Water. It’s all around me here in Hawaii. Crashing against the sand, stretching to the whites of the sky, giving this island in the middle of nowhere a reason to exist. So why is it that even the thought of wading into that soft blue water until my feet are no longer secure in the sand sends me into a spasm of hyperventilation?
I did not know this was a fear of mine until, at the age of 58, I decided to learn to surf.
I was sent here by Outrigger Hotels to look at their properties on Waikiki, write about their recent renovations and return to them feedback on their media methods. I did not come to swim. In fact, for all the beach resorts I cover around the world I can barely count on two hands the number of times I have gone into the water. I am afraid of waves. I am afraid of water. I am afraid of the simple act of staying afloat.
I, one who has covered wars, famines and coups in Africa, who regularly travels to hot spots alone and chases away would-be attackers with the ease of a mosquito swat, am afraid. Of water.
And so it was in the bustling tourist town of Waikiki I decided to face that fear in the water, with Tony. Tony Moniz is a beefy guy of Hawaiian descent who grew up on a surfboard. His heroes are easy to count: Duke Kahanamoku is his god and he worships at that altar every day with every wave. He turned his religion into a surf school call Faith Surf School and creates new converts daily within the four operations he has going around Waikiki. I am not of the faithful. But I now understand trust and the act of surrendering to a higher power, even if that higher power is a tan, muscular guy pulling me up from my knees and making me face the wave I am running from.
We went through the lessons on land first. Find that sweet spot just below the logo on the nine-foot board and lie there prone with feet together, he tells me. Paddle this way, paddle that way, watch the waves, watch the shore, pull to knees from a place below your chest, one foot, the next foot, point in, point out and ride. Easy enough.
Until we took it to the water. I was less than five years old. And I was alone. My mother chatted with friends on the beach and I wanted to see if I could swim to China. So with the horizon in my sights I set out to find the other side of the world. I swam and swam and did not see a big rope that extended from a spot on the shore to some unknown place beneath the breakers. But when the inevitable wave came and I went down I tumbled and tumbled in its energy and circled right into the rope’s taught heaviness. The memory is gray, as if played in hazy black and white. And I do not remember much. But I do recall the waves, forceful, rolling, loud, crashing over me and that I was somehow prisoner of a heavy rope that would not budge. And I remember swallowing the thick water and talking to myself about getting up and out of there when it was so tempting to just lie there and do nothing. But I knew I had to make the rope move so I could find my way to the surface and back to shore. I pulled in my strength from some far off place, probably the first of such instances when I would have to do that in my life. I pulled free somehow and figured out where up was. When I got to shore I saw my mother still talking, her back to the ocean, not even aware of my misadventure.
I paddled toward Tony and toward the waves. Even in this sleepy bay the waves looked to me like little Tsunamis rising with foamy scythes and letting me know I could not escape nature’s power. The orders came quickly and follow I did even though I only wanted to stay prone on the board gripping it through any and all of the water’s motions.
Paddle forward! Now power paddle! To your knees! Stand up! In an instant I was up, balanced and riding that wave toward the shore, a dance as difficult and as basic as learning to follow your partner in a swing. I fell off and into the water, repeatedly. Waves came and waves went. I counter-intuitively dove through these death traps obeying Tony’s barks.
An hour had gone by, and many waves had passed. My toes were torn up from the board’s friction. My neck held a chain of a hundred pounds. My eyes burned from the combo of saltwater and sunblock. Even my estrogen patch disintegrated in the tumult. But I was ready for one last ride, and a chance to finally forgive my mother.
Learn to surf in Waikiki: www.faithsurfschool.com
Photos courtesy of Faith Surf School
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