This week in one of our women’s dawn surfing sessions, fondly known as the Mermaid Sessions, we experienced our first freak accident when one of our mermys was badly hit in the head with her fibreglass surfboard. A big gust of wind hurled the board into the air and then into her forehead. It instantly became a serious first aid situation and our group rallied with incredible, calm-efficiency to get our girl out of the water, stem the bleeding, call the ambulance and look after her until the ambos arrived. She has 16 stitches in her forehead now; she’s in good spirits and beginning to tell her story; and she’ll take a rest from the water for a little while. It will take time to re-build her confidence and when she feels ready we will walk beside her back into the water.
Late last year I wrote a little essay about fear and surfing called “opening doors” and now seems a good time to put it out into the world with love and respect for all surfers, especially women surfers. Here it is…
The thing about surfing is that it invites us to be brave.
Almost every time we paddle out, whether it’s into the whitewater in the learner’s corner or out the back where we often can’t see the bottom, Mother Nature invites us to be brave.
To face our fears about sharks and drowning in particular and in amongst these two, everything else that arises: hitting someone with your board, hitting yourself with your board, being hit by someone else’s board; breaking something: your board, your head, your leg, your face; dealing with ‘mountainous’ waves as they roll towards you or as you’re perched on top of, or beside them. Getting caught in rips or sweeps and ending up in New Zealand or even Burleigh. Not being in control. Getting in and out of impossibly tight wetsuits. And on and on and on.
Women have a tendency to worry about getting in people’s way out there in the big blue. We are often so heavily socialised into smoothing and supporting life for everyone else that the long journey of years of awkward practice and getting in people’s way to become a half decent surfer can be quite daunting.
I once recited the opening lines of Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” to a group of women learner surfers as we stood on the beach checking conditions, with trepidation in our hearts about getting in the way of other surfers (particularly those speedy short boarders).
“You do not have to be good/ You do not have to crawl on your knees for 100 miles through the desert, repenting./ You have only to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves…”
It was like naming the elephant in the room and we all exhaled with relief and went out there with courage and forgiveness in our hearts, to laugh and play in our awkwardness and hard-won, emerging skills.
The ocean is there for everyone. Learners, women, groms, world champions. Boardriders, body boarders, surf skiers, body surfers and yes, even stand up paddle boarders. Everyone.
I love teaching women how to surf because it opens the doors to our wellspring of courage.
From the moment a woman turns up at my office – the glorious right hand point break named Currumbin Alley – they have made the decision to eyeball some of their greatest fears.
As we go through the basics of how to stand on a board and ride waves – on the sand – I know the women I’m collaborating with are already leaning into their fears.
In the four short years that I’ve taught surfing, I have become something of an expert at working with people’s fear and anxiety. And God knows, in the nine short years that I’ve been surfing I’ve leaned into more of my own fears than I ever dreamed possible.
That’s what surfing does. It says “come and play and oh, the price to play is to face your fears.”
So I teach surfing the way I teach and practice yoga. Based on the breath – mindful deep belly breathing. With long, slow exhales that move fear out of the body and into the ether.
Feet steady and grounded on the sand; feet steady and grounded on the board like Tadasana, Mountain pose.
Moving with the energy of the ocean, Mother Nature, Gaia, the Universe.
Surya Namaskar – Salute to the Sun: surrendering to and celebrating what is so much bigger than us.
I’m realising that as important as the physical skills of surfing, is the connection to energy. Big Energy. So when we paddle into a wave and ride that wave on our board we harness ourselves to that energy – fears and all – and then we fly.
We are no longer shackled to our fears or held hostage by our worries; we are physically, emotionally, mentally and perhaps spiritually liberated.
What a blessing.
During 2016 I formed the intention to surf more beach breaks. These are the breaks that tend to pound down onto shallow sandbanks. The waves kick and rear left or right, fast. They close out quickly with board-breaking thumps and spray that shears in reverse.
It took me a long time to commit to surfing beach breaks but in the Big Spring Lull of 2016, when the ocean around the points and headlands of the Gold Coast became a lake for days and weeks on end, I took to the beach breaks.
I couldn’t believe it.
Somehow in all these years of almost-daily surfing in any and all conditions; of facing my fears and loving it all no matter what, my surfing had magically improved to the place where I revelled in those beach breaks.
I devoured those fast steep takeoffs and those speedy sections which you sometimes skip through and sometimes don’t.
Late in the year I ventured out into conditions that challenged me even from the beach and found myself with only slight terror, eyeballing a head-high wall of water ready to pitch me into the sandbank.
In the nanosecond between wonder and wipeout I dived straight through the face of that green wall of water to the other side, where laughter bubbled up out of my soul as I resurfaced. And in the frothing, foaming residue of that wave I offered eternal thanks to Big Spirit for surfing and fear and liberation.