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How to Fail at Surfing

surfboard in the sand

Today I drove to a New Jersey beach at a ludicrously early  hour, ensuring there wouldn’t be many other surfers. I can’t steer. Yet.

I stood on my first wave less than 18 months ago. That was in warm, sunny Costa Rica, at Witch’s Rock Surf Camp.

You must drop everything and go there, actually. Find a way. But I digress.

This morning, I pulled a wetsuit on. Imagine dressing in a dry sponge. I breathed deep to fight off the nervous stomach pains—they still come every time I approach the ocean with a board under my arm. I think this is an evolutionary reaction. My body knows humans shouldn’t walk into the sea with little boards.

I walked straight into a breaking wave.


When we were first invited to Costa Rica by friends, my fiance and I were feeling a little in-a-rut-ish, or at least I was. I had recently turned 30, and some of our old friends had just moved out of Brooklyn. We were finding our footing again. An adventure was in order.

But when I saw how far out to sea real surfers paddle, I was terrified.

I love swimming and the ocean, but propelling oneself out past the breakers on a relatively small piece of fiberglass-covered foam, and expecting to come back to shore standing on those same breakers is no small leap of faith. Now imagine all of that for a girl who has been prone to panic attacks on the subway.

But there was something about being in all that vastness, surrounded by teachers and friends; A combination of wonder, encouragement from our teacher, Axcel, and the fear of not even trying. It took me just past my other fear: of trying and failing.

My first wipe out propelled me way past both.

Axcel, who looks to be about 16, positioned me in front of a wave (by treading water and holding the nose of my board with one hand, by the way) yelled “Paddle, paddle paddle!” and then “Pop up!”

I did and my board flew out from under my feet, thrown by the white water. I was pushed straight up and back, landed in the thick of the wave, tumbled to shore covering my head (so as to not get hit by my board), and washed up on the beach grinning. To fail at surfing was to let go.

I stood up on my very next wave.


This morning I got all out of breath using my pathetically weak spaghetti arms to pass the breakers. Then I was frantic, like if I can just catch one, everything will be great for the rest of the day. The rest of my life.

Then, what usually happens is I flail around for about 15 minutes until a large amount of water breaks on my head, goes up my nose, sucks my board away from me, and spits me to shore like June spitting out a piece of brocolli.

Then, and only then, am I surfing.

I can focus on catching the right wave without worrying about wiping out. I wipe out a lot. It isn’t something to worry over. 

When I finally caught a clean one today, I was about to do what I usually do—stop. It feels good to stop on a high. It makes me hungry to get back out there the next week. It’s how I usually decide when to get out.

But today, I stayed.

And I wiped out. A lot.

A group of surfer dudes walked up with their boards  when I was busy getting pummeled. They witnessed. I stayed in longer, but never caught one. I stayed until I was tired.

I walked up the sand with a better idea of where to position myself on my board and how many paddles work before a wave picks me up.

I said hi to the surfer dudes.

I ate an apple as the dudes paddled out, and thought about how you have to fail to succeed.

I hear it a lot from other writers… and from dog trainers, and business owners. If you don’t fail you don’t learn, or start to see the truth in your endeavors. Piling up the failures gets you the success. It’s the time spent, in the ocean, with your dog, in front of your keyboard, that counts.

Plus, the surfer dudes all wiped out.

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