It had been years since I paddled out. When I stepped out onto the beach in Nosara, Costa Rica, there were lines upon lines of gorgeous, glassy waves. Shimmering, blue, and peeling both to the left and right.
I felt like a little boy getting ready to open birthday presents. At the same time, I felt aquatic magic returning to my soul. My waterman’s spirit was going home.
My life as a waterman began 23 years earlier when I taught myself to surf in the cold water of Northern California, eventually dropping in on waves at Ocean Beach, Salmon Creek, and Half Moon Bay. When I left California, it broke my heart. But I wasn’t sad to leave the land; I was devastated to leave the Pacific Ocean.
Thankfully, I didn’t leave the sea completely. I moved to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and lived only 100 yards from the Caribbean Sea. There, I quickly taught myself to SUP (Stand Up Paddleboard), which offered a decent replacement for surfing.
I SUPed up and down the coast of the Mayan Riviera, from Playa del Carmen to Xpu-Ha, but surfable waves only came in about twice every winter. I caught what I could when I could, but I rarely received the oceanic rush and in-the-moment connection with the sea that waves provided.
I began to have a recurring dream several nights a week. In the dream, I was trying to get out to the surf, but I could never get there. Something always got in my way. I would either not make it to the beach or something would go wrong in the water.
My board would turn into a jigsaw puzzle, or it would become soft rubber, or pieces would suddenly be missing from it as I paddled. But the worst nightmares were when I was in the water without a board at all, and a giant rogue wave would appear. I’d wake up before I was swallowed by the water having never caught a wave.
Standing on the beach in Costa Rica, I felt the powerful allure of the waves knowing I would get to paddle out again. In waking life as opposed to a dream this time.
My girlfriend, Whitney, and I arrived in Liberia and drove three hours south on the Pacific side of the country, through the mountains to Nosara, a small community packed with surfers and yoga practitioners.
After watching the sun drop over the long lines of tantalizing waves, I was brimming with excitement and anticipation. I felt like I was glowing. I rented a surfboard at Juan Surfo’s Surf Shop and waited for the sun to rise the next morning.
It was dark when I woke up. I tucked the board under my arm, and walked barefoot down Nosara’s molasses-covered, dirt streets. Molasses was poured on the town’s roads to keep the dust down but it made walking barefoot very unpleasant. Long gone were my tough feet from beach life in Mexico, now replaced by soft, urbanized paws from living in New Orleans. I cursed as pebbles stuck between my toes and embedded in my heels.
After emerging through a series of thick trees and bushes, I arrived at the beach. A crowded line-up of surfers already bobbed in the distance. I watched for a while from the sand to see where a good peak might be, looking for a consistent wave that broke with a ridable face. Then, I began wading out.
The 80-degree water felt erotic as it washed over my toes, legs, and groin. I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. When the first big whitewash hit me, I gleefully allowed it to cover my body. Then, I climbed on my board and began to paddle, eagerly aiming for the line-up of surfers outside the breakers.
The surf was five feet, and I stayed diligently aware of waves I’d need to dive under to get outside. I got out easily and was proud of myself. Swimming laps for years had helped, but my body still creaked like a Tin Man in the rain. My muscles flared with stabbing aches in my shoulders, back, and neck. I shrugged off my discomfort and kept paddling until I was out with the pack.
I let a number of waves be caught by other surfers while I waited patiently. Studying. Looking to see which set was mine. After 30 minutes of strategizing, I saw a bulge on the sea’s surface. I spun my board and started paddling hard. I was catching this one.
It rose up under me, and I pulled hard, arching my back, aiming off to the right, looking down the line. The wave was about four-feet, chest-high, and I pushed up on the rails of my board, swung my feet forward, and stuck it. Then, I turned deeper off to my right and felt the energy of my first ride in many years. Down the line, slow but steady, digging in and enjoying the feel and flow of Mother Ocean.
The wave eased off, so I kicked out and dropped into the water beside my board. The Cheshire grin on my face beamed. I climbed back on my board, paddled back out, and surfed for a couple of hours.
I surfed two sessions like that every day, at sunrise and sunset, for five straight days.
Learning to surf is the hardest thing I ever taught myself to do, and once I could do it, I wanted to surf all the time. Bigger waves, faster waves, in more remote places, filled with danger and exhilaration, knowing that I was at the whim of nature.
Mama Ocean was the one in control and I was merely riding on her curves and shapes. She could caress me or kill me. Surfing a moving wall of water required me to be in the absolute present moment or I could die.
On my girlfriend’s birthday in Nosara, I nearly died.
Whitney went to an early morning yoga class with friends to start her birthday celebrations, and she encouraged me to surf while she was at the class. She knew what it meant for me to be surfing again and we’d celebrate together later.
The surf report said a big swell was coming in. When I got to the beach, there were not many surfers out in the water, so I knew the swell had arrived. The size of the waves had prevented many surfers from getting outside. Some of those that had gotten out had then been cleaned like barnacles from a whale’s back by waves that shoved them to the beach.
If I could get outside, I could pick and choose my wave. No competition or crowding.
After scanning for a good spot, I started paddling out and found a good riptide to help steer me through the waves, successfully getting out without much trouble. I narrowly missed getting slapped in the face by the lip of one strong, bully-ish eight-footer, but I managed to ride over it and made it to the calm water.
Now, sitting on my floating throne, I had time to watch the swells appear as bumps on the horizon. Still aware of big sets, but now relaxed and able to catch my breath and regain some energy. A few surfers bobbed here and there, checking each other out, waiting to see which one of us would paddle for an incoming set.
The first of the swells appeared on the horizon and it was a closeout. There was nothing to ride on; just a big wall of water to gobble you and drag you to unknown depths. The line-up of surfers began scrambling to get over the waves. These waves were going to land on all of us.
I paddled hard, rolled up the face, and over, with a whoosh of water and a trail of spray hitting the air behind me. Not everyone made it and I looked back to see a series of surfers swimming for their boards in the foam. A fresh wave already bearing down on them.
Damn, I thought, that was twelve feet. These swells were double overhead, making the faces two bodies high. I hadn’t been out in waves like that in a long time, but from what I had experienced so far, these Costa Rican waves were more gentle than the cold water demons of Northern California. I felt confident but on edge. Fiercely aware of my surroundings while I floated on the sea.
The next set, I was ready.
I allowed the first wave to pass, then I turned for the second, paddling slow to begin and then hard, my heart drumming in my chest and my mind focused on nothing else but the feel of the water. I felt the surge pick me up then I popped up, turning the board’s nose to the right, skidding down and forward at a right curve, sailing along the wall, pumping my legs and arms for speed, and then stood nearly straight up and just rode. I was standing on top of the entire world.
Fragments of seconds passed and I was deeply in the wave. I could see ahead that the lip was rearing up like a dragon’s head. The wave was going to close out so I had to get ahead of it. I skirted down and then up the face, knowing now was the time to kick out before the wave ate me.
I banked up to the edge of the wave as it broke and went up and over the top, flying free in the air. I felt my leash catch, which kept me attached to my board by my ankle, but then it loosened right away. I landed in the water and looked around.
A new swell was coming and it was another set of twelve-footers. I had to get my board quickly, turn, and get out before the first wave landed on my head. I felt no pull from the board tied to my ankle. I reached into the water for my leash. It had snapped. My board was gone.
The wave hit throwing me under. I spun around in the washing machine and found my way back up toward the light. Getting to the surface, I dove under the next two waves.
After that, there was a lull. I was breathing hard from diving under the waves, and I was floating a quarter mile out from the shore with nothing to keep me afloat.
I thought rapidly to myself, you have to swim in and you have to go now.
I started for the shore, breast stroking to keep my energy, and frequently rolling over on my back to see if more set waves were coming. If they hit right behind me, I could ride the whitewash toward the beach like a sloppy bodysurfer. If it looked like it was going to hit directly on me, I would need to turn around and duck dive under it, backward toward the ocean.
A set rolled through and as I turned back toward it I knew it was going to land wrong, right on my head, so I dove and propelled my body as far down as I could. The wave spun me while I was under, but I got back to the surface swiftly. Taking big breaths, I kept reminding myself, relax. You know you have to relax. And with each stroke and kick toward the shore, I kept saying the same thing.
Minutes passed. I was still swimming in the froth and toss of the sea. The shore was growing closer but it still felt a long way away. I kept trying to find the ground under my feet by swinging my legs downward, hoping there might be a sand bar. Nothing. Just water.
One wave pushed me in but its backwash pulled me out. I was getting tired. Very tired. Relax. Just relax.
When the beach and the people on it were close enough for me to see them playing, smiling, and sunbathing, I tried kicking my feet to the sea floor again. Nothing. No sand. Shit. The people on the beach had no idea I might drown right there in front of them. Relax. Just relax. And swim.
More strokes forward and a few more feet…then a foamy wave shoved me just a fraction further inward…until there it was…sand under my toes. Relief came between heaving breaths.
I climbed through the water slowly looking down the beach in both directions for my rented board. 50 yards to the left of me, a surfer on the beach was waving me over, yelling out, “Hey, man! I have your board!”
I walked slowly down the beach, gratefully breathing without the need to swim. When I got to him I said, “Thanks, dude. That’s awesome. My leash snapped out there and I had to swim in.”
He replied, “I thought that’s what happened. It looks fun out there…and big. Too big for me.” Then, he offered something I’ve never had a surfer do before or since. He asked, “Do you want to use my leash and go back out?”
My eyes got wide, recognizing his generosity, and I said, “Wow, man. That’s very cool of you.”
He undid the leash from his board and handed it to me with a smile. I grinned back at him and said, “I won’t be out long. Maybe another hour.”
I attached the leash to my board and velcroed it to my right ankle. Then, I walked back out to the roaring water and started paddling toward those big, beautiful waves. Back home on the sea.