By Hendy Agus Wijaya
I sat on the beach, watching the sandpipers skittering back and forth, pecking at the water’s edge. A dead horseshoe crab washed back and forth in the surf.
Finished at fifty-five, I thought. I’m as useless as that poor crab.
Several years ago I was laid off after thirty-three years at a Fortune 500 company. “Workforce rebalancing” was the term they used, but for me it simply meant a month’s severance pay and colleagues solemnly shaking my hand. Hand over your badge… there’s the door, good luck.
Much of my identity and self-worth had been invested in my career. I had received awards and affirmation from managers and peers. I was the “go-to” person for answers. I helped shape company policy. To be summarily ejected was jarring and unsettling, like being on a spacewalk and having your lifeline cut.
So I had retreated to my happy place, the beach. Being by the water, watching the endless waves, the wheeling gulls, always had a calming effect on me. But this time was different; I felt unfulfilled, restless. Something was missing.
A plane droned by, pulling a banner ad: “Learn to surf—North End Surf Shop.”
Perhaps it was some sort of reactionary thing to being given the boot, but suddenly the idea of surfing seemed very intriguing. Why not? I had body surfed. I had ridden a boogie board. What would it be like to ride a surfboard? I had seen kids doing it. Could I do it at fifty-five?
Before my saner side prevailed, I drove to the surf shop. I went inside and a kid about seventeen was behind the counter. Here was the quintessential surfer: long blond hair, deeply tanned with a Hawaiian shirt. “Hey,” he said amiably. I said I wanted to take a surf lesson. He looked at me for a long moment and seemed on the verge of saying something. “Sure,” he was all he finally said. I filled out some paperwork, noting the release of liability form, and he handed me a waterproof shirt. “Just go out there,” he said, indicating the back door. “They’re just starting.”
As I approached the class, pulling on my shirt, the instructors and students looked at me with curiosity. Some of the kids said stuff behind their hands. What was I doing? I was easily thirty years older than the oldest student. I was in pretty good shape, but I had some stiffness and aches and nowhere near as spry and agile as these kids.
We learned the basics on the beach—how to lay on the board, how to paddle, how to pop up (jump from a prone to a squatting position). I noticed the kids were much better than me at the pop-up.
I learned that there were better times to surf depending on the tides and wind. The sea was fairly calm that day with waves about waist high. We all entered the water.
I laid on my board and my instructor, Blake, towed me out. Our boards were the “soft top” variety, made of soft foam, nine feet long, three fins and internal stiffeners. They were not as hard as the standard fiberglass surfboard, and safer in the event of a wipeout.
We stopped when we were about 100 yards out. Blake was treading water and the waves seemed much bigger on the board than they did from the beach. I pushed the theme from Jaws out of my head.
“Okay,” Blake said. “When a wave comes, I’m gonna push you. I want you to paddle as hard as you can. When you feel the wave has you, pop up. OK?”
“OK,” I said, sounding more confident than I felt.
Blake held the board as several waves raised, then lowered me. Too big, or too small. ““OK,” Blake said. “Here comes one. Get ready…OK…ready? Here goes! Paddle!” He shoved me and the board lurched forward.
I began paddling, holding my head up as I had been shown. Back and forth, one side, then the other. Blake shouted encouragement from behind me. “Dig, dig, dig!” he yelled. “Paddle! Paddle!”
I felt the wave catch me and I popped up. But something was wrong–the nose of the board was dropping. It dug into the water and I flew forward, landing on my face. I flipped the board over and paddled back out to Blake.
“Hey no worries,” he said. “We call that pearling. You were too far forward. It’s a common beginner mistake.”
We tried several more times, with several more episodes of pearling, as well as missing the wave, falling off the board, or blowing the popup. I began to feel frustrated, foolish. I should be back sitting with the dead crab, not out here with a bunch of teenagers who by now were popping up and yelling to each other.Finally, a wave came and everything fell into place. I popped up, wobbled, almost lost my balance…. but suddenly I was standing on my board.
In an instant, I became acutely aware of all that was going on around me: The wave breaking beneath my board; me, standing, moving with the wave. The beach, far off, beyond the tops of other waves. The offshore wind blowing spray off the wave crests.
Blake was faintly shouting encouragement far behind me. It was a feeling, unlike anything I had ever experienced, as though all my senses were suddenly heightened. My peripheral vision seemed acutely sharp; I was aware of all the was happening around me.
Oh man, I thought. This is AWESOME. Why didn’t I try this sooner?
In the time left in my lesson, I screwed up many more times, but I also stood a few times as well, with the same feeling. I was hooked. Surfing was simply the most fun thing I had ever done.
Since that day, I have bought my own board, taken several more lessons, and am getting better each time I go out. Surfing has changed my lifestyle in a number of ways.
1. Surfing got me back into the gym.
To be a good surfer, you need good core strength as well as strong quads, chest, arm, and upper back muscles. These are all essential to paddle, do the pop-up, and support yourself once you’re standing.
I went to my gym after a long absence and asked about developing a program specifically tailored for my new passion. One of the staff reviewed some YouTube clips I sent. He saw how people did it and took particular note of the pop-up. He customized a routine for me.
The popup is the hardest part. You’re supposed to start laying prone with your hands next to your chest. You push yourself up and bring your dominant foot between your hands and leave your other foot further back. Once stabilized, you rise up. When you become proficient, you do this in one seamless motion.
2. My surfing workout gave my workout purpose.
My routine had me grunting, doing pushups on a bosu ball to develop stability and my triceps. Lunges helped build quads, I focused on my back with the pull-down latte. There was a machine for my delts. I had to set the beginning weight at a level I’m embarrassed to report, but gradually increased it as I gained strength.
None of it was easy, none of it was fun. But I found there’s a world of difference between simply exercising and exercising for a purpose. Every pushup, every lunge, every grunt meant that my next time in the water would make my experience that much better. It made all the difference in the world.
3. Yoga? Surely you jest.
No, seriously. Blake had recommended taking yoga for flexibility and balance. I realized if I was ever gonna plant my foot at the centerline, I needed flexibility: Hamstrings, hip flexors, quads. There was a class offered at my gym. My first class was not unlike my surfing lesson.
We started out with downward dog. Being a complete novice, I had no idea what this meant. I watched the instructor and the people around me. Geez… that guy’s head is much lower than mine… my legs are bent. The instructor gently speaks: Now let’s go into pigeon. Now plank. Wait, what? I was hopelessly lost
I studied the poses on YouTube. By the next class, I was able to keep up…. sort of. Gradually, eventually, I could move with the class and from there, I concentrated on doing the positions correctly to gain greatest flexibility and balance.
4. Eating junk food does not help me advance as a surfer.
I had noticed at North End that Blake and all the other surfing instructors were all munching on apples, nuts, trail mix. As I researched how to advance in my new passion, I learned the importance of a healthy diet. Protein, obviously, to help build muscle mass, but also lots of fruits and veggies.
My goal was to advance to the seamless popup, which required an explosive push-up… enough air to swing your feet under your chest and waist in the blink of an eye. Twinkies, my beloved Bavarian cream donuts, Oreos—they all had to go.
I found the surfer’s diet wheel that outlined the best balance of veggies, protein, carbs, fruits and so forth. I changed my diet accordingly. Result: More stamina when paddling to get out past where the waves were breaking, quicker turns when I saw a wave coming. Better shape out of the water as well.
5. Surfing gives me a sense of community.
Like any sport, surfing has rules. Safety: Know your limits, don’t surf alone. Equipment: Use the board that’s right for you and/or the wave conditions. Etiquette: Don’t be a wave hog and take off on a wave when the person next to you was waiting longer and it was his or her turn.
Ignore the rules and risk being known as a “kook” and shunned by the locals. Know the rules, and you’re generally accepted. After a while, you can tell who’s out by their boards and/or their style: How they pop up, how they turn, if they are regular or goofy foot.
Waiting out past where the waves break, bobbing up and down—this is known as the line up. As you’re waiting for the right wave, it’s generally acceptable to engage in small talk. It’s understood that conversation may suddenly be broken off if your companion sees a choice swell coming.
In and out of the water, if you’re there enough, you develop friendships. The better surfers are usually very helpful in helping you advance, providing tips and tricks to get you past rough spots.
6. Surfing builds my self-confidence.
Surfing presents the challenges of wave selection, timing, and proper paddling. Ideally, your wave will just be rising into a hump, you start to paddle and by the time it breaks, you’re standing. However, sometimes the wave is “pitchy”—it breaks quickly—and it’s almost cresting when it reaches you.
You need to make a split-second decision: Do I go for it…or let it go? Most of the time, the beginning surfer says no way, paddles backward, and the wave continues by in a thundering break.
Going for it requires nerves and commitment. Once you start paddling, there’s no turning back. You need to paddle hard, and taking off on the face of even a smallish wave as the board is tilting down can be hair raising.
The natural inclination is safety—hell no, I’m not taking this wave. But you need to just go for it, eschew self-preservation, ignore the internal voices that scream Nooo!
Once you’ve taken the plunge, the exhilaration of not besting nature, but working with it, being a part of the wave is phenomenal. That moment, that abandonment of reason is addicting.
7. Surfing fosters spirituality.
It’s difficult to be anxious, stressed, or depressed when you surf. A good diet and regular exercise are natural mood boosters and the self-confidence that the sport builds are great good stress busters.
For me, there’s something about the ocean that is extraordinarily calming. It’s a gigantic emotional sponge that sucks all away all my negativity. I’ve had awesome conversations with God while sitting out in the lineup, gently moving up and down with the waves, looking at the far-off beach. Sometimes dolphins swim by so closely you can hear and see the spray from their blowhole.
For me, the pivotal moment was seeing the banner ad on the plane as I sat on the beach. I had two choices at that point: Wistfully watch the plane disappear out of sight; or act, take a leap of faith, risk embarrassment but try something new, something challenging.
I’m glad I chose the latter. At the time, I didn’t know if I would be successful. I really doubted it. All I knew was I had to try. Now I have a new circle of friends who share a common passion. I’m in better shape, I’m less stressed, and I’m in the zone when I’m bobbing up and down waiting for my next wave.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do,” said Mark Twain. “So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Dream. What could be your thing?
“Always concentrate on how far you’ve come, rather than how far you have left to go.”