Do you have a thing you daydream about – an ambition, a wish, a thing you’d love to do but you know it will probably never happen? Some people call it a bucket list, I suppose.
I had that thing. I’ve had it since I was about 12, a freckle-faced island girl with a brother who surfed. He listened to the weather radio as he waited for waves, and his room smelled like Sex Wax, and bleached-hair, tanned-skin 16 year-old boys would trample in and out of our house, bare feet on Mexican-tile floors, salty and sandy as they surfed and returned home, surfed and returned home.
If it ever occurred to me that I might learn to surf, I don’t remember it. Surfing resonated with me in some soul-deep way, but surfing was for boys, not for girls. I was intimidated by the scene and didn’t think I had a place in it.
So instead of surfing myself, I sat on the beach and watched. As I grew older, I sat in my convertible Bug and watched. I screened the movie North Shore over and over as a teenage girl, and when I came home from college I sat on the sea wall and watched.
The fascination has always stayed with me, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized I wished I was surfing, not just watching other people surf. Not just watching movies or reading about surfing. By then it was out of my reach, though. Or at least, I always had excuses: there weren’t consistent waves off the nearby Naples shore; the beach was too far in Tampa; we moved to Minnesota; we moved to the mountains.
I think the reality of it was that I was afraid. I knew it would take time to learn, that it would be dicey on the choppy storm waves of the coasts I’ve known. That I would look like an idiot. That I wouldn’t know the etiquette. That I would fight the water instead of flowing with it. That I would fail.
I think I also knew that once I surfed once – once I stood up on a board and rode a wave – I’d want more.
And I was right.
Back in September, a week into my new job at Automattic, a colleague mentioned in passing, “Oh, you need to book your flight to Hawaii.”
“Yeah, we’re having a team meetup in Kauai in December.”
Automattic is a distributed company, meaning we don’t work together in a central office but are scattered all over the world. Most of us work from home. As a result, we don’t see each other every day, or even on a weekly or monthly basis. Since Automattic doesn’t incur office space costs, we gather instead at week-long meetups to give ourselves the opportunity to work — and play — together. Generally a meetup consists of two (or more) travel days, four work days, and two days for activities together.
In the activities link, which offered options for horseback riding, tubing, hiking, it was there: surfing. And not only surfing, but surfing lessons. I knew my chance had come. I wouldn’t have to worry about any of my fears because I would have smooth waves, a long board, and instruction. And I wasn’t just going to surf, I was going to surf in Hawaii. My name was the first one on the spreadsheet.
Five of us drove from the south end of Kauai where we were staying to Quicksilver surf shop on the north end, in Hanalei, Hawaii. When we arrived, the shop signed us in, loaned us rashguards, and introduced us to our instructor, Makani, a lean Hawaiian with an easy smile. He said, “I can tell just by looking at you guys that you’re going to be awesome.” He flashed a white grin that made me believe him.
We spent about 10 minutes on dry land, jumping on longboards to check our stance, starting on our bellies to learn how to stand. Our instructor taught us to lay with our feet less than six inches from the board’s tail, to stand with our back foot planted perpendicular to and bisecting the board’s center line, to put weight on our back foot to brake, on our front foot to go faster. After we pushed up onto our knees, then into a kneel, then into a stand two or three times he said, “You guys are pros! Let’s get in the water,” and we drove to the beach.
And that’s when the magic began.
Where we surfed, courtesy of Erica Varlese:
We surfed in Hanalei Bay, a protected alcove with a curved shoreline, surrounded by lush volcanic mountains, and with perfectly consistent, perfectly dependable, easy, aqua waves.
Makani, whose name means “wind” in Hawaiian, taught us how to tip our longboards over incoming breakers, and once we were out, he instructed us to turn our boards towards the shore and collected the noses at his chest. He watched the sets roll in behind us and would nod at one of us at a time, allow the wave to come up under us, then give us a shove and say, “Stand.”
He didn’t shout, he didn’t stress, he just said, “Stand.” And I stood.
I wiped out on my first wave, but I got enough of a feel of the wave beneath me that I was already hooked. I paddled back to him instantly for another run.
“Lean back when you stand so your nose doesn’t go under,” he said. He watched the swell behind me, turned his shoulder so my board could move past him, gave me a shove and said, “Stand.” I stood and rode the wave all the way to the beach.
I paddled back out to him again. And again. And again. And again. Each time he gave me a more advanced move.
“Paddle four strong strokes. Stand.”
“Don’t kneel this time. Jump straight to your feet when I say stand. Stand.”
“I want you to do a little hop. You’ve got your left foot forward, yeah? Do a quick hop to turn your body 180 degrees so your right foot is forward. Then hop back.” He scanned the swell behind me. “You do that you’ll be surfing in the big leagues. Learn the balance. Keep your center of gravity low. Stand.”
He motioned three of us to paddle over to him at the same time. “I’m going to put you all on this wave together.” We watched the beach as he watched the surf behind us. All three of our boards pointed at him. He shifted his shoulders so he was between two boards. “Stand.”
And we were on a party wave.
After my 8th or 10th ride, Makani stopped telling me when to stand. I learned the feel of the surge and figured out that I can stand too early and the wave will roll under and give me a ride, but the opposite is not true. If you stand too late you miss out. I practiced the hop on flat water behind the break, when I wasn’t riding a wave but was stable. And again and again I pointed my board at Makani.
I began to worry that maybe I should be trying to catch my own wave. But I wanted more time riding. More time to feel the surge underneath me, to learn balance on liquid, to tap into the energy of the surf. To learn what it feels like to ride a wave so that when I’m on my own, I’ll have those sensations to guide me.
I asked Makani, “Is it okay if I just keep coming to you instead of figuring out how to catch my own wave?”
“Yeah!” he said. “That’s what I’m here for. Now this time, look over your shoulder.”
“See that swell coming? When it’s 20 feet away you start paddling. And on this one I want you to do the trick. Do the hop. I know you can do it. Paddle.”
I paddled. I stood. I wiped out.
I paddled out again. I pointed my board at Makani. He watched behind me. “Paddle,” and release.
I paddled. I stood. And somewhere on the ride — I can’t remember if it was as the crest curled beneath me or as I glided into the beach at the end — I did the trick. I hopped. I turned. I hopped and turned back again. And I didn’t wipe out.
We only caught one more wave after that one, and our lessons were over. The tops of my toes and my thighs were shredded from rubbing the board, but I didn’t care. I wanted to keep going. It was perfect. Everything was perfect. I surfed. In Hawaii.
Thank you Store team. Thank you Automattic.
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