THURSDAY, JULY 18 – SAMARA, COSTA RICA
You’re not too old to take up a new sport at 57. Billiards. Bowling. Bocce ball. They all come to mind. Surfing, however, is not one of them.
Before coming down to one of the great surfing nations in the world, I’d surfed before. That was 1976. I was 20, had just broken up with my high school sweetheart and was subconsciously suicidal. My fraternity brother was a Hawaiian and invited me over to sail, snorkel and surf. I remember on Maui getting up twice, just long enough to feel the rush of standing on cascading water and that I, too, could be a slacker dude.
That was 37 years ago. Six presidents have come into office and I’ve lived in landlocked states for 33 years. But I have never married and some accuse me of still living out of a backpack.
Slackerville could still be a destination.
I took my first surfing lesson yesterday and if you’re going to take your first at 57, Samara is the ideal spot. First, the waves are small. Of the 47 surfing spots listed on my map, for a country smaller than West Virginia, Samara isn’t listed anywhere. Two, the beach is very safe. The gentle half-moon bay always has a current going to shore. If you fall off, you’re guaranteed to spill onto a soft, sandy beach and not onto an atoll in the middle of the Pacific or get a piece of fire coral up your ass. Three, the beach has few people. Thus, there are few hecklers. And yesterday I was definitely worth heckling. You’ve heard of Eddie the Eagle and Ernie the Eel?
Introducing Johnny the Jetski.
My instructor was a guy named Jayu. If he walked into a corporate office in New York or a mosque in Saudi Arabia, people would look up to say, what’s the surfer doing here? He’s the color of mahogany furniture with long, thick black hair and bright eyes of a guy who spends a lot of time behind shades. He had knee-length, orange-patterned swimtrunks and a wiry body of a long-distance swimmer.
The one secret I knew about surfing is beginners should start with a large board. The more surface, the more balanced it is in the water. Jayu took one look at me in my too-short black jogging shorts and white tank top and got me a board the approximate size of New Hampshire. If you used it as a picnic table, you could feed Newport Beach.
His instructions were simple. He laid flat on the board with his gnarled feet at the back edge. His hands were gripping the sides in a push-up position.
“Now when the wave begins to take you, push up,” he said in heavily accented but excellent English. He lifted his chest as if sneaking a peep at a beach babe.
“Then bring your right foot under your chest,” he continued, getting in a stance I saw once in a yoga class. “Bring up your left foot, stand and turn.”
In one quick motion, he went from laying prone to standing, knees bent, arms out, looking sideways. I tried it on the sand and got my knee about halfway to my chest before slipping. My surfboard had suddenly turned into a sheet of ice. I tried it again, teetered, then brought my left foot up and stood up, very precariously. I found myself breathing heavy. In a few minutes I was going to try this maneuver on a wave. So I went to their safe box and put my wallet, suntan lotion and pride and walked with Jayu toward the surf.
Not to say this board was too big but you know those romantic scenes of people walking into an ocean with a surfboard comfortably hooked under one arm? I’m 6-foot-3 with decent wingspan and I couldn’t reach far enough to carry the board. I had to hold it up in front of my face like a ladder.
Jayu walked me out about 100 feet into the ocean. Little whitewater caps were breaking that weren’t much higher than our shoulders. He pointed the board toward the beach and said, “OK, get on. Remember, stay centered on the board. When the wave takes you, stand up.”
Sounds easy? It isn’t. It’s impossible. If man was meant to ride a surfboard, he’d have pontoons.
The wave came crashing onto me and Jahu gave me a push. Suddenly, I remembered that great rush I felt on Maui 37 years ago. The next thing I felt was diving into the water head first after failing to get my right foot more than six inches toward my chest.
I hauled my board back. Jayu said, very calmly, “Remember to stay centered. Your foot is too far to the right.” So I tried it again. Instant replay. Except this time I think I said something about someone’s mother as I went into the drink.
Time and time again I hauled my board back, Jayu sent me flying, I teetered up and fell over. For variety, sometimes I fell backward. Every time I got in that awkward yoga position I’d lose my balance. And it wasn’t even close. I felt like I was 90 years old and getting up out of a wheelchair. Maybe this is a preview of what’s to come.
“Try getting on your knees first,” Jayu said. “Then stand up.”
No help. I got on my knees and all it did when I fell into the sea was I looked as if I was in prayer. Jayu pointed out some girl who went from prone to standing in one smooth motion. She surfed right past me.
“She learned yesterday,” Jayu said.
I said, “Jayu, she’s probably 17 and she’s 5 feet tall. She looks like she was raised on a balance beam.”
My big breakthrough came after about 30 minutes. I got to my knees. I got one foot up. I got two feet up. And then fell head first. I looked up and Jayu was screaming as if Costa Rica scored a goal to win the 2014 World Cup.
“YOU GOT UP!” he yelled loud enough to be heard in Nicaragua. “Next time remember to bend your knees and face sideways.”
Nope. Three times I got one foot up and and a mouthful of water. Then it started happening. Knees. Right foot. Left foot. Stand. Crash. Knees. Right foot. Left foot. Stand. Crash. I could stand but I couldn’t ride. Part of the problem was the waves were as slow as something you’d find if a bar of soap started floating to the end of the bathtub. I couldn’t get any speed and the board just kind of stopped.
By the end of the hour, I was tapped. My sternum hurt from a rogue wave smashing this castle-door-sized surfboard into my chest. My left side had a red welt from landing on the board on one of my more balletic spills. My lungs hurt from hauling the board out to Jayu every time. And this while not even having to paddle out 100 yards like real surfers do.
When I got back to the beach and shook Jayu’s hand, I noticed something strange. I was sweating profusely. I’d been in the Pacific Ocean for an hour and I had floppy sweat. I sat under an umbrella at the neighboring beach bar and ordered an ice-cold Imperial beer.
Asked the barmaid if Samara had a bowling alley.