Growing up at 7,000 feet in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, I only knew surf from “Endless Summer.” The Bruce Brown epic gave me romantic notions of a life at the beach. So when I moved to Santa Barbara for KCRW, I was ready.
I assumed buying a surfboard would be akin to finding a life partner or soul mate. You would just understand the board – its shape, quirks, moods, potential. And in turn, it would understand you.
So I went to a local surf shop called Surf N Wear’s in Santa Barbara. I chatted with an employee about the legendary surfboard shapers of Santa Barbara region — Renny Yater, Matt Moore, Wayne Rich. I studied their designs. I was love-struck and baffled.
Over the next few days, I consulted with three accomplished surfers about board selection. To my chagrin, they each instructed me that the board best suited for me was not to be found at a sweet local surf shop on State Street, but somewhere far, far away, in a vastly different world.
My board, they said, was soft, forgiving, buoyant, and perfect for a beginner. It could be purchased at Costco. And it was made of foam.
So on a Saturday morning, I made the shameful drive out to Costco and found the board. It had garish teal stripes and the name “Wavestorm” emblazoned across it.
I grabbed the awkward thing, and dragged it down the interminable Costco aisles. Other shoppers looked at me: Rookie. Tourist. Interloper. East Coaster. Wavestorm.
Little did I know that a far greater pain awaited me: learning to actually surf.
The beauty of any great athlete is how they make their respective sport look easy, as if anyone could do it. It’s Roger Federer hitting a forehand. Michael Jordan sinking a jump shot. The same could be said of talented surfers. They wait, they paddle, they stand, they surf.
It’s not that easy. In truth, my first day of surfing was more a lesson in survival and humility. I spent three hours at a “beginner break,” getting pummeled and manhandled by an endless barrage of seemingly gentle waves. What’s worse was my spot was full of children who gleefully hopped upon their boards and glided past me.
At the end of the day, I tallied up my injuries: a sprained toe, a strained hip-flexer, lightly bruised ribs, a series of sand rashes and an exceedingly sore back.
I nursed my wounds and returned to the ocean a few days later, expecting better luck. On my first paddle out, I collided with a breaking wave head-on, got body-slammed and assumed my underwater fetal position.
I eventually collected my Wavestorm and just stood there for a belittling minute. Willing myself on, I took a step forward in waist-high water and then felt something incredibly sharp and electrical puncture the bottom of my foot. I yelped. I cursed. I jumped. I paddled away as quickly as I could and said goodbye to surf day #2.
On my drive home, I felt a searing pain emanate through my foot. It was surreal, primal — think Fire Ants. Hornets. Sharp wooden dowels. Prehistoric torture rights. It was followed by swelling that began to envelope my ankle.
I drove straight to Urgent Care. The doctor filled up a bucket of scalding hot water and told me to put my foot in. He told me that I had been stung by a stingray. The pain was from toxins the creature had injected into my foot. Hot water broke down those toxins.
I’m not sure if the reactions I got from local Santa Barbarans the next day made it better or worse. They pretty much said, Wow that basically never happens out here. One surfer even said she’d been surfing for a decade and had never dealt with a stingray.
Such was my beginner’s luck. I wasn’t sure to treat this as some anomaly, or alternatively, a foreboding message from the ocean spirits: Don’t Ever Come Back.
I’ve since returned to the ocean — fretfully at first, treading lightly on the ocean floor — and have escaped without any new swollen limbs. And just recently, for about four glorious seconds, I actually stood up on the board, and surfed. It happened so quickly, so miraculously, that I didn’t even know what was going on.
When it was over, I gave my Wavestorm a bit fat kiss, and we enjoyed a honeymoon drive home on the 101.
So while my original dream of surfing may not have included a Costco board, a battered body, and a stingray, I can tell you that it’s been well worth it.
Two decades after watching “Endless Summer” as a frozen kid in the Rockies, I had finally reached Southern California.