson Silva. All the instructors there seemed super chilled, with a few teaching surfing as a passion summer job. They even had a surf dog that hates water, named Joao, but who is great at giving energy cuddles!
I could talk about the beautiful beaches, the hippie town of Sagres, the friendships I’ve made, the freedom (and fear!) I felt in the ocean or even the joy of listening to rock songs on our way to the beach. I decided to choose 5 life lessons that all of those experiences taught me about being human. Surfing is not only beautiful due to its apparent simplicity, but because it is a metaphor for life. So here goes.
1. At the root we just want to be kids again
Kids are fearless because they don’t know they have boundaries. They walk full speed ahead in front of a monster wave and smile. They get their first pair of arm floats and paddle to the deepest part of the pool. As we grow older, society teaches us to be cautious and we lose some of that childlike courage. Surfing is a sport that revives our fearless inner child. It teaches letting go and enjoying the ride on the back of a friendly giant, the wave. It also makes us curious about the ocean, its rhythms, tides and winds. So I can say I experienced ocean science hands on and was a child of the waves for a little while.
2. Great adventures build great friendships
Being vulnerable with someone is the best bonding experience you can have on your adventures. Sure, at the beginning, everyone tries to seem cool and in control, but the ocean is so unpredictable that you have no choice but to be honest. ‘The waves look scary.’, ‘I hope we don’t hit those rocks.’ and ‘It feels like I’m in a washing machine.’ were things me and my surfing buddies passed around. These words and our shared experience of battling the waves and sometimes standing on their crests, spurred friendships that will be remembered forever.
3. How you deal with the waves is how you deal with life
After 5 years of doctorate I must admit my confidence has decreased more than it has increased. And since our outwards behaviour is deeply linked with what’s going on inside, this was the first observation I got from my instructor, ‘Be a bit more confident about what you want.’ Wow, he nailed it on the head there! I realized I had no idea of what I was looking at when seeing a wave. I was also passive, saying, ‘Nah, maybe the next one.’ But this is exactly how we treat opportunities in life! They come in waves and we don’t even try to pursue them!
Once I managed to stand on the board, the next pointer was, ‘Why do you jump so soon?’. Instead of doing my best to balance on the board and take the bumpy ride, I preferred jumping off, just in case it doesn’t work out. This is so much like the fear of failure we experience in life! The scary thing is not taking the opportunity, but sticking with it for as long as the ride lasts.
4. Hesitation makes you sink
Surfing is about the (technical) details more than it is about your strength. Every wave is different, your weight will never be in the exact same place and even the tiniest forward tilt in your board can result in a nose dive. A split second of hesitation is very likely to result in just another wipeout. But if that moment is used to rebalance, to move forward with confidence, you’ll be standing in no time!
This is a metaphor for so many life experiences! Just like Peter, when he hesitated while walking on the water towards Christ, we find ourselves sinking in our doubts. In improv theatre if your body wants to move it means you should have moved already! If you don’t jump on stage, the moment passes and a new scene needs to be built. In life, we let moments of hesitation deny us meaningful journeys. Have you never regretted not asking for that phone number from your crush before catching the bus?
5. Be a pillar of strength so that others may grow
I’ve always liked learning. A lot of my passion for knowledge came from inspiring teachers who love what they do. We were lucky enough to have one of those teachers for our surf classes. Nelson didn’t give us time to be afraid and reassured us when we looked anxious. ‘All good?’ he used to say to wake us up from our thoughts. He put us between himself and the waves, although it was risky for him, but safer for us. If you teach, be more like Nelson! If you don’t teach, love what you do and others will follow!
So next time you’ve had too much office time, remember life should be more outdoors than indoors. Nature is our natural element as human beings. Travel, meet people, surf some waves if you get the chance! See what they teach you about your own life. Don’t forget to take it all in at your own pace and enjoy the ride, wherever it may take you!