Tuesday, 21 May 2019
The Surfboard - Extra chapter
May 11th 2019
It was a cold day in early May. Overcast and threatening rain. I was back in Porthtowan for an Otter Surfboards event and had been invited to do a talk about my book. I had jokingly emailed James to suggest he could give me my first surfing lesson the morning before the talk, assuming he would be far too busy preparing for the evening, but he had grabbed the opportunity.
Driving down the day before my imagination drifted among potential excuses to avoid the lesson as I orbited the service station outside Exeter. I was still clearing my sinuses after a bout of ear ache so it was probably not a good idea. My stomach felt nauseous too, perhaps I was coming down with something. And was that a cold niggling the back of my throat? I should call the lesson off. James would understand. He was probably only being polite anyway, he would be far too busy to give a novice like me a lesson. It would be a massive pain for him to have to do it…
Then I focussed and realised what I was doing. The patterns of negative thought I was unwittingly performing. ‘Oh no you don’t.’ I said out loud in the car. ‘The thing you are scared of is not a wall. it’s a doorway. This sense of trepidation is a good thing. It means you are going to get through one of your edges. The ‘edge’ that has told you “I’m not the kind of person” who can surf'.
There were lots of other surfers when we got down to the water. I spent at least ten minutes trying to put on the wetsuit James had leant me. I was a little larger than James, and not entirely due to height. Liz arrived while I was floundering with the suit half way up my body, but she shrugged off my awkward state of undress. Stepping around the pram with little William Otter inside, to give me a hug.
It was pretty undignified, but I finally got the suit on. James showed me the board I would be learning on. The one I had made still encased in its bag leaning up against the bookshelf in the Unbound office back in London. He told me I’d be good enough to use the one I’d made in six months if I practised enough.
We spent a few minutes going over the body positions it would require when we were in the water on the beach but very quickly entered the sea. I saw the ‘real’ surfers behind the waves. Waiting for the right one to come. The waves were bigger than any waves I’d been in the sea with before. They were the kind of waves that would have kept me out of the water – or made me run out of the water – previously. Perhaps holding the board was the key that took the fear of the waves away?
My relationship with the sea had completely changed, I began to realise, as another wave crashed into me. The temperature of the water. The wetsuit I was wearing. Getting salt water in my eyes. Salt water rushing up my nose when I got flattened by waves. All the feelings of pain, fear and dread I assumed I would experience when those things happened did not materialise. Even though all those things did happen.
James told me to dive through the biggest waves that approached. This seemed insane until I did it. I discovered those terrifying waves are not actually very thick. The contrast in the roar of a wave approaching, the swoosh of diving through it and the relative quiet on the waves other side was a baptism of awareness. I had only seen waves like these from afar or as they approached in their ferocity but now I saw the other side and watched them continue and dissipate into the shore.
‘Aha’ I thought. 'These walls of water are not so scary after all'. The calm tranquillity of what I thought would happen but didn't built my courage. That was when I noticed one of the surfer’s heads was not a surfer’s head. It was a seal. Playing between the men and women on their boards, all waiting for the next wave. It had been less than fifty meters from me the entire time I’d been in the sea.
The sea felt different on my body too. The wetsuit was a kind of armour, but the protection from the temperature of the water gave my other senses respite from the ‘noise’ of feeling the cold. It gave me the space to see and feel the texture and landscape of the waves. It was the most intense sea I had ever been in, but felt gentle somehow. I knew I still had little conception of the ocean’s secrets, or it’s strength, but now I could sense where its secrets lay.
Partly it was the presence of James, I think. But I also realise I had never approached the sea in such a state of humility before. Wanting to harness it. To align myself with it. To learn its language. I was entering it in order to experience the grain of it’s movement.
James started by getting me to belly board on a full size surfboard, which was joyful. And relatively easy. Although the pleasure was tempered by the knowledge I should have been standing up. That feeling when you are enjoying something but know there is another level - and you want to get to it - is a sign of a flow state. Your sense of purpose coming to the fore, driving you on. You are there for a reason.
In the moment of catching the wave, being pushed forward by it, when I was belly boarding, what I remember most now was the sound. The audible sense of momentum behind me. Pushing me on. There was an equivalent metaphysical feeling too. Urging me to stand up. But I was transfixed by the front of the board and the froth of the wave I was riding on as we surged towards the beach. I fixated on the front edge. The nose of the board and the frothy water. I was loving it but afraid to act. To get to my feet.
Observing the edge – between the front of the board and the water itself – froze my consciousness somehow. I think it was one of those moments when a metaphor comes alive in front of you and you realise you are living one. It was startling.
This was the edge I had feared tussling with on my way down in the car but it was thrilling. ‘Success’ didn’t matter. I was there. Giving it my all. Only your ‘edges’ make you feel this way, I realised. The feeling of evolving my sense of courage enthralled me. The edge was right here in front of me. I was battling with it. Or perhaps not. Perhaps all edges are like waves. You have to stop fighting, embrace them and realise they can carry you if you let them. This was what building my own board had been all about. What our lives are all about. How do we live in the presence of the immediacy of the edge of what we think we are capable of and, despite the noise and the momentum of our lives and our limitations, still develop the courage to stand up? To be who we want to be? To live?
James kept urging me on, to try and stand. But each time I froze. Either on my knees or in a kind of pilates, plank position. I realise now I was getting used to the feeling of being on the edge. I was not ‘not’ standing. I was preparing for the wave to come when I would try and stand.
I thought the barrier to standing up on the board was my inability but it wasn’t. The doubts I was feeling in the car had just changed tack. Morphing into new arguments to dissuade myself this imagined version of me – the one who could stand atop a surfboard on a wave – could really be me. It writhed more fiercely the closer to the edge I got. This old perception of who I was would do anything it could to protect the limitations of itself. Of myself. ‘You’ll fall off immediately anyway. You can’t do it. You’ll never be able to do it’.
I smiled to myself. I recognised this thought process now. The more desperately you tell yourself you can’t do something the closer you are to letting it go. To doing it. The momentum was with me. The more desperate the voice got the quieter it would become. Like everything I had fought hard to learn, I knew the barrier was just committing to it. Deciding to go for it. Crossing the gap between what I thought I could do and what I wanted to do. Failure be damned. Like dipping my head through what appeared to be that vast oncoming wave. There is comfort in humility if you are prepared to laugh and put your ego to one side.
On the next wave I went up on my knees but this time I didn’t stop. I kept going. I stood up high. Far too high and lost my balance immediately. I turned to look at James as I fell, which was completely the wrong thing to do and I plunged into the water laughing. I was still laughing as the water filled my mouth and nose. I raised my arms in triumph while my head was still submerged. This was not triumph to any onlooker. Especially with the virtual professionals in the waves far behind me. But the ‘you can’t do it’ voice inside me had gone. The ‘you’re feeling a bit ill, so don’t attempt it’ commentary had been silenced. In the absence of that voice I saw a path. It was a long and hard path that would involve hours of frustration. It would take effort. And dedication. But no more effort and dedication than I had unwittingly spent shoring up the limits I had imposed on myself. I could see now the journey to be ‘the kind of person’ who could stand on a surfboard and ride a wave. I was not there yet. But now I believed that one day I could be. If I was prepared to put in the time. I no-longer saw the limitation. Possibility had opened up instead.
At home now, weeks later, I keep seeing the nose of the board above the water with foam around it as the wave pushed me on trying to work out what was stopping me from trying to stand. Even now the thought of this is carrying me. There was a sense of fear the nose of the board would go under the water and throw me off, as it did do a few times when I started, but I knew if I kept my weight back the front of the board would hold above the wave. After a few goes I trusted myself to be able to keep the nose above the water and then urge myself to my feet.
I thought back to the times I had ‘failed’ to stand - most of the time I ended up slightly stuck kneeling on the board, afraid to commit - and the indecision made me fall into the water. The feeling of falling when I hadn’t gone for it was deflating. While the feeling of falling when I had committed to it was liberating. And rendered the ‘success’ of standing on the board largely irrelevant. I wanted to stand on the board – yes. But more than that I wanted to commit to it and know what being me and being the kind of person who could commit to it would feel like. I needed to know I had done as much as I could with my current ability. Because my ability would incrementally grow, as long as I kept at it. Failing when you attempt something half heartedly takes your courage away. It confirms your worst suspicions of yourself. But failing after going for it is not failure because it gives you courage. The courage you need to go after the life you are capable of living. The life of your dreams.
I gave my talk at Otter HQ later that evening. I was still flushed from the morning on the water. There was a Q and A afterwards and someone asked what my first surf had felt like. I struggled to explain what had changed inside me. But most of them were surfers and smiled at me in a way that suggested they already knew. Someone pressed another question. I paused and a clearer answer emerged.
I realised it was the answer to why I loved surfing. But it was also why I had loved building a board with spielzeug. Why I had co-founded a company. Why I had fallen in love. Why I loved being a father. Why I treasured my friends. And why I loved to write.
I love surfing, I said, ‘because you can’t cheat.’