The Fear, The Zen, and The Ugly Wipeouts
It was kind of like the first day of school, except that you’re wearing a bikini in front of your classmates and your teacher looks like a sexy rockstar-pirate hybrid. This is Baleal Surf Camp, where I’d spend two weeks learning to surf, acquiring thousands of new freckles, and getting into trouble with people from all over the world.
Day 1, everyone met at 10am outside of Bar do Bruno, the beachside spot which would be our home away from home during the camp. We were split into groups based on experience level and instructed to grab a wetsuit and a board and head to the beach. Leave it to me to take twenty minutes to put the wetsuit on, only to realize that I had put it on backwards. Yep, I’m that person.
For whatever reason, I never thought I would be able to surf. I don’t know where this notion came from, but it was put to rest quickly when I was able to stand up on my first wave (with plenty of help from my instructors). My main difficulty with it was that I came into the camp completely out of shape. There is a general level of strength and condition that would’ve been helpful to have on day one, but alas, all the baguettes I ate in my first month of travel only kept my jaw muscles toned. My shoulders, arms, legs, hips, back, and even ribs all felt heavy and sore throughout the duration of the camp.
Every day, each group would decide on a time to meet at Bar do Bruno based on the tides and conditions and suit-up for a two hour session. We’d usually break for an hour and a half to grab a quick lunch, then meet back for round two of surfing. There were special events throughout the week that would be added into the schedule on different days: a tour of Peniche and visit to the Fatum surfboard factory, a visit to Óbidos (a gorgeous village surrounded by a fortress on a hill), a video review session (our instructors filmed us all to show what we were doing wrong and right – painful but helpful to watch), a day at Praia do Mohle Leste with all the classes, and a dinner at an amazing Portuguese restaurant in Peniche with the instructors and anyone who wanted to come along. It was jam-packed everyday and this doesn’t even include the frequent nights out.
The first two days were mainly about understanding the basics – how to paddle, how to carry the board, where to attach the leash, popping-up. We had perfect conditions for learning to surf on these days and I thought to myself: This isn’t so bad! I thought I’d be more intimidated, but I’m actually ok. Skip to day three and the waves are big everywhere. Our instructors chose to have class at the Playita, which had the smallest swells (which were still huge from my perspective). There was a major undertow to contend with, as well as a large crowd of three classes all sharing one small area to surf in.
My instructor, Steve, turned me into a ready position to catch a green wave (unbroken) and gave me a push. “Paddle, paddle, paddle, UP!” he yelled after me. I obliged, because I didn’t really have any other choice, and caught a great wave. This was terrific, not just because I was able to prove to myself that I could catch greens, surf bigger than a one-meter swell, and pop-up without an immediate nose-dive, but also because the boy I liked was watching from his board out with the intermediate team. The fact that I was screaming the entire time I was riding the wave only made it slightly less cool.
As I mentioned in my One Month Round-Up, the highs and lows on my trip tend to come immediately after one another – and this moment was no different. After I bailed off the board, I was pulled under the water and sent through a heavy, four-wave tumble. This was the first time I had ever felt like I might drown. Only when I finally located my board and kept myself afloat could I take a full breath. Steve surfed over to me and checked that I was alive. I had swallowed so much water that I wasn’t able to speak – just to point towards the shore and start walking in to end my lesson.
This moment instilled a fear in me that I think every surfer will inevitably feel and need to overcome. I consider surfing to be an extreme sport, which I’m sure most people would disagree with. I was recently talking to a seasoned, Australian surfer about this and I said, “It feels like you’re battling with Mother Nature! You never win.” Whereas he said, “I think of it like you’re working with nature.” There’s a level of zen that needs to be integrated into surfing – a calm that is absolutely necessary to be successful. I lost that calm for Days 4 and 5 of camp and found myself needing to meditate between waves. You can do it. You have done it before. Just one good wave.
In the end, I was able to get all my jitters out of my system and the second week totally solidified my technique. This doesn’t mean I am particularly good – I am still very much a beginner, but I am consistent and in control with small swells. I developed a signature karate-style stance and ended the week catching waves on my own, which is much more than I ever hoped to accomplish.
I can’t recommend Baleal Surf Camp enough. In my previous post I explained the reason I loved the set-up and social aspect so much, but the instructors were fantastic and fun as well. Each week ended with dinner, a slideshow, and a video of the session at Baleal. It was great to see how much progress could be made in such a short stay. Here’s the video from week one. I hope to make this into an annual visit going forward. In the meantime, I’ll be practicing my pop-ups around the world.