Every time I paddle out on my surfboard the ocean either teaches me a new lesson or reminds me of an old one. Even the exact same surf break can look and feel completely different from day to day. The ocean is moody and loyal at the same time.
Some days it’s filled with extra energy, loud and firing. Other days, it’s tired, gentle and glassy. On occasion the ocean brawls with the wind arguing over direction and control. A day later, the wind perfectly sculpts the waves as they roll in rhythmically.
No matter the conditions, there’s always a lesson in the line-up. Here are 5 that I learned just this past week.
[Disclaimer: For the purposes of this article, I’ve chosen to keep the surf breaks in Nicaragua nameless for reasons that all surfers should understand.]
1. Never settle for less
Upon entering the water at the-beach-that-must-not-be-named, I get fixated on the idea that the north point might deliver a perfect right that has the capacity to carry me across the width of the entire bay. I’ve felt its power before. I’ve ridden down her shoulder and cut across her face.
While most surfers hug the much more consistent south point, or pick off the short but fun ones on the inside, I often sit and wait. I can’t seem to pull myself away. I wait for the wave that I dream about. I know it will visit again on the right swell. It’s worth passing up the shorter rides. I don’t mind giving up on the ones heading in a direction I’d prefer not to go. I know the potential of that point. My heart is set on it.
2. Always be prepared for a rogue wave
You never know when the ocean is going to deliver an unexpected, spontaneously large wave that outsizes its predecessors. If you casually turn your back to the ocean you’re at risk of getting blindsided or, worse, missing out on the wave of the day.
Comfortable moments of calm can trick you into thinking that you’re in control. But everything can change in an instant.
3. The only way to get better is to paddle out
Last week I stood on the-beach-that-must-not-be-named staring at the massive closeouts that pummeled the sand. A seemingly endless sea of whitewater. Unforgiving with no glimpse of hope. I watched as other disappointed surfers got back in their trucks and drove away dry. I was frustrated because the surf report was wrong (again).
I knew better than to bring my expectations to the beach. It’s always the same choice – return home or paddle out. My mind was already jumping ahead to the things I should be doing instead of surfing – responsible things like answering emails or writing an article. But I was reminded that the best way to prepare for perfect days, is to paddle out even when the conditions aren’t ideal. Sitting on the edge of your comfort zone creates space for improvement. It also increases the probability of more perfect days.
4. Learn about the things that scare you
For years I’ve been afraid of bat rays in the water. They swim near the surface with their wing tips resembling the fins of baby of sharks. It’s not uncommon to see them in the waves while surfing.
I never knew the difference between a stingray and a bat ray until last week when a few local kids reeled in a bat ray while fishing off a rocky point near my favorite surf break. The boys unhooked it and picked it up by its wings to throw back. I asked where the stinger was and they looked at me as if I was crazy. They explained the differences. Firstly, bat rays don’t sting you and secondly, you can’t eat the meat.
Demystified and a bit shocked, I couldn’t believe that all these years surfing I’d been worried about getting stung by what was essentially a giant goldfish. Now that I know the difference, I no longer need to be anxious when I see those wing tips in the waves. (But I still shuffle my feet in shallow water to fend off stingrays.)
5. Sometimes all you need is a different perspective
I can’t tell you how many times the ocean has transformed my attitude from frustration to gratitude or from worry to peace. Waves have a way of calming my soul and heightening my awareness to the beauty of nature.
Surfing realigns my priorities in life. It alters my perspective. It provides clarity on how and why it’s worth continuing to endure, dig in deeper, give more back and begin again. It cleanses and heals. Surfing doesn’t make my problems (and my inbox) disappear, but it does put them in their appropriate place.