I spend a lot of time surfing … on the Internet, of course. But why not try to surf the real deal? After all, I’m a native Californian. I own a wetsuit. How difficult can it be? So in celebration of a milestone birthday, I researched the options and signed up for a week with Las Olas Surf Safari, a women-only surf camp designed to teach women the fundamentals of surfing in a safe, non-judgmental environment.
In the interests of full disclosure: I’m not much of a swimmer. I was three years old when I first tumbled into the surf at Morro Bay, and I’ve never forgotten how terrified I was when the current sucked me head over heels into the churning whitewater. Although I’ve been on a board before, I’ve never managed to get off my knees—so throwing myself into the relentless, unforgiving waves off the coast of central Mexico made me a little nervous. But I felt safe knowing that Las Olas’ experienced instructors are used to clumsy, inexperienced surfer wannabes like me—and besides, how could I possibly resist a week spent relaxing on a Mexican beach? Vaminos!
I flew down to Puerto Vallarta to kick off my surfer girl adventure, meeting the Las Olas team and my sister refugees from civilization in a small village north of the city. Our young and very well-toned instructors went over a laundry list of details that covered everything from surf etiquette to the physics of a breaking wave. It’s an enormous amount of information that I knew I’d never remember—but they assured us that the way to learn is through constant repetition, and they would repeat everything again and again and again until we got it. By the way, everything would be repeated again and again and again until we got it. And in case we weren’t listening the first time …
By this point, I was clear on the mechanics of surfing, but I was less confident about my ability to actually comply on the fly. I’m good at following directions, but I wasn’t at all certain that I’d remember to shift my hips to the side while planting my back foot at the same time that I’d be swinging my other leg forward and pushing up into a standing position. And although “not drowning” wasn’t mentioned, I was pretty sure that was also part of the plan. But the soft foam longboards were broad and buoyant, perfect for keeping wobbly surfers like me afloat. Jen, a former Cal State Bakersfield swim champion who is now teaching women like me to embrace their inner surfer girls, showed me how to swing my longboard onto my head without hitting anyone in my immediate vicinity. She gave me the thumbs up and I joined the line of surfers headed to the waves.
I admit that I was a little tentative, but I wasn’t about to be derailed by my fear of drowning. And it was a beautiful morning—sunny and breezy, with the ocean as warm as bathwater. Still, I barely managed to sit on my board without tumbling over. Our instructors showed me how to balance by loosening my death grip on the rails and finding the sweet spot where my body was centered.
The first time I felt the whitewater break over my head, I had a vision of my three-year-old self screaming as my brother grabbed my elbow to keep me from washing out with the tide. This time, I remembered to cover my head so that the board wouldn’t bash me unconscious, and I gritted my teeth over a mouthful of salt water and rubbed my eyes dry. I can do this, I thought, pulling myself up and over the edge of my board. By the time lunch rolled around, I was waterlogged and ravenous from hours of being pummeled over and over by the whitewater near the shore—but the thrill was intoxicating. I can do this!
Teaching novices to surf must be both mentally and physically exhausting, especially with the added challenge of keeping a clumsy beginner with no natural balance and no athletic skills from constantly falling off her surfboard. Fortunately Erin, my instructor, was used to klutzes like me. “Surfing is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she told me in her quietly encouraging voice, patiently showing me how to slide my back foot up and brace my foot against the board’s sticky bumps for the twentieth time.
By the end of our first afternoon, the inside of my biceps were scraped raw from rubbing against the side of my board as I paddled into the waves again and again and again—but my bloody wounds felt like badges of honor. And with fresh aloe gel from the garden smoothed on my arms, I was ready to hit the surf again the next morning.
Las Olas is about more than just surfing. We started our days with an hour of yoga—perfect for limbering up the body for a day on the water. After a substantial breakfast of scrambled eggs, grilled potatoes, pancakes, fresh tropical fruits, granola, yogurt—hey, surfers need a lot of fuel!—we’d head out for open water. Apres-surf, I found myself attempting to salsa (oh, the horror!), I got a great massage, and I learned how to make a killer margarita and negotiate the best price on beaded bracelets from a beach vendor. I even came home with a temporary tattoo on my thigh—a souvenir of a morning spent paddling until my muscles were so spent I could barely lift my arms. My body was exhausted, but I was exhilarated. I can do this!
One of the perks of surf camp is that once I sent in my registration, Manifesta—the Carmel-by-the-Sea company that runs Las Olas as well as women’s golf and art safaris in northern California—made all of the arrangements for my food, lodging, and ground transportation, and they made outstanding choices on my behalf. My round, open-air room was three stories above the ocean, with a palapa-style thatched roof that helped keep out the mosquitoes that thrive in the warm, tropical climate. Lavender and orange flowers cascaded down the leaf-covered mountainside onto the enormous terrace outside my room, and there was a private plunge pool only a few feet away. I’m a habitually early riser, but instead of getting up at daybreak to start my workday, I’d wrap myself in a bathrobe and wander out onto my private terrace to watch the night sky fade into a glorious morning. Far below me the day’s first surfers were bobbing around on the glittering, sun-kissed waves. It was paradise.
I discovered that there is a unique beauty in Mexico’s slower, gentler pace. With my laptop thousands of miles away and my useless phone tossed in a corner of my duffel, I was forced to focus my attention on the sensual pleasures all around me—the taste of a warm tortilla wrapped around grilled carne asada, the scratch of a dog stretching against my foot, the sting of ocean spray in my eyes. Even though I brought a work-related book to keep my mind occupied, I couldn’t concentrate on anything but the warmth of the sun on my shoulders and the constant roar of the crashing waves. I guess I needed a vacation after all.
For those of us who balance demanding careers with relationships and families, trading wool suits for wetsuits is an almost unimaginable luxury. Although I traveled solo to Las Olas, spending time with an extraordinarily accomplished group of sister surfers from nine states and four countries was one of the best parts of my week. Our shared challenge of catching the perfect wave drew us instantly together. As we introduced ourselves, a new friend from Seattle who celebrated her fortieth birthday in Mexico reminded us to let the worries of the real world drift out with the tide. “This week,” she told us, “I’m a surfer.”
We cheered. From now on, we all are.
By Melissa Palmer
Photo courtesy of Las Olas Surf Safaris for Women