Why it’s impossible to negotiate with the ocean and how to overcome the habit of clutching your bed with both hands during night


All you need to know about my sense of balance is epitomised by my inability to ride a bicycle. Each time I try, I lean too far to the left and then fall over to the right, which goes some way in explaining why standing up on a huge surfboard in the middle of the ocean was anything but simple for me. I spent two weeks living in Sri Lanka with a group of ten others. We were all digital nomads and enjoyed spending our free time together. Our blue house – somewhat absurdly called a villa here – was located in the town of Weligama, which attracts tourists from all over the world because of its ideal surfing conditions. Just wade into the ocean to shoulder level, hop up onto the surfboard, paddle and voila! What could be easier? Within half an hour I was taught how to hold the board, to lie on it, to paddle and to stand on my feet. I followed the drill on my yoga mat at least a dozen times and then went directly into ocean. What could go wrong? Sri Lanka’s surfers run their business from the beach by renting out boards. It costs about a hundred rubles for an hour of surfing (if converted into Russian currency). You pay, sign an insurance waiver, and off you go! Beginners get the biggest and the lightest surfboards. “This seems really big," I exclaimed when Artem, my new friend, picked out a board for me from the Happy Surfer surf shop. “It’s going to make it easier to balance," he assured me. “Hold it with both hands!"

And so, at the age of 29, I came to the realization that I was born with short arms. There’s no way I can carry this like I’m supposed to. I somehow managed to get it from the rental shop to the ocean, alternating clumsily between both hands. At the water's edge, I attached the surfboard to my leg with a cord so as not to lose it. One end is attached to the board; the other is strapped to my ankle with the help of a strong Velcro fastener. We go into the ocean and it’s not scary at all. I recall Artem’s first rule of surfing, and keep a tight hold of the board. And look at me – I’m nailing it! The water is already waist-deep, and my inner voice is saying, “Hey, you’re a natural surfer." Artem is tall, strong and kind, and I’ve seen for myself how well he can surf. It’s time to put my trust in him, maybe even fall in love with him a little, otherwise I’m never going to be able to do this. Whatever happens next depends entirely on him. “Lena, get on the surfboard,” he commanded. I push from the board with both hands, haul myself up and finally, on the fifth attempt, I’m standing. Wild thoughts flash through my mind: “I'm a seal, I'm a seal! I'm a huge 200-kilogram seal. Wait, seals don’t surf, they lay on the beach lapping up the sun. What am I doing?” and suddenly the paranoia begins to set in.

Here’s me, unable to ride a bike, yet lying on a huge surfboard in the ocean. I’m not surfing, not paddling, not going anywhere, just lying on the board trying not to fall off. My body is in shock – every nerve and fibre stressed in a tortuous attempt to maintain balance and stay on the board. I’m terrified of falling off, terrified of drowning and see every little wave, every ripple that breaks the calm as an enemy. My abs, forearms and shoulders are taking the load, and try as hard as they might, they simply cannot keep me on the board. In a mad panic, I grab the edges of the board with both hands.

“Release your hands and put them on the board. Let them rest," Artem says. But I am in the middle of the ocean and I’m in survival mode. Holding the board is something that I really, really need to do right now.
“Look, the water’s only waist-deep here! What's the matter with you?” Artem asks, letting out a loud laugh. Ten minutes later, and my heart rate is beginning to come back down to normal. “Now I'll turn you around, and we'll catch a wave. I'll let you know when to start paddling. "What, now? I'm not ready. May be in ten years? But for some reason I say: “Ok. Got it. Whenever you’re ready.” And while I’m waiting for the signal, I’m whispering to myself, “It's easy, you just need to keep your fingers together and push one hand under the water and then the other."
“Bridget, you can do it," a quote from a movie that I’m sure you’re familiar with, comes to mind. To the left and right I can see more seals – beginners like me. Everyone is waiting for a signal, some from Sri Lankan guides, some from Russian.

Artem is holding the board, and it’s bouncing very gently on the waves. Everything is great! I like surfing. Can’t I just relax here, like this? But the next moment Artem shouts, “Three, two, one. Paddle!” I stretch my toes, check my balance and raise my chest. First one paddle, then the next, now a third. The wave picks me up. The board is beginning to speed up. I'm going straight from the ocean to the shore on a huge plastic board. It's like sliding down a mountain on a sledge. “Out of the way! I can't steer this thing!” I shout in Russian to the foreign surfers in my path.

Artem and I went through the palaver about a dozen more times, on each occasion instructing me when I needed to paddle. At the end of the day I felt like I’d won a medal and couldn’t wait until the morning when I would be back among the waves. That night I can’t sleep. When I close my eyes I see nothing but the ocean. Huge waves rushing towards me! I can physically feel the movement of the sea and fear forces me to open my eyes. I guess my office-worker brain is over stimulated. To return to normality, I grope for the bed and hold onto the frame with both hands. Only then does my mind start to understand that we are safe on land, and sends out a signal to sleep soundly until morning. This feeling lasts for another week before eventually passing.

Every time I ventured into the water I wanted to make a deal with the ocean. At first I respectfully discussed a trade, utilising all my marketing experience. The negotiations went something like this: “Ocean, I will keep my balance and paddle properly, whereas you will not take control of the board from me and hit me in the head with it."

One of the parties to the deal didn’t hold up their end, however. Every thirty seconds, a fresh wave knocked me over, preventing me from getting onto the board and paddling out to sea. On the odd occasion I overcame the inshore turbulence and managed to make it to the turning point, another wave took me out. After I realized that the ocean is a million times stronger and older than me, I changed tack and tried whispering: “Dear ocean, let me surf at least once. Let me have at least a couple of waves for beginners, please?" When Artem was around, everything seemed to work out and we had lots of fun. When he shouted “Paddle!” I paddled, pushing with my legs and trying to stand on the board. Without Artem, I could never work out which wave to gun for. Little waves didn’t offer any speed, while the big ones knocked me off the board. Even when I chose the right-sized wave, I started to paddle at the wrong moment. As a result, I was either left bobbing on the surface or covered in froth.

After a week of surfing this way, I abandoned all hope. My shoulders ached and my back was sore. I counted five bruises on my arm used for holding the board in the water. In addition, I discovered a pair of large blue and yellow bruises on my leg. My cheeks were burning. In short, I felt exhausted.

When yet another wave hit me, I got out of the water and set about returning the board back to the rental so as to never see it again. In two hours the current had carried me about three hundred meters away from Happy Surfer, and I had to hoist it back precariously over my head. I took offense at the ocean and walked only on the dry sand, not prepared to let the water touch even my feet.

And then a big wave came that gently caressed my toes before receding. It's a trifle, you might say, but in my mind the ocean was telling me something. "Hey, don’t take it like that! Come back tomorrow, we'll try again!" I realized that now was not the time to give up. I just needed to train harder. I decided to practice jumping on the board until it becomes automatic, so at the moment the wave picked me up I would be ready without a moment’s hesitation. I spread a pink yoga mat on the floor, drank a glass of water and turned on the music. One hundred repetitions! I straighten my arms, place my left foot on the edge and put my right foot forward. Great. Ninety-nine repetitions left. By the fiftieth repetition, sweat is dripping from my forehead, but I don't stop. With each repetition my anger toward the ocean and at myself diminishes, and my confidence grows. One hundred times – done! “You pulled it off on the mat, now you can do it on the surfboard," the YouTube video says encouragingly. The next morning I rent a board at the Happy Surfer and face the ocean once more. For the longest time I found myself floundering about in the water unable to stand up on the board even once. I took a break, had a bite to eat and went to try again. At five o'clock in the evening I was in the water, holding the board firmly. I caught the positive vibes from the sound of "American Pie" by Don McLean spilling down from a terrace bar. It felt like a rallying call for drinking refreshing cocktails with a straw at sunset. The song only added to my confidence, made me feel like character from an American movie. The bright sunlight fell upon the water and on me, prompting me to action! I jumped on the board and turned around. Looking over my shoulder, I selected my wave. I paddled, pushed, put my left leg to the rear and my right leg forward and raised my hands from the board. So here’s me, someone who can’t even ride a bike, and I’m standing on a huge board in the middle of the ocean. The board was carrying me ashore. I breathed deeply and took a look around. The boys from the Happy Surfer rental were whistling and waving their hands. For two weeks they’d witnessed my struggle and reconciliation with the ocean. Their little fingers and thumbs were straightened – the rest were clenched into a fist. This is the way surfers greet each other and this is the way they greeted me.

Spots for beginners

  • Israel (✈ Tel Aviv)
    There are dozens of surfing schools and equipment rentals right on the shore. Peak season is from November to February, but beginners might find the summer season attractive as the waves at this time are ideal for first-timers.
  • Portugal (✈ Lisbon)
    You can learn to surf on the beaches of Carcavelos (a 20-minute drive from the capital). It gets crowded in the peak summer season when newbie surfers from all over the world rush to Carcavelos. In winter the water is cool so you'll need a wetsuit.
  • Thailand (✈ Phuket)
    Beginners are recommended to visit Kata Beach. Near the shore the sea is rather shallow, the waves are small, the bottom is safe and the wind is even. United States (✈ Los Angeles)
    A lesson with an instructor from Santa Monica or Malibu will cost three times as much as in Phuket. There are no surfing schools on the coast, so you have to make an appointment with an instructor and sign up for lessons in advance.

From heaven to water


You should never believe photos featuring glamour girls wearing bikinis and red lipstick, standing next to a surfboard with their hair waving in the breeze. If you are fair-skinned, you will get sunburn in an hour, which is why surf-boarders cover their noses and cheeks with a thick zinc cream, which stays on in the water and protects them from the sun. In a quarter of an hour the salty sea will irritate your eyes. Your hairstyle is dictated by the ocean and no one else, and after a short while it will be sticking out in every which way. Your outfit is important! On the second day I came to the ocean dressed from top to toe in track pants and a turtleneck to prevent my shoulders and arms from burning, and one final tip: for those with short arms like me, carry the board over your head!


Теxt: Elena Sakharova

Published on: July 20, 2018