Surf's Up 

The day ended when my sister was planted face-first in the sand.

The first time I tried on a wetsuit, I put it on backward. "Um, Dan, shouldn't your knee pads be on the front of your knees?"

Since then, I've become only marginally more hip. I still usually forget to take off my sunglasses until I'm up to my knees in water, I still break a sweat just peeling my wetsuit on and off, and I still--God help me--ride a body board, not a surfboard.

The thing is, though, I'm full-up on things to be hard-core about. I don't have the time or energy to add another, so I'm never going to be a gnarly surfer dude. And even if I wanted to, the only time I've ever been blond was when I was on the high school swim team and the chlorine bleached me a peroxide-white, and I'm not keen on reliving that experience.

For a long time, I thought that since I wasn't willing to commit myself to real surfing, I should just avoid the ocean altogether. I assumed that all surf-related activities were for fanatics only, with training requirements as high as, say, knife juggling.

I developed this impression very early on in life, despite the fact that the little northern Indiana town where I grew up was a good thousand miles from anything even remotely resembling surf. In both a geographic and a cultural sense, it was about as noncoastal as you can get. But sober cartographic reality did nothing to hold back the tsunami of "surf" clothes that inundated my little rural school. Everyone who was anyone drove the 45 minutes to the nearest mall and stocked up on Panama Jack shorts, Surf's Up T-shirts, and, for the rebellious, Dr. Zog's Sex Wax car window decals. Surfing was cool, even for people who, in all statistical likelihood, would live and die without ever dipping a toe in a body of saltwater.

I was far more comfortable making snide comments about trying to surf in a field of soybeans than I was donning an electric-orange Ron Jon Surf Shop shirt. But after moving out to sunny California and living here for a while, my more adventurous girlfriend decided that we should try body boarding. I had my reservations, but she prevailed, and one weekend we rented wetsuits and body boards and headed for Stinson Beach.

After I got the wetsuit on the right way forward, I couldn't tell whether I felt more like a wannabe X-Man or a toddler in a neoprene snowsuit. My dislike of the wetsuit disappeared instantly, however, when I walked into the ocean. The only part that got cold was my feet. For anyone who's ever dreaded that long, slow walk into freezing water, during which one warm part of your body after another is subjected to the ocean's icy embrace, a wetsuit is a gift from the gods.When you think of Stinson Beach, you probably don't think surf--and there's a reason for that. But for novices wanting nothing more than plenty of space to familiarize ourselves with the strange chunk of foam--the alleged "body board" that everyone swore would somehow let us ride the waves --it was perfect. We didn't catch many waves that day--there weren't many to catch, for one, and we didn't know what we were doing, for another. But we had a great time floating up to our necks in ocean water that didn't make us cold. The occasional zippy ride to shore was just a neat bonus. I didn't try anything fancy, I just focused on the basics, like keeping my mouth closed when taking a wave in the face.

There was nothing hair-raising about our first body-boarding experience. And that in itself was the revelation: there is much non-gnarly fun to be had in the surf. Catch a wave occasionally, but for the rest of the time, just float around and throw seaweed at your friends. It's a lot like sitting on the sand and chatting, but there's more to distract you (important for short-attention-span people like me). And even though it's more difficult to have a picnic while body boarding than while sitting on the beach, at least you don't have to worry about sand in your grapes.The next weekend we set our course for Santa Cruz and picked up my sister and her boyfriend for a day at a different beach. Now, in surf lore, Stinson Beach is to Santa Cruz what Houston is to Aspen in terms of skiing. As we made our way to the beach, we passed beneath a tall bronze statue of a handsome surfer staring nobly out to sea. Surfers--real ones--were everywhere. We ended up at a little beach a few coves up from the Santa Cruz boardwalk. The water was full of neoprene-clad preteens on body boards. Most of them were floating on the swells just in front of a jagged rock face--it looked for all the world as if the next big wave that came in would smash them to cutlets. When the wave did come, however, the children somehow managed to race along the rock face instead of into it, all the while cutting back and forth across the wave with deft turns of their boards.

While the kids raced through the water like so many sea otters, we waded out into the less deadly breakers running straight up to the beach. Still, the rollers were coming in harder and faster than we had experienced before, and getting through the no-man's-land where the water was too shallow to swim under the waves and too deep to ignore proved difficult. The waves were keen to remind us of the power of large-scale fluid dynamics, and so we were all tumbled head-over-heels more than once. There was, of course, an upside to the difficult going: the stronger waves made for faster rides, especially at the point where the waves running along the rocks joined the waves coming straight into shore and formed a V of water that could shoot you toward the beach with gratifying speed.


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