Growing up in Manhattan, I never gave surfing more than a glancing thought. I liked the beach, but I wasn’t much of an athlete and I figured you had to be insane to want to ride those heaving behemoths they showed on Wide World of Sports. And, besides, as a striving middle-class black girl who was supposed to make something of herself, that Jeff Spicoli stoner-dude image held little appeal for me.
But in the summer of 2010, divorced, childless and trying to figure out how I might get happy again, I found myself transfixed at Ditch Plains in Montauk as I watched a group of graceful creatures practically dancing up and down their longboards as they coasted along mellow, knee-high waves toward the shore. This is surfing? I thought, musing that maybe I could do it too. A rental cottage right across the street turned out to be available the week I had off from my job in the city and so, even though it wasn’t exactly affordable, I decided to return for a vacation to try it out.
About two months later, as the summer raced to its unofficial close — Labor Day — that vacation was under way. I’d been there three days already but hadn’t yet surfed. Instead I’d been having a lovely time catching up on reading, hiking along the cliffs and the point overlooking the bright-blue waters, and wandering about the town and the wharf with its old-school bait-and-tackle shops, lobster pounds, and mix of private motorboats and fleets of trawlers and long-liners for commercial fishing.
You wouldn’t have known it from the postcard-blue sky and uninterrupted sunlight, but it was hurricane season, the time of year most East Coast surfers live for, when the high winds from storms that originate near the edge of West Africa pump seemingly boundless energy into the seas. Near the beginning that energy creates enormous swaths of sloppy, churning waves, but as it moves through the water over thousands of miles, it arranges itself into smooth, regular lines known as swell. As the swell comes out of deep water and nears a coast, it refracts off the surface of a continental shelf and then runs into obstructions like sandbars and boulders and reefs, which, depending on their shape, configuration, and incline, cause the swell to rear up, or peak, and form the waves surfers seek to ride. Generally speaking, the bigger the storm, the bigger the swell, and the farther it travels without being interrupted before appearing near the shoreline, the bigger and stronger the wave.
Montauk sits at the very eastern tip of Long Island, about a two- to three-hour drive from New York City. Its location and mainly south-facing beaches mean it is well exposed to pick up swell traveling toward it from a wide berth in the Atlantic Ocean, the path of which can be unblocked for thousands of miles. Its coast is lined with coves and bluffs and rocky outcroppings that modulate the way the waves break or shelter them from the wind, which in turn allows them to form the glossy wedges or sinuous tubes that make for quality rides. As a result, Montauk has among the best, most consistent waves on the eastern seaboard, especially in fall and winter. But at the beginning of my stay there, the ocean had been shuddering with the effects of Danielle, the first major hurricane of the season. Rough surf and riptides from the storm had led to two deaths and hundreds of rescues in Florida and Maryland, and even after tracking up the East Coast and out to sea it was still making the waves too big and powerful for a first-timer. With the clock ticking on my vacation, I was worrying that the whole trip was going to end up being a waste on the surfing front, some sort of karmic punishment for my hasty, emotional decision to spend money I shouldn’t have.
Then, late on Tuesday afternoon, I got a voicemail from Kristin at the surf school a coworker had recommended: the forecast looked good for the next day. If I was willing, she said almost apologetically, I could meet my instructor, Sean, on the beach in front of the parking lot at Ditch Plains at five in the afternoon for a whitewater lesson. I didn’t know what that meant exactly, but I was thrilled, and a little giddy. I was going to get to surf.
So the next afternoon, after some confusion about which parking lot Kristin had meant, I found Sean from CoreysWave Professional Surf Instruction waiting in the sun on a thin spit of dark-yellow sand running between the dune and the rocks lining the water’s edge. He looked to be in his twenties, a stocky guy with thick, sunstreaked brown hair that hung to his chin and a cutoff wetsuit the color of split pea soup.
“Hey,” he said, handing me a plum-colored suit. “Have you ever surfed before?”
“Not at all,” I told him. “And I’ve never done any kind of board or wave sport in my life.”
“Okay,” he said, flinging his hair to the side. “We’ll be on the beach for a half hour or so, going over the pop-up, and then basically I’m going to be pushing you into waves the rest of the time.”
“Okay,” I said, letting the unfamiliar lingo wash over me as I tried unsuccessfully to visualize how it was all going to go. I began getting into the wetsuit, stepping in with the long, zippered opening in front and setting about squeezing my legs through the tubes of unyielding rubber. Since it was near the end of summer, the air was still warm, but Montauk waters rarely make it much past seventy degrees, I’d been told, so I’d need the two to three millimeters of neoprene I was struggling to put on. It was on the lighter end as wetsuits go, but still it felt so heavy and stiff as I tugged it toward my hips it might as well have been a sheet of lead.
Sean eyed my lack of progress. “The zipper,” he said, “goes in the back.”
“Right,” I said, pulling the suit down and beginning the process all over again. Panting and sweaty, I finally got the thing to my waist, at which point Sean told me to stop. I would have an easier time practicing the pop-up— whatever that was — if I wasn’t fully suited up, he said. “Otherwise you’re going to get pretty hot pretty fast. Do you know if you’re regular or goofy?”
I looked at him blankly. He chuckled. “Regular or goofy — left or right foot in front?”
I’d never known there was such a thing as a natural preference to ride a board with one side or the other in front— a phenomenon, I’d eventually come to learn, that’s shared in other board sports, like snow- and skate-, although some people ride the different boards differently. We performed a simple test. I leaned forward to see which foot came out first to avoid a fall, and we determined I was regular, meaning I would want my left foot forward and my right in back, wearing the leash.
To show me the pop-up, Sean lay down on his belly in the sand with his legs straight behind him and then, in slow motion, demonstrated what I would try to do in the water: a kind of push-up followed by tucking the left leg up under my chest and between my arms while rotating toward the right into a low sideways lunge and sliding the right foot in to stand about hips’ width apart in a crouch. When he put it all together, it seemed, in yoga terms, a little like springing from a baby cobra through a plank into a modified warrior position. I told him as much, and he chuckled again.
“Kind of,” he said. “Now you try.”
I lay down, put my hands next to my rib cage with my arms like chicken wings, and strove to replicate what he’d done, but I kept getting tangled in myself. No matter how hard I thought or talked or tried my way through the various steps, I couldn’t seem to make enough room under my midsection to bring my leg forward, or to pivot at the right time or angle. After five or six attempts, I started getting closer, but I was still coming up off-center.
“You twist like that,” he said, showing me what I’d done wrong, “and you’re off the board.”
Huffing — and huffy — with frustration, sweating under the late-afternoon sun, I tried again and again and again, to little avail. Eventually I landed one right. “Give me two more like that, and we’ll head in.”
“One,” I countered, gasping and spitting sand. “If we keep this up, I won’t have anything left for the water.”
I hit the next one and he agreed to let me try for real. I pulled the wetsuit up and over my sticky body, fighting to push my arms into sleeves that seemed to stretch forever, like taffy. I finally got the suit on and zipped up the back, feeling rivulets of sweat trickling down my spine. Sean grabbed the board, a long, spongy expanse of blue foam, and headed into the water, pointing out a few of the larger rocks peeking through the swirling current that we’d need to avoid. I followed, slipping and tottering over the slick, rocky bottom, seeing peril wherever I looked. I was barely in up to my shins when a knot of dread developed in my stomach at the prospect of slamming into the stones. What have I gotten myself into?
Finally I caught up to Sean and the board. “Hop owhown!” he said with a toss of the hair.
“Hop owhown,” he repeated, gesturing to the board as it dodged and weaved in the ocean chop.
Oh, I thought, the knot of impending doom pulling tighter. “Hop on.” He’s just being playful with the accent— he must think I’m an idiot.
felt unsteady even just standing there with the waves and current pushing and pulling at my legs and midsection, but with something more like a heave and a grappling shimmy than a hop, I climbed onto the board as Sean held it. “When you get up,” he said as he towed me out just to where the waves were breaking and turned the board around to face the shore, “if you feel like you’re going to fall, try to fall back and flat. No diving headfirst.”
Before I could work up a panic over the possibility of braining myself on the bottom, he was telling me to get ready. My heart started pounding. This was it: my first wave. I lay there as I’d practiced in the sand, with my feet back and together and my chest up, looking out at the dune that rose between the narrow beach and the dirt parking lot beyond it. “Here you go,” Sean said as the board began to slide forward and suddenly accelerated. “Get up!” he yelled. I did, and just as he’d predicted, I was promptly off the board and in the foam — but, miraculously, not on the rocks.
I felt vaguely victorious. I hadn’t gotten to my feet, but at least now I wasn’t afraid to fall — which was good, since that’s what I proceeded to do, over and over as Sean pushed me into wave after wave and I scrambled to get up, only to roll off one side of the board or the other. There was nothing unpleasant about it, though I was beginning to think I’d have nothing to show for my efforts at the end of the lesson but a head and belly full of seawater along with an aching lower back and blazing shoulder muscles.
It went on like that for maybe 20 minutes until finally Sean pushed me and I felt the board charge forward. I took a deep breath, pushed up with my arms, coiled my body, snapped my feet under me, and stood up and rode. It was fantastic. For an instant I jacked into a mysterious engine whose thrust allowed me to glide on the ocean itself, as if the board no longer existed and I was a waterborne Hermes with sea spray instead of wings at my heels, channeling all that energy from the depths to fly toward the shore. And then, just as suddenly, my weight shifted and there I was again, falling back into the water.
It hardly mattered. My body was flooded with adrenaline and my heart was trying to break free of my chest. It was a powerful high — cosmic, euphoric, liberating, addictive. And, yes — oh, yes — I wanted some more.
I got a tiny bit more that day, and then again the next afternoon when I returned for a second lesson, but it soon dawned on me just how far I was from being like the wave dancers I’d seen earlier that summer. Not only did I lack the flexibility to fold my five-foot-ten frame quickly into a surfing stance, but also I had little of the upper-body strength needed for paddling and launching all of my 170 pounds onto my feet. I felt lumbering and spastic, too exhausted and throbbing with pain to get through much more than an hour of the lesson — and that was with Sean doing most of the work.
I had little reason to hope I would ever be able to master the sport, and yet I was smitten, a sorry combination I confessed to Kristin, a small blonde in a skimpy bikini who came by the beach at the end of my second lesson. “It takes a long time to build up those muscles,” she said, the brim of a baseball cap shading her ocean-blue eyes, “but you’ll do fine. We’ve had people out here for lessons who showed no ability to surf — and I mean no ability — but they stuck with it and they’re surfing now. It will come.”
I stared at her, the fading sun turning her trim figure to gold, and decided to believe her, if for no other reason than I desperately wanted what she was saying to be true.
Excerpted from ROCKAWAY: Surfing Headlong into a New Life by Diane Cardwell. Copyright © 2020 by Diane Cardwell. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.