Heidi Isern

writer. thinker. whiskey drinker.

Surfing Through Life

Location: Manhattan Beach

Mileage: 392

Meal: Fish tacos

Music: “Hope” by Jack Johnson



In Manhattan Beach everything supports surfing. Liquor stores provide board rentals, car are sold with surf racks intact,

and it’s totally acceptable to plan your business meetings around the tides. I was staying with my friend Ethan, a surfer since age four, who did exactly that. “If I have a break at 3pm why wouldn’t I go in the ocean? Plus it’s three blocks from the house.” After the six-hour drive through California’s dry vacant central Valley, I felt I had landed in Heaven.

I had surfed a bit before, but had taken significant time off due to both injuries and paranoia. It’s one thing to be humbled by the ocean. The last time I surfed, I felt destroyed. The damage included my body, my board, and most importantly, my confidence. I was in total awe of the surfer girls (and boys) who braved the waters everyday, in every condition, completely in harmony with the unpredictable flow of crashes and rides.

I walked down to the beach as soon as I could, expecting inspiring conversations with the SoCal surfer chicks to happen instantaneously. However, even though I spotted multiple bare-chested tattooed bodies, I was hard pressed to find a feminine version. It was, quite literally, a sea of men. Where was Gidget?   I asked a few of those bare chested types why there were not more women out surfing the waves.

“It’s intimidating. There’s a line up, pecking order, gnarly waves, you really have to know what you are doing.”

“It’s a pretty solo activity. You may go out in a group, but it’s really just you out there alone once the set comes rolling in. I figure most girls prefer social things like group cardio classes.”   Right. I marched onward determined to find the non-step aerobic women.

I met Cassie as she was drying off on the beach aside a blue longboard. Cassie was a lovely sun-kissed girl from the Midwest and a recently converted surfer.

When asked why she braved the waters she said simply, “Look at the ocean. It’s beautiful.  It’s a gift to us, to me. Why would I not accept the gift and go in?”

Cassie was an opportunist. I asked her if she was ever scared. I was too familiar with the feeling of being tossed like a dishrag in a washing machine. “Of course…..but that’s just part of it. Everything we do has risk, and you are never going to get the rush of a wave unless you put yourself out there.”

I ventured further down the sand scanning for other girls and finally met Christine, a petite Asian girl with a gorgeous short board. For Christine, surfing was a spiritual endeavor. “When you are on a wave it’s just you and the ocean. Nothing else. And that feeling of being so intimately connected to nature…it’s very powerful.” Regardless of hectic schedules and work demands, Christine would fit surfing into her life. Riding was essential. “It reminds me that I am insignificant in the grand scheme of life. Surfing grounds me and keeps me true.” What about truth when you are knocked off your board swallowing gallons of sea water? “Everyone takes spills. You just paddle back out there and try again.”

Toward the end of the beach near the baby waves, I came across Ella, a soon-to-be 5th grader wearing a pink swimsuit that matched her braces. Ella was enjoying her last few weeks of summer in Surf Camp.

“I love surfing—it’s so awesome!” I asked Ella how many other girls were in her camp. “Not very many girls surf, it’s mostly boys. But that’s why I like it! Sometimes I need the instructor push me to catch a wave, but sometimes I can do it all by myself—and then I feel great all day long.”

Ella then asked me if I was going to surf today.   I looked out the increasingly large swells. Uhhhh……”I don’t think so.

“Why not? It’s super cool! And then you can be another girl that goes out there with the boys.” That darn little girl in pink braces!  Before you could say “Endless Summer” I found myself in a wetsuit with an 8-foot board under my stomach out in the waves. Although being in the water was beautiful, my heart was pounding. Why was I doing something that had defeated me before? I didn’t feel up to Christine and Cassie’s caliber and wished I had taken a step aerobics class instead. My brain couldn’t convince my body to catch a wave. Then I met Charlie, an instructor at Ella’s surf school.

“You need to throw yourself off the ledge,” he said. What? Apparently Charlie didn’t know that I wasn’t feeling suicidal that day. “The waves are big, but you just gotta find a nice sized one, get after it, and throw yourself over it.” I stared at him. I wanted to give him the rundown of all my sports injuries, including a head gash from a flying surfboard.

But before I could utter a word he asked, “Hey, do you want me to give you a little push to ensure you get it?” A push was typically reserved for beginners. But I decided to swallow my pride and take it. Charlie was offering me a way to regain confidence.   I nodded. And whoosh……I was up, my feet finally stable underneath me, the rest of the world miles away.

I’ll likely never become a professional surfer but perhaps I’ll gain enough spirit to try again and join the likes of Christine, Cassie, and Ella.  Thank you Charlie.  Suddenly I had found my own spirituality.  And I was reminded that sometimes we all need a little push to get over the ledge.

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