I surf, but I hesitate to call myself a surfer. I have a complicated relationship with the sport — I love it, and I am terrified by it.
It’s been 20 years since I rode my first wave when I was 40, and my surfing life has been a roller coaster ever since. I work hard; I improve some. Learning to go down the line, starting to go for slightly bigger waves, and, yes, even beginning to think of myself as a surfer. Then I have one of those sessions — getting my ass kicked, getting spooked, and regressing.
I have no excuse. I have my own private surfing coach (my husband, Bob). I have a custom wave-catching longboard from Bunger, Bob’s childhood surf shop. I’m retired and live on the Outer Cape from early spring to late fall.
My problem is fear. The truth is I am afraid of the waves I love so much. Fear drives brain freeze, and brain freeze prevents me from being able to execute the turn, paddle, pop up, and ride as planned.
If you’ve never experienced brain freeze, here’s an example: I see a wave that I like. It’s my size, and no one else is going for it. I turn and paddle, digging hard, back arched. I have every intention of going for this wave and then I’m on the back of the wave, under my board, clutching the rails. Bob asks me why I bailed out, and I have no answer. I didn’t decide to bail — my terrified subconscious did.
So, there are times when I think about hanging it up. But then all it takes is that one session with that one wave on which it miraculously all comes together. When I’m actually going down the line, relaxed, knees bent slightly, watching the (small) wall of water whooshing past me, moving my feet and body to make adjustments that extend the ride. I feel exhilarated, elated, enchanted, entranced, joyful, amazed — there are not enough adjectives to adequately describe it.
Those moments are often made even more special by the hoots and thumbs up from the incredibly kind and supportive community of real surfers in Wellfleet. In many parts of the world, an old kook like me would not be welcome in the lineup, much less encouraged by the highly talented locals of the breaks in Wellfleet and the Outer Cape.
Now, as I contemplate getting back out there in 2022, along with all the other things I’m terrified about (pandemic, climate change, losing the House and Senate to the GOP), I am coming to realize that the answer to the question “Am I a surfer?” doesn’t matter, how good I am doesn’t matter, how many waves I bail on doesn’t matter.
What matters is the joy of the ride, fleeting though it may be. And the gratitude I feel to be healthy enough to be out there at all. And the affection I feel for the soulful surfing community of the Outer Cape, and for my personal coach, and for having an escape from all that terrifies me. I wish for everyone to have a joyful escape. Do it if you can, no matter how good you are.
Janet Warren lives in South Wellfleet and West Hatfield.